Slow travel melds two of 2020’s favourite things: mindfulness and sustainability.
The term comes from the Eighties slow-food movement, to imply a more authentic cultural immersion: living like a local rather than battling the umbrella-waving hordes for a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s smirk. It’s the kind of off-the-beaten-path, actually-I’m-a-traveller-not-a-tourist explorer many of us have fancied ourselves as for a while. Slow-travel tour operators (such as The Slow Cyclist, dedicated to slowly bicycling to local guesthouses, sampling cuisine in Transylvania and Tuscany) and slow-travel books (like Penny Watson’s Slow Travel, dedicated to her slow travels down the Nile in a felucca with locals and making limoncello with Italians) abound.
But more presciently, slow travel also involves literally travelling more slowly; opting for eco-friendlier, slower methods, whether bicycle, boat or train. Exploring canals in electric narrowboats, surfing our coastline and hiking our countless hills and mountains, cycling the 16,575 miles of the UK’s National Cycle Network. We can hop across to Ireland or France on the ferry, taking our bike with the latter if we fancy pedalling across the Continent.
For maximum travel potential though, it’s got to be the train. You can get almost anywhere in Europe by rail with far fewer carbon emissions: the Eurostar to Paris emits 4.2kg of CO2 per passenger compared to 64.2kg by plane; a train to Edinburgh is 25.8kg of CO2 vs 134.7kg by plane, according to Trainline. The OG gap year company Interrail, which covers 33 countries, has made a huge comeback over the past decade: ticket sales tripled to more than 300,0000 in 2018, and 71 per cent of Interrailers cited low carbon footprint as their reason for using it in 2019. If you want real dress-for-dinner rail romance, there’s the super luxe Belmond British Pullman or Simplon-Orient-Express train journeys across Britain and to Paris, Verona and Venice.
Mind you, even sitting in third class is a luxury: whichever way you play it, planes are cheaper than trains. Budget airlines have snared us with low fares, thanks to aviation subsidies and ruthless price cutting to fill seats. National and international train travel is by contrast frustratingly expensive. Prices vary hugely from date to date but ultimately, you can find return flights to, say, Munich for £50. The train will cost double, if not triple, that.
And of course, take five times longer. Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Barfield Marks forswore flying for good in 2018 after discovering ‘just how bad flying was in terms of contribution to climate change’. ‘I don’t feel like seeing the seven wonders of the world is critical to my happiness,’ she says, ‘but a safe and positive future for my one-year-old niece is.’ For a group holiday last year, her friends flew the three hours to Seville; she and one other friend took the 23-hour train journey. That sounds like a masochistic way of scoring eco-points but Sarah is evangelical about life on the rails. ‘You’re enjoying this beautiful journey, watching the landscape changing as it goes by.’ Sorry, but the clichéd #inspo quote is apt: slow travel is all about the journey, not the destination, and it sounds delightful for those with time to spare.
‘You do need the luxury of time,’ admits Beth Thayne, 25, who’s taken the Flight Free 2020 pledge, which aims to get 100,000 people to give up aeroplanes this year. Japan is on Beth’s bucket list and ‘it’s difficult to make peace with the fact that I don’t have two weeks to get the train there’. But, she says, ‘I don’t feel I’m missing out that much. We’re so privileged to have access to these places without actually visiting them.’ Friends visited Japan last year, and she’s seen their Instagram photos. ‘I know it’s nowhere near the same as actually going there yourself but I can still see it, understand it without visiting.’
So is this the reality of slow travel for those without the luxury of time and money: living vicariously through social media? Hopefully not. Both Beth and Sarah’s workplaces — an ethical digital platform promoting supply chain transparency, and a climate action charity, respectively — offer ‘climate perks’: if you can prove that the alternative route you take on holiday is lower in emissions than flying, you can claim a certain amount of travel time back in lieu. If more companies adopt such policies, and if government policy changes to make travelling by train rather than plane more affordable — perhaps slow travel will really take off. Without leaving the ground, obviously.
Photographs by Thomas Cooksey, styled by Sophie Paxton. Shot on location on Belmond British Pullman vintage train. To book, call 0845 077 2222, or visit belmond.com