During these short, dark, drizzly winter days, I’ve spent a lot of time curled up in front of the fire dreaming and reading about adventures. I’ve become slightly obsessed with riparian adventures - travels down, up, on, beside and in rivers. We’ve got a couple of potential river walks in mind for 2016 and (hopefully) a really big, exciting one in 2017 . . . stay tuned! In the meantime, here are nine things I like about river journeys. (Supported by evidence in the form of books, mostly. But also some TV.)
Find a river. Follow it. What could be more simple? Olivia Laing’s To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface is a gentle exploration of the River Ouse in East Sussex, a walk taken one hot summer week. It’s a musing on the meaning of rivers as well as a bit of a history of this area and those who have lived in and loved it, with a particular focus on Virginia Woolf (who lived in the area and drowned in the Ouse). Laing stops along the way to lie in fields of long grass and take dips in the cool water. The UK’s rights of way network means she can follow footpaths for most of the route, including the Ouse Valley Way, a signposted long-distance walk. It’s more a rambling holiday than an exciting adventure. It sounds delightful.
Find a river. Try to follow it through ravines, jungles, deserts, cities, war zones . . . it's not always a walk in the park. Levison Wood walked the length of the Nile (well, most of it) a few years ago. Wood’s 6,850km (4,250mi) trek took him from Rwanda to Egypt via Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan. The documentary series shows danger on all sides: from humans, wild animals and from the environment itself. He’s robbed on the road, encounters hippos and crocodiles and narrowly avoids being caught in the gunfire of civil unrest. The fighting means he has to abandon part of the walk. In all this high drama, the mundanity of the scene in which Matthew Power, one of Wood’s travelling companions, dies of hyperthermia (heatstroke) is quite shocking. But Wood experiences some incredible sights, stays with hospitable people and visits some fantastically interesting places. Watching his dash into the sea at the end almost makes me want to do it myself. Almost.
Are your river fantasies are more Wind in the Willows than Wild West? I like the idea of recreating Three Men in a Boat (as Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Briain and Rory McGrath did for TV a few years ago) or hopping aboard a narrowboat and exploring the UK’s waterways, following in the wake of L.T.C. Rolt, who helped revive interest in Britain’s canals in the mid 20th Century. There’s also a huge river network in Europe. Who's to say that taking a steamer up the River Yenisei to spend a miserable season in the Arctic coldness of Dudinka - like Colin Thubron does in In Siberia - can’t be a kind of depressing adventure, too? If your ideal journey involves a bit more physical work yourself, take inspiration from the women who attempted to kayak the Amur River from Mongolia, through Russia to the Pacific Ocean, try paddle-boarding the Thames like Mel and Michelle, kayaking the Murray like Rod Wellington or packrafting down the River Spey like Alastair Humphreys and Andy Ward.
Rivers have been used as trade and transport routes for millennia. In Meander: East to West along a Turkish River, Jeremy Seal travels 500km on foot and in his fold-away canoe. He travels through fields and along highways, he finds traces of cultures, wars and mass migrations winding back thousands of years. At one point, Seal reads the history of a mound of earth and sees “the early people who had settled by the tributary banks 6,000 years ago, the Arzawans and the Hittites, the Phyrgians, the Persians and the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines, the Mongols and the Tartars, the Ottomans, their dead sheikh entombed where the past broke surface, and, finally, an agricultural consultant . . . pondering Anatolia’s present troubles.” Later, he moors up beside an island, tying his canoe to the remains of a fluted column rising from the water and is accosted by goats as he eats his lunch among the ruins.
Travelling along a river, either upstream or downstream, is a bit like playing detective. Each new day sheds light on the day before: why the salt is creeping upstream, why the fish are abundant (or not) this year, why farmers have stumbled on hard (or easy) times, or why local attempts to clean up the river are facing an uphill battle. Following a river can give you an insight into the into the environmental effects of climate change, intensive (mis)use of water, damming, waste disposal and agriculture. In the four part series The Mekong River with Sue Perkins (and this will come as no surprise to you clever readers) Sue Perkins travels up the Mekong River. The series touches on the history, cultures and environmental impact of river users in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, China and Tibet. Near the end, it’s a shock to be confronted with the construction of the enormous Xayaburi hydroelectric dam, which will block the flow of the river.
