It's raining in Carnforth. Yes, it's New Year's Day, the fireworks are over and it's tipping down, it's bucketing, it's raining cats and dogs, it's p*****g down, there's a heavy shower, downpour, rainstorm â€¦ take your pick from our well-endowed English language. It's been raining since early morning, in stair-rods. There's no wind and the sky's a flat grey making the world appear a shiny monochrome picture. And somehow it seems appropriate as January 1st is a sort of colourless limbo time as we start to adjust to a potential new beginning, however spurious the date may be.
Today is a time when many look back on the past year and reflect on how it has gone, before maybe setting some New Year Resolutions to make a difference in the days ahead. And that's what I've been doing, with the focus on travel and what it has brought, the highs and the lows and small learnings â€¦
The year started with a serious look at what it means to be a travel blogger. At the Traverse Travel Blogging Conference in Gateshead, experts from all areas of the travel industry shared their thoughts and tips on this growing craft. I have been blogging for quite a while and have some wonderful travel experiences as a result, but it was proving difficult to make a living from blogging. The conference helped me to face some serious decisions, which included reducing the number of trips abroad and redefining my reasons for going,
It was during a very moving visit to the burial place of WW1 poet Wilfred Owen in a little war cemetery in a tiny village in northern France that I remembered just what travel means to me.
It's not all about vacations, tick boxes, following the sun, or even new experiences. It's about how it makes a difference to feelings about life, other people and the world we live in. Seeing that simple white gravestone, one amongst many commemorating lives lost in foreign lands, was a powerful reminder that travel can have a real purpose and benefit, well beyond the many that come from a relaxing holiday.
On a totally different voyage I saw the majestic power and might of nature along the Arctic coast of Norway. The Hurtigruten ferry provides a vital postal service from Bergen to the very tip of Europe and during the winter months the scenery is both visually stunning and viscerally impressive.
I spent an enjoyable few days on the fascinating Mediterranean island of Malta, which manages to combine sun AND history in a very alluring mix. The highlight was a day-trip on an open top bus around the island. I loved finding out more about the intriguing and at times Machiavellian Knights of St John, sailing to the Blue Grotto in a traditional fishing boat and feeling the ruckled butter-yellow walls of medieval Mdina.
One trip it was easy to say yes to, was St Kitts, a tiny island between popular Antigua and exclusive Nevis. I'd never been to the Caribbean.
To be honest, it had never appealed. I'd an image of very wealthy types swanning around â€˜all-inclusive' resorts or at expensive beach-side villas in brightly-coloured garb, quaffing cocktails and nibbling lobster tails whilst the locals wished they had their money and life-style. I was persuaded that St Kitts didn't fit that image (though it most definitely has elements of that).I discovered this relatively unspoilt island has its own intriguing story of occupation and slavery, with an optimistic outlook and an exciting future. The most memorable part of this trip was a walk through St Kitts lush, tropical rainforest with knowledgeable local guide O'Neil. (This article was winner of the Caribbean Tourism Organization ‘Best Blog Feature’ Award 2014, which was a lovely surprise.)
During a very enjoyable weekend at Blogstock, the world's first blogging festival I gave a talk to a group of wannabee travel bloggers â€˜So you want to be a Travel Blogger?' I tried to flag up the perils as well as the pleasures of travel blogging, the crowded market and need to find a strong niche to focus on. It was also a personal reminder to keep on track in my own writing, concentrating on a personal view that hopefully brings another perspective to the familiar and unfamiliar.
The summer was a period of reflection and reality checking. I set up a TQT Training Services with a group of associates to provide bespoke training and coaching for the Tourism but had to accept that I had far less energy now and had to be realistic about what I could achieve at this stage in my working life.
I'd also become a part of Travelator Media, a commercial alliance of established online multimedia travel publishers who target the UK quality traveller at home and abroad. In the autumn we did a campaign for South Tyrol in which I concentrated on the culture and delicious Alpine food of this mountainous region of north Italy. Working closely with clients who appreciate the value of travel blogging was very rewarding and reassuring for the future.
My final overseas trip of 2014 was to Ecuador; its quirky capital Quito, the evocative cloud forest at Mashpi and the best place I have ever visited. â€˜Best' is a small, subjective word that can't convey the simple delight that exploring the Galapagos Islands brings. And swimming with sea lions was the best wildlife experience ever. I'd been feeling rather emotionally fragile during that trip – nothing to do with the place, more a â€˜time-of-life' thing. Snorkelling with a friendly, bewhiskered animal was the perfect healing remedy and another reason to embrace travel and its empowering experiences.
In December I talked to a number of people passionate about art and culture during a week-long series of Anchorhold Conversations at Abbot Hall in Kendal, Cumbria. Tourism, history and cultural exploration are closely intertwined and they tick a lot of boxes for a lot of us.
The rain is still falling but it's dark now. The first day of 2015 is coming to a close as I finish these New Year reflections. What will this newly born year bring? I am sure it will be a mix of good and bad, highs and lows for most of us. In amongst it all, will hopefully be a few diamond bright travel gems that will give new meaning to our lives and create very special memories for years to come.