The Sherborne Travel Writing Festival 2023

Travel writing is very much on my mind at the moment as I continue to work on the first draft of my 4th book, provisionally titled ‘Le Grand Tour’ which willl recount the story of the cycle around France, Switzerland and down the Rhine that I completed last summer. A few years ago, around the time of the publication of the 3rd book, ‘Spain to Norway…’ I had the great pleasure in being invited to deliver a talk at the Lismore Festival of Travel Writing that takes place every year in County Waterford, Ireland. It’s a unique event within the British Isles as no other book festival specialises in travel writing. Or rather, it was until now…

An email has arrived this week promoting an event that is being organised by the Sherborne Literary Society, The Sherborne Travel Writing Festival which takes place in the Dorset town from the 14th to the 16th April this year. It’s being curated by the travel writer Rory MacLean and here is the blurb:

“These last years have brought dramatic changes to our lives: Brexit, Covid lockdowns, soaring energy costs, climate change and the largest, most brutal war in Europe since 1945. While our horizons have drawn in, travel writers have continued to reach out, rediscovering and reinterpreting the world for a new age. Ten of the UK’s finest travel writers are coming to Sherborne to transport readers, listeners, armchair and intrepid travellers alike towards the four corners of the globe. At its heart is the idea – and the timely theme – of reaching for the horizon. To propel the journey, a stellar lineup of top writers will take to the stage at the Powell Theatre. Across the weekend Colin Thubron, Jay Griffiths, Anthony Sattin, Sara Wheeler, John Gimlette, Sophy Roberts, Justin Marozzi, Philip Marsden, John Blashford-Snell, Demi Anter and Rory will transport people across the world.  On both Saturday and Sunday, holders of Weekend Festival Tickets will be invited to Tea with the Authors.

If I hadn’t already committed to going walking in the Lake District that weekend, I might have been tempted to head down the M6 to hear what some of those people have to say. But that aside, it’s good to see that Britain now has its own travel writing festival and long may it continue. I suspect it is the brainchild of The Travel Book Company, which is based close to Sherborne.

When it comes to writing book 4, I have just arrived in Paris. It’s not the first time I have written about cycling into Paris as the French capital was also on the itinerary of my 2015 journey from Tarifa to Nordkapp. If you keep scrolling, you can read an extract from the new book about my experiences last summer but this is how I described the cycle back in 2015 in ‘Spain to Norway…‘:

Having attempted to cycle several times along the Thames Valley into central London following the National Cycle Network route 4 and, on every occasion, having lost my way (usually around Chertsey), I didn’t rate my chances of cycling uninterrupted along the valley of the Seine into central Paris. It was time to call California and see what Google Maps had to say.

The suggested route worked out just fine and, until I was close to the orbital périphérique motorway – only about 5 km from the centre – I followed Google’s every twist and turn. I crossed the Seine for the first time at Bois-le-Roi, cycled through the centre of Melun, stumbled over a block of stone in Lieusaint used to define the metre in pre-revolutionary France, dodged joggers in the Sénart forest and then hit Paris itself… Well, not so much Paris as a Japanese tourist who was far too eager to cross the road, but let’s not dwell upon that inglorious moment of this adventure.

Once over the périphérique, the landscape was increasingly familiar: along the banks of the Seine, past the cathedral of Notre-Dame, over the multi-padlocked Pont des Arts, beside the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries, over the cobbles of the Place de la Concordeand finally along the length of the Avenue des Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Who needed an open-top bus when you could do the whole thing for free on a bicycle? 

I parked Reggie near the middle of what must surely be the world’s most prestigious traffic island and sat for a few minutes to admire the view down the busy thoroughfare along which I had cycled. You couldn’t have wished for a more pleasant spring day, with the sun high in the blue sky and a light breeze – sufficient to breathe life into the oversized French tricolour dangling from the triumphal arch behind me but insufficient to take the edge off the warm afternoon. Having just achieved the feat of cycling from the southern tip of Europe to one of the continent’s pre-eminent capitals, I was triumphant, and where better to be than an arch dedicated to that very emotion?

…and here’s how I have described cycling from the north into the centre of Paris in 2022:

I was now cycling beside the River Oise, which had meandered its own way towards me from the north. It would be a brief relationship – just 5km – and we only held hands until its bigger sibling  – the Seine – arrived on the scene at the confluence of the two. I paused for a few minutes to watch the barges plod slowly upstream before crossing the river for the first time just to the north of the Forêt domaniale de Saint-Germain.

The signposts directed me first along the edge of the forest – a perilously narrow track with a high metal fence on my left and perhaps France’s longest bramble bush on my right – before I plunged into the depths of the forest itself. So much for having arrived in suburbia. This clump of oak trees spread out over 35 square kilometres of prime Parisian real estate and as I cycled along the rough tracks from one nodal point to the next it wasn’t difficult to glimpse the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, galloping past on his horse, obscured by the dense arboreal landscape that surrounded me.

I reemerged into the real world at the end of a wide boulevard that lead me in the direction of the impressive and perfectly symmetrical Chateau de Maisons. Once I had cycled around its perimeter, I turned to appreciate the front of the building and was impressed to see how those in charge had embraced the concept of allowing the garden to grow wild. After having seen so many manicured gardens in recent days it was wonderfully liberating to see such a radical approach being adopted. And it worked perfectly. It somehow gave the chateau an air of fading decadence. Miss Havisham would have loved it. 

I crossed the Seine for a second time just after the chateau and, after taking a few moments to consider my options, decided to deviate away from the route of the Avenue Verte. I was now eager to arrive at my destination and by cutting across the meander of the river I could save perhaps an hour of cycling. By the time I crossed the Seine for the third time over the Pont de Bezos, I was questioning whether it had been a wise decision. I might have saved time but it had been 30 minutes of dodging traffic and negotiating junctions. I resolved that after this point I would stick to follow the signs.

To begin with this wasn’t a problem as the Avenue Verte continued to follow the south bank of the river but then I was directed into an industrial suburb where I was often cycling blind. I scoured the urban environment for signs and whenever I spotted the familiar compass logo of the Avenue Verte I would jump (internally) for joy but then they would disappear once again and my heart would begin to sink.

My penultimate crossing of the Seine was at Saint-Denis where the route followed a canal and passed the national stadium. At one point a dishevelled man raised a stick that he was carrying and pretended to throw it, spear-like, in the direction of my wheels. Had he done so, that might have been it for my Grand Tour, but he held back and snarled. It was confirmation, perhaps, that I had now passed through suburbia and had arrived in the inner city.

I continued to follow the canal until prevented from doing so by barriers blocking the path. An event was being prepared – presumably to coincide with the 14th July which was now only a day away – and I all but gave up hope of sticking to the official route. The compass on my handlebars was again pressed into action and I headed south on any road that I was allowed to cycle along. Not easy when so many of the streets were one-way but eventually I turned onto the Boulevard de Sebastopol and within a few minutes I was able to glimpse the twin towers of the Cathédrale de Notre Dame.

Crossing the Seine for the final time, I arrived on the Île de la Cité, passed the Palais de Justice and turned left beside the Préfecture de Police before emerging into the large square in front of the cathedral. Point zero for all the roads in France. But not for me. My journey had still barely begun.


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