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List Words : Paul Simpson | 19 May

18 travel books that changed our world

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

Dervla Murphy

Author & travel writer
Top pick: Travels In West Africa by Mary H Kingsley

Dervla Murphy (Paddy Barker/ The Irish Examiner)
Dervla Murphy (Paddy Barker/ The Irish Examiner)


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.

Tibetan Marches (1910) by French polymath André Migot is one of the most perceptive descriptions of ordinary Tibetan life, observed on the eve of Tibet’s destruction by China. In 1955, Peter Fleming’s translation introduced me to this ancient culture.

Mark Ellingham

Founder of Rough Guides
Top pick: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Mark Ellingham (Sam Bryson)
Mark Ellingham (Sam Bryson)

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.

Michael Palin

Actor & TV presenter
Top pick: Venice by Jan Morris

Michael Palin (John Swannell)
Michael Palin (John Swannell)


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, and Point 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.

Lastly, there’s not a word out of place in Peter Mayne’s A Year In Marrakesh (1953), a superb evocation of his time spent in a fascinating and mysterious city before it became a tourist magnet. One of the most eloquent examples of one culture understanding another.

Kate Humble

TV presenter
Top pick: Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

Kate Humble
Kate Humble


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.

Simon Reeve

Author & TV presenter
Top pick: Down Under by Bill Bryson

Simon Reeve (BBC Outdoor Productions)
Simon Reeve (BBC Outdoor Productions)


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.

Julia Bradbury

TV presenter
Top pick: A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells by Alfred Wainwright

Julia Bradbury (Sam Bryson)
Julia Bradbury (Sam Bryson)


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. “Surely there is no other place in this whole wonderful world quite like Lakeland,” he wrote, 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, soaking in the unique characteristics of that place, becoming a part of it.

In Down Under, the indefatigable Bill Bryson’s take on Australia’s size, wildlife and culture are presented in his usual amusing and insightful manner.

Simon Calder

Travel editor & TV presenter
Top pick: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Simon Calder (Sam Bryson)
Simon Calder (Sam Bryson)

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.

Hilary Bradt

Co-founder of Bradt Travel Guides
Top pick: The Rivers Ran East by Leonard Clark

Hilary Bradt (Sam Bryson)
Hilary Bradt (Sam Bryson)

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.

Bill Bryson

Author & travel writer
Top pick: In Trouble Again by Redmond O’Hanlon

Bill Bryson (Sam Bryson)
Bill Bryson (Sam Bryson)

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.

Jonathan Scott

Photographer & TV presenter
Top pick: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Jonathan Scott (Sam Bryson)
Jonathan Scott (Sam Bryson)


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. Yet that pales in comparison with his harrowing description of Captain Falcon Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole. The book opens with sublime understatement: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” 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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