Where I live and write in Bath, heavy traffic shakes my building. Family, work deadlines, my bank account and, yes, Brexit all conspire to make me feel hemmed in.
‘The essential test of freedom asks how far in any direction we can move from where we now sit without deviating or meeting obstacles,’ wrote the novelist DBC Pierre.
He reckoned 20 metres, tops, and his solution was brilliantly straightforward. He went to Coober Pedy, a South Australian opal-mining town surrounded by endless sand and rock, to enjoy ‘a gateway to relentless space’.
Splendid isolation: Author Dan Richards has spent years seeking the farthest-flung outposts — beacons, shebangs, mountain expedition stations, tundra, forests, and oceans
I have spent the past few years seeking the farthest-flung outposts — beacons, shebangs, mountain expedition stations, tundra, forests, and oceans.
Part of the allure of such places is their simplicity: enough architecture to keep the weather at bay but not so much as to distract from the natural world.
Outpost, my new book, charts a course from the simulated Mars bases of the Utah desert to Dylan Thomas’s boathouse in Laugharne via Cairngorm bothies and Australian islands. I’ve sought out landscapes that have inspired writers, artists and adventurers to discover why we’re all so drawn to wilderness.
Here are my favourite destinations which all give a sense of the wild, far away and remote…
SWISS ALPINE EYRIE
Cabane Rossier is an impressive mountain cottage overlooking the Ferpecle glacier, pictured, in Switzerland close to the Alps
Cabane Rossier is an impressive mountain cottage overlooking Ferpecle glacier in Switzerland. It usually caters to climbers en route to the summit of the mighty Dent Blanche, which at 4,357m is one of the highest peaks in the Alps.
Its guardian, a fierce lady on first meeting, who softens to those English people who carry cash (there are no card payments at 3,507m), cooks wonderful rosti.
The gite is accessible only by trekking several miles from Ferpecle on a rough path through stone fields and over the snout of the glacier.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Keep an eye out for bearded vultures.
HOW TO DO IT: Access involves a glacier crossing, so you must have good boots and crampons. The hike should take six hours. Rossier is staffed from mid-July until mid-September and bunks are priced at £35 a night (cas-jaman.ch/cabanes/dent-blanche.php). Fly to Geneva from London from £31 each way (ba.com).
SECLUDED COTTAGE IN WALES
A waterfall in Snowdonia National Park seen from Ffestiniog narrow gauge heritage railway, near Coed-y-Bleiddiau
A house high on a forested hillside in North Wales, Coed y Bleiddiau has its own private station on the Ffestiniog Railway. Recently restored by The Landmark Trust, this snug lodge was built in 1863 for the railway’s superintendent, who would travel to work on the first slate train of the day and home on the last.
Visitors today can also hail a steam train to Porthmadog, hopping aboard from its private platform to trundle above the Dwyryd River and down through ancient woodland, villages and marsh flats.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Coed y Bleiddiau means ‘wood of the wolves’.
HOW TO DO IT: Four-night stay at Coed y Bleiddiau, which sleeps four, from £375 (landmarktrust.org.uk). Train details at festrail.co.uk.
NORDIC GHOST TOWN
Svalbard in Norway, pictured, is accessible by snowmobiles, dog sleds and skis in the winter and by boat in the summer
Frozen in time, Pyramiden in Svalbard, Norway, is accessible by snowmobiles, dog sleds and skis in the winter and by boat in the summer. It’s at the head of Billefjorden, opposite the opalescent majesty of Nordenskiold glacier.
Pyramiden was founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927
The coalmining town was abandoned in 1998, but tourism has given it fresh life.
Hotel Tulpan, the most northerly on Earth, features rooms in a very basic ‘old Soviet’ style. Tours of the town are available from friendly Russian guides with flare guns to ward off polar bears.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Look out for Pyramiden’s Arctic foxes.
HOW TO DO IT: A twin room at Hotel Tulpan from £89pp a night (visitnorway.com). Scandinavian Airlines flies Heathrow to Longyearbyen via Oslo from £313 (flysas.com). Boat trips to Pyramiden from Longyearbyen from £150pp return (en.visitsval bard.com). For tours, see bettermoments.no.
The decommissioned Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head by the English Channel, pictured, reopened as a B&B in 2010
Poised on the edge of the South Downs by the English Channel, the decommissioned Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head reopened as a B&B in 2010.
Guests have a choice of rooms, of which the highest is The Keeper’s Room, reached using the original ladder. Once home to the beacon men’s bunks, the chamber now houses an altogether plusher double bed.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Enjoy the glorious sunrises over the Channel.
