During my gap year in 1976 I took a banana boat from Southampton to Rio. I worked my passage by painting the lifeboats in high-visibility orange. The journey took three weeks and mostly we were just looking out to sea so it felt endless. But it gave me my first taste of slow travel and I’ve nurtured it ever since.
I think travelling by plane has become dehumanising, undignified and humiliating — all that taking your shoes off at security and waiting for your luggage at airports. It’s ghastly. You need a day to recover from being treated like a battery chicken. I hate the no-frills approach and the fact that some airlines don’t even offer you a meal any more. It’s so inhospitable. It’s not even that interesting looking down at the earth from 35,000 feet. It’s rather alienating. By contrast, travelling by train, especially a slow one, is fantastic. My father was a train-spotter and used to take me as a child to look at unusual engines. I’m not as keen as him but I do love trains.
Perhaps my favourite train journey ever was travelling from Prague to London on the Orient Express. There was a delicious dinner with good wine and even a grand piano in the bar that I ended up playing. We stopped near Nuremberg for a long time and just sat in a beautiful German field. It was the beginning of May so the light was perfect. We also stopped in a valley in the Moselle region of France. I sat and looked out at a place I never thought to visit. That’s the great beauty of train travel — it gives you ideas of where to go next whereas in a plane you’re just focusing on getting there and it’s dead time.
When I talked at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, I went by train from Liverpool Street to Saxmunden. It was a small, friendly local train with just two carriages and towards the end we travelled through Suffolk estuary land and the March light was just magical. If a plane stops mid-air you’re dead, but if a train stops you can have a perfect Edward Thomas ‘Adlestrop’ moment with all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire singing.
I love boats too. I once spent a week on a yacht off the Turkish coast learning to sail. It was the best way to see Turkey and I learnt how to steer and read ‘tell-tales’, fabric strips that show if you’re on the right course or not. We stopped to swim several times a day in the Aegean, moored in little bays to visit ancient sites or eat in tavernas.
I’m someone who enjoys moving slowly from my house into my tiny handkerchief of garden in west London to sit on a chair and listen to a blackbird. Why would I ever want to take a plane when there is such pleasure to be had from travelling slowly?
As told to Charlotte Metcalf.
Harry Eyres’s column, Slow Lane, appears weekly in the Financial Times.