The joy of travelling slowly
Slow travel is a state of mind. It’s about making the journey mean as much as the destination; it has less to do with speed than the experience of travelling. I was fortunate enough to appear on a panel alongside eminent travel writers Christopher Sommerville and Nick Hunt at the Stanfords Travel Writers’ festival in February, and that was my response to the opening question: ‘Let’s start by asking, what is slow travel?’
I took a train to Copenhagen once. While roaring across landscapes at more than 100kmph can hardly be described as slow, I count that journey as slow travel – remaining in touch with the earth’s surface, understanding just how big continental Europe is, figuring out how it all connects. When travelling by train rather than by plane, landscape, language and people morph from one country to the next, which gives us a deeper appreciation for our fellow man, and though not ‘slow’ in terms of speed, it is slow in terms of development.
I could have cycled there. This is my preferred method of exploration; though requiring a much greater investment in terms of time, it contributes to experiences in a way that train or motor travel cannot. On a bicycle your sense of landscape is enhanced through physical effort; you earn the journey and become immersed in the natural world, with wind-tugged hair and sun-warmed skin.
Yet still, the bicycle affords us an ease that is mechanical; with the right conditions, one can make short work of the miles.
It took me well into my adult years to appreciate the value of walking. As a form of transport, I always found it too slow; I would rather cycle (especially as I was always running late), and as a method of exploration, it would yield such low daily mileage that I saw little point.
But once I began to walk, I discovered that I loved it. Moving andante is a new way to view the world, different to how one views it by travelling by other means. With each step there is something more to be seen. The experience is wholly different to bicycle or car or train or plane. And that’s where I realised my error, in trying to evaluate walking in simplistic terms by comparing it to others.
My first long walk, of 26 miles, took a long time to come to fruition. “Can’t I just ride it?” I said. “It would be so much easier!” I thought I’d be impatient to get there, that I’d be frustrated by the plodding progress of one foot in front of the other. But no; it gave me time to breathe, it gave me time to think. The journey is as long as it is, and it takes as long as it takes, and that is simply that. It turns out I wasn’t saving time by cycling; I had exactly the same amount of time, it’s just that I spent less of it experiencing movement. Forcing yourself to slow your pace also slows your mind. In our hectic, must-have-everything-now society that is a rarity.
In travelling by foot, we become the journey. I feel the earth; I am giving the entirety of myself to physical movement. Each step we take changes us: a build of muscle, an expansion of lung. Our minds are shaped by what we see, smell, feel and hear. And each step we take changes the path: we make physical imprints with the soles of our boots. The path would not exist without our tread. It is here because people before us have walked it; it will remain because we have passed. We are the path and the path is us.
I often chose to walk now – there are times I am perfectly happy to spend 20 minutes on foot instead of five on my bike. All travel changes you, and it’s up to you how you’d like to be changed. Because I’ve learned it’s not about the time, it’s about the experience. And the experience of walking is one to be treasured.