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For this months’ podcast (listen here), we’re speaking to Steph Parker and Helen Coffey. Steph runs the travel website Big World Small Pockets, and Helen is the Deputy Travel Editor at the Independent, so they both make a living from travel. They’ve signed up to Flight Free 2020, and we love having travel writers on our pledge, because if they can take a flight free year, anybody can.
Helen and Steph had exciting flight-free travel plans, and like most other people, they’ve all been cancelled because of Covid. But both of them have made similar discoveries during lockdown, that travel is more about how you see things than where you go, so we thought it would be great to catch up with them both, and find out how we can benefit from staying within the UK, and how we can still have new, authentic travel experiences without really going very far.
Flight Free UK:
What were your travel plans for this year?
So one of the big ones which I'm still hopefully doing in March next year is going by cargo ship. I've heard so much about it from people through the flight free movement, and people are so fascinated by it. It will be a round trip from Liverpool to Nova Scotia, then to New York and Baltimore, then back. So a lot of it is at sea, but that's kind of the point – to experience what it's like to be cut off from everything on a working ship. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s further along on their flight free journey would say that you need to learn to see the journey as part of the experience and the journey as part of the travel and it's not just a race to get to your destination. I liked the idea of exploring that more, i.e. the whole journey is the thing.
Flight Free UK:
Cargo ship travel is pretty unique, and we have some really interesting stories of people who have crossed oceans on cargo ships on our website, including Lewis who went to South America, and Peter and Christine who travelled back to the UK from Singapore. We also spoke at length to adventurer and environmental campaigner Kate Rawles, who crossed the Atlantic by ship as part of her biodiversity bike ride in the Andes. You can hear our interview with Kate in episode 4 of this podcast series.
So that’s an incredible adventure, obviously not now going ahead. So what about finding those same travel experiences within the context of lockdown? We were really inspired by Helen’s article in the Independent, in which she discovers some of the magic of travel a mere five miles from her house, where she took a swim in the Serpentine.
I pass the Serpentine twice a day, five days a week on the way to work. But I'd never really gone there. There's a man made lake and a small part that’s a bit like a lido, but this was the first time I'd swum in the lake proper. Maybe it's because we’ve been cooped up so long but it just felt really magical – cycling through London on a beautiful day, pushing off and swimming in this big space, and looking around and thinking, if this was happening in a different country, there’d be no question that I’d think it was a magnificent experience! It shouldn't make a difference that it's not somewhere far flung – it's just about changing your perspective.
Flight Free UK:
We recommend reading the whole article on the Independent website.
Another thing that Helen discovered in lockdown was finding the unexpected in somewhere that's really familiar like the town we grew up in.
Last week I went back to my home town, Hemel Hempstead. Obviously because I grew up there I absolutely hated everything about and thought it had not a spec of beauty to recommend it! And I was just so surprised. I'd lived there for 18 years and I barely knew the place. Every day after work I would go for a walk and within 10 minutes of my mum’s house there was this woodland with meadows of wildflowers. It was like a reverse Narnia or something! It was 10 minutes away and the fact I’d never heard of it and never been there really changed my idea of the concept of travel or finding beautiful things. You just have to shake off the familiarity you feel about the places you know.
Flight Free UK:
So of course sometimes we do want to travel further afield and have those experiences when we feel like we’re really going somewhere and have that excited buzz of looking forward to our holiday, and learn about different cultures and different foods, and different landscapes. But even that we can discover here in the UK. There’s quite a culture shift from north to south, for example. And the outlying islands can make for a really magical adventure.
There's so much beauty here and I feel like I haven't scratched the surface. I’m going to the Isles of Scilly and I’m so excited. I wouldn't be any more excited to be going abroad because it's a place I haven’t been with its own climate and its own traditions. It's not a matter of distance, it's more a matter of something you haven't experienced before.
Going to the Channel Islands to me feels so much like going properly on holiday. It’s got all these amazing beaches and cliffs to jump off, and swimming in the sea. Every time I've been there it gives me those vibes. One of my friends got married on Alderney and it was so magical floating in the sea. I didn’t feel like I was at home at all – there's nothing familiar about this.
Flight Free UK:
Now let’s bring in Steph, who actually grew up in the Channel Islands, so for her, this is familiar, and this is her home. Steph’s own amazing flight free adventure was going to involve travelling for six months around the Mediterranean through Northern Africa, Europe and Central Asia, so when it was cancelled, she went home to Jersey. And though Jersey has loads to recommend it and is a massive tourist draw, Steph hadn't necessarily seen it as an adventurous place to be, because she grew up there. But being forced to stay put meant seeing things through new eyes, and even in a place as small as Jersey she made some fascinating discoveries.
