Authors' Club president John Walsh surveys the contenders

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.

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 (