Before I get too wrapped up in Spring and completely forget about our winter adventures, I must mention our trip last December to Switzerland.

The view down towards Weggis
Rigi Kaltbad

We had booked ourselves in for a week at a mountainside spa resort. The Rigi is ‘the Queen of the mountains’, and has a surprising number of rail connections up and down its flanks. What’s more, the region is carless, so folk can walk around untroubled by traffic.

It was, as we’d hoped it would be, staggering beautiful. Although we didn’t get the dreamed-for snowfall, the views of the Swiss Alps in the distance were breathtaking, and we were blessed with mostly clear weather.


Actually, I should qualify that statement by saying that our resort and surrounding area was blessed with clear weather. We were at sufficient altitude to be above the clouds. The Rigi is famous for sitting atop a ‘sea of fog’.

The sea of fog

We learned about this ‘sea of fog’ on our first evening. We took the train from Lucerne, followed by a local bus, and then one more, until finally our last connection was a cable car up the mountain.

A kind local fellow showed us the way to the station – the luftseilbahn – and explained the mysterious ‘sea’. As our car rose swiftly up the hillside in darkness, we soon left the modest lights of the town of Weggis behind.

At one point on the way up – to our surprise at 8pm on a dark winter’s evening – the car’s lights were dimmed completely, and so we rose silently, through thick fog, in complete darkness. It was one of the eeriest moments I’ve ever experienced, particularly when travelling somewhere new.

Thankfully we could tell from the demeanour of our fellow travellers that this occurrence was entirely normal, and before long we had reached the top station and our final destination.

A week above the clouds awaited us.

A few days in the Lake District

Spring is here. It’s still quite cold first thing in the morning, but the longer evenings are suddenly back, and nightly constitutionals are making a return. When the sun shines and the wind drops, the warmth on one’s skin is very welcome.

M and I spent last week in the Lake District – just what the doctor ordered. We even spent an unseasonably warm warm afternoon at Kew Gardens the day before we travelled. A mini-holiday prologue.

I have a few little strands to mention about this trip to the Lakes (not quite Postcards, as per my last visit), which I will try to do over the coming week or two. But for now, just a handful of snapshots from Windermere, Blackwell, and a few other spots thereabouts.


Have returned to London with something of a thump.

Giving myself a few days’ buffer at either end of the holiday was a very good idea. But whether it’s the deafening traffic of Finchley Road or the gloomy grime of certain streets around my neighbourhood, the transition from country to town has hit me quite hard. The existential ennui of the local and global political situation isn’t helping much. But perhaps it’s just post-holiday blues.

Anyway. Photographs.

Blackwell, a Baillie Scott Arts & Crafts house nestled in the hills above Windermere
On Windermere
I like a good stile – but a dry stone wall stile? Marvellous.
Sketching at Blackwell
I loved Blackwell. I’d like to have spent much more time there.
Towards Orrest Head

Volume 3 of Michael Palin’s Diaries – Travelling to Work – Out this September

Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998

TRAVELLING TO WORK is the third volume of Michael Palin’s widely acclaimed diaries. After the Python years and a decade of filming, writing and acting, Palin’s career takes an unexpected direction into travel, which will shape his working life for the next twenty-five years.

Read on: Michael Palin – Travelling to Work – Orion Publishing Group

I love Michael Palin, and I love diaries. So you can imagine that I love Michael Palin’s diaries. In fact, this combination led me to asking the great man to participate in the research for my final year project for my Information Management degree. Palin, along with many other friends and associates, kindly took the time to answer a series of questions relating to their diary-keeping habits.

Having read the first two volumes of Michael Palin’s diaries, I’m eagerly awaiting the third. In fact, I’m currently on my second read-through of the second volume. The hardback editions are beautiful, weighty tomes that look lovely on my bookshelf – but they’re also a little bit hefty for stuffing in an overnight bag and so on. Fortunately, the Kindle editions are nicely put together, and allow me to highlight passages which are particularly funny, poignant, or otherwise of note.

The transition from volume 2 to volume 3 is particularly interesting, as the cross-over point is a real cliff-hanger: Palin is about to embark on the first of his celebrated travel film journeys – Around The World in 80 Days.

I was intrigued when I started thinking about this – I am often intrigued by quite mundane things – as there are companion books for all of Palin’s journeys, and they come in the form of a diary. They’re a fascinating insight into the trips, with extra information and a host of photographs to complement the films themselves.

