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Good travel books are not just about a physical journey or a place. They are also about the emotional side of travel and the feelings we experience along the way.
In this interview with Mark Probert, we discuss his motorcycle journey through Britain following the path of writer John Hillaby 50 years after the original book — and how the passing of time impacts our choices around travel, especially at a time when we cannot take it for granted as we did pre-pandemic.
Mark Probert is the author of Another Journey Through Britain about a motorcycle road trip through the back lanes of Great Britain.
- Riding the length of Britain on a motorbike
- The pros and cons of motorbike travel
- Changes to parts of Britain over decades
- Enjoying food specific to local areas (like cheddar in Cheddar)
- Does reporting on travel change your experience of it? And does that matter?
- Reflections on the passing of time
- Recommended travel books
You can find Mark Probert at MGProbert.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Mark Probert is the author of Another Journey Through Britain about a motorcycle road trip through the back lanes of Great Britain. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Probert: Hi, Joanna, thank you for inviting me.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m excited to talk to you today. Before we even get into that bike trip, I want to ask about your previous career because you spent 28 years working for Ordnance Survey as a mapmaker all over the world. And I’m thrilled by that. It just sounds so exciting.
Tell us what drew you into mapmaking and what were some of the highlights?
Mark Probert: I was basically very lucky. When I think back the first time I got hooked into maps was probably going back to my teenage years at school. I really loved geography. I loved all those field trips to places like the Isle of Purbeck and Yorkshire Dales and I just love the maps. I think some people’s brains just work that way, don’t they? Some people work with numbers and some people work spatially. And I love the maps.
When I first started work, my first full-time job, it was actually updating charts, rain charts. That was in Southampton. But as luck would have it, I saw in the newspaper one evening that Ordnance Survey was advertising for surveyors. And I applied and things just fell into place. And the rest is history. So, yes, I spent 28 years with Ordnance Survey. The first half of that was as a land surveyor. I worked up and down the country, literally from Land’s End to John o’Groats, updating the various scales of mapping. And then I left the surveying side of it, and I went into the R&D section. This is back in the ’80s. This is quite a long time ago now.
It was the early days of digital mapping. And it was very, very exciting stuff in those days. We all take it for granted now, because we just look at all this digital mapping, and aerial photography on our phones now, and everybody’s got access to it. But back in those days, it was pretty groundbreaking stuff.
And then I moved into the marketing section for a while. And then I moved into the international section. I had my first couple of jobs. One was in Latvia, one was in Croatia. And I was pretty hooked on that overseas work by then. And then I was really lucky to have a couple of years or two and a half years working in Paris and took the whole family out there.
I left Ordnance Survey in 2003, and set up my own company, and carried on working abroad. And my sphere of work was first of all Eastern Europe. And then it gradually went further east; went out to places like Azerbaijan and Mongolia. And then there was a period where it was all Africa, places like Zanzibar, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal. Then, in 2016, I joined the World Bank and took on a whole new load of countries then and actually got out to South America for the first time and had a couple of jobs in Colombia. So that was great fun as well.
Then in 2018, 2019, I started to go into a sort of semi-retirement period where I started slowing down and picking the jobs I wanted to and spending a bit more time at home. And then last year, when the pandemic came along, I thought, ‘Well, that’s probably the sign I need.’ I gave up and became fully retired and settled down to picking up on that job list of my wife’s that I managed to avoid for so many years.
Jo Frances Penn: I do find the maps so interesting, like you said, when you started in all that they weren’t the online maps, but I still use the paper OS paper maps to do some of my planning.
I find it just almost magical the way there are these symbols on a piece of paper that match the real world in some way.
But in a way it doesn’t. It’s not the same experience looking at a map as it is to walk across the same path in real life. You said at the beginning there that some brains love maps. Do you think the maps change your brain?
Do you see the world differently when you look at a map can you almost visualize the reality or is it quite different?
Mark Probert: Definitely. My kids tease me about it but some people will sit down in the evening and look at the newspaper, I’m quite happy picking out a map and just having a look at it. And if it’s somewhere I’ve been before, yes, I can visualize all those places, the symbols, or the trigger to see those places.
If it’s not somewhere I’ve been before I can get a pretty good idea of the lay of the land particularly from the contours, see the height and the hills, that sort of thing.
