Anna Hughes

The joy of travelling slowly

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The joy of travelling slowly

On April 3, 2018, Posted by , In Cycling, With 2 Comments

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.

My GetOutside challenge for January was to go for a walk – could you try it?

2 Comments so far:

  1. Simon says:

    I like your use of the term andante – I always tell to my students it means ‘at a walking pace’.

    I got into cycling after being a fairly compulsive walker – most of my long-distance rides are going over treks I already walked 5-10 years ago. This feels nice for me as I’ve had the chance to see things at a slow pace and take lots of photos, and now revisit the route covering three times the ground per day. But I do agree with you about the beauty of walking – it’s the most natural thing to do, and allows the greatest experience of observing the world around you.

    One of the (many) things I dislike about flying is the idea of being catapulted off the ground in one place and then being plonked back down in another with no sense of the physical distance one has come. This is in addition to the fact that airports are generic, soulless places with no sense of entering a new culture save for a few adverts and signs in a foreign language, all of which are blandly ‘international’ anyway. Going overland, particularly with railways, one gets a sense of the huge distance between cities and countries and also a sense of history: you can for example imagine the Romans or Napoleon’s army or merchant wagons taking the same route from city to city as you’re on. Even taking a sleeper train, I feel like I’ve come a huge way when you wake up and remember that you’ve been rolling along for all the hours overnight. Some people think I’m mad to take so much time just travelling, but I feel the process of the journey is just as important as the destination, especially as on most long journeys my fellow passengers have been happy to chat in whatever language we can manage between us. Then you walk off the train and are immediately thrust into the excitement of a new culture whether that be a busy capital city or mountains.

    • Anna says:

      Thanks for your comment Simon – well said! The journey is indeed as important as the destination, and you’ve encapsulated exactly how I feel about it. Another comment I received was that our brains process information at 3mph, so any faster and we begin to lose our grip on what it is to be human.
      There is a boat on the canal called ‘Andante’. Very apt for a narrow boat. As a music graduate myself, I like dropping in those Italian terms!

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