You don't need to save up, quit your job and get on an international flight. Find a short river somewhere near your house and block out a day in your diary to explore. Last year, we spent a day walking and driving the length of the River Cuckmere in East Sussex - starting at the sea and ending at the source (or one of them). On the way we visited chalk carvings, churches and a reservoir and learnt more about the history of the area. The biggest surprise was the source itself: a bright orange, iron-rich spring bubbling out of the ground. There are many of these shorter rivers in the UK (Roger Deakin dabbles in a few over the course of his brilliant book Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain - recommended reading).
Africa has the Nile, the Congo and the Niger; South America has the Amazon and the Paraná; Asia has the Mekong. But you have to travel a significant way down the list of the world's longest rivers before getting to one that flows through continental Europe: the Danube. In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off to walk across Europe to Istanbul. His journey is documented in three books, published in 1977 (A Time of Gifts), 1986 (Between the Woods and the Water) and - unfinished, posthumously - 2013 (The Broken Road). In December 2012, Nick Hunt set off with apparently very little preparation beyond reading Fermor's first two books and setting up a Couchsurfing account to retrace Fermor's steps and find out what had changed in the intervening eighty years. Hunt's book Walking the Woods and the Water, published in 2012, is an account of that journey, often along the Rhine and the Danube, through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It’s not only an interesting account of a very long walk, but a great little introduction to contemporary European politics and cultures.
There are loads of amazing books, articles, blogs, videos and websites dedicated to river journeys. And there’s Google Maps. Put it in satellite view, tilt it if you want, and take your own trip in a far-flung corner of the globe. I have a bit of an addiction to following Russian rivers - the Lena is one of my favourites and the Ob and its siblings also tickle my fancy - though I’m also partial to desert rivers (or riverbeds) like the capillaries of the Diamantina in Australia and the blue braided threads of rivers like the Rakaia in New Zealand’s South Island that run in almost straight lines from the mountains to the sea. Yeah, I can spend hours on Google Maps. I mean, if rivers aren’t enough for you, you can also check out the moon? Or Mars?
Trace a river back to its tributaries; follow one tributary up a valley to a tarn; climb beside a tiny waterfall to to the top of the mountain, to the edge of the catchment, to the watershed; listen to the squelching of mud and moss underfoot; turn your face to the cool drizzle and the clouds. Who is to say where the river really starts? Then follow it downstream, to the fingers of a delta or a long lagoon, a wide-mouthed estuary; to the point where it stops tasting of snow or starts tasting of salt; to the last town, or the last jetty, or the first breaker. Wherever you decide to start or stop walking, paddling, driving or cycling, I think river journeys are sure to live on in your memory for a long time.
What are your favourite river journey memories? Which river would you most like to explore - in your local area or further afield? Do you have your eyes and heart set on a particular river this year?
One reason I find microadventures so appealing is that they encourage us to do everyday things in unusual places. I like the idea of taking habitual activities (walking, eating, sleeping) and framing them in new ways (walking the length of a river, eating foraged food, sleeping on top of a hill). By changing the context, these ordinary activities become rather more extraordinary.
After a busy week of travelling, hosting visitors, going to barbecues and organising more travel and social excitement for the rest of the school holidays, Sunday was going to be a day of down time. It helped that the forecast was for heavy rain: perfect weather for curling up with a good book and a bottomless supply of tea.
But technology had other ideas. There were emails to write, blog posts to draft, Twitter feeds to read, photos to edit, cute cat videos to watch . . . I still hadn’t opened my book by lunch time. Something had to be done. It was time for a microadventure!
