Journey into the Unknown

I’m a big fan of travel writing. There’s nothing I like better than to curl up with an intrepid individual as they scale icy mountains, trek across uncharted wastes and battle with hostile tribes. If you’ve never read him, I’d encourage you to look into the works of Eric Newby (personal favourites of mine being Love and War in the Apennines and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). 

I myself am not a great traveller. I don’t like flying (lack of control, no leg room, hurtling through the air in a metal tube. Why would you?) and I prefer to get to know several places really well rather than going to lots of different destinations just once.

I do love travelling on trains and last Saturday, I made the two-hour journey from rural East Suffolk to the throbbing depths of the capital for the 50th Anniversary ACW Writers’ Day in Westminster. Dear readers, at no point did I whip out a set of crampons and scramble up an inhospitable slope. Nor did I have to don snowshoes and crunch my way over a snowy Arctic waste. However, I did get up shortly after 6 in the morning (too early by half), tart myself up and drive to our local station to catch the 7.05, first train out of the day.

The café at the station was closed which was fair enough. At Ipswich, I had a whole six minutes before the connecting train came in. Just as I was reaching for a banana and strawberry smoothie and croissant to refresh my exhausted self, in it came, early. I was heartened by the sight of a smiling lady with a coffee trolley on the train, however. I plugged in my laptop, started writing and waited for the reviving fragrance of fresh coffee to fill the carriage. 

It never came. Neither did the lady. I suspect she was hiding in the guard’s van, eating up her entire stock of Kit-Kats. Hungry, thirsty and disappointed, I alighted at Colchester to board a bus to Ingatestone. By the time I arrived at Liverpool Street, neither bite nor sup had I had. Eric Newby would have dealt with this magnificently. I headed straight for a well-known franchise and hoovered up a large cappuccino and a flaccid croissant.

My day was excellent and it was over all too soon. Boarding a Circle Line train with Rosemary the ACW Webmaster, we were chatting when a young man with bare, dirty feet came walking down our carriage. He looked embarrassed as he explained that he had no money and no family and that he would really appreciate any help we could give him. Down the carriage, some youngsters were laughing and making fun of him. The two ladies opposite (Vicky and Karen) struck up conversation with us. We talked about generosity and open-handedness and that we are all only two pay cheques away from destitution. “Did you notice how once a few people smiled at him and gave him something, everyone else in the carriage did too?” Vicky said. “It was like a wave of generosity.” 

The youngsters were looking abashed. We all make mistakes. 

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life writing about generosity and philanthropy. Seeing it in action in 2021 on a crowded Tube makes me happy. 

At Liverpool Street,  crackly announcements alerted us that there were no Greater Anglia services for the foreseeable future. 

I’m not a great one for hanging around, so I marched off in search of an alternative. I found it in a beleaguered station employee who had been shouted at fairly comprehensively by a succession of stressed people. He suggested I took the 17.28 to Cambridge and then went across country. 

Plonking myself down on a seat on the train and plugging in my laptop (darn it, I had a property piece to finish), I looked up to see two cheerful-looking ladies opposite. We struck up conversation and pretty soon I’d forgotten about writing up the delightfully spacious five-bedroomed family home and was busy making friends with Charlotte and Natalie instead. They were great company. 

OK, it wasn’t exactly the Trans-Siberian Express, but I was sliding across the darkening fens in the company of strangers with no idea of what time I would get home. At Cambridge, we realised we had an hour to wait, so we went to the pub. It felt rather kicky and louche, sitting outside drinking vodka and orange through a straw while young, beautiful people disported themselves around us. 

Back on the train to the exotically named Harwich International, we sat beside a teenage boy who listened patiently as we rattled on about our favoured brand of hoover and friends with collections of shoes insured for a million pounds. Turned out he knows my son’s bandmate. Suffolk really is a small place. 

I got home at ten, via Cambridge, Elsenham and Newmarket. The search for the Northwest Passage it wasn’t, but I saw generosity in action, had an unexpected burst of Cambridge nightlife and made a couple of new friends. Lack of coffee notwithstanding, it was quite a journey. Move over, Eric!

Images by Unsplash and Pixabay

Ruth is a novelist and freelance writer. She is married with three children, one husband, two budgies, two quail, eight chickens and a kitten. She is the author of “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge” and “The Trials of Isabella M Smugge”. She writes for a number of small businesses and charities, reviews books for Reading Between the Lines and blogs at She has abnormally narrow sinuses and a morbid fear of raw tomatoes, but has decided not to let this get in the way of a meaningful life. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at ruthleighwrites and at her website,



Fran Hill said…
I have an Eric Newby book on one of my bookshelves and must get it out and read it! I too made the journey to London and arrived parched and starving for similar reasons. I ate a pot of pineapple chunks in the street like a brazen thing and then drank 3 coffees once I arrived.
Ruth Leigh said…
Which one it is? I love him. You hussy! In the street? I munched my croissant on the Circle Line for all to see
Peter Leyland said…
It's pretty good to go there Ruth as I found with my trip to Ladakh, but I'll accept reading Eric Newby as a worthwhile experience too!
Ruth Leigh said…
Wow, Peter, that's impressive. Undoubtedly one of my all time favourite books. I've read it so many times that it's embedded in my brain. The bits about John Lewis at the beginning and his telegram to Hugh Carless at the Foreign Office are hilarious
Peter Leyland said…
Ah, so is your piece Ruth. very witty and I love your observations of the people that you encountered on your travels. Thanks for the post.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you so much! I was halfway through the Incredible Journey and I thought to myself "this would make a good blog"
Umberto Tosi said…
Although I've never been an avid reader of the genre, thanks for putting me back in touch with the joy of well-written travel books. I'll check out Eric Newby.
Ruth Leigh said…
I don't think you'll be disappointed, Umberto. He is a uniquely gifted writer, funny, informative and fascinating. I started off with A Traveller's Life, which begins with his birth and takes you through his childhood with his eccentric father and much younger former model girl mother (his parents ran a fashion house). Honestly, a treasure trove of great writing.
Excellent - I love all these train details.

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