Travel Writing: Having New Eyes

Workshop 23rd May

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land,” wrote the Victorian novelist and essayist GK Chesterton. “It is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

What did he mean? When most of us are asked why we travel (leaving aside better weather or business/family necessity), we tend to talk of “broadening horizons”, getting new perspective and encountering difference and cultural diversity.

But what stops us getting new perspective in our own back yard? Do we need to go away first, in order to see ourselves as others see us?


It’s a question that carries new urgency in an era of “flightshame”, as those of us with itchy feet and environmental hearts consider how to curb our flying habits or source our adventures closer to home.

Long before any of that became an issue, Marcel Proust put it this way: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

What does it mean to have new eyes? I first glimpsed it as a child after a two-week camping holidays in France: as our car re-entered our local neighbourhood, I saw once-familiar things – the local sweetshop, my school – imbued with strangeness.

The feeling always faded back to ordinariness within moments, but I think that magical change of perspective is what I’ve always sought in journeys both physical and spiritual ever since.


Indeed, it’s at the heart of what I seek to facilitate as a life coach – the paradigm shift that can peel away the veil of ordinary habit and unleash new possibilities without leaving the room, let alone the country.

It’s also the task of the writer. One of the exercises I therefore set participants on my travel writing workshops is to brainstorm practical ways to get new eyes for the familiar – and over the years they’ve come up with some good ideas:

  • Walk to work/school by a different route.
  • Get on a bus you’ve never taken before and see where it takes you.
  • Do a walking mindfulness meditation in a place you normally hurry through.
  • Look at your neighbourhood on Google Earth and see if there’s anything you haven’t noticed before.
  • Look up at the top of buildings wherever you go – what’s up there?
  • Visit the local library/online resource and find out what your neighbourhood looked like 100 years ago.
  • Find a dropped object and imagine its life until this moment.
  • Listen in to conversations between other passengers on buses.
  • Go under bridges you normally cross, and vice versa.


Each of these can unleash powerful and surprising creativity – indeed, the last two were the seeds for my first two books. While the overheard bus conversation was in Bolivia (leading to Eight Men and a Duck), the bridge in question was right outside my home in Edinburgh.

I was used to taking the bridge over the Union Canal in Edinburgh on my way to the bus-stop, but one day decided to walk under it instead and continue as far as I could along the canal, expecting to turn back at the usual concrete culvert.

Instead I discovered the canal had been regenerated and reconnected all the way to Glasgow. It was like opening a familiar cupboard and finding a valley or a pine forest – a shift from location to trajectory.

It was now theoretically possible to get on a boat outside my house and travel all the way to the West Coast and beyond – which is exactly what I did, in the 2500-mile boat-hitching journey that became Adrift in Caledonia.


It totally changed the way I looked at Scotland as my adoptive home, and I’ve been seeking to bring new eyes to familiar ways ever since, both in coaching and writing.

If writing is your thing, why not join a few of us as we practice lifting the veil of the familiar right here in Edinburgh? I’ll be co-facilitating a Travel Writing Kickstarter workshop in Portobello with my journalist friend Jean West on Sunday March 22nd.

We’ll be trying to bring new eyes to this much-loved coastal community by immersing ourselves creatively in it, free-writing some raw material, and shaping inspiring results from what we collect. Who knows what we might discover?

Come set foot in your own country as a foreign land – and let’s see what happens…

Posted on: 07 Feb 2020 in Adrift in Caledonia, Books, Eight Men and a Duck, Events, General, Journalism, The writing life

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