I found these amazing beach caves that looked like something out of this fairytale grotto. I knew they were there but I'd never explored them. I did a lot of stuff that we’d done as kids, but when you see them through the eyes of an adult and a travel blogger. You see things in a different way – it's not ‘normal’ like it is when you grow up with it. For example, if I was in a destination and heard there were beach caves I’d say, wow, let’s definitely go! So it's about reconfiguring how we view excitement, and view adventure, and view travel, and realising there’s a lot on the doorstep. Other people would love to see it and we don't look at it in that way because it's geographically close to us – I think that's the only determining factor.
In Jersey there are amazing bird watching spots at St Ouen’s bay, or you can go to the sea caves in Plemont, hike along the north coast, paddleboard the east coast, stay overnight in a Jersey heritage tower, and there's local food etc.
Flight Free UK:
This is turning into a bit of an advert for Jersey! – it's a great flight free destination for anyone wanting a bit of a foreign feel to their holiday, but without needing a passport. Ferries go from Poole or Portsmouth and there are high speed options as well as slower ones – just remember to take some Kwells because the Channel can be quite rough.
Travelling locally is going to be really key in addressing the climate crisis, because there just isn’t room for taking lots of flights in a low-carbon future. We've already seen we can have those authentic, exciting travel experiences without going very far. And as lockdown has forced us to stay still and appreciate what’s on our doorstep, maybe this is the mindset we need to take forwards, in order to still have those experiences, without it costing the earth.
Things you've always gone past – learn the story behind them. There are a million stories everywhere that you’ll never have heard about which are absolutely fascinating. Try something new. For example, I went kayaking along the south coast of Jersey. I’ve never been kayaking in Jersey, and I felt like I was in the Med!
Ultimately when we travel, we’re seeking to satisfy this itch and this curiosity, for example, finding out what happened in this place, or what does it feel like to live there, and you can fulfil that same itch closer to home. It’s just about the process of discovering something new, and that doesn't have to be far. Jersey is tiny, and if I managed to find new stuff there…! We have the whole of the UK, and there is so much in the UK. You could spend a year just discovering everything in London. If you get into the mindset that is just to discover and see something new, and learn about something new, it doesn’t have to be far away at all.
You an apply the bucket list mentality. Whatever you're interested in: mountains, coast, nature, history, art, food, culture, cities – we've got it. Tailor your trip to what you're interested in – there's the scope to do that. We’re an island of nations so if you get bored with England, scoot over to Wales, Ireland.
Flight Free UK:
So will our intrepid travellers keep up the flight free challenge, even though this year has not worked out at all how we thought it might?
I haven’t missed flying in the way that I thought I might miss it. It feels a little bit like when I went vegetarian – I was just going to do it for a month and it wasn't very hard so I kept doing it, and that was four years ago. I’m wondering if it might be a similar feeling. I’ve already decided I’m going to do it again next year because I do feel like this year was a bit of a cheat – it wasn’t governed by choice in the same way as it was supposed to be. So definitely in for 2021 and after that, we’ll see if it still feels like something I want to carry on doing.
There’s also something about restricting choice. We live in such a world of choice, it can be overwhelming. So there's something about restricting choice that is very liberating. If you can only travel overland or sea then that gives you a really curated palate of options, rather than having your options taken away, and that makes choosing easier and more exciting. If you reframe it that way it can feel very freeing rather than stifling.
I’m really sad the plans didn’t work out. Most people have been disappointed this year, whether your wedding’s been cancelled or whatever – that’s what we're living with. But there's so much to discover on the doorstep that when I decided to scrap the whole central Asia part, the UK it is, I got that travel buzz. I haven’t seen the UK all that much and I'm really excited that life has given me the opportunity to explore those possibilities and I feel excited about that. I genuinely feel the same feeling of excitement, adventure and intrepid discovery that I would feel going anywhere.
Flight Free UK:
And that’s a really nice place to leave it. It’s been great to speak to two people who are so passionate about travel, and who have fully embraced the flight free challenge. Do find out more about them both online: Helen writes brilliantly for the Independent, and Steph’s website Big World Small Pockets has some excellent content about travelling on a budget. Thank you Steph, and thanks Helen, for speaking to us, and thanks for listening.
You can listen to this full podcast, and access the rest of the series, at our podcast page.
Credits: interview conducted and recorded by Anna Hughes. Intro voiceover: L. Sophie Helbig. Sound effects: Josh Hill.