Sunday, February 6, 2022

Deep and wide...

I have a friend (one of many with similar outlooks) whose attitude to travel is so very different from mine. To her, visiting the same place twice is a wasted opportunity. 'No matter how much I liked my holiday, I'd rather go somewhere different next time,' she'd say, 'After all, there's so much of the world to explore.'  

It's not that my friend is oblivious to the possibilities of familiar places. Rather, it's that she delights in new experiences and (with some obvious justification) associates those with fresh destinations. It's not an uncommon perspective, indeed I suspect it's the majority view. The idea of 'seeing the world ' has a strong pull on the imagination.

But not on mine.

Occasionally in our house, we'll play that game of listing the places we'd most like to visit. Jane and my sons quickly offer up half a dozen suggestions. My answers are always couched in conditional terms: if you offered me a free ticket, I guess I'd choose Patagonia, but if you gave me the cash, I'd spend it going to the Alps...

Not again, they all wail...

My friend, and many in my family too, are seeking a panoramic vista from their travels. For all they might talk of wanting to avoid the tourist hotspots—to see the 'real' country— it's not on their agenda to truly 'know' their destination or feel a part of it in any meaningful sense. Depth of place is not the point or even achievable—it's the breadth, and to a large extent the newness, of experience, that matter most.

I should say here, that I'm not against tourist travel (I've done plenty of it) or indeed, suggesting that my approach is right or better. It's simply a different preference, and one that I sense comes more from resolving what's within than responding to what's without. Or to put it differently, it's about our inner journeys as much as our outward ones. 

The other week Jane and I went for walk near our home. We followed the cliffs west of Fishguard, a path we'd taken before though not for some time and never in that direction. On our circular route, we passed a series of cromlechs, found hidden bays and near Carreg Wastad point (the site of the UK's last invasion) spotted a seal offshore and another on the beach... and then another.. and another...  In all, we counted over thirty and probably missed as many.

Seals are relatively commonplace here and yet to see them so close, and in that number, was a special moment. But more than that, I learned from this walk many things new about where I live. As well as chancing on the beach, I discovered the cromlechs—three of them as good as lost in the scrub—visited a new village, found a beautiful church... and most of all, enhanced my mental map of this tiny part of my home turf with more detail than was there before.  

The point I'm making somewhat clumsily is that my experience was fresh and new, not because the place was, but because my knowledge of it deepened.

Perhaps this explains why I take such delight in returning to familiar haunts; why if I had to choose six locations for my bucket list they'd all be repeats of a sort. We have only so much capacity to look and feel and understand, not least in the limited time we have allotted to us. I've been talking here about travel but in truth, the same oppositions apply to more prosaic concerns, just as they do to our professions, creative callings and personal commitments. If the world and our resources were infinite, then I suppose our knowledge and experience could be, as the old hymn goes ... like a fountain flowing, deep and wide...

The tragedy, for us mere mortals, is that we must choose one or the other. 


  1. I understand what you are saying, but I guess that I want to believe that you can have both. I have my starting place, and that is where I will always return. That will be the place that I always know best, that will be the place that will never cease to surprise me. But I want to see beyond that. I think of all the places that I've never been. I want them too, and when I return, I expect to see my own corner of the world with fresh eyes. I know for sure that I will never know anywhere nearly as well as I do this place where I am, but I'm okay with that.

  2. PS: I don't ever think you've made a point clumsily.

  3. I have missed out on foreign travel - a shame, as I have an adventurous nature - but have compensated by visiting new places in the UK.I am taking great pleasure from exploring our new patch around Builth, and deepening my understanding of the landscape and the palimpsest of
    history embroidered into it. Yesterday's church was one of those days when the sum of the whole was greater than its parts.

  4. I am one of those people who have a great deal of anxiety and thus, traveling to new places can be so difficult that it's hardly worth the trip. But oh, how I love to return to the places I love! My husband has a hard time understanding this. I think I am more of a connection person than I am a discovery person.

  5. I like both, new experiences in familiar places and new places. We live in a huge country, Canada, and there is so much to see here. We go to Jasper a lot, or at least we used to, and I love seeing the familiar paths, mountains, lakes and aspen groves at different times of the year, in different light. There is always something new to see.