But from the looks of volume 3’s subtitle, 1988-1998, it sounds like Palin kept a private diary in addition to the notes that ended up being released as companion books. Fabulous! Indeed, the title of the volume itself, Travelling to Work, really points to the consistent theme for the decade covered within.

Volume 3 of his diaries is published in hardback and ebook editions on September 11 this year. I’ve recently hit January 1988 on my latest run-through of volume 2, so I think I’ll re-read the Around The World in 80 Days book next to tide me over.

“Totally numb to the apparent allure of kauri” – Robyn Gallagher explores Northland

There’s something strangely satisfying about Kaitaia. It’s the northern-most town in New Zealand and it’s big enough to have a Farmers and a Warehouse. The Far North is about the least prosperous part of New Zealand, but it never really gets cold there and it’s really pretty.

via North-West | Robyn Gallagher.

Sometimes the best travel writing is done by a resident of that country, but a stranger to those parts. It often combines to produce unique insight along with blunt honesty – as well as a little local humour.

That’s why I love it when Robyn Gallagher goes on these sorts of trips, 1960s AA travel guide under her arm. She’s great at conjuring up sketches of places that seem as exotic as they do familiar.

In her latest post, she visits a few places I visited on a 2002 trip to New Zealand. While on this trip, she tweeted about the amount of British tourists she came across, and I can well relate to that. There’s nothing more jarring when exploring a beautiful, remote place than disgruntled whinings in an accent not far from your own.

And, like Robyn, I too was a bit bemused by the Kauri museum. Descending a staircase carved into a hollowed-out tree is an experience I’ll not forget, sure. But a warehouse full of tourist tat (no matter how unique the materials used) is still a warehouse full of tourist tat, wherever it may be.

Writing on trains

The morning view from my Cologne-Copenhagen sleeper service – not inspiring, perhaps, but certainly unusual


I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

Jessica Gross writes for The Paris Review on trains, on a train.

Gross recently raised with Amtrak the notion of a writers’ or artists’ residency on one of their long-distance trains, something that various institutions as diverse as universities and Antarctic bases offer.

I can’t say I’ve ever written chunks of the next great novel on trains, but I’ve certainly been receptive to that feeling of being cut off from the outside world – in a kind of suspended animation, almost. This feeling can also be felt on a sufficiently long plane ride.

It provides for a very effective writing-inducing atmosphere. I’m guilty of jotting down my thoughts and reflections, whether in a notebook or an app – possibly a run-down of recent events or, heaven forbid, some snippet of fantasy fiction about the redhead across the carriage.

My only experience of a sleeper train was hampered somewhat by mid-summer, mid-European temperatures, and a delay which meant my long-anticipated entry to the service was around midnight, leaving me creeping over snoring, anonymous bodies and trying, in vain, to visualise my surroundings in the dim light.

Providing much better surroundings for a good scribble, therefore, is the long-distance train ride during the day. What could be better than the gentle rock of the carriage, as Gross notes, and the constantly evolving scenery whizzing past outside. I get tingles of wanderlust just writing these words.

After some feedback on the above article, Gross noted on Twitter that perhaps a British equivalent service could offer artists’ residencies too. We only have a couple of overnight sleeper services here, from London to the south west and the Highlands of Scotland. But I agree with Gross: whether it’s on a sleeper service or just one of our longer routes, I think it’d be a great idea.

You can read a lot more about Amtrak’s residency program here: Inside Amtrak’s (Absolutely Awesome) Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers – The Wire

UPDATED 24/02/2014

Having made some enquiries, I was pleased to hear from Virgin Trains that they are considering a similar plan to that above. Their communications manager told me:

Would you believe we are currently in discussions with an artist who we hope will take that very title. It would be more along the lines of capturing the essence of our operations (focusing on our staff and customers). So slightly different to the Amtrak idea albeit I imagine the views from our windows in Cumbria would certainly inspire.

Excellent! I wonder if any other British train operating companies (TOCs) have considered this sort of scheme? I’ll update this post with any further updates.

UPDATED 27/02/2014

The latest TOC to respond is Eurostar who say that, although they love the idea of an artists’ residency, they only have a very limited number of complimentary press tickets at their disposal, and so would struggle to justify such a scheme. Here’s hoping they can figure something out with an artist who would make it worth their while.