We made a thermos of tea, packed our new tarp, got wrapped up in our raincoats and headed off to Battle Great Wood. It was tipping down and the carpark was almost empty. Good. The last thing I wanted was a wet dog coming to shake itself off under our tarp! We found a clearing a few metres off one of the paths that wends its way through the wood and hitched the tarp to a pine tree. We weren’t worried about being seen - there are no rules against picnicking in the woods! In no time we had a flying-V set up, a walking pole propping up the middle to give us lots of headroom and the picnic rug spread out underneath to keep us clean and dry. I kicked off my boots and opened my book. Straight away, an inquisitive greyhound sniffed us out, but a whistle from its owners sent it pelting off through the trees. They were the only people we saw in the woods all afternoon.
The rain pecked loudly at the tarp and the wind whooshing in the trees made the weather seem a lot more ferocious than it really was. We, on the other hand, were warm and sheltered. It was exactly the kind of contrast that makes snuggling up by the fire on a squally winter evening so appealing. In fact, it was so distractingly wonderful to be both outside in the rain and perfectly dry that I found it hard to concentrate on my book!
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn is Nick Hunt’s account of a walking journey through Western Europe. Fermor began his walk from the Netherlands to Istanbul in December 1933; Hunt began his in 2011. I wasn’t far into the book - Hunt was in Germany and it was Christmas. As I read, I reached the point where Hunt sleeps out for the first time, in a small tunnel in a castle wall, hidden beneath a four-star hotel. “The effect was alchemical,” he says. “When I stuck out my head in the light of dawn, having not only survived the night but slept soundly in my hole . . . somehow I belonged in a way that I hadn’t before. Sleeping out produced a sense of enhanced connection with the land, a feeling almost akin to ownership.”
I can relate to that. Walking does this to some extent - and walking the paths of East Sussex over the last few years has both threaded the countryside together in my mind and helped me stitch myself into the landscape. But sleeping in fields and woods, on hills and beaches, seems to open a conduit between self and place so they blur and breathe into each other. Perhaps it is the liminal nature of the experience that creates the possibility of an exchange: slipping between sleep and wakefulness, unsure where dreams begin and end; seeing dusk extend into night, then watching night and dawn creep together across the sky; being cocooned but also startlingly, immediately open to the elements; staying still in a way that’s not quite camping but not quite just resting (so it’s not quite illegal, but it’s also not quite legal).
Under the tarp with our books and cups of tea, boots off, listening to the tapping of rain around us, watching the trees soak into deeper, richer shades of wetness, I felt a stirring of that connectedness. Akin to ownership, yes, but not ownership in the exclusive, proprietorial sense. Rather, it’s a sense of belonging-to-ness that feels like it works in both directions.
The rain did not let up. It was still pouring an hour later, when we got wetter and grottier packing everything away than we did setting it all up. But that’s OK. Actually, it was more than OK, it was fantastic. The whole experience transformed a rainy afternoon of books and tea into something unexpected - something rather more extraordinary.
We spent lots of time with trees in July, as per the challenge, but this outing felt the most adventurous!
Only two months behind schedule, I’ve completed the final module of a fantastic MOOC - Start Writing Fiction, run by Open University through the FutureLearn platform.
When I signed up, I envisaged myself after the eight week course somehow transformed into a writing machine, churning out the stories. If I’m honest, I also imagined myself transported to a writers’ retreat, sitting a room with huge bay windows looking out over a landscaped garden to the hills beyond. Spoiler alert: neither of these things happened.
But my main aim was to develop a creative writing habit, or at least get some words down on paper, and in that respect the course was helpful. It focused on creating characters, which is something I struggle with: I’d happily write atmosphere and scenery all day, which is probably why I’m always writing about walking. We were prompted to use a journal to take notes on a daily basis and there were short exercises drawn from these observations each week. I found it invigorating to be forced to create new characters and scenarios to a tight deadline and I’m leaving the course with half a dozen ideas I’d like to develop.
The highlight, for me, was getting feedback and workshopping ideas with fellow students. I loved doing this in my undergrad years and I have really missed it. There were three points in the course for structured feedback, when each of us submitted a scene, character sketch or story we’d created and then gave feedback on other pieces. The feedback was based on specific questions and there were helpful feedback guidelines for first timers. It’s always interesting to see your writing through new eyes and to find out where your reviewers agree and disagree. I also enjoyed giving feedback, but there you go - I am an editor!
I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the course so much if my partner hadn’t been doing it, too. We were able to discuss things verbally instead of typing up all our responses, we nudged each other into using our journals more, we encouraged each other when we hit stumbling blocks and of course we got to give each other extra feedback. If you’re planning on doing a MOOC, I would really recommend doing it alongside someone else if you can.
"Great minds only need simple tools" by Antti Kyllönen. (It's not mine. I'm not cool enough to own or use a typewriter.)
While none of the pieces I wrote are ready to go out into the world, I thought I’d share fifteen first lines pulled from eight weeks of exercises and arranged in no particular order.
Have you done any good MOOCs or online/free writing courses? Please, tell me more . . .
A couple of months ago on Book Riot, Jeremy Anderberg published “7 Books (and One to Avoid) for the Avid Hiker”. They all sound interesting, and I've ordered some from the libary, but they’re USA-centric (6 of the 8 set in the USA), all by men (except the “one to avoid” - awkward) and mainly focused on specific journeys. So, here I am supplementing Anderberg’s list - which isn't meant to be definitive - with five more good books about walking.
1. Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Rebecca Solnit (2000)
What’s it about? It does what it says on the tin. It starts with the physiology of walking, an investigation of why humans started walking, then wanders through time over diverse fields including philosophy, shopping, poetry, religion and spirituality, landscaping and gardens, tourism, geography, politics, novels, pop culture, law, feminism, public space and urban design. It moves between continents, too, though there’s a definite bias towards the northern hemisphere.
Why is it so good? Solnit highlights that is a history, not the history: she tries to acknowledge the book's limitations, omissions and biases. Rather than being a straight-up chronological history, it's more a series of lyrical essays. Academic analysis is interspersed with personal accounts of walks (taken solo or with friends) and occasional flights of imagination are thrown in. I like it because, like a good walk, it takes you to new places, and asks you to look at familiar things in a different light.
Any cons? I would like to hear more non-Western perspectives, and some of the chapters are a little thinner on ideas and research than others. Even those chapters, though, seem to open up the potential of walking and thinking about walking, rather than shutting it down with a definitive “this is how it is, because I am an expert and I say it is so”. Another con, which you can take as read in almost any contemporary writing about walking, are the instances of casual fatphobia and hand-wringing about “the obesity epidemic” - boring.
2. Map Addict: A Tale of Obsession, Fudge and the Ordnance Survey
Mike Parker (2010)
What’s it about? Strictly speaking, as the title suggests, this is a book about maps rather than walking. But since this is my list, I have decided there is enough walking in there to qualify. This is a humorous non-fiction book - slightly in the vein of Bill Bryson, to give you an idea of tone. It is a bit of a whirlwind of subjects, but it pulls together to give a fun, biased and incomplete investigation of cartography, borders, land use and land access (including walking), politics and language. It’s set mainly, but not exclusively, in the British Isles - but it doesn’t claim to be anything other than very British.
Why is it so good? How can you not like someone who used to shoplift maps in their misspent youth? Parker is so obsessed with Ordnance Survey maps that I’m sure even the most map-phobic person couldn’t help but feel a spark of enthusiasm! He’s got a good eye for the off-beat (like visiting the most boring OS gridsquare), though many of the mainstays of mapping and walking are in there too (Wainwright, Phyllis Pearsall of the London A-Z fame, the Ramblers). Maps are a huge part of my experience of moving through and understanding the world, so it’s great to read something light-hearted while also learning a bit more about why the world of mapping (and, by extension, walking) is the way it is.
Any cons? Sometimes Parker’s exceptionally bouncy approach does make things pass in a bit of a whirl - you will find a more balanced, exceptionally researched but infinitely drier account of the OS in Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation. Also a con in a list of books about walking is that there isn’t more walking it - though to be fair, Parker has written a book about walking and footpaths (The Wild Rover), it’s just that this one’s more fun.
3. The Ways of the Bushwalker: On Foot in Australia
Dr Melissa Harper (2007)
What’s it about? A history of bushwalking, which Harper defines as walking in the bush for pleasure. This is an interesting companion book to Wanderlust, as it covers a few similar areas but with an Australian focus. There are discussions of politics, fashion, gender, four-wheel driving, ecology, aesthetics, literature and colonisation. Because it has a much narrower scope than Wanderlust, it is able to zoom in on more details and quirky bits of Australian history. It's something of a cultural history through the lens of walking.
Why is it so good? There are lots of histories and philosophical examinations of walking, but there’s hardly anything specific to Australia. This book opened my eyes to pieces of Australian history I’d known nothing about, and it prompted me to start thinking more deeply about the problematic concept of “wilderness” - specifically, how the kinds of ideas and ideals embedded in the National Park movement can be inherently, unconsciously racist and also used for explicitly anti-Indigenous Australian means (watch Noel Pearson’s speech for more on that). I also loved the chapter on people who aimed to experience the bush physically, almost erotically, especially through naked walking.
Any cons? While there are discussions of land rights, Harper argues her “walking in the bush for pleasure” definition means that bushwalking (a term coined in the 1920s) excludes the long history of Indigenous Australians walking in the bush. I think there could have been another chapter dedicated to Aboriginal history, e.g. walking Songlines (though research in that area has also been problematic).
4. Two Degrees West: A Walk Along England’s Meridian
Nicholas Crane (1997)
What’s it about? Nick Crane (of BBC’s Coast fame) walks a straight line through England from Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland to the south coast near Swanage in Dorset. Of course, it’s not completely straight, but his aim is to veer no more than 1km each side of the prime meridian - not even for food and shelter. His other aim is to do it all on foot. (Spoilers: he achieves the former, and from memory there are only two exceptions to the latter - he crosses a reservoir by boat and some MOD land in military transport).
Why is it so good? This book is sometimes subtitled “An English journey”. I prefer the subtitle I’ve cited, but I can see why this one exists: in walking a straight line, rather than following established paths, natural landmarks, roads and so on, Crane is able to observe an almost randomly selected cross-section of English culture, people, landscapes, towns, agriculture and industry. It’s a cultural examination masquerading as travel writing. I like the inclusion of urban landscape and the bit where he sleeps in a culvert under a motorway.
Any cons? Crane documents his nervousness about trespassing, practicing his super-fast “pitch” in case anyone stops him. Nobody does. I wonder how anyone who wasn’t a moderately respectable-looking middle aged white man would have fared? I wonder if it would still be possible to do this walk almost 20 years later? I love the idea of this kind of walk (there are shades of Richard Long's art), but I wish there were more done by people who haven’t traditionally been allowed such freedom of movement.
5. Enchanted Glass
Diana Wynne Jones (2010)
What’s it about? This is a children’s fantasy book, about magic and family and many of the things you might expect from Diana Wynne Jones (she wrote Howl’s Moving Castle, which is one of my favourites of hers alongside The Homeward Bounders and The Spellcoats (from the Dalemark Quartet)). Enchanted Glass is about a young, orphaned boy (Aidan) and a featherbrained male academic who wind up living together in Melston House, a fictional house near the fictional town of Melston in England. The house comes with a “field of care” - like a parish surrounding a church, only one which must be magically maintained by the inheritor of the house. Oh, and Aidan is being pursued by a mysterious, hostile force...
