A poet's Pennine promenade
Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine WayBy Simon Armitage Faber and Faber, 285pp. £16.99
IN AN ARTICLE in the Daily Herald in 1935 the journalist and hiker Tom Stephenson proposed the establishment of a 412km trail that would connect Edale, in Derbyshire, to Kirk Yetholm, just north of the Scottish border. In 1965 the trail opened: it was named the Pennine Way and was Britain’s first official long-distance trail.
An early enthusiast was Alfred Wainwright, the “William Blake of walking”, as Simon Armitage calls him. Decked “in decidedly pre-modern walking apparel” (a flat cap and a mackintosh), Wainwright “walked the Pennine Way in ‘bits and pieces’ over an 18-month period, during two foot-and-mouth outbreaks and in what sounds to have been constant rain”, finishing on New Year’s Day 1968.
Wainwright’s accounts of these walks (with his own superb line illustrations), collectively known as Pennine Way Companion, are remarkable, being a perfect advertisement for, an indefatigable guide to and a work of art about the Pennine Way. The Companion also proves once again that the eccentric English “oddball amateur working at the personal, local level” can produce work with “universal appeal”.
Armitage was born and grew up in the west Yorkshire village of Marsden, which is on the southern end of the Pennine Way. Throughout his childhood, walkers, many clutching Wainwright’s guide, were a familiar sight as they lumbered through his village, mostly heading north. The youthful Armitage wasn’t tempted to follow these wayfarers, but in 2010, by which time he was a lyric poet who was both successful and popular – an incredible statement in these naughty times of ours – the 47-year-old decided he “wanted to write a book about the north, one that would observe and describe the land and its people, and one that could encompass elements of memoir as well as saying something about my life as a poet”.
But he needed something to carry his material: step forward the Pennine Way, which he identified as “the perfect platform” for his book, “a kind of gantry running down the backbone of the country offering countless possibilities for perspectives and encounters, with every leg of the journey a new territory and a new chapter”.
Because it’s his nature to do things differently – Armitage is a fully paid-up member of the Yorkshire awkward squad – and in order to make his trek interesting, he decided to approach the walk in two unconventional ways. First, rather than walk south to north, like the majority of walkers, he decided he’d start at the finishing line in Scotland and end at the traditional starting point in Derbyshire. Second, he’d take nothing but his clothes and “would attempt the walk as a kind of modern-day troubadour, giving poetry readings at every stop” in payment for his bed and board. Walking Home is his account of that journey, and it’s pretty much as he says in his mission statement: it’s about the English and it’s about him.
What Armitage says about the English (or the English in the north, to be precise) is as follows: they’re not excitable; they’re kind; they’re environmentally progressive; they’re tolerant; they’re sociable. They also appear to like poetry. I doubt that any of this will surprise readers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no pleasure to be had from Armitage’s account: his evocations of northern English rural life are precise and affectionate. Indeed, as I read I found myself thinking, Ah, yes, that’s exactly how it is. (And I know northern England: I was at York University for three years.)
What Armitage tells us about himself fills the greater part of his book. Here are some of his revelations: he has a lousy sense of direction; he doesn’t like being alone; he has no bottle; he’s neurotic; he frightens easily; he’s envious. I could go on. I won’t. The point is made, I think. He knows himself well, indeed very well, and most of what he knows he doesn’t like. I can’t say I’d like to live in Armitage’s skin, but I admire the honesty of the account he offers.
Should you want to walk the Pennine Way, you could do worse than read Walking Home: it may help and it certainly won’t confuse, although it may put you off. The principle reason for reading Walking Home isn’t for the facts, however; it isn’t a walker’s guide. The principle reason for reading the book is the prose, which, like Armitage’s poetry, is unfailingly clear and orderly.
Furthermore, like the poetry, the book also eschews making immodest claims for itself and does exactly what it says on the tin: it simply describes a long trek in the rain by a grumpy poet with a beady eye, a restless soul and a generous heart. It’s plain, but in a good way.
Carlo Gébler is a writer. He teaches at Queen’s University Belfast and HMP Maghaberry. He is writing a stage play based on Prosper Mérimée’s novel Carmen