There’s a story in the book where I talk about when I was up in Scotland at the end of my stint working on the Landranger maps and I had my Keanu Reeves moment. I’m not sure if all your listeners will be familiar with the film ‘The Matrix,’ but it’s about a guy who lives in a virtual world. And there’s this one point in the film where he starts to actually see this, he realizes it’s a virtual world, he starts to see the digital files, he starts to see the digital world that he’s living in.
I was coming back on the train from Inverness to Edinburgh. And I was staring out the window and daydreaming away and truth be told I was probably nodding off. But I was in that strange semi-conscious period. For about two or three seconds I literally saw the world outside the train the world going past as a 1:50,000 Landranger map.
I saw the pylon lines as symbols. I saw the train line. I saw the woodland with their symbols. And it was just bizarre. And I sort of shook my head and went like, ‘Whoa, whoa, this is crazy.’
Jo Frances Penn: That’s fantastic. I’m glad I’ve done some training and people listening if you haven’t had any map reading training, I don’t think it’s that logical. I think if you just pick up a map and look at it, yeah, sure, some bits will be green, or whatever and some bits will have streets on, that’s quite obvious.
But I do find that it’s well worth just even I did a day navigation course [NNAS in the UK]. It just gives so much more richness to the travel and also just, again with our phones, we do take it for granted now that we can just orientate ourselves or find ourselves. This is how now you get people driving 200 miles in the wrong direction because they just trust the GPS.
Mark Probert: It’s funny, isn’t it? Obviously through my background, and I always use paper maps. It just seems natural.
But on the trip up from Land’s End to John o’Groats, I remember stopping off at one of the youth hostels and talking to the guy there, the warden about maps. I was expecting to see a whole bookcase of maps. And the guy said, ‘Well, nobody uses them these days. Everybody comes here, they’ve got them all on their phone, they just either use their phone or perhaps before they come here, they’ll download something and print it off.’ And for somebody who’s so used to using maps, that was a bit of a shocker.
Jo Frances Penn: Quite strange. Right, let’s get into the book. First of all, let’s talk about the motorcycle trip. And also I guess even Great Britain because you’ve traveled all over the world.
Why motorcycle, what was the attraction? What are some of the pros and cons of using a motorbike?
Mark Probert: Confession time now. I’m not really a major biker. I do enjoy it. I love it in fact. In fact, the first time I got on the motorbike that I used for this trip, it’s a Royal Enfield 500.
I had a test drive, and I went down Shirley High Street in Southampton. And I just couldn’t get the smile off my face. It was just so much fun. It was great. But the main reason I used a motorbike was it was just practical, really. Just to give a bit of background on the sort of the reason or the rationale behind the trip.
My favorite book of all time, is A Journey Through Britain. It was written by a guy called John Hillaby and published in 1968. And it’s a story about his walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats over about 1000 miles and about three months. I read this as a teenager and at the time I was completely lost in it, I loved it.
His style of writing was great. I loved the humor, I loved all the things he talked about, the geology, and the social history of the areas. And I always thought it would be lovely to do that. I did the trip by bicycle myself with my two sons on bikes and my wife, and my daughter, in the motorhome 11 years ago, and I read the book again. And I thought, “Wow, it would be fantastic to do that trip myself.”
Actually looking at the places that John Hillaby looked at, looking at the places he went to and comparing what he saw with what things are like now. And because some of the things, obviously the pre-history, that sort of thing doesn’t change at all. But lots of things change out of all recognition.
A good example is when he crossed over the River Severn, they were actually building the M4 at the time. And we take for granted this fantastic network of motorways and A-roads throughout the country now, but it wasn’t always that way. Also he talks about the characters along the way, and the regional accents, all these sorts of things.
I thought, ‘It’d be great to do that journey again, and to look specifically at the things that he noticed and see how they’ve changed over those 50 years.’ As I mentioned before, I went into semi-retirement about 2018 and I was not doing quite so many jobs. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got the chance to do this now. I can do this Land’s End to John O’Groats trip in the footsteps or following the route that John Hillaby took.’ I did consider walking it, but then I thought, ‘I’m not really sure if I could do that.’ Which is a good excuse, isn’t it?
Jo Frances Penn: It does take a lot more time to walk.
Mark Probert: Well, that’s exactly it because I thought, ‘Have I really got the nerve to come home after all these years traveling abroad and say to my wife, ‘Right, that’s it now. I’m semi-retired. I’ll have plenty of time at home, oh, by the way, I’m going to disappear for three months.’ So no, I didn’t think that was going to be a good idea.
