• Chelsea Davies

what the pandemic taught me about literal backyard travel

Strangely, backyard travel doesn’t translate to an exploration of doorstep destinations. At least, that was the case before a pandemic confined us to our homes for four months.

“I’d say lockdown has definitely made me explore home territory more than usual,” said Elisa Edwards. I was talking to the twenty-something travel blogger and content creator via video call. She was describing the adventures she’d been having around her house in Flintshire, North Wales. I, meanwhile, was distracted by the massive world map with at least one pin on almost every continent tacked behind her head.

“I feel more grounded by my surroundings when outdoors,” Elisa continued, pulling me away from daydreams of far-flung destinations. “It’s like hitting a refresh button which helps with my creativity and mental health.”

Internally, I gave a resigned sigh – she was right. It was week five of government-enforced lockdown. I’d been wearing the same pair of leggings for four of them, going through photos of past trips. I was torturing myself with images of Sarajevo, Istanbul, Santorini. In fact, exactly a year before, my feet were sinking into island sand, belly soft from too much baklava and sunburn laughably patchy from scorching temperatures. Now, the most exotic stamp on my passport was the kitchen for a desperately needed change of scenery from my bedroom.

I, as a running-adverse member of society, hadn’t left the house in so long the actual count of days was lost to me. My daily ritual was to wake up, make coffee and stare out the window like a widow waiting for her husband to return from war. In this case, the missing husband was my wanderlust desperately seeking an outlet.

“I think backyard travel has been overlooked because a lot of travel is about bragging rights and no one wants to brag about the area near them because it doesn’t sound fancy,” Elisa said rather sagely, petting her cat who had wandered into our call. He was leaving wet footprints on her bed. “But,” she said after a minute of gentle scolding, “at the moment it’s trendy. We don’t have any other choice, really.”

This year, more than half the population was planning a staycation with the average holidaymaker booking two trips at home according to the latest ABTA Travel Trends Report. The trend of domestic travel was slated to hit the big time even before coronavirus erupted; micro-cations, which lend themselves well to staycations, were set to dominate as people sought to relax and recharge in more frequent intervals and growing awareness of the climate crisis meant travellers were more mindful of their environmental footprint, nudging them towards destinations reached without carbon-costly flights.

It was data forecast pre-pandemic. Yet, fears surrounding health, on-going travel restrictions and lasting financial repercussions meant those seeking an escape would be doing so closer to home.

It begged a question. If desperate for travel, why hadn’t my wanderlust embraced a literal backyard adventure? I wasn’t going to reach new shores for the foreseeable, and it was a place unventured despite more than a decade of living in my – sorry, my parents’ – house.

“I decided to explore the forest across the road the other day,” said Elisa. “I’ve never done that before partially because of lacking time and because it’s rare to have good weather and stay close to home.”

Elisa’s words rang in my ears as another day of staring out the window, at the ceiling or into the fridge loomed. I was waking up from dreams with the sweaty tang of hostel dormitories still heavy in my nose. Clearly, I needed to get outside.

A little context; home is the valleys of South Wales. It’s the old heartland of coal mines, iron, steel and tin works. There are rolling hills and tumbling mountains, steep sloping valleys and scars from our now-defunct industrial heritage. The Welsh Government is also a devolved power in the United Kingdom. It meant we had a slightly different response to the pandemic; once-daily exercise was permitted only if it was within five miles of our homes and we experienced 15 weeks of travel restrictions.

It’s why a growing number of people in my area had stumbled upon trails, routes and landmarks they had no idea existed, let alone were so close to the house. In lockdown, we really had no choice but to embrace literal backyard travel in order to avoid insanity.

“A nice walk turned into a lot longer, about eight miles. We came across the Cwm Ffrwd Heritage Trail,” said a neighbour after the weekly clap for key workers. “We’re so lucky to discover places we’ve never been before.”

It was this discovery of new places my soul missed most about being able to travel. So, resigned to the fact my boobs would get saggy if they spent another day braless, I set out to find backyard gems like those delighting neighbours and reformed travel bloggers alike.

I started for the field backing my garden gate, aiming for the woods beyond the hilly stretch of land pockmarked by all the animals it had put to pasture over the years. I’d always been curious about what was beyond the treeline but had never bothered to explore. There used to be cows in the field and my irrational fear is being caught in a stampede due to a traumatic viewing of Jumanji. It was morning, and the dew quickly seeped through my trainers.

