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Rose Tremain: how I travel

The British author on moments of inspiration, from a forest playground to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Rose Tremain

My first trip abroad was to Wengen in Switzerland. I was seven. My sister and I and our nanny went up to the Jungfraujoch on a funicular train and were amazed to find snow there in the middle of summer. We discovered a deserted sawmill surrounded by forest and this became our playground. Wild strawberries grew at the edge of the wood and I used this image of hidden fruit in a pivotal scene in my 2016 novel, The Gustav Sonata – "tiny points of red, like beads of blood among the bandages of green leaves".

I used to be a patient and hardy traveller because travelling seemed such a beguiling and important thing to do. I was impatient to visit as many countries as I could. I started with Corsica, Portugal, South Africa, Russia and Greece. I remember asking the literature department of the British Council to "send me anywhere in the world". Now, aged 75, that yearning to be elsewhere has completely gone, partly because airline travel now feels like an extreme form of punishment for a crime one has not committed. But I still journey to wild, distant places in my head. The novel I'm writing now is set partly in the Borneo rainforest. I happened to be in Berlin when the Wall came down, in November 1989. The city was seized by an excess of joy that I will never forget. I walked through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin and got lost in a falling mist. To ask the way, I went into a provision store where they sold only tinned sardines, black bread and cabbages. I joined in some wild celebrations in Paris Bar and barely slept for three nights. Later, I wrote a short story, titled The Beauty of the Dawn Shift, about an East German border guard who decides, when the Wall comes down, to walk eastwards towards Russia.

My husband, Richard Holmes, is a brilliant travelling companion, calm and organised and never, ever lost. In contrast, I can get lost between a station buffet and the trains, between 56th and 57th Street, between a taxi queue and the taxis.

We bought a dilapidated house in the Gard, in southern France, on the morning of 9/11, 2001. We thought the world might be ending, but we went ahead with the purchase anyway. Now, we go to the house to walk and swim and invite friends to drink gin by the pool, listening to the nightingales.

My packing essentials include sleeping pills. A bit of kit for what my mother used to call my "hopeless hair". Emergency flat shoes for when heels become unbearable. Clothes I'll greet as friends when I unpack. My phone with pictures of my grandchildren on it.

Does travel broaden a person's horizons? Of course it does. We have short lives and should try to engage with all manner of human difference. I've been to every continent except South America and the Indian subcontinent. My work has been shaped by travel.

Having said that, I don't aspire to be a traveller any more. I aspire to discover stillness and equilibrium near to home. My favourite journey is the one from my kitchen to my writing desk.

Rose Tremain's latest book is Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life (Chatto & Windus, hbk, $32.99)