We spoke to writer Dixe Willis about the best way to travel, veganism, and his latest edition of ‘Tiny Campsites’
“No travel is completely eco-friendly. You’re going to damage things whatever you do, but I try to do as little damage as I possibly can. My preferred transport is train and bicycle – certainly in Britain you can get almost anywhere on train and bike – as long as you have strong legs. I just find it inherently satisfying. Not only because I’m thinking ‘oh this is good because I’m not destroying the places I’m going to see,’ but also it becomes part of your holiday or trip – the journeying to it. You get a much better sense of the scale of the world, or the scale of the country if you’re going overland and a bit more slowly. You get a much better appreciation of what is there in front of you – the wildlife, the flora and fauna. We live in such a fast paced world it’s just really refreshing to slow down. I think slowness is something we need to instil in our lives.”
The appreciation for those things in life that many people overlook has become a cornerstone of author and journalist Dixe Wills’ work – and lifestyle. His recent writing focuses on hitherto unloved corners of the country – the tiny campsites many won’t have heard about, and the tiny train stations no-one ever uses. While his books are travel guides, there is a rhythm and depth to his writing that makes them infinitely readable, and opens your mind to the many jewels that exist out there, if only you take the time to look.
So how does Dixe himself discover them?
“I have spent the last 16 years or so wandering around Britain on my bike,” he tells Vegan Life. “And inevitably I just come across stuff. I am usually writing notes about something or other – whether I am writing an article or researching ideas for a book, and years later sometimes I find them and decide to investigate properly.
“This happened with Tiny Stations. I had to write a Guardian article about staying in a castle in Duncraig, and Duncraig Railway Station is a request stop that was actually built for the castle – the guy who owned the castle owned the railway line, and so he built that stop. It was so brilliant getting off there because it happens so rarely that everyone on the train was rubbernecking and thinking, ‘oh, who’s this guy?’ Yes, it was me! I was the important one there!
“That sent me back to childhood holidays of going to a station in Norfolk called Berney Arms, which is in the middle of nowhere – you can’t even get to it by road. There is a pub which unfortunately at the moment is closed. It’s a beautiful, beautiful stop. I thought that’s two really nice railway request stops, I wonder if there are any others? Then I started to research them and they come out of the woodwork. So that’s typical of my modus operandis. It’s an organic process, it tends to start with the germ of an idea – something someone says, or something I see and I think it’s interesting and wonder why no-one knows about it. When you start to uncover things you want to share the information.”
And where did he find the inspiration for Tiny Campsites in particular? “Because they are tiny they tend to be overlooked,” Dixe says, “and not in the popular guides to campsites and they tend to come and go a bit because they are often something someone runs as a side business, folding or starting up, so it’s quite a fluctuating thing which is why they quite often go under the radar. I’ve been incredibly impressed since the second edition of the book, I have found a lot of really interesting new ones – so I think the future is bright for tiny campsites (hopefully the sites and the book!)”
Does his interest in these little known places – the underdog – tie into his veganism?
Dixe says: “I have said many times I am a big fan of the underdog – I’m a Leyton Orient supporter for goodness sake! Being vegan is about standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves and don’t have a voice in how they are treated and on a much less important ethical scale what I like to do is go around and find other things that are overlooked and of less interest – such as tiny islands and churches.”
For many vegans cheese is the final frontier – for Dixe it was ever thus. He says: “I became a vegetarian when I was 15, I clearly remember it was a Sunday. I had thought about it for a while. I came down the stairs and announced to the world that I was going to become a vegetarian and my mother’s words exactly were ‘well I hope you find someone to cook for you!’
“Then she was very nice and cooked for me anyway. It wasn’t until seven or eight years ago that I thought it’s a bit silly being vegetarian and not being vegan because of the whole awfulness of the dairy industry and male calves being killed at a day old and cows being worked to death and living for eight years instead of the 30 they could expect naturally. I thought, it’s just a logical thing to do. And so I became a vegan.”
“I have to say, I found the step between going from a carnivore to vegetarian easier than going from veggie to vegan. I used to be very keen on halloumi – lovely halloumi – then sometime in 2010 I became vegan, and even as recently as then things like vegan ice-cream weren’t readily available, and even when they were, they were frighteningly expensive. But I have to say, once you get into it, it becomes second nature. Although I still haven’t come across a cheese that’s totally acceptable – it’s just one of those things. If vegan halloumi doesn’t have that squeak…”
When it comes to future plans, Dixe has several ideas in the pipeline, though often spends a while compiling his books. “I am a desperately slow writer,” he says. “I wish I were quicker, but I agonise over commas and things and I suppose when it ends up in a state I like it it’s done. I constantly edit myself when I’m writing. I’m writing a book at the moment, and my word count for today is 191 words that I’ve managed in four hours. It’s frustrating! I’m not one of these people who can dash of 10,000 words a day.”