Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.
Before the web took hold, planning an overseas adventure meant a trip to a travel agent. It even helped for simple things like flying between Britain and Ireland. For that reason, my infrequent crossings of the Irish Sea during my student days in Edinburgh often meant a trip to the student travel agency of a Saturday afternoon. After all, it was the best way of sorting return flights to Dublin that would not cost too much for my student budget.
More often than not though, a long wait was the price of getting cheaper fares. All it took was for someone to go planning a trip to another continent and you were there for hours. What I do not remember doing is taking a book like I would if I was facing the same thing now. Somehow, time was less precious back then.
Usually, there would be two sat at the desk with the travel agent working through all the complexities of flights and other travel arrangements for what I often took to be the trip of a lifetime. As well as checking on computer systems that today would look antiquated, there was a lot of time spent waiting on the end of a telephone too.
Nowadays, much of that would happen on the web and I have not booked a flight at a travel agent since 2000. Believe it or not, I possessed neither a debit card or a credit card during my student days. It took until within a few months of starting work for that to happen and it only was then that buying things over the internet became a reality for me.
Even so, the ability to book accommodation and travel only matured relatively recently and prove a boon now when I go about organising overseas trips to other places around Europe. With comparison sites like Skyscanner and others, it is possible to sort out flights and the applies to accommodation and other travel arrangements too. There still is a need to do some background but part of the joy of going somewhere else is how much more you learn by being there.
It was Scotland that I began to explore first with sights like Glen Coe, Glen Nevis and the Isle of Skye amazing me. A lack of budget meant that I studied the web rather than investing in guidebooks. Any lack of perception may have meant that I was enjoying sights of the Skye Cuillin without realising it but there still were good introductions that have been the foundations of what I have seen of Scotland since then. There has been much to learn.
An increase in income resulted in an investment in guidebooks as I began to explore England and Wales. The first ones were Rough Guides before more local titles were added to their number. The development of an interest in hill walking gained me further insights with maps and walking magazines allowing entry into new localities that otherwise may not have happened. That outdoor activity was more than enough to sustain interest until the present day.
It also has driven me to explore some overseas destinations since my father passed away in early 2015. Iceland, Switzerland, Austria and Norway have seen visits so far and I hope to build on these. It has felt that I am starting to get to know other parts of the world again after a time of building on earlier starting points. That means that I now read travel magazines to see what they bring me, much in the same way that walking magazines have brought their own share of new ideas. Guide books feature too and the experience of not truly getting to know anywhere until I go there repeats itself again and again.
It is all too easy to fill bookshelves with guide books if you can afford them but we have digital counterparts and, through the likes of Amazon's Kindle, it is possible to keep things lightweight with apps for tablets and other devices. There remain uses for paper books but more discretion can be applied to these purchases.
My recent overseas excursions have taught me that it is best not to pack too much into a trip and to let things flow a little. That certainly came to light during elongated weekends spent in Norway and Austria. Counterparts to Iceland and Switzerland may have been more satisfying because I arrived with an open mind and equally open plans. Things came together well as I found my feet instead of having largely fixed itineraries like what I worked out for Norway. Still, I now have plenty of reasons to return to both Austria and Norway and that truly is how you get to know places.
After all, that was unconsciously happening throughout the noughties as I pottered about England, Scotland and Wales on many a weekend trip and some longer ones too. Introduction after introduction happened as the number of areas that I had visited became ever greater. It was if each of these opened new possibilities that caused me to keep returning. Sometimes, time limitations made for a certain eagerness and rethinking when things did not turn out as planned. Nevertheless, there always was some reward.
Scotland is not one of my favourite parts of the world for nothing since it has rewarded me greatly over the years. Trips to Argyll, Lochaber, Skye and the Southern Uplands have left me happy memories though the weather was not so cooperative every time. Sometimes, I was in luck and a week long visit to Skye and the Western Isles in 2008 was one of those. While other parts of Britain and Ireland were beset by incessant rain, I managed to enjoy plenty of fine weather on Harris, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist. Any introductions were extensive too and there are other parts like the Northern Isles, Glen Affric and the Northwest Highlands where I fancy going anew sometime. Scotland has more to show and the iteration of experiences can continue.
My first ever trip to Skye was a matter of packing a bag, catching a coach and sorting accommodation when I arrived. It makes me cringe now when I think of the naivety of arriving at hostels asking for accommodation in the evening time without having a tent as a backup. Some research may have happened on the web beforehand but what I did still sounds adventurous. A crossing from Portree to Dunvegan and back again on a hired bike even happened and I wonder at my adventurous spirit.
These days, the drill is that I sort out travel and accommodation before I go about doing any packing. When going overseas, it is best to have your base sorted so that you can work from there and that is how I planned trips to Iceland, Switzerland and Austria. Norway veered from this in the sense that I stayed in both Oslo and Bergen, travelling between them by train and airplane. That contains an echo of weeks spent in Scotland during the early years of the century when I toured from east to west and back again.
Because I am getting to know somewhere new, I am not always one for fixed objectives like climbing a mountain or completing a trail. Having a single base with the basics organised and exploring around there often means that spontaneous discoveries not only can make cherished memories but they also reveal something new that draws you back again. The point of planning is to set things up so both of those can happen rather than working through a firm list of things to see and experience. It is the serendipitous and surprising that add so much.
All the research in the world cannot give you the sense of a place that you get by visiting it an my newfound habit of travelling overseas certainly validates that. It is only by walking about a city that you can get a feeling for its location and its sights. The same applies to any hill country and there are things that you can get while there that are not so easy in your home country. Walking maps come to mind here because you can see them before you buy them and that applies to many other things too.
Then, there are eccentricities. On Scottish trips, I have encountered car touring Americans. One couple were seeing Ireland and Scotland together when I met them in Oban. Others were trying to work out what a bank holiday was (it is a type of public holiday in case you need to know) and why it was making it harder for them to arrange accommodation. That was in Aberfoyle and the Summer Bank Holiday that was affecting them was not even a Scottish one; theirs is at the start of August and this was the English and Welsh one at the end of the month.
That sort of observation takes a visit to spot and may not be apparent from the likes of Visit Britain, Heritage Britain, Britain Express or View Britain. In fact, I once naively thought it a harmonious whole but learned to see it more in terms of its constituent nations. This is another example that takes a little extra effort to spot, even if you are only from nearby Ireland. It is one thing to plan but actually going will reveal what no guidebook ever can.