Foreword to The Best British Travel Writing for the 21st Century: A Celebration of Outstanding Travel Storytelling from Around the World
I was in Bulgaria when everything changed. The air smelled of pinewood and charred meat; my hands were burning with cold. It was March 2020 and I was spending the month writing, skiing and eating paprika-spiced bobchorba in Bansko, a wood-andsheepskin village at the edge of the Pirin Mountains. On that perfect bluebird morning I’d planned to ski Todorka Peak and eat garlic bread straight from a clay oven, but I knew something was wrong before I reached the front of the gondola queue.
“Not today,” a stern-faced woman said with a wave of her candy-pink acrylic nails. “Mountain closed.”
It was, of course, inevitable. The coronavirus had reached Europe, and non-Bulgarian nationals were to leave immediately. With no home of my own in the country I belonged to, I would spend the next three months – the longest I’d spent anywhere in the last four years – living at my in-laws’ in the tiny East Anglian village of Boxted.
Rural Essex felt worlds away from my life on the road. I went from trekking through jungles in Mexico and ice climbing in Peru to doing downward dogs and baking cakes on repeat within the same four whitewashed walls. The full-time traveller in me felt trapped. The writer in me, unable to see past the fog of familiarity and routine, was void of ideas to pitch to editors. I didn’t have it bad compared to many, but I did fear for my job – because what is a travel writer who can’t travel?
I couldn’t travel, but I could read. As infection numbers rose, I’d lose myself in the words, and worlds, of others. I’d smell the cigarette smoke of Tibet’s Qinghai railway with Monisha Rajesh; I’d walk the scorched fields of southern Spain with Laurie Lee; I’d listen to the note of a broken piano in the Siberian tundra with Sophy Roberts. The adventure didn’t stop there: magazines like National Geographic Traveller and Sidetracked took me on food trails through Hanoi and rock-climbing expeditions in China.
The more I read about travel from a locked-down world, the more I realised that I’d got it all wrong. There was a time when I thought of travel as going to faraway places and seeing as much as possible, as if tallying up hundreds of countries and monuments would somehow make me a wiser, worthier traveller. But the more I read, the clearer it became: the essence of travel isn’t to move – it’s to feel.
With that, I hung up my baking tray and went in search of wonder close to home: I foraged my local woods for nettles and wild garlic; I paddled the length of the River Stour in a blow-up kayak; I walked sections of the longest coastal path in the world, taking time to smell the grass and taste the salt of the North Sea. For the first time in my life, I looked at my home as I would any other country: with curiosity and a sense of adventure. I hadn’t left home, but I was finally travelling again.
It was out of this strange, but enlightening, time that The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century was born. Amid a climate of closed borders and fear for the outside world, I wanted to compile a book that celebrates the stories and writers that for the past two decades have made us feel something for the unknown and, in the process, brought us closer to it. As I hope this anthology shows, the best travel writing won’t just make you want to go somewhere, it’ll make you want to know it.
To ensure as many people as possible were given the chance to be part of this book, I asked writers from around the world to submit up to three of their favourite travel stories published in UK magazines, newspapers or online journals between 2000 and 2021. My co-editors – three hugely respected writers in the travel-writing space – and I chose the final collection based on the quality of the writing, originality and their ability to inspire and educate readers.
We were particularly mindful of diversity, too: you’ll notice that the collection includes a range of voices, writing styles and destinations. The result is a book where stories on racism, religion and identity are heard side by side, and where countries like Italy and Britain rub shoulders with Iraq and Pakistan. This is a book that celebrates the beautifully crafted and thoughtfully researched travel narratives of the last 20 years, but it also looks to the future – to a brighter, more inclusive era of travel writing.
Of course choosing “the best” of anything, especially something as subjective as travel writing, comes with its own challenges – some might even say it’s a futile endeavour. But to celebrate no one out of fear for choosing inadequately seems equally pointless, and perhaps even a little cowardly. These stories were chosen not just because they inspire wanderlust, but because they confront important, and sometimes uncomfortable, issues like climate change and the exploitative nature of travel. I ask you to approach this anthology as you would any other travel narrative: with an open mind and a willingness to fall in love with the world, and the people in it, all over again.
Wherever you are and whatever travel means to you, I hope this book inspires you to get out into the world. Whether you’re backpacking Southeast Asia or camping in your local woods, I hope you’ll go in search of wonder not to tick off sights or to take a photo for social media, but to listen, to learn and, most importantly, to feel.
The Best British Travel Writing for the 21st Century: A Celebration of Outstanding Travel Storytelling from Around the World, Edited by Jessica Vincent (Summersdale). The book is available from all good book retailers https://amzn.to/3q3QmPZ