My journey through travel writing

One of our campervan mottos

I don’t just write travel articles, I am also an enthusiastic reader of travel books.  As I read I am in awe of travel writers who can string together more than the 2,000 word limit of my articles and still hold my attention, be well-written, informative and entertaining; what stamina and discipline that must take.  I immerse myself in these armchair journeys to the familiar and the exotic through the pages of a good travel book and I have many favourites.  For me, good travel writing is not a guidebook [although I read these too] or a series of facts about a place; good travel writing is about stories and experiences, it is about how a place made someone feel, it is about tales told honestly and it is about personal journeys.  In the hands of a good travel writing I feel I am sitting on the author’s shoulder and I am along for ‘The glory of the ride.’

My reading of travel writing started as a young teenager.  With a passion for reading I soon exhausted the children’s section of the small town library near to my home and so [with some hesitation as I wasn’t sure if it was allowed] I furtively moved across the room to the adult books.  At the end of two tall rows of books by a large warm radiator I found a little-visited corner where I could browse unnoticed and here was the library’s small travel section.  Amazingly there were gems here and in particular I discovered two Ethel Mannin books; An Italian Journey from 1974 about her travels around northern Italy that captivated my imagination and started my love affair with Italy and her 1960s American Journey, telling tales from her travels by Greyhound around an America that was far from the glitzy American dream I saw on the TV.  I am sure I missed much of the subtlety of her writing, I knew nothing of Ethel Mannin and her politics and little of the world beyond Staffordshire and yet the travellers tales and adventures of a lone woman both touched me and inspired me.  It was some years later that I discovered Dervla Murphy and her individual style of travel writing and I have followed her on her numerous and exciting journeys ever since.  Dervla Murphy has an honest style that is never sentimental.  She is such a fantastic listener and gatherer of individual stories and she weaves historical information and personal narratives so well I feel I have been there with her every step of the way.

Some time ago World Hum compiled a list of their top 30 favourite travel books and I took a look to see if any of my own ‘must read’ books were on there and to look for ideas for new travel books to read.  Paul Theroux, Norman Lewis, Bill Bryson, Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor all make the list and are excellent choices that I have loved reading.  Others such as Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck are writers I enjoy reading but think of as novelists rather than travel writers, so I added their books to my list.  There are other titles and authors I’ve not come across and I have been looking at these; up to now I have added Europe, Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger to my wish list.

That young teenager had ambitions to be a writer but, despite my reading, I only thought of novels as the way to earn money as a writer and I lacked the imagination for such an undertaking.  Forty-years later in my 50s I realised that ambition and became a published writer.  My first travel article was published in 2013 and the thrill each time I see my writing and photographs in print has never faded.  That said, there may be travel writers with glamorous lives but for me it is less razzle-dazzle and more about typing.  The time I spend travelling versus the time sat behind a desk researching, writing and editing [words and photographs] is about 1:10.

I will never be as accomplished a writer as my heroes but I try to tell readers a story that every motorhomer can relate to.  This narrative combined with the 2,000 word limit excludes many of my travel experiences and anecdotes and the editing process takes many hours.  In these articles I am balancing practical information with my desire to paint a comprehensive pictures of the places we visit by describing the sights, smells and sounds I have experienced.

These ten tips for writing travel articles are a good and useful start for anyone who is thinking of writing their own travel articles but firstly check out this article 15 signs you are born for travel writing to see if travel writing is for you.  The tips made me aware that I rarely include any direct dialogue in my travel articles.  I can see how this can strengthen the intimacy of my stories and my current resolution is to try and bring this in to as many future articles as I can!






My first year of retirement in numbers

Above Castleton in the Peak District

Twelve months retired – so how has that gone?  We’ve certainly packed a lot in to the last year and at home we have settled in to a pattern for a shared retirement that is comfortable and relaxed.  At home we both have our own projects and interests and often beaver quietly away at these before taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood or cycle to the supermarket.  But we were only home for eight months of the year and those holiday days have a different pattern of walking and cycling and discovering new places.  In some ways this year has been unusual as after the incident in Greece we were without a campervan for two months while it was off the road.

