Travel writing holds a special place in the evolution of English literature. Without William Dampier, the explorer and buccaneer whose Voyages and Descriptions (1699) told the story of Alexander Selkirk's sojourn on a desert island, we probably wouldn't have had Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Travel writing itself made a bid to be taken as seriously as fiction or biography in its golden age of the 1970s and 1980s, when Paul Theroux, Gavin Young, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin and a dozen others took the I'm-off-to-Patagonia genre to sublime heights of evocation and story-telling. They were critically acclaimed popular successes, and won umpteen prizes.
Since 2006, the only prize for travel writing that was open to all was the Dolman Travel Book Award, administered by the Authors' Club and funded by the Rev Dr William Dolman. Its winners have included Ian Thomson's study of Jamaica, The Dead Yard, and John Gimlette's bold foray into Guyana, Wild Coast: Travels in South America's Untamed Edge.
Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year shortlist
Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year shortlist
1/6 Walking the Woods and the Water
'Walking the Woods and the Water' by Nick Hunt: In his teens, Nick Hunt was a devoted fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor's books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. They described his epic walk from Holland to Istanbul in 1933. Almost 80 years after their publication, Hunt set out in 2011 to walk in his footsteps, relying on the Couchsurfing website to provide him with beds for the night. "I want to see how things have changed," he tells a Dutch hippie. "Has all the mystery and wildness gone? What has Europe lost in the last eight decades?" Through Holland, Germany, Austria to Transylvania, Bulgaria and Turkey, he encounters terrible weather, wild dogs, impassable mountains and split shins, but magically finds the past rising to greet him.
2/6 The Land Where Lemons Grow
'The Land Where Lemons Grow' by Helena Attlee: Attlee ranges across land and time in this captivating travelogue, from the cathedral-sized lemon gardens of Lake Garda and the subtropical climate of Liguria where the chinotto fruit is used in Campari, south to the bergamots of Calabria, whose fruit is used to flavour Earl Grey tea. In Sicily, she discovers a town where every year, on carnival day, local people throw tonnes of citrus fruit at each other until "the streets become a slush of smashed oranges".
3/6 A Journey into Russia
'A Journey Into Russia' by Jens Muhling: A German war correspondent, Muhling set out on a quest to meet a 69-year-old woman, Agafya Lykova, who lived alone in a Siberian forest 100 miles from civilisation as part of the Old Believers, a splinter group from the Russian Orthodox Church. Her family had lived for 30 years without contact with the modern world. On his journey he also meets Slavs who worship wooden gods, and a prostate specialist in a St Petersburg clinic who paid $8,000 for what might be Rasputin's penis. But mostly it's the story of a woman whose family's history intersects with Russia's at many key moments.
4/6 Indonesia etc: Exploring the improbable nation
'Indonesia Etc' by Elizabeth Pisani: In 1945, when Indonesia won its independence, President Sukharno read a declaration that his republic would establish "the transfer of power etc … as soon as possible". Elizabeth Pisani likes the dreamy vagueness of that "etc", hence her title. In this long, densely packed examination of her adopted home, she explores the least-known corners of this massive country (population 251 million; 17,500 islands, 600 of them inhabited). She found each one has its own customs, habits, language and diet. At the end she considers the encroaching radicalisation of Indonesian Islam, but suspects the nation's in-built generosity of spirit will prevail.
5/6 Down to the Sea in Ships
'Down to the Sea in Ships' by Horatio Clare: The ships in question are the container vessels – larger than aircraft carriers – that rove the oceans bringing the world's consumer products to their destinations. Clare describes two long journeys: on the Gerd, from Felixstowe to Los Angeles via the Suez Canal and China; and the Pembroke, from Antwerp to Canada. He puzzles over the random multiplicity of the cargoes: "25 tonnes of Greek wine, 34 tonnes of Belgian chocolate, 24 tonnes of Sri Lankan tea… But why 90 tonnes of Argentinian milk, and why send it via Europe?" His main gift is his empathy for his shipmates: he notes everything about the Danish and Indian officers and the (shockingly low-paid) Filipino crew, and he charts with affection their professional calm, comradeship and old-fashioned courtesy.
6/6 Rising Ground
'Rising Ground' by Philip Marsden: A love letter to Cornwall, where Philip Marsden has made his home. Marsden walks westward through Tintagel and Bodmin to Land's End, looking for the "spirit of place". He celebrates scholars and antiquarians from earlier centuries who wrote histories of the county, exhaustively detailed its churches or celebrated its landscape. He is himself no slouch at honouring the past and insisting that paying "diligent attention to the world" is the best way to live.
Now a new sponsor has joined forces with the Dolman to create a formidable prize: Stanfords, the venerable London bookshop which sold maps in Charing Cross from 1853 to 1901, and has been selling nervous wanderers both maps and travel guides in Long Acre since then.
This week, the shortlist for the the new Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year was announced. Under the chairmanship of Barnaby Rogerson, the rumbustious proprietor of Eland Books, the judges – all distinguished travel writers, Jeremy Seal, Sarah Wheeler, Robert Macfarlane, Katie Hickman, Jason Goodwin and Oliver Bullough – have chosen six contenders for the £5,000 Award.
The overall winner of the prize will be announced on 28 September (authorsclub.co.uk).Reuse content