HOW TO DO IT: Belle Tout, six miles from Eastbourne, has a two-night minimum stay. Rooms from £160 a night (belletout.co.uk).
JAPANESE MOUNTAIN TEMPLE
The bewildering building of the Nageiredo Temple on the scared Mount Mitoku, which is perched on a sheer cliff face
QUOTES TO HELP INSPIRE YOU
And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.
The desolation of that place was a thing exquisite.
If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.
One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.
For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
Vincent Van Gogh
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness.
Nageire-do on sacred Mount Mitoku is a bewildering building, the secluded inner sanctum of the Sanbutsu-ji Buddhist temple.
Perched on a sheer cliff face, it was (apparently) magicked into place by the mystic En no Gyoja in about 706, and you reach it via a winding pilgrim path. The climbing season runs from April 1 until the first snow of winter, generally early December.
This is a unique opportunity to learn about Japanese Buddhist/Shinto nature worship and to explore the surrounding primeval forest.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: The son of the head priest at Sanbutsu-ji temple is a top guide.
HOW TO DO IT: Nageire-do entry is £3. Stay at a hostel at a Buddhist temple further down (tottori-tour.jp). Fly London to Osaka return from £861 (www.uk.jal.co.jp).
STAY IN A VIKING BUNKHOUSE
The sæluhus shelters of Iceland are an eccentric joy. The Norse people raised these buildings to make crossing Iceland’s vast hinterland possible.
Sæluhus means ‘house of joy’, such was the pleasure with which the Vikings beheld them.
Today, the Feroafelag Íslands oversee 37 sæluhus scattered around Iceland. I stayed at Hvitarnes, a lodge built in 1930 on the shore of a glacial lake. It’s a timber refuge standing in a sea of grassy tundra overflown by honking Brent geese.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: It’s said to be one of Iceland’s most haunted buildings.
HOW TO DO IT: Sæluhus can be booked from £40 a night (fi.is/en/mountain-huts). Return flights London to Reykjavik from £264 (icelandair.com).
ISOLATION IN MONTANA
A panoramic view of the Kootenai National Forest in Montana. The lookouts in this national park rarely have a power supply
In the summer of 1956, writer Jack Kerouac sat alone on the summit of Desolation Peak watching for forest fires, spending 63 days overlooking the Cascade Range, one of the great wilderness areas of the U.S.
In 2017, I booked Big Creek Baldy Lookout in Kootenai National Forest, Montana. The tower was used as an observation point for more than 60 years but is now available to rent by tourists.
A 41ft tower with a 15ft x 15ft box atop, it offers panoramic views of forest and mountain.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Lookouts rarely have a power supply.
HOW TO DO IT: Retired watchtowers such as Big Creek Baldy can be rented for as little as £19 a night (recreation.gov).
GREEK ISLAND ODYSSEY
The Greek island of Spetses sits in the Mediterranean Sea. The wild isle’s interior has remained rugged and mysterious
The island of Spetses sits in the Mediterranean Sea. Humans first lived there during the Mesolithic Age but I first visited aged nine months, in 1983, when my parents moved there for a year.
Although Spetses Town and harbour is now rather chi-chi and something of a jet-set haunt, the wild isle’s interior has remained rugged and mysterious.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Stay away from the harbour for peace and quiet.
HOW TO DO IT: The island is awash with Airbnbs (airbnb.com). Athens is the closest airport and return flights cost from £94 (easyjet.com). Three-hour ferries from Piraeus from £22 each way (hellenicseaways.gr/en).
HIDE IN THE BRISTOL CHANNEL
A grassy granite outcrop lying in the Bristol Channel, off Devon’s north coast, Lundy is home to 23 self-catering properties. Pictured is North Lundy Lighthouse
A grassy granite outcrop lying in the Bristol Channel, off Devon’s north coast, Lundy is home to 23 self-catering properties — manors, beacons, radio rooms and fisherman’s cottages as well as castle keeps.
Access is by boat or helicopter and sailing times are posted at Lundy’s only pub, the Marisco Tavern, which is the only building left lit after the island’s generators shut down for the night.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Lundy means ‘puffin island’ in Norse.
HOW TO DO IT: A night’s stay is from £32pp (landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland). In the summer, the MS Oldenburg departs several times a week from Bideford or from Ilfracombe with returns costing from £70 (landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland/timetable).
- Outpost: A Journey To The Wild Ends Of The Earth, by Dan Richards, is published by Canongate.