I hopped a fast-flowing stream with nets of bramble and emerged at the base of a stony path climbing upwards. The trail was lined with low-hanging trees that curled around it like steepled fingers. The leaves cast shadows, like light through lace curtains. The path looked like a dried riverbed with crumbling boulders, grooves running like tributaries, a dribble of small stones sent in a tumble by my clumsy feet. I walked for ten minutes, three spent stationary to coo over a dog, before breaking through the trees to emerge onto single-track tarmac winding around the slopes of a hill.

I hiked a little further up the lick of black road and a whole village emerged. The scene felt almost alpine; fluffy calves roamed, banks of stubby grass had bushes blooming with tiny yellow flowers and a line of stone cottages stood half-crumbling in the mid-morning sun. I spied a woman sitting on a bench looking out toward the valley. It was the same view that unfolded from my bedroom window, just a different vantage point. I couldn’t see what she was pulling from her canvas shopping bag but it looked crumbly. She waved her other hand at me, her shout of good morning carried on the wind from a safe social distance.

I turned a full circle, disbelieving this was quite literally on my doorstep. I wasn’t more than a 15-minute walk from home.

Becky Price is an ecologist and travel content creator from Abersoch, North Wales. Her social feed provided a solid case for embracing literal backyard travel, showcasing the beautiful blue waters of the north-west coast like the beaches of Porth Ysgo, Porth Neigwl, Porth Ceiriad and the Llŷn Peninsula.

“I’ve been to Australia and New Zealand. But, I haven’t visited so many places in my own country,” Becky explained. “This whole experience has given me even more appreciation for what’s on my doorstep,” she said. “I’ve taken travelling in my own country for granted. I can’t wait to have the freedom to explore more of this beautiful place we call home.”

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that travel – in the sense of adventure, escapism and discovery – doesn’t have to start with a journey by car or plane. You’re subconsciously aware of this as a kid as you explore and test the boundaries of your backyard. I remember once, before mobile phones were given to children as a matter of course, wandering out of the range of the walkie talkie my parents entrusted to me, resulting in a week-long grounding. I wanted to see what was beyond the parentally-imposed limit on the local cycle path. I’d heard rumours of a treehouse and a rope swing to boot. I got within sight of the wooden boards built within the branches of an elm before my mum arrived; an older kid had grassed, foiling my plans for a great expedition just a mile from home.

Then, you get older and adventures become reserved for pricey flights and hostel dorms, long-haul travel and bulging suitcases. Thankfully, attitudes have and are changing because of the way society responded to government-enforced travel restrictions.

“There’s always going to be a place for world travel,” Elisa said during our video chat. “Like, I can’t wait to get on a plane again. But, I think eyes have been opened to how wonderful travel can be in your own country and even when things go back to normal, people are going to remember all they discovered and that’s going to stay with them. It may not be, like, literal backyard travel after lockdown ends but holidays at home are definitely going to start having bragging rights. I’ve added a bunch of places in South and West Wales to visit when we can eventually leave the house.”

I acknowledge my privilege of living in an area with so much open space to roam. I have friends who live in cities and during the pandemic, their government-approved walks looked a lot different from mine with more to fear from crowds. Yet, backyard travel – real, just go from your door and see where it takes you travel – can be experienced no matter your postcode. It’s made me second-guess the necessity of long-haul in satisfying my wanderlust, a habit bad for my savings and the environment. Is there a need to contribute to global emissions when unexpected adventures can literally be found on your doorstep?

My own backyard wanderings took me to a charming hillside village, an abandoned slate quarry and a reservoir, all of which had escaped my knowledge of existing in my years of living in the area. In a funny way, the pandemic is to thank for the biggest discovery of my doorstep exploration – a mountain. That’s what was beyond the formerly cow-guarded treeline. I’d been reluctant to embrace backyard travel because of being stuck in a mindset that there was nothing worthy of being discovered so close to home. I was gloriously proved wrong as my valley rose and rolled before me from the top of the peak.

I turned to take in the view, eyes finding a familiar landmark a straight shot from my mountain perch. It was my home, the garden gate swinging open.