I have managed to keep my resolution to not say ‘I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work’ which I guess must annoy all those people who are squeezing work and life into their seven days.  We have also made a conscious effort to do just / at least one thing each day.

Holidays and trips – 16 different holidays from one-night to two months.  We had planned two longish trips to mainland Europe in the spring and the autumn and we had a wonderful trip to Spain and Portugal in September and October but our trip to Greece in the spring didn’t go quite according to plan.  Now this is all over we can look back on the whole Greek tragedy as a learning experience [although one we would have preferred to do without] and we haven’t let the trip knock our confidence; we might even head off to Greece again in the future.  In the UK we spent a few weeks in Scotland, went to the wonderful Upton Blues Festival and various other short breaks.  We have been away in the campervan for about 120 nights during the year.  This is less than we would have expected as the ‘van was off the road for a couple of months.  We tried other types of holidays and these just confirmed that the campervan life is the one for us.

Number of accidents in the campervan  – 1 (see above)

Number of times we have set the alarm clock – NONE!

Writing travel articles – 8- this is a similar number of travel articles for MMM as last year.  This doesn’t sound many and it truly isn’t and is in no way a full-time job.  But I work slowly and each 2,000 words represents about a months work – research, travelling, taking photographs, further research, editing photographs, writing and editing.  In addition I write some campsite reviews and short articles.  This makes my retirement a working one, although if it felt like work I would stop tomorrow.

Number of matinees we have been to – Three – hurrah!

Number of times I have wanted to go back to nine-to-five work – NONE!

Foreign languages learnt – 3 [although I am not fluent in any] – before our spring trip we both worked hard at learning some Greek with flash cards and 1970s TV programmes and our efforts were generally appreciated.  I also used Duolingo to brush up my Italian.  In the summer I learnt Spanish on Duolingo and TV learning and Mr BOTRA picked up some Portuguese.  This learning meant that we could confidently book in to campsites and order in cafes.  Mr BOTRA also keeps his German up to scratch.  Next year we will want to learn some Croatian and Slovenian phrases as well as brushing up other European languages.

Good deeds done – Never enough!  I wanted to do some good in retirement and continue to do the things I listed in this previous post.  My elderly neighbours situation has recently worsened and I feel guilty for not helping her more.

Tai chi – Between once a week and daily!  While we were away in September and October we practiced tai chi every day, a combination of fine weather and peaceful campsites made this easy and fun to do.  At home we just about have enough space for tai chi without bumping in to each other and so manage to do occasional practice, as well as get to our weekly class.

Number of books read  – 64 – this year I have made a conscious effort to read more travel books and fiction as well as novels.

Number of blog posts in 2017 – 101 – I managed 78 posts on Back On The Road Again and just 23 posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog [I must try harder].

Number of days we haven’t been outdoors for at least half-an-hour – 4 [this is a guess] – mostly we like to get out and enjoy some fresh air even if it is raining and we get out for just half-an-hour.

It has mostly added up to a good year and bring on year two of retirement, I’m loving it.








Why bother travelling?


Migrating Miss’ thoughtful and interesting blog post on why people travel got me ruminating on my own reasons for enjoying travelling and for deciding to become a travel writer and blogger.  I am interested in my local area and I appreciate the many different reasons why many people would prefer to stay at home.  Maura Kelly is right, just looking through Migrating Miss’ reasons for enjoying travel, many of them are existential:

  • To Learn
  • To Challenge Myself
  • Be anonymous
  • Because life is too short
  • To know myself
  • To feel
  • Experience Cultures
  • Have adventures
  • Meet People
  • To Not Look Back & Wonder

Some of these reasons resonate strongly with me.  I am very aware that ‘life is too short’ and I don’t want to ‘look back and wonder’ but then travel isn’t for everyone, some people feel their place in life is where they are and have no need to wander the globe and yet for me travel is an urge, even a necessity and it is a big part of who I am.

