6 mins

The books that inspired the travellers you love

The right words can spark the explorer in anyone, as we found when we asked today’s best-known travellers to share the travel books that shaped their world…

Simon Reeve (BBC Images)

Dervla Murphy, author and travel writer

Travels In West Africa by Mary H Kingsley

Mary H Kingsley’s Travels In West Africa (1897) proved that Victorian ladies did not have to be ladylike and could do their own thing. Very few travellers of later generations could compete with her ventures into unmapped regions. This book provides entertainment and instruction in generous helpings.

As a very young employee of the Russo- American Telegraph Company, George Kennan explored Siberia in the 1860s. In Tent Life in Siberia, his sensitive and wryly humourous responses to the beauties and hardships of Siberia and Kamchatka before ‘civilisation’ arrived make this neglected classic long overdue to be reprinted. 

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Hilary Bradt, co-founder of Bradt Travel Guides

The Rivers Ran East by Leonard Clark

Leonard Clark’s The Rivers Ran East(1953) was the book that inspired me to make my first trip, in 1969, to the Amazon river. I travelled down most of the navigable length of it, from Pucallpa in Peru to Manaus in Brazil where I gave up, the river having become too wide and too civilised.

This book was the inspiration, full of men with bones through their noses, moving soundlessly through the jungle to lead the explorer to cities of gold. It was only after my first trip that I learned that it had been largely discredited and very little of it is likely to be true. Never mind, it got me to the Amazon

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Sir Michael Palin, actor and TV presenter

Venice by Jan Morris

I read Jan Morris’ Venice (1960) long before I travelled the world. It prepared me for my first visit to Venice and enriched the experience. This is mouth-watering travel writing.

I’ve always liked a mixture of travel writing and reportage, andPoint of Departure (1967) by James Cameron reminds me how the quirky personal touch, in the right hands, can lift far-distant places off the page.

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Kate Humble, TV presenter

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

I have always loved Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977), Mary H. Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, almost anything by Dervla Murphy – her writings on Madagascar and Cameroon inspired journeys of my own.

But top of my list would be Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There (1991). He took travel writing away from a niche genre and away from the need to go where no one has been before. His travels around Europe showed that even the familiar and the ordinary can be strange and extraordinary, and very, very funny.

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Simon Reeve, author & TV presenter

Down Under by Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson’s approach to travel writing, which is a bucket of humour and self-deprecation, usually about his ineptitude as a traveller, combined with a shed-load of history, stories and information about the country he’s visiting. I read Down Under (2000) while travelling around Australia filming my own TV series, and it was stacked with great tales.

Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods (2006) is not a conventional travel book, but he has tramped and travelled across India and explains its modern reality better than any other book I’ve read.

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Julia Bradbury, TV presenter

A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells

Alfred Wainwright started working on A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells (1955-66) in 1952. This was the beginning of a 13-year project documenting his love of the Lake District and his books have brought people from all corners to explore it.

Based on Gregory David Roberts’ own life, his book Shantaram (2003) is more a novel than a memoir – a vivid and adventurous story unfolding in Bombay. Fact merges with fiction but Roberts beautifully describes how one falls in love with a new country.

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Simon Calder, travel editor & TV presenter

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

A million optimistic books have been written about Barcelona – a city of marvels – and the diverse and beautiful region that embraces it. But George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) writes powerfully of its darkest hours during the Spanish Civil War.

Orwell fought (and almost died) for the Republican cause against Franco, yet expertly analyses the factionalism and infighting that led to its collapse. And just when you think he’s finished writing magically, he comes up with the most lyrical and affectionate love letter to southern England.

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Mark Ellingham, founder of Rough Guides

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) is simply the best, most romantic travel book. It has inspired a whole generation of travellers rich in time and without a concern for (not having) money.

However, Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers to Spain (1845) is, to my mind, the greatest travel guide ever: quirky, insatiably curious, hugely opinionated and often very funny.

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Bill Bryson, author & travel writer

In Trouble Again by Redmond O’Hanlon

The book that changed everything for me was In Trouble Again (1989) by Redmond O’Hanlon, his account of a trip into darkest Amazonia in search of a lost tribe.

It is hysterically funny at the outset, but becomes increasingly dark and scary as it progresses, without exactly losing the humour. It’s quite brilliant. Anybody who wants to know what travel writing can achieve should read this book.

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Jonathan Scott, photographer & TV presenter

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

No one ingredient makes The Worst Journey in the World (1922) ‘the finest travel book ever written’, but Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s perceptive voice comes through loud and clear as he narrates a winter’s journey to Cape Crozier in 1911 to collect emperor penguin eggs for science.

In this ‘Heroic Age’, explorers risked life and limb for king, country and personal glory. Cherry-Garrard was one of the youngest members of Scott’s 1910-13 Antarctic expedition and writing this book helped him survive his crippling depression. 

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