  6. Your seaside views are spectacular. I could walk those paths and enjoy the views forever.

  7. Like Debby above, I want to believe that both are possible. Pre-pandemic, I thought I already had a fairly deep knowledge of my own immediate neighbourhood in NE Scotland, through 20 years of dog walking. But two years later and I've derived enormous pleasure through gaining a yet deeper sense of place. That said, I am very excited about an opportunity that has recently arisen, to go cycling in Cuba next January with some American friends (one of whom has family contacts there, which of course adds a special flavour to any travel experience).
    Cheers, Gail.

  8. We love to travel to places near and far. There is always something new to discover close to home that deepens our understanding and appreciation of our Island, and we also love exploring other parts of the world. Each place adds to our memories and understanding of cultures and languages. I vacillate between seeing as much of the world as I can, and exploring places more fully. I'm glad I don't have to choose one or the other.
    I learned a new word in this post - cromlech. I've never heard or read it and so used the Internet to find out what it is. The recorded historical evidence in your part of the world goes back so, so far compared with ours.

  9. There is no tragedy. Memories become locked in and the mind's eye can visit quite easily. 'Sense of place' that evocative feeling can conjure up an old forgotten walk. As for visiting 'everywhere' it doesn't matter really. Brief glimpses with no attachment is all they offer.

  10. I would love to travel, to live abroad again and stay abroad permanently but cannot. Your point about deepening connection is well made.

  11. I agree with Debby, it's good to have both. I've enjoyed the fresh insights into and surrounding my home town that lockdown forced upon me, but fresh places are good for the soul. I also believe you can feel part of place and achieve an understanding of it no matter how fleeting the visit.

  12. Like your friend, I have always had an appetite for new places and cannot quite understand why some people simply yearn to return to familiar holiday locations. I have a friend who has stayed in the same hotel, in the same room on The Isle of Wight each summer for the past forty five years while in the same period I have been to fifty different countries and to almost every corner of The British Isles. Of course this doesn't make me better - just different.

  13. Dear Mark,

    Thank you very much for your thought-provoking post. I know that I can always rely on you for food for thought. I think that in essence, we are all travellers in one way or another. There are people who travel in order to find themselves and there are people who travel in order to escape themselves.

    Being a nostalgic person who has a longing for the past, I find more comfortable to go back to some of the familiar places than going to new places. The thing about travelling is that we always end up where we started. But there is a hope that we are more enlightened by the time we come home.

    After living a decade in the seaside village where no two days are the same, I am no longer attracted to the charm of unrest and blue dawns in faraway lands.

    I love what e. e. cummings said at the last lines of his poem, "maggie and milly and molly and may":

    "may came home with a smooth round stone
    as small as a world and as large as alone.

    For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
    it's always ourselves we find in the sea"

    With warmest wishes,

  14. Hi Mark and good morning from across the pond. I read this great post some weeks back and thought I'd left a comment but don't see it, so will add a little of my perspective on travel and the world.

    I've seen a lot of it, 50+ countries, all 7 continents. Many favorite places on my list were busy 'tourist spots.' Some I would love to see again, such as Venice, Budapest, Galway City, Sydney, but the places I truly loved were the wild parts of the world, especially Patagonia (you would love it too!) Western Australia, the sub-Antarctic Islands of NZ & Australia, and Antarctica itself. My several safari visits to African countries were also favorites, due mostly to the wildlife sightings of course.
    Here, in my adopted country, I have visited every state and found much beauty and interesting history. . . . . although much younger than Europe. Despite seeing all this, I still have yearnings to return home to Britain and see the many places I've missed having left there as a teenager, and only had brief encounters with when on whirlwind visits. Need to see more of Scotland, the Hebrides, all of Wales, and the east coast north of London.
    Now the world has changed, since your post we have new horrors to contend with. A pandemic was, we thought, as bad as it could get, and now as we come slowly out of two years with such limited travel opportunities, thinking life will be better soon and we will all be traveling again this year, we see a sad and terrible war against a good country which doesn't deserve such madness raining down on its people. Every sane person is horrified at what is happening in Ukraine.
    Hope all well with you and your family and that we see you back here soon.
    Mary -