Following in history's footsteps
Charlie Connelly's latest project sees him tracing the journeys of ancient kings, queens, tribes and people, from Norwich to the west coast of Ireland, writes Arminta Wallace
PICTURE THE SCENE. Clad from head to toe in the latest all-weather walking gear, an intrepid travel writer sets out to recreate some of the most celebrated historical journeys undertaken in these islands over the past 2,000 years. He stands with his back against the door of his hotel, squares his shoulders and prepares to sally forth. Then he realises that in his bid to walk the road once taken by the warrior queen Boudicca, he hasn't actually got a clue whether he should turn to the right, or to the left.
"It was a pretty inauspicious start," Charlie Connelly admits. "I'm not the most organised person in the world. I was so ill-prepared for that first journey, when I think back on it. I had a page torn out of a map book. No compass. Nothing. And the hotel - naturally enough - wasn't marked on the map." He offers a rueful grin. "Then again, Boudicca probably didn't stay at the Norwich Travelodge."
Connelly's journey began with him trudging back to reception to find out where he was. Such are the challenges faced by travel writers who attempt to dig beneath the tangle of dual carriageways, housing estates and industrial suburbs that form the surface of our 21st-century world. Connelly, however, is adamant that getting up close and personal with history is not only possible, but worth the trouble.
"I've always been passionate about history," he says. "When I meet people who say they're not really interested in history, I go, what? How can you not be interested in history? What they mean is, they can't reel off the Tudor kings of England or remember the dates of battles and stuff like that. But history is all around us; and it's in everything. It's politics, it's sociology, it's languages, it's geography. It's like all the best novels you've ever read."
When Connelly says something is interesting, you can believe him. More to the point, you can trust him to make a highly entertaining book out of it. His last book was based on the shipping forecast - a most unlikely topic, on the face of it. Yet Attention All Shipping became a runaway bestseller and, in a recent online poll, was voted one of the best-loved audiobooks of all time, ahead of Harry Potter and second only to A Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A previous outing that saw him retrace Liechtenstein's bid to win the World Cup was selected as a sports book of the year by, among others, this newspaper.
His success lies in the sort of combination of enthusiasm and self-deprecation that has served predecessors such as Bill Bryson and Tim Moore very well. So when Connelly writes about Manx history, then, you can be sure he won't pass up the opportunity to comment on such Scandinavian soubriquets as Kjetil Flat-Nose, Grim the Ram and Aud the Extremely Wealthy. Come on. Fictional, surely? "No - absolutely not," he says. And he tosses in Ivar the Boneless for good measure.
In his new book, Connelly retraces journeys made by a variety of historical figures. Some, such as Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, are relatively well known. Others - including Olaf the dwarf, the 12th-century king of Man, or the 15th-century Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr - are considerably more obscure.
"I wanted to trace historical journeys by ordinary people," he explains. "But they don't get written down. Ordinary people don't get documented in history, as a rule. So most of the journeys in the book were in fact taken by monarchs." Many of his characters are so shrouded in history as to be little more than mythical figures - the Iceni queen Boudicca, for instance - but walking in their footsteps gave him, he says, a shiver-inducingly real sense of presence.
"I came to respect most of these guys through researching them," he says. "I'd find myself lying in bed thinking, 'I wonder what they were thinking, the night before a big battle.' I kind of got to know them. And when you actually go and stand where they stood, it adds a whole new dimension to your understanding of history."
THE STORY OF Boudicca is almost all myth. All we know is that the Iceni queen was publicly flogged by the Romans, and her daughters raped before her eyes. Furious, she marched across England to wreak havoc on all the major Roman settlements she could lay hands on.
"The village of Caistor St Edmund, where I started my Boudicca walk, might not have been where she actually started from. But it was definitely an important place for her tribe," says Connelly. "And now it's all green fields and grazing sheep and a peaceful church. But you can stand there and think, when she was here it was a busy market town with streets and shops and everything. I really like that."
In the final chapter, Connelly shifts to the west coast of Ireland for an evocative re-imagining of one of the saddest episodes of the Famine, when hundreds of people from Louisburgh, Co Mayo walked along the shores of Killary Harbour to Delphi Lodