Big Bubbles (no troubles)

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To Boldly Go

BB was going to write about another horrendous Fedora upgrade experience, but right now we don’t want to go back to that place. Let’s talk about travel books instead.

BB read a lot of travel books when we were younger and filled with wild yearnings for a life of adventure (obviously, quite a lot younger - we’ve never actually attempted anything like the prolonged quests detailed below). We had a few simple demands, although note that most of these aren’t typically fulfilled by yer Eric Newbys and Paul Therouxs:

  • Must be funny, preferably “side-splitting”.
  • Must involve camping/backpacking; ah, the romance of sleeping under the stars, providing someone else is doing it while we’re sat reading in a warm, soft bed.
  • Preferably set in the UK. (Not to be narrow-minded and provincial but…well actually, being exactly that. We preferred to read about places we had visited or might visit one day, rather than hear someone’s account of squirting their dysentery off the starboard bow of a junk on the South China Sea as they attempt to cross the world on 50p a day.)
Saddle Tramp In The Lake District, Robert Orrell
Account of journey with two fell ponies around the old packhorse routes of the Lakes, for no better reason than that the author’s business had previously gone bankrupt and he was at a loose end. (His wife comes across as very understanding; one wonders if he left out the persuasive bit about “There might be a book deal in it, dear!”) Has its moments of drama, often weather-related, and a good dollop of history, but best read for the various hilarious incidents en-route, including the couple in a barn surprised mid-shag by a loud whinny from one of the ponies (“the poor chap…overshot his mark, and bashed his head on the wall”). This was the first such travelogue I read, at an impressionable age. I still have a Lakes OS tourist map with a rather wobbly pencil line tracing my intended route (never attempted, thank ghod - it mostly followed the A592 from Windermere). If you like this, there were a couple of follow-ups, one round the Highlands and another trip round the Lakes with his kids.
Five Hundred Mile Walkies, Destination Lapland, Boogie Up The River, Mark Wallington
These three books are a tour-de-force of comic travel writing; hard to pick the best one, although those featuring Boogie the mongrel have a slight edge. In retrospect, one tends to doubt the veracity of some of the conversations and tales recounted, but then if it makes for a more entertaining read, we’ll overlook it this time. Wallington went on to try wry/quirky comic fiction (also involving travel, but without having to pretend it actually happened), some of which was adapted for television. A later Boogie book, Pennine Walkies, is pleasant enough but reads like a failed attempt to recapture former glories.
Journey Through Britain, John Hillaby
Hillaby’s “epic” Lands End to John O’Groats hike. Gets a bit bogged down in natural and prehistoric history around Cornwall but picks up rapidly thereafter; Hillaby’s journalism background ensures that he keeps your interest with his keen sense of enquiry, the writing is beautiful and he manages a few amusing anecdotes too. If you enjoy this, Hillaby’s Journey Home is something of a valedictory note.
The Worst Journey In The Midlands, Sam Llewellyn
Very funny account of a somewhat reluctant trip in a rowing boat from the source of the Severn, via several dingy Midlands canals and down the Thames, to London. Enhanced by Llewellyn’s slightly misanthropic sense of humour and increasingly disillusioned and delusional fantasies. (He now writes thrillers.)
One Man And His Bog, Barry Pilton
An extended groan about walking the Pennine Way under doctor’s orders. Pilton doesn’t miss an opportunity to tell you how awful it is, how unfit he feels and how stupid he must be to attempt it, but thankfully most of it is amusing. See also Pilton’s One Man And His Log, which is an account of an (eventually abandoned) boating holiday in France with friends (great disclaimer at the start), but maybe avoid An Innocent Abroad, which I’ve owned for years but never managed to finish.
A Walk Around The Lakes, Hunter Davies
OK, this one breaks the rules a bit by being more an account of a region based on many separate visits to various different parts of it in the spirit of journalistic enquiry. But Davies’s chatty - and occasionally catty - style flies by, and he throws in a good chunk of Wordsworth biography as well. One of a long series of “Walk…” books, including A Walk Along The Tracks (old railway lines), A Walk Along The Wall (Hadrian’s Wall) and A Walk Around The Parks (London parks).
Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson
Bryson arguably spread himself a bit thin later, but this account of a trip round Europe is worth it if only for his story about trying to get a room in Amsterdam (complete with Bryson’s wilful misunderstanding of Dutch, which he claims sounds like a peculiar version of English: “Marta, are you most moist?”). Notes From A Small Island and The Lost Continent are good too, but I’m told that A Walk In The Woods suffers from not having much that happens.

It took about twenty years before I felt I’d overdosed on this type of literature. Nowadays, the words “hilarious account of a journey…” on a book make me feel slightly queasy and I back away. The rot set in with Tony Hawkes’s Around Ireland With A Fridge, in which he drags the titular appliance along on a hitchhiking tour for a bet, while having fairly dull encounters with a succession of Irishmen who greet the “whacky” nature of this task without much comment. Since then, the market for funny concept travelogues has exploded, and the returns are seriously diminishing. But the books above are worth seeking out, particularly since most of them are now available used for pennies.