Why is it so good? The field of care is tied very strongly to physical boundaries, which must be physically seen to, with obstacles removed. The magic here draws on the tradition of beating the bounds. I love this concept because it ties into a way of seeing and being in the world that I want to explore through reading and writing - the dual ideas that the landscape is a living entity that has a kind of ownership on the people living there and the idea of magic being done through physical movement. Plus, it’s a fun tale!
Any cons? If you’re after books that are only about walking, this isn’t one. Also, in terms of fiction, it would have been nice to have some more female characters. Oh, and, here’s a spoiler: I was disappointed when the main characters ended up being related by blood - it wasn’t necessary and gave off a "chosen families aren’t real families" vibe.
If you can suggest some excellent books about walking - histories, fictions or travel accounts, especially by non-white people and/or set in Asia, Africa, South America or Eastern Europe - I’d be delighted to read them!
Many of my favourite books float somewhere in the intersecting areas of a huge Venn diagram comprising YA fantasy, dystopias, post-apocalyptic worlds, old-school feminist sci fi, mythology and contemporary spec fic. I've read a lot of it, but I want to read more!
If you’re an author, please feel free to take these three tips and write me an amazing story. If you're a reader, feel free to leave me a recommendation in the comments.
1. Give me time
I once read an argument (which now seems rather dubious, probably because I've hideously over-simplified it in my memory), that fantasy fiction can be divided into two kinds: that which uses time as its structuring theme, with characters and stories repeating and echoing up through an ocean of time, between eras but in the same location; and that which has space at its core, with characters journeying across/between worlds and through portals to arrive at other places or realms.
This (unlikely and/or misremembered) hypothesis stuck with me because my favourite stories definitely skew towards the former. I love the idea that time is not linear, but something more like an endless sheet of cloth, draping in folds across itself, each fold rubbing against the next, sometimes wearing away the layer beneath, sometimes leaving a mark, and always influencing what is to come. Time is a palimpsest.
That’s what I want to read: a story that is many stories, sometimes distinct, sometimes indistinguishable, repeating and evolving – like listening to several versions of a piece of music at once, interpreted by different generations of musicians.
2. Be practical
I like magic, but I read enough sword and sorcery as a teenager to have got it out of my system. I don’t (usually) want to read about magic that is “gifted” to the (un)fortunate few. I want to read about the magic of everyday, magic that is practiced, refined, explored, tinkered with, evolved, corrupted.
I’m not saying a book can’t have a university of magic (tell me about interdepartmental politics and the pressures that acamages face trying to juggle research, publication and teaching) or individuals who teach/learn their magic within a complicated master/apprentice power dynamic (tell me about the psychology of codependency and how the rest of the world reads their relationship).
But what I really want to read about is the magic of the masses: the magic that is hummed to the wind, grown on a balcony, kneaded and baked, danced in a round, played as a sport, walked through city streets, painted on skin or chalked on pavements, spun, woven, sewn or sculpted. I like magic that is, literally, an art or craft.
3. Take me away
The great thing about fiction is that the writer gets to invent the world. They get to say what’s important. They get to choose which characters, stories and places to focus on. This especially applies in spec fic, fantasy or sci-fi.
If a book's protagonist ticks the majority of these boxes: male, white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical and/or human, there had better be a very good reason for that or I will be bored, bored, bored. Likewise, if the world or universe of the book obliviously replicates - without critiquing - the same hierarchies as lots of high fantasy (kingdoms, feudal societies) or the same cultural structures as the Western mainstream (capitalism, racism, sexism), it’s already lost a few points in my rating. That’s not to say these stories can’t be good, but there are so many other stories like them and they represent such a tiny sliver of what human beings are capable of imagining.
I don’t pick up a fantasy book to read about what I know, I read it to learn something fresh. Surprise me.
What are you reading at the moment? What do you love about it? How would you improve it? I feel like gossiping about books in the comments. . .
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