My wife and I are busy international musicians, both of us early music specialists.
In 2007 we moved from London to North Yorkshire with our then very small daughter, because we wanted her to grow up in a quieter place, and we were increasingly craving a slower and quieter lifestyle.
Until that time, we had both been flying all over the place for our international concert careers, including insane journeys like London to Bogota just to do one concert. My experience of such trips was that it simply stopped being rewarding. Flying halfway across the world, doing a concert, and flying home again made the whole thing feel rather unreal.
We had been flying all over the place for our international careers, including insane journeys like London to Bogota just to do one concert.
For me, the whole point of being a performer is to communicate something meaningful to an audience. I found that impossible when I was in a dream-like jet-lagged state in which I didn't really feel as though I had actually psychically arrived in the place I was playing, and my feet were not really on the ground. I hadn't yet "caught up with myself" at the time of the performance, and therefore did not feel as though I was really present or communicating anything meaningful. So what was the point?
So we both decided in 2011 that we didn't want to do it anymore.
Of course there are also other compelling reasons to give up flying, not least of which is of course the fact that impending climate disaster makes it entirely unsustainable. For eleven years now, I have turned down all work that I couldn't get to by train, which means performing in Europe only.
For eleven years now, I have turned down all work that I couldn't get to by train.
The result is that the journey itself is very much part of the destination, the travel is a great deal more humane and civilised, I go from city centre to city centre, I get work done on the way, I actually feel present and grounded for my performances, and (most importantly) I'm not contributing in the same way to global heating.
Sometimes these journeys have taken three days, such as my recent trip to play in music festivals in Poznań and Blizne in Poland.
We live in the town of Richmond, near Darlington, so day one of the journey involved getting from Richmond to Darlington to London Kings Cross, where I had to do a Covid test to allow my travel to Poland. One factor which makes trains more complicated than planes in a time of pandemic is that a long train journey takes the traveller through multiple countries en route, and each of those countries has its own Covid security requirements. Brexit hasn’t helped either, but don’t get me started on that.
An early Eurostar on day two took me from London St. Pancras to Brussels, and nine hours later, after a connection in Frankfurt (airport, ironically!), I was at my hotel in Berlin. There are some relatively inexpensive but decent hotels near continental rail stations, though I wish there were as many night trains as there used to be, because they often remove the need for hotels altogether.
Night trains often remove the need for hotels altogether.
On day three it was an easy three-hour journey from Berlin to Poznań, after which I could do some practice and recover in time for my concert the next day in a marvellous historic church in Poznań. Playing in such wonderful venues is definitely one of the perks of the job, though it was very cold!
The next day was a tough one: my indefatigable Polish contact had managed to arrange a second concert to make the trip more worthwhile, though it was all the way on the other (eastern) side of Poland, in Blizne, near Rzeszów – something like 475 miles away.
So at a horribly early hour I boarded the train in Poznań to Rzeszów for the 7.5 hour journey. At least the train was direct, though the number of stops is large. My concert in Blizne was that evening, making it a very long day, and to make matters more stressful, the church in Blizne was perishingly cold. But it was all worth it, because the audience was warm and delightful, and the ancient church (formerly Orthodox, when this area perhaps belonged to Ukraine in earlier times) was stunning.
The extra hour when travelling westwards between mainland Europe and the UK makes it possible to make the return journey in two days rather than three. By 0803 on the morning after my second concert I was on the train in Rzeszów, and after an overnight stop in Berlin, I was back in Richmond before midnight the following day.
By morning I was on the train in Rzeszów, and I was back in Richmond before midnight the following day.
I must confess that it was exhausting and it took me a few days to recover afterwards.
But I don't think I would have been a great deal less tired if I’d done in all by flying. It was not so much the long hours on trains that were difficult: I enjoy that time, and get loads of work done, and sometimes pleasure reading too. Flying is a great deal more stressful than train travel, in my opinion.
The exhausting thing was the shortage of sleep and principally having to play some extremely demanding music in freezing cold spaces, and somehow keep the fingers from seizing up, and keep my mind focused on the demands of the performance. That took a lot out of me.
It was well worth the trouble – I wouldn’t have missed for the world seeing those beautiful churches and having the privilege of making music in them.
In any case, it was well worth the trouble – the audiences were warm and welcoming, and I wouldn’t have missed for the world seeing those beautiful churches and having the privilege of making music in them.
There were many memorable moments: the architecture and scenery en route, especially the miles and miles of beautiful forest in Poland; the connection with some lovely people at both of my Polish destinations; and the indefinable pleasure and satisfaction of travelling in real time, on the ground, over such a long distance, knowing that I’m lucky to have the time and space in my life to be able to do the right thing when it comes to travel.
There are problems, of course. For one thing, it costs a great deal more than flying.
I know, that's very wrong! It should cost less than flying. Political decisions need to be made about which modes of transport governments throw their subsidies at.
If flying had the climate impact factored in, it would always cost more than trains.
But looking exclusively at financial cost is an extremely blinkered way of looking at the world. If flying had the climate impact factored in, it would always cost more than trains. The real cost of flying is climate disaster, mass extinction, and ultimately the future of humanity. Yes, it’s that important. I would also point out that flights might be cheap, but getting to and from airports which are often miles away from city centres adds to the costs, and there can be other hidden costs as well.
I should add that the Polish concert promoters were very supportive, and happy to bear the cost of my more expensive travel. I think they recognised the importance of the stand I'm taking.
A final point: Susanna and I distinguish between work miles and love miles. My family is back in the USA, which I left in 1987, and we fly once every three years to see them. This seems important to us, and we simply can't afford to travel there by sea.