I’d also cycled it and I thought, ‘Well, what about a motorcycle? Because I could get the journey down in two or three weeks, I’d still be fairly out there in the open smelling the flowers and it would just be a great experience. So that’s how it came about really.
Jo Frances Penn: I don’t ride motorbikes. My husband does though, and we recently watched the Ewan McGregor TV series, ‘Long Way Up’ and ‘Down’ and ‘Round’ and all of that. And what you mentioned ‘fun’ there, and that’s what my husband says, too. It seems like motorbiking is either really fun like it’s a gorgeous day, the weather is great, the roads are great, these lovely sweeping turns.
Mark Probert: Exactly.
Jo Frances Penn: And he’s like, ‘That is the dream.’ It’s either that — or it’s British weather; raining, cold, miserable, traffic, dangerous, terrible.
What are your feelings on the pros and cons of traveling by motorbike?
Mark Probert: Well I try and avoid the latter.
Jo Frances Penn: If you plan to go at a certain point you have to just move on.
Mark Probert: Exactly. I was so lucky with my trip because it was just fabulous weather almost all the way I think I had one solid day of rain in the middle of that trip from Land’s End to John o’Groats. The rest of it was fabulous weather. I was so so lucky. And then one day that it really chucked it down, I was within striking distance of home, which is Oswestry in Shropshire, so I just came home, and I spent the night at home and then carried on again. So I was exceptionally lucky. If you get that sort of great weather, parts of this country are just unbeatable.
The scenery of Cornwall, and Devon, and the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, the Scottish Highlands, if you get the weather, right, I mean you don’t need to go anywhere else. It’s just amazing.
Jo Frances Penn: Give us some specifics. What were some of the highlights?
Mark Probert: Well, it’s always difficult, isn’t it? Because as soon as you choose something, you realize other things you’ve missed out.
Coleman and Devon were brilliant because it was the start of the trip. So I was super excited by the whole thing. As I mentioned the weather was amazing. And it’s also an area where my wife and I lived for a few years when we first started our family. Our oldest son spent his first three years being brought up in Cornwall. So that was nice reliving some of those memories and going to some of those places that I’ve been to before. And of course, the coastal scenery of Cornwall is just incredible, isn’t it?
One of the things I remember at the start of that trip it was mid-May. And the whole trip I couldn’t obviously follow the footpaths that John Hillaby had taken. So I planned my route as near as I could to his route and went through the book page by page and followed his route. And I picked out all the back lanes and the minor roads. I hardly touched any even B-roads, let alone A-roads or motorways.
The thing I remember from that first part was the verges of the roads were absolutely thick with cow parsley, bluebells, foxgloves, honeysuckle, it was just fabulous, that first bit. So that sticks in the mind.
Another bit I really enjoyed, and I always enjoy going there is the Wye Valley. I don’t know if you know it, Joanna? Because it’s not too far from you is it?
Jo Frances Penn: Yes. Exactly.
Mark Probert: I absolutely love that because it’s so peaceful and tranquil. I think it’s because the river there is just slowing down and it’s drags you to that sort of pace. You just slow down and the road is fantastic for a motorcycle because you just sort of…I’m making a weaving motion with my hand here which probably isn’t coming over well in a podcast is it? But it’s just a lovely gentle sway from side to side and you’ve got that tunnel of trees and then you’ve got Tintern Abbey, it’s just fabulous.
I always enjoy going to the Yorkshire Dales, that’s got many happy memories, and it’s again, fabulous scenery. I love the borders, the border areas of Scotland.
And the area another one that’s a favorite of mine is the Highlands. The very last bit of the trip was on the North Coast 500 trip here which people call the British Route 66. And as I said the weather was fabulous. And you just can’t beat that, that northwest corner in particular, you’re just going through very raw geological landscapes, some of the oldest rocks in the world.
It’s very bare and barren. But then you come across these amazing little coves with white sand and you think, ‘Wow, that could be the Caribbean. It’s just an incredible place to be on a good day.’
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, on a good day, indeed, Scotland can be incredible.
Mark Probert: Yes. I’ve seen plenty of the not. We won’t start on the midges!
Jo Frances Penn: You mentioned that John Hillaby talked about the social history. You’ve talked about maybe some of the things that have changed. Most or all the places you just mentioned, were very much the natural side, which hasn’t changed. So what are some of the things that you thought, ‘Yeah, that has definitely changed.’? Obviously, you mentioned the motorway.
