I recently met a man who had decided to walk up the coast path from Cornwall, through Devon, around Wales and back into the UK (writes Jim Alexander). He was, understandably, knackered – and none too coherent, his reddened face under protective bandana somewhat intensified by the local cider he’d just knocked back.
Note to all prospective walkers of coast paths: mixing cloudy apples and 40-mile-a-day yomps doesn’t do much for your complexion.
It got me thinking, though, like all good encounters do: I recalled my own experiences, sadly some half a decade ago now, cycling alone through hills and valleys, up mountains and alongside vast lakes, with a tent bungee-corded to a set of panniers. Alone, that is, until the fateful day I met Poland’s finest man, a rotund feller named Balthazar who is immortalised in my recollection as I first found him: clad from head to foot in yellow Spandex, standing astride his ancient bike on top of a small mountain, screaming swear words at a passing bus. We cycled together for nearly two months, drifting from mountain to coast pretty much as the whim took us.
That was my first experience of what is now known as “Slow Travel” – the art of taking a journey, rather than hurrying to a destination. Contrast my recent acquaintance and his unsteady walk up the UK, for example, with a family of four packed into a hot estate on the M6. In terms of enjoyment, there’s no comparison. Slow travellers make the journey their objective, consuming a trip as though it were a meal, savouring each sight, each passing place, conversation, recognition.
I recall discovering a beach composed of basalt sand, glimpsed first through a little rolling knot of trees that flanked Balthazar’s and my path. We dismounted: he led the way, a sort of Day-Glo yellow Lorelei disappearing behind the curled fingers of ferns. We arrived on this beach. Utterly black, as though made of glass, black sand stirred into a weird curtain at the fringes of the sea by a wind that made you want to run back into the shelter of the forest. We didn’t run: we walked slowly on, heads half bent, until stopped by a huge bony piece of driftwood, scoured grey by the sand that skittered around it in little eddies. It was like the end of the world.
The idea of a journey as a series of sensations isn’t a new one, but something reinvented: walking tours, cycling tours, the art of moving through a landscape rather than charging over it, were commonplace for both privileged and forced travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before mechanisation shortened the globe’s distances to hours, rather than miles and days, every trip was an exploration. Not so much with a destination as with a return. The journey taken for journey’s sake, course after course chewed over, mulled over, traditionally recounted in fireside stories, shared recollections, travelogues.
What great travel writing, after all, deals with a final destination? There’s no such thing. For slow travel, which these days is a luxury (imagine, for a start, the quantity of time you’d have to take off work to walk around even one coast of the UK), there are no destinations. Just locations.
Think of it this way. You don’t charge through a good meal in order to get to the end of it. Cooking and eating is the experience of food: its destination, after all, the ultimate winding up point of even the greatest meal, is only dung. And while the mechanisation of the world has touched food just as it has touched everything else, we all know the difference between a pre-packaged bit of potential crap and a four course masterpiece. Journeys are no different.
The degree to which they are mechanised – processed, quick and convenient – is the extent to which they fall short of our ideal of travel. Know it or not, that ideal comes not from hurtling around the world in a tin can, but from the journals and experiences of people who walked there, who rode there: who got there under their own steam.
This guy I met, his face full of cider, his journey unfolding around him with everything he saw and did, said something to me that stuck. “You know,” he said, “I reckon the further away you go from the ground, the less natural everything is.” I think I know what he meant. Take one foot: put it in front of the other. And have a look around. Even if you’re drunk, it’s still better than missing the whole meal.
About the author
Jim Alexander is a writer and roadie who has been travelling Europe and the rest of the world for the last ten years. He currently calls a little village in Devon (UK) his home – for now, at least...