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  • Writer's pictureSam

A Slower Approach to Travel

Shrinking World

The world is getting smaller.  At least that is what we are usually told.  Faster modes of transport and better internet speeds mean that we are connected to places far across the globe, and almost everywhere around the globe has become a potential holiday destination.  Today, sitting at home in Suffolk, I am connected to almost everywhere on the planet through my phone, and within a few hours I could be on a plane bound for anywhere I chose.

I recently overheard a conversation in a local café in which someone was explaining to a friend that they were unsure where they were going to go on holiday in the summer, because they had ‘already been everywhere’.  They then proceeded to recall the list of destinations and experiences they had ‘done’ in recent years: they had ‘done’ Paris, ‘done’ New Zealand, ‘done’ safari, ‘done’ glamping.

It is a view that has been popularised by travel agencies, lifestyle influencers and guidebook publishers: the variegated, diverse surface of our planet is processed into easily-consumable chunks, and each destination becomes a brief checklist of ‘must-sees’.  It has a lot in common with those maps on which you can scratch-off the countries you have visited.  This is not to say I am not a huge fan of lists; I just feel our planet is something that shouldn’t be reduced to a box-ticking exercise.

In geography, the concept of space-time compression (or the shrinking world theory) suggests that, as modes of transportation and communication get faster, distances – if measured only by the time spent travelling or communicating – in effect shrink.  The time-distance between London and Edinburgh decreased, for example, when the stage coach was replace by the train, and then by the car, and then by aeroplane.  (Interestingly, with each progression – and I use the word very cautiously here – the carbon impact of the journey has increased.)

a blue sky through the top of a tower

Yet, the world is just the same size it has always been.  It is we that have changed: as a species, we have become bigger and faster, expectant of more.  Travel, especially of the international kind, has become something we think of as a right, or even an duty, rather than as the huge privilege that it is.  Yet, in our determination to see and experience more and more of what the world has to offer, our appreciation of it has become necessarily increasingly superficial.

As part of my work, I have occasionally been required to travel and, as a result, I have been fortunate enough to visit some really lovely places around the world.  Yet – due to my short stays, and the vast cultural and linguistic divides to be bridged – I am aware that I have barely scratched the surface of any of the places I have visited.  Uprooted, jet-lagged and with very poor language skills, I am usually boarding the plane home before I have even learnt how to order myself a drink, let alone begun to appreciate the infinite richness of where I have been staying.

We are spreading our travel experiences very thinly – shallowly – in a way that only exhausts without enriching us.

Impossibly, Immeasurably, Infinitely Huge

But there is a different approach to travel, one that may not be as glamourous, or as easy to justify to our friends and family.

We have recently returned from holiday: a few nights in another small market town in Suffolk, less than an hour by car from our home.  There was little to do in this particular town: it has only one significant tourist attraction, some beautiful medieval buildings, a handful of shops and a market, all of which could – according to my mother – have been seen on a day trip.  Yet there had been more than enough to keep us entertained and engaged for three days.  When it came for us to leave, I knew there had been more we could have experienced, more to learn; I know we will return.

You can be a tourist of where you live as easily as you can any far-flung destination: I suspect many wouldn’t think twice about visiting a museum or an art gallery when abroad, but have never considered exploring their own local attractions.  You can go on holiday wherever you want: your own county or town, or even your own village.

a roofscape across a castle

In 1980, Suffolk writer and countryman Adrian Bell found that a ‘mile of Suffolk lane reigns supreme’ over the more exotic luxuries of ‘gondola rides at £16 an hour’, while even further back in 1794, French aristocrat Xavier de Maistre wrote his Voyage autour de ma chambre (usually translated into English as A Journey Around My Room), in which he describes his travels around his room across the 42 days he was under house arrest for fighting an illegal duel.

Even more extreme, at a turning-point in George Orwell’s 1939 Coming Up for Air, his narrator has a revelation when he notices a pool covered with duckweed at the side of the road:

Why don’t people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk round looking at things?  That pool, for instance – all the stuff that’s in it.  Newts, water-snails, water-beetles, caddis-flies, leeches, and God knows how many other things that you can only see with a microscope.  The mystery of their lives, down there under water.  You could spend a lifetime watching them, ten lifetimes, and still you wouldn’t have got to the end even of that one pool.

Our approach to travel takes a similar approach. Here in East Anglia, I am rooted in the land.  I speak its language, and can read its signs.  There is no surface resistance, and I can quickly dig deep into the culture and history of the places I visit.  Every tree, field and building has a story, so even the smallest, most remote village becomes a library, a museum, if only given enough patience and attention.

It is these two virtues – patience and attention – that are at the core of our personal philosophy.  They are two sides of the same coin: by creating space in our otherwise hectic schedules, we can fill that space with enriching (rather than exhausting) things.  This applies to travel as much as it does more traditionally mindful activities.

small plants and mosses on a castle wall

There is also a pleasure in building-up a complete picture of a place – understanding how the history, geography and culture of a place are interconnected – that is (in my mind, at least) much more satisfying than the assortment of ‘facts’ you usually collect when visiting places briefly.

Our local holidays around East Anglia, for instance, have helped me to step back, and see how the ancient tensions between rural/urban, church/state, monastic/civic and agriculture/technology have helped to drive change and shape the history of the landscape in which I live.

Every region of the world has the same richness as this East Anglian landscape, and ‘you could spend a lifetime […], ten lifetimes’, and you wouldn’t have begun to understand the depth of what there is to know.

From this perspective, the world suddenly doesn’t seem so small.  In fact, it seems impossibly, immeasurably and infinitely huge.  Far from being a short list of ‘top destinations’ and ‘must sees’, our planet emerges as it really is: a vast, overlapping and minutely detailed patchwork quilt, that becomes even more finely detailed the more patient attention you offer it.


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