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Hay Festival authors reveal their all-time favourite travel books

What do writers read when they need some inspiration or escapism? We asked nine best-selling authors on this year’s Hay Festival programme to share their top travel books.

Published 8 Apr 2020, 15:00 BST
A patchwork of six book front covers.

Hay Festival Wales is held annually in Hay-on-Wye, ‘the town of books’. This year, due to the Covid-19 crisis, a digital festival will be held 18-31 May, with five live events each day and more to be announced.

Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

There’s never been a better time to escape into a great book. When we’re feeling locked down, the written word can offer liberation — it’s where we can be transported to exotic places, follow epic journeys and learn about lives that are so different and yet, always, somehow familiar. The best travelogues, of course, go a step further, placing the world right into your hands. But which books do writers turn to when they’re in need of that easy escape? We asked nine authors on this year’s Hay Festival programme to share their top travel reads

Maggie O’Farrell, author of Hamnet (Tinder Press, RRP: £20)

It would be hard to beat Isabella Lucy Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Written in 1873, it details the adventures and travels of Bird’s visit to North America and her friendship with ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’, a one-eyed desperado living the life of a hermit in the woods. Quite simply, there’s no other book like it. Bird — who had earlier been condemned by doctors to the bed-bound life of a Victorian invalid, after a spinal injury – has an infectious relish for the outdoors and the unexpectedness of travel. I, for one, am very glad she found a way to get out of bed and away from home. 

Marie-Elsa R. Bragg, author of Sleeping Letters (Chatto & Windus, RRP: £12.99)

The Everest Years, by Sir Chris Bonington, has the vivacity of a humble telling, with striking descriptions of his expeditions. As a child, I often visited his home and I was aware of weeks without contact while his wife, Wendy, imagined him, wrote letters and quietly stoked their coal fire as if they were harnessed together and her love ensured his safe return. Mapping a trail along unchartered terrain with unknown weather conditions is a determined part of the plot, but equally disarming is his friendship with fellow climbers, some of who were high-altitude sherpas from Solukhumbu. These full-bodied climbs, mapping, breathing and sleeping in the unchartered peaks, will always remain remarkable.

Mark Haddon, author of The Porpoise (Vintage, RRP: £8.99)

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, is a retrospective account of the first half of Leigh Fermor's journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, just before the Second World War tore the continent apart. It’s written in some of the most intoxicating prose I have ever read. Until recently, I would have been forced to admit that it was ferociously unfashionable, but I can feel the tide turning. Moreover, Leigh Fermor’s boundless excitement about the intertwined languages, cultures and peoples of Europe feels like a counter to new forces threatening to tear the continent apart once more.

Jackie Morris, author of The Unbinding (Unbound, coming soon)

The Mabinogi by Matthew Francis might not be the obvious choice for a travel read. Written with beautiful rhythm, it flows like a river through the mind. Based on old Welsh tales, it’s a poetic, bardic retelling of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi — stories which began as campfire tales. Filled with shapeshifting, magic and myth, the tales travel between this world and the other world, where barriers between dream and myth dissolve in mist, through the lands of Wales, and even venture across the borders to England and Herefordshire. It’s travel writing with a difference, and a book to return to.

Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland (Profile Books, RRP: £9.99)

My all-time favourite travel book is Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches, which I devoured as a teenager and have turned to many times since. It is a real-life Boy's Own story of his time as a diplomat in Stalin’s USSR, and as a guerrilla leader in the Second World War. It inspired me to go and live in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and encouraged me not to worry if I got in the odd scrape or two. It’s also thanks to him that I was arrested in Croatia, and convicted for vagrancy — and he's the only writer I can say that about.

Gavin Francis, author of Island Dreams (Canongate, RRP: £20)

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has enduring, effervescent charm; I often reread the battered copy I dragged round Patagonia 20 years ago. Chatwin has his share of critics, but In Patagonia remains a bold and original piece of work. Part of its charm lies in taking the millennia-old trope of The Quest and making of it something wholly new — grounded in history but bringing Chatwin’s restless perspective and unique prose to an often-overlooked part of the world. As for new books, Christiane Ritter’s 1938 A Woman in the Polar Night has just been rereleased, and is magnificent.

Brigit Strawbridge Howard, author of Dancing with Bees (Chelsea Green Publishing, RRP: £10.99)

In all my life, I’ve never been tempted to travel farther afield from home than Europe. Until, that is, I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. I now feel drawn to visit North America, to meet and experience the plants, landscapes and people Kimmerer writes of so eloquently, so gently and with such a depth of understanding and love. It’s hard to pinpoint why or how this book has affected me so deeply, but, because of it, I now long to visit and experience the land of the Great Lakes, wild strawberries, black ash, pecan, Maple Nation and sweetgrass.

Allie Esiri, editor of Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year (Pan Macmillan, RRP: £18.99)

I read Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje — the writer best known for The English Patient — while travelling around Sri Lanka last Christmas, and I couldn’t recommend it more. As a child, the war poets moved me more than any history book and I’ve always been drawn to imbibing facts through fiction. Ondaatje invents a masterful story that reveals Sri Lanka and the complexities of its recent civil war more than any pocket guidebook ever could.

Lara Maiklem, author of Mudlarking (Bloomsbury, RRP: £9.99)

I first read Paris, by Julian Green, when I was 16. I fell in love with the City of Lights through his philosophical wanderings, but it wasn’t until I moved to London, and a city consumed my own life, that I truly I understood his passion for Paris and his desire to capture his feelings for it. He takes the reader on a road less travelled — one that’s sometimes melancholic and often nostalgic, romantic and gritty. It’s an intimate love letter to the French capital and there’s no other book I know of that describes the city in such exquisite detail.

Hay Festival Wales is held annually in Hay-on-Wye, ‘the town of books’. This year, due to the Covid-19 crisis, a digital festival will be held 18-31 May, with five live events each day and more to be announced. There’s also a festival podcast. International Hay Festival editions are scheduled for later this year in Rijeka, Croatia; Segovia, Spain; Querétaro, Mexico; and Arequipa, Peru. Plus, the annual Hay Festival Winter Weekend is back in Hay-on-Wye in November.

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