Were there any particular towns or places you passed through that are quite different from back then?
Mark Probert: I think one of the most striking things was the decline of towns in Britain and that’s been exacerbated even more, of course, this last year with COVID. It was really striking just how many of them were suffering. And there were so many places where there were just shops with boarded-up windows.
There’s obviously a whole stack of reasons for that. There are people turning to online shopping, people moving away from those areas for all sorts of reasons, moving to the big cities, perhaps. But that was one of the striking images I had of the trip, just how much the towns in Britain had suffered.
There were things like the change in energy. Back in the 1950s, a huge amount of Britain’s energy came from coal. And that’s all gone. And now, of course, you see the wind farms all over the place, that’s something that John Hillaby would never have seen.
As I mention through the book, as I go through and observe places, just how things have changed in terms of all sorts of aspects, all those big industries, the shipbuilding and the coal. Even things like car manufacturing, they’ve all changed and some of that’s for the good probably unless you’re a die-hard miner, you probably wouldn’t mourn the passing of the mines.
Jo Frances Penn: For sure. And I mean, what about the positive changes. For example, British food used to be awful, and now obviously we have a much more multicultural society. I bet you ate better than he did on his trip.
Mark Probert: I think so yes. I felt quite guilty about that. Because I go on lots of cycling trips, and I don’t feel at all guilty then because I’m replacing all that energy that I’ve lost… But I didn’t have that excuse on the motorcycle.
I started off playing a little game when I started, I was trying to pick up regional foods and so I started off with a Cornish pasty, of course, and I had cheddar at Cheddar Gorge, and plenty of cream teas. And I tried to change my diet as I worked my way up the country to keep it sort of appropriate to the area.
Jo Frances Penn: I think that’s awesome. Curry in Birmingham.
Mark Probert: Yes, exactly, and Bradford.
Jo Frances Penn: What were some of the challenges or difficulties that you faced along the way?
Mark Probert: I was very lucky really. I didn’t have that many challenges. I had one major hiccup when I had a puncture, in Cheddar. But in hindsight, even that was good, because it gave me some great things to talk about and to write about in the book, it was quite an interesting little adventure in itself.
The only downside to that was I had planned to be camping in the Wey Valley that night. And instead of camping in the Wey Valley, I ended up in a Travelodge in Taunton on the Georgian bypass. So not quite the same sort of magic.
It did have an interesting aspect to it in the way the story panned out. One of the challenges is, I planned it very well. I’m a bit of an OCD planner. I planned it into great detail but leaving myself a bit of leeway if I needed to change things.
I realized that I was always wishing I had more time, wherever I went to, I was always thinking, ‘Oh, if only I have more time here. I should have built-in more time for this.’
But on the other hand, I really wanted to make progress and see other things. And I think that’s just in my nature, I’m always trying to move on and see other things and you can’t have it both ways, can you? You can’t do that and spend a long time and get absorbed in a place.
Jo Frances Penn: Well, it’s interesting, because I had just written down there, ‘the passing of time?’ just before you said that.
Obviously, that original book was in the ’50s. You mentioned cycling this 11 years ago with your children. And of course, now as you said, you’re retired, there’s a passing of time in your life, as well as the passing of time in these books, and so to me that is almost an emotional challenge, which is we’re facing this ‘memento mori, remember, you will die’ and ‘if only I had more time’ is one of those things.
I’m 46. And I’m thinking the same thing, if only I had more time to do all the things I want to do.
Was there that element of emotional challenge as you’re in retirement and you’re doing these things and also some of these are very physical things that you’re doing.
Is that an awareness you have, of the passing of time?
Mark Probert: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t think I really noticed it on the other journey through Britain, but I am conscious of it. I’m conscious that I’ve got so many places I still want to go, so many journeys I still want to do. And none of us know do we, just how long we’ve got?
I do deliberately try and keep myself fit and healthy and I still like cycling, I still do an awful lot of walking. I went on a trip to India last year. I went with a friend of mine who’s also in his 60s and on the face of it that sounds like there’s a couple of old fellers trying to get their way from coast to coast in India over five weeks, that you think they’d choose a nice easy way of doing that, but we didn’t.
We chose just about every method of transport you could think of and tried to have as many experiences as possible. And the third-class travel on Indian Railways is a huge experience, I can tell you I don’t know if you’ve done it, Joanna?