I enjoy learning and I certainly learn best when the learning is reflected in the place, geography and culture I am in.  On our trips we like to stop to explore historical sites and learn about why places are culturally important and for me this learning has more relevance when I am standing on the spot.  Looking over Culloden Moor I can feel some of the pain of the soldiers as the Jacobite uprising fell apart; I got a sense of the long span of human history when I walked in the steps of the pilgrims at Delphi and finding the layers of history in the city of Berlin is a thrilling experience.

But thinking about why I love to travel also got me mulling over how I see and experience and in this I am concerned with my observations moving on to interpretations, while appreciating that my own way of seeing a place as a white British woman will be individual.  I try to be mindful of my surrounding and I am delighted when I manage to see the familiar as if it were new and walk down a nearby street with new eyes.  But in truth it is arriving in new places when all my senses are really heightened.  Everything happening around me can feel strange and inexplicable and I am bombarded by new smells, colours and sounds and my brain will be trying to interpret the meaning in the landscape and the way people use the space.  In my own culture, in the north-west of England, I take so much for granted; I know how to use the bus, can identify the crops in the fields and understand the language people are using and my brain will take short-cuts as it doesn’t need to make sense of even the smallest detail.  I can be creative about what I see anywhere but insight can sometimes get lost in the humdrum day-to-day.  Travel opens up my imagination, offers new perspectives and encourages my brain to make new connections.

What has become clear is that for me the buzz that I get from this sensual surge and unfurling of my imagination in these new places has become addictive and after a short time at home I am ready for another fix.





Writing into retirement


I am now ten weeks in to retirement [and still smiling] and very soon my retirement will be our retirement when Mr BOTRA joins me.  I am looking forward to a shared retirement and with warmer weather and opportunities to get out and about much more I have been thinking hard about my writing life and in particular how often I post on my Back On The Road Again blog.  Last year I set myself the goal of publishing posts twice a week as I built up the blog.  I have mostly achieved this with occasional failures [for which I beat myself up about of course].  In addition, over the last year I have written a travel article at least once a month and submitted shorter articles and campsite reviews and I have tried to keep on top of my Memorial Bench Stories blog.  In the last twelve months I have worked at practicing my writing at least five days a week in an effort to improve my writing and create some discipline and structure to what I do.

Despite all this practicing I have never really managed to become a fast producer of words and my craft is slow.  I spend hours editing even a short 400 word article, reading and re-reading to find just the right words and put them in what I think is the best order.  In addition, for every piece of writing you see there are hours of background research.  I really enjoy this aspect of writing as it feels like studying and learning and reminds me of those happy days as a student.  It doesn’t matter that much of what I learn never makes it on to the page.

During the last year my Back On The Road Again blog has taken up lots of my energy at the expense of my Memorial Bench Stories blog, never mind other new ideas I have in my head.  Although I feel proud to tell people I am a travel writer, I have other aims and plans for retirement and I want to leave time for study and reflection.  And so I feel it is now the moment for blogging to take up a little less of my time.  Although I intend to continue to make time to write almost every day during the next year, some of this writing may be just for me and may even involve pen and paper rather than a keyboard.  The retirement of Mr BOTRA represents real retirement and I feel ready to now really shift gear as I move in to my new retired life.

My revised goal is to publish a blog post here at least once a week.  This new ‘regime’ [I am in no way pretending this is a tough target] might give me time to write other blogs, space to complete around six travel articles a year and continue writing a few short articles.  This will also give me time to travel, to exercise, to find out new and interesting facts and just be.  It should also give me space for new and exciting projects [some of which I haven’t even had time to dream up yet].  So here we go!


