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Interview with Helen Coffey: Ground of all my being

26 August 2022

Deciding to stop flying opened up new experiences for the travel writer Helen Coffey. Interview by Susan Gray

Helen Coffey

Helen Coffey on the Northern Belle train. See gallery for more images

Helen Coffey on the Northern Belle train. See gallery for more images

WHEN Helen Coffey takes to the Greenbelt stage as a speaker on Sunday, she will be on familiar ground, having attended the festival five times in the past decade.

Her London-to-Kettering journey will be by means of a car pool with a group of festival regulars, plus some babies who have arrived since their last pre-pandemic get-together. “I feel like it’s my festival home. I don’t really do a lot of other festivals, but I just love Greenbelt.”

Raised as a Roman Catholic in Hemel Hempstead, Coffey now attends the Church on the Corner in Islington. She sees a connection between her faith journey and highlighting the environmental damage of air travel, a campaign made more noticeable by her employment: she is travel editor of The Independent.

Her book Zero Altitude began life in 2019 as a feature that looked at people who had given up air travel for climate reasons, including an interview with Anna Hughes, the founder of Flight Free UK, which asks people to pledge not to fly for a year.

“For me, this is very faith-related,” Coffey says. “I find, out of nowhere, suddenly God has given me this thing to do. It’s not like a gradual thing: it’s fully formed. I was just writing the feature, and he put this in me, saying: ‘You should do it next year.’

“One of the perks of my job is travel, including flights. But the idea wouldn’t go away. So I got to a point of: ‘OK, I just have to do it,’ and wouldn’t it be good to write a book about it.”

She was already aware of reports on the harmful impact of air travel; but she struggled to get to the meat of exactly how bad it was, and so felt that readers would appreciate seeing the fuller picture — about how their city breaks contributed to climate change.

Zero Altitude ended up combining a love letter to slow travel — and often solo travel — with an analysis of how tax regimes and transport policies give air travel an unfair advantage over more sustainable forms of transport.

Hitchhiking, one of the most sustainable forms of getting from A to B, is not one that Coffey has been able to repeat since the book’s Hangar Lane-to-Oxford road trip, accompanied by a veteran hitchhiker, the writer Simon Calder.

“It is not because I feel unsafe. It is to do with my lack of knowledge of UK roads network. I don’t know where any of them go. My main worry would be being dropped off somewhere and feeling I don’t know where this road goes. It’s quite key to know where you should be to catch a lift,” she says.

Although ruling out a solo revival of the retro art of hitchhiking, Coffey pledges to thumb another trip with a navigationally minded friend. “I’m going to say now I’m going to do some more hitchhiking before the end of the year. It’s not cool to have done it just once and not carry on doing it.”

PILGRIMAGES are the poster-child of slow, conscious travel. Coffey’s ferry trip to Santander and the four-day walk along the Camino del Norte are highlights of her book. Making daily treks over 25km, she found sustenance in repeating the Lord’s Prayer as she kept putting one foot in front of the other.

“The Lord’s Prayer is very good for that. It just keeps going round like this mantra in your head. Prayer always helps in some way. But in a base-level way, it kept me going and kept me on my feet,” she recalls.

She says that her solitary trip along the Camino was where faith and flight-free travel connected at a deeper level. “If we really believe that we’re stewards, then we have to take that seriously. It can’t be something we annex from our faith life and our religion. It came to fruition a lot during the Camino.”

The walk along the ancient Camino was originally planned merely because Zero Altitude needed a section on “using your legs to get you from one place to another”, Coffey says. But she found its effect on her surprisingly deep. “I hadn’t really thought much about the spiritual element before I went, but it was amazing. I was spending eight hours a day, often more, just completely by myself.

“There were so few people doing that route at the time I was doing it. You really have to look deep inside, and you have this amazing, prayerful experience. You’re walking and talking to God — connecting with God in new ways that often you don’t have, because we’ve got such busy lives, jam-packed with digital distractions.

“Stripping that away allows you to have that deeper connection. It really made me want to kind of go back and do further sections, or one day complete the whole Camino de Santiago.”

THE tourist-thronged Grachtengordel, the 17th-century district surrounding the old centre of Amsterdam, encircled by four canals, feels a long way from the Camino’s tranquillity; but it, too, offers pointers on how to make travel sustainable.

Since 2017, Amsterdam has spent nothing on promoting itself as a tourist destination, because the city was already saturated with visitors. Nine million came in 2019, 1.43 million of them from Britain. Taking advantage of the hiatus of the pandemic, the Amsterdam authorities worked together to make mass tourism less of an ordeal for the city’s residents. Tours of the red-light district were banned, as were beer bikes with their handlebar-mounted tube connected to a keg of beer.

In their place came guides and apps encouraging visitors to explore along the River Amstel, and follow cycle paths to Nord Aemsterdam and Zuidoost. Coffey’s cycling weekend took her to street art galleries, food markets, Indonesian cafés, and Rembrandt-style landscapes with windmills.

Helen CoffeyHelen Coffey in Amsterdam

She is emphatic that tourism centred on curated cultural experiences rather than must-see showstoppers does not exclude the less-well-off or less-resourced traveller. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be how much you spend: it is the respect thing. It’s respecting the place you go and remembering it’s some people’s home.

“That’s what I have an issue with. You may be having a lovely time, but if someone was sick on your doorstep, or was urinating against your house, would you like it? Probably not.

“We need to change our mind-set. The places we visit are not our playground to do what we want with regardless of how much we’re spending. It’s stewardship, thinking: you’re not the only person that wants to see this place; so how do we treat it with respect?”

Zero Altitude is about widening the choices of flight-free travel. Coffey explains that the term flygskam, coined by Greta Thunberg’s mother, is mistranslated in English as “flight shame”. Yet the original term was not so much about shaming people for flying but asking them whether it was really something that they wanted to brag about so profusely on social media.

The flip side of flygskam is “train brag”, tagskyrt, a social-media movement encouraging members to post about their train journeys. Coffey’s favourite tagskyrt is the Caledonia Sleeper. “You wake up in the Scottish Highlands, which is unbeatable when you’ve pulled out of not-very-nice Euston Station. You raise your little blind, and you’re in the middle of nowhere, in this amazing landscape.”

FOR travellers wanting to increase the sustainability — if not bragging rights — of their own journeys, Coffey advises first reframing the importance of the journey itself. “It’s changing your mindset from only caring about the destination to the journey’s becoming an integral part of your travel, your holiday. We all have a yearning for adventure and for new experience.”

Slow travel is superb, she says, at facilitating chance meetings and conversations with strangers, which are otherwise hard to achieve in the digital, self-service world.

On a practical level, asking whether your trip is really necessary, or can be done without flying, is a good first step to environmentally conscious travel. When the destination and timing are out of your control — for instance, a wedding — and flying is the only reasonable way to go, contributing to carbon-removal schemes is a way to lessen the impact.

Greener travel is an area in which citizens and consumers have to take the initiative, as cheap foreign and domestic flights are too popular and ingrained for politicians ever to suggest curtailing them.

“Policies are often off the back of what’s popular with voters. So, it starts with us, because we need to put pressure on government to say we don’t want to stay with the status quo.

“We underestimate how much power we have. Change often happens from the bottom up rather than the top down. Government reflects what society is clamouring for. We need to see that interaction, and see the power that we have when we demand change on certain issues.”

Zero Altitude: How I learned to fly less and travel more is published by Flint at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-0-7509-9572-6.

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