Jo Frances Penn: I have been on an Indian railway, but I went in first class.
Mark Probert: I was happy just to sort of push myself into these things. We had a camel ride through the desert. We slept in the desert overnight and I just loved doing all these things, all these experiences, but you’re right. I look ahead, and I think, ‘I’ve got these various trips lined up that I’d like to do.’ And I just think, ‘Well, I’ve got to get on with it.’
Jo Frances Penn: Exactly. We just don’t know. But then I guess that’s interesting because of course, a trip in India takes quite a different type of planning to motorcycling through Britain.
Obviously, you’re British, we’re British. If people from other countries are listening and might want to come and do such a trip.
Are there any tips for planning a trip like that through Britain?
Mark Probert: A lot of the planning that I was doing was dictated by John Hillaby’s book. So I was following his route. And what I did was I just looked at his route, and I looked at the places where I could practically go on a motorbike, so I obviously couldn’t follow all the paths he took.
Then I did lots of internet research on those places and made lots of notes about places to go. I didn’t book up my accommodation the whole way. I just booked up, maybe three or four nights in advance, but I had a route that I wanted to follow. I knew the locations I’d be staying in most nights.
Throughout the book, what I tried to do was to keep three strands going. So I wrote about my trip, but I didn’t want to do it as just a boring ‘I started here then I went there and then I went there, and then I went there.’ I did that as part of the book. But then I also put in lots of descriptions about the places, the people I met.
And some of the history of those places. And then the third strand I tried to weave into that was the John Hillaby part of it; what he had experienced in those places, and what I found along the way.
It was uber-planned to some extent, but there was an element of flexibility in there. For example, when I had the puncture, I was able to stay overnight, in Taunton, which was 25 miles from where I started my day’s travel. John Hillaby probably would have walked further than that. But because I was on a motorbike, I was able to make up the ground the next day. And that gave me a bit of flexibility that I probably wouldn’t have had if I was walking.
Jo Frances Penn: You’ve mentioned there that you’ve got lots of trips planned and lots of things you want to do.
Has the pandemic changed your opinion on travel at all? Are we going to go back to how we used to do things? What do you think will change?
Mark Probert: My appetite for travel certainly hasn’t changed. Every Sunday, when I look at the travel pages in the papers, I just think, ‘Wow, I want to go there.’
Jo Frances Penn: Me too.
Mark Probert: When I listen to your podcasts and I just think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ I remember you had one a few weeks back with a guy talking about Sichuan, from Tibet. And to begin with, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know much about that. I’ll listen anyway, just to see what it’s like.’
By about halfway, I was thinking ‘I need to go there. That sounds amazing.’ And you had Katarina on talking about Vienna, didn’t you?
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, absolutely. I’m going to Vienna once I can, but it’s funny. I feel the same way. I feel like I don’t want to change the way I want to travel. But then I guess I’ve always been someone who has tried to be respectful in my travels.
I think a lot of this stuff about mindful travel, that might change but you and people listening, and I think the guests on this show, I think we’re all pretty mindful about our travel anyway.
Mark Probert: Yes. So my appetites certainly haven’t changed. Practically, we haven’t been able to do it, have we? I’ve done lots and lots of walking. We’re very fortunate, because we live in some beautiful Shropshire countryside. And I’ve just explored all the lanes around, I’ve just been everywhere around within a, I don’t know, five, seven-mile range of here. And I’ve just been out pretty much every day walking.
I’ve done over what? Nearly 400 miles I’d say, this year, just walking around the lanes around here, just getting out every day. So even that is fantastic because you get out into nature and you see the changing seasons. And even though we’ve had our wings clipped in terms of going abroad, there are still things you can do, you can still get out there and do things, can’t you?
Jo Frances Penn: I don’t know if I did take it for granted. But I think that I’m going to be even more grateful when we are back out in the world and I don’t want to forget this period.
I feel like it’s very important that we remember how it felt to not be able to travel.
Mark Probert: I agree. Absolutely, I think we did take it for granted. I know I took it for granted because it was my job for many years, and I would just jump on a plane and go somewhere halfway around the world. And I’d be working there for two or three weeks. I’d just jump on a plane and come back again.
It was just a way of life. And you just take that for granted. I was very lucky in a way that the pandemic came at a time when I was packing up work anyway. If I was in the middle of my career, and that happened, I might see things differently. But it wasn’t such a tough thing for me. If anything, it was in some ways a good thing because it made me say, ‘Right, I’m going to stop now and move on to the next chapter.’
Jo Frances Penn: And then while you were doing the trip, so obviously you’re on a motorbike, your hands are on the handlebars, and you’re concentrating. So how did you record it in order to write the book? Were you writing a journal in the evening? Or did you stop to take photos?
How did you actually log the trip as you did it?
Mark Probert: Bits of all of that. I was actually writing a blog along the way. When I mentioned that my family did the Land’s End to John o’Groats bike ride back in 2010. For a few years after that my two sons and I did some other very long-distance bike rides.
We went down to Milan one year and cycled back home. Another year, we went from end-to-end in Ireland. And another year, we went across the Pyrenees. Each time we did that, my two sons would do a film of it. And they’d write up a blog and report every day on our progress.
When I did my Land’s End to John o’Groats trip, I thought, ‘Well, I might not be able to manage all the filming, but at least I can keep a blog.’ And so I did that. I took thousands of pictures, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it was thousands.
So the end of the day, and it was a bit of a pain, if I’m being honest, I would sit down and I would go through the day’s events, write it up on the blog, write up a few other notes, pick out a few photographs to put on the blog.
I had my diary being built up day-by-day, through that method, and then when it came to write the book, I was able to take out quite a bit of that blog content and put it into Word and it was my starting point. It was a framework for the book.
Jo Frances Penn: And it’s interesting, because I had, I think it was the last show with Steve Brock on Hidden Travel. We were reflecting on whether actually knowing that you’re going to report on something, say with photos or a blog post changes your experience of it. When what you’re actually doing is curating for an audience almost first. How do you feel about that?
Mark Probert: I heard that. And it was really interesting. He was talking about the moments, wasn’t he? And the photos.
I must admit, I have got a bit sucked into that. Because I can remember riding along on the bike and then coming around a corner and I would say, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing photo, I’m going to have to stop that would look great in the blog.’ And then I felt guilty about it, I thought, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be doing that. I should be enjoying the moment, I should be just seeing it for what it is, and enjoying it at that time,’ rather than always thinking, ‘Well, what’s going to make a good photo? And what’s going to look good in the blog?’
I think we’re all a bit…well, a lot of us are guilty of that, aren’t we? And I try and fight against it. But it’s definitely there.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s funny because I also swing backwards and forwards. I went to Bristol, and you know Bristol, it’s not very far from where I am in Bath, and the Suspension Bridge. My mum lives in that area. And I’ve seen the Suspension Bridge many, many times, I went to school in Bristol.
But what I now try and do, I think what is almost a good thing, is that I try and see it with the eyes of an outsider, which is most of the people looking at my Instagram @jfpennauthor for example don’t know Bristol, don’t know the suspension bridge, think that actually that’s really interesting.
Or like you mentioned the bluebells on a side road is interesting to someone who doesn’t see bluebells in their area. So in my mind, if part of our ecosystem of people who love travel is sharing what might be ordinary for us or that we are actually loving and enjoying so that other people can experience that too.
So I’m seeing it as a positive thing. And also sometimes the emotional side of it doesn’t reflect in the photo anyway. For example you might be in a beautiful place, but you might feel really lonely or just really sick or something.
What you’re doing in your book is reflecting emotionally on a place, not just with a picture.
Mark Probert: It’s interesting what you say there, Joanna. Because most of the days, as I say, now I go out and have a walk around the lanes, and I’ll quite often take a photo. Just recently, all the daffodils coming out and the spring lambs, it’s been amazing. And I’ll stick that on Twitter or Instagram without really thinking of any great purpose.
I take encouragement from what you say, Joanna. If it’s giving other people an enjoyment of something that they wouldn’t see typically on a day-to-day basis, that can only be good.
Jo Frances Penn: Yeah, exactly. Actually, I’ve enjoyed your photos, too. [Instagram @mgprobert ]
Mark Probert: Thank you.
Jo Frances Penn: And I love daffodils. So let’s get into the book recommendation. Obviously, you’ve talked about A Journey Through Britain as your number one book.
Can you recommend a few other books about travel that you love?