Embracing imperfection when I #amwriting

Manchester reflections

I tell anyone who will listen that I am retired now [with a huge smile] but I am still working at writing travel articles for MMM , as well as this blog and occasionally posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog.  I have been publishing my writing for about eight years now, starting with our Blue Bus Blog and moving on to magazine travel writing not long after.  But still, every time I write a piece I struggle to be comfortable with what I have written, feel it is truly finished, let it go and put it out there for judgement.  Being able to decide that something is good enough to publish doesn’t seem to get any easier [in fact I think it gets harder].  I want my writing to be interesting, entertaining and just perfect and so I edit and edit again. I read it out loud, I print it and read it through repeatedly and I keep procrastinating, trying to reach some idea of perfection that I am not sure I would even know even if I created it.

I have been reading about writing and story telling recently and I am starting to try and change my mindset and stop trying so hard.  Although I still don’t think it is a bad thing to aim for perfection, I see that I need to recognise that point when I must embrace imperfection, face my fears and publish.  I need to let go of striving for an ideal piece of writing and concentrate on publishing something that is honest and true.

Of course I make mistakes and have to learn to laugh at the goofs I make.  I am a flawed individual making a mockery of the perfectionist I want to be.  But it isn’t really this that makes me hesitate over the publish button, it is the fear of demonstrating my vulnerability that stops me and a concern that critics will concentrate on my faults, rather than anything I have achieved.  On really bad days when my confidence is at rock bottom, I compare my writing with the writing of my heroes and it doesn’t stand up at all and so I wonder what is the point of even trying.  The grip this anxiety has on my output is interesting to note and sometimes difficult to break out of.

Julia Travers in a Be Magazine article wrote brilliantly on this subject; ‘I had a friend in college who called editing “shooting puppies,” because it was so painful to cut off valuable pieces of a work to make the whole stronger.’  This describes perfectly the physical pain I feel when I have to ditch what seems like a nice phrase or paragraph that perhaps took hours to research and compile because I know in my heart that it doesn’t fit the narrative I am creating or the word limit.

So, although I can’t promise I won’t make mistakes or post duds that are boring festooned with shoddy photographs, rather than hang my head in shame I will try and remember that those rough edges are part of what makes me a human individual and that one person’s perfect is really annoying to another.


I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen

Good coffee is great to relax with

I have been working through The Real Good Writer’s DNA lately, exploring what I can do to improve my writing skills. Having been ‘to the deep, dark places of [my] brain’ one of the themes that has emerged is how much joy I get from being with my friends and I have been following the exercises through and reflecting on these friendships.

I’m not ashamed to say that I need my friends and in many respects the Real Good Writer’s DNA exercise didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know.  Times with friends are lots of fun, they make me laugh, they introduce me to new experiences and perspectives, they keep my feet on the ground and my friends have gifted me with a large bundle of happy memories.  However clever and resourceful I occasionally think I am, friends have helped me get through tough times, put things in to perspective when I have lost the plot and when I put myself down my friends will point out my strengths.

I was aware of how much I enjoy being with my friends but I hadn’t realised how deep this went and I was surprised how strongly this came out of the Real Good Writer’s DNA exercise.  I am not a woman who has lots of friends; my ‘best friend’ is certainly Mr BOTRA and I am comfortable with my own company but the friends I have I truly value.  The workbook encourages deeper reflection on themes and I also started to explore how and why I always keep something back from my friends and try not to smother them and make too many demands on their time and energy.

That said, I don’t hang on to friends no matter what and I have no time for ‘toxic’ friends.  We all know who these are and we sometimes hang on to them for commendably loyal or sentimental reasons.  These might be judgemental (rather than critical) friends, negative friends and friends I cannot trust.  These sort of ‘friends’ sap my energy and I have learnt it is best to let go of them.

As a child I learnt about friendship through books, including AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh [a firm favourite] and what better place to learn about love and friendship than in those beautiful stories:

‘I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen.’ AA Milne