Mark Probert: Yes, the John Hillaby one is a must, isn’t it? What I tried to do when I was working abroad, if I knew I was going to be in a country for, I don’t know, maybe three or four weeks, I would try and get a book about that country and start reading it before I went. I’d read a bit while I was there, just to give me a flavor of what it was all about, and getting me in the swing of, or the mood of that country. So I’m going to give you some examples of that.
The first one is a book called Independent People by Halldór Laxness. It’s quite an old one, it actually won the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature. If you had to boil it down to its essence, you would say it’s about a sheep farmer in Iceland. But it’s actually a lot more than that, of course.
It’s about how this guy sacrifices many other things just to have his independence and bring up his family and look after his family and look after the sheep. On the face of it, it sounds quite a limited story, but it’s just a brilliant book. And it’s quite a hard read. It’s a very harsh story in places, the way of life is extremely harsh, but it’s a really interesting read.
The second one, I’ve worked a lot in the Balkans over the years. One book I read when I was out there was called The Bridge on the Drina. It’s by a guy called Ivo Andric. I think he’s also a Nobel Prize winner, but I don’t think it was for this book.
It’s about a place in Bosnia. It’s a little village, maybe a town. And it’s about this bridge there over the river, that the town is called Visegrad. And it’s about the life of this town over 400 years. And it talks about all the comings and goings of the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Hungarian influence. There’s all these major things happening in the region. But it’s just looking at the day-to-day life of those people, around the bridge and the shops and the houses around that bridge over that period of time. And so it’s a sort of ordinary people’s story.
The third one, I worked out in Mongolia several times and there’s a great book called On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey. And that’s by somebody called Tim Cope. And it’s about six times the length of my journey. But he goes by on horseback across Mongolia, from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, right across to the west, and eventually ends up in Hungary. He has these friends going through the story, which are about the life of the nomads on the Mongolian plains, there’s a lot about horsemanship, and he weaves into that all the history of Mongolia, and of course, a lot about Genghis Kahn. So that’s really interesting.
And the last one I’ve got is a bit more up to date. Many people will be aware of this or will have read this and it’s called The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m glad you mentioned that one. Yes, of course.
Mark Probert: It’s really interesting for people who haven’t read it yet. The author and her husband lose their home through no fault of their own. They’re in their 50s and then the guy has a diagnosis of a terminal illness. And their response to this is to set off on a walk and they walk around the South West Coastal path and I can’t give any spoilers because I haven’t finished it myself yet. But I’m loving it so far.
Jo Frances Penn: That book is a great example. Here in the UK, it’s won many awards. And it’s doing really well. I think that’s an example of this emotional resonance that travel I think has.
I mean, a good travel book is not just ‘I went here, and then I went here, and then went here.’ It has to have other depth to it. And it’s so interesting, isn’t it? Obviously, we’re not going to get too deep or meaningful today. But way back I was married the first time and my husband left me and of course, I was devastated. And my choice was to leave and go traveling in Egypt.
Mark Probert: Well, it’s the obvious choice Joanna!
Jo Frances Penn: Obviously. And it’s so funny, because when you mentioned that I thought about it again, because maybe that’s something about our character is that obviously we love travel for the experience, but I feel like travel is everything. It’s a way to heal. It’s a way to, like you said, you want to keep moving and I feel the same way.
Mark Probert: Talking about the emotional side of it. The trip I had gone to India last year had a very nice finale to it, because we traveled from Mumbai, in the West. And we went on a very strange circuitous route across to Kolkata at the end.
But then I popped over to Bangladesh, we popped over to Bangladesh for a couple of days, because my mum and dad actually met when they were in India, and it is now Bangladesh. And my father was in the RAF. This was at the end of the war, World War II. My father was in the RAF. And he commanded a group of SE rescue boats.
My mum was in the Red Cross, and they met out in India. And then they came back to Britain and got married. And a few years later, there was me. So it was almost like a pilgrimage. You’ve had a couple of podcasts recently about pilgrimages. And it was a very emotional trip for me to go back to see that place where they met and where things started off for them. It was very moving.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s great.
Where can people find you and your book online?
Mark Probert: My website is my initials and my name it’s mgprobert.com. I have a Facebook page, which is Mark Probert Author. And my Twitter account is @mgprobert. And for consistency, my Instagram is mgprobert.
The book is on Amazon. But I’m probably going to go wide before too long and put it on places like Apple and Kobo as well.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time. Mark. That was great.
Mark Probert: Thank you very much. Thank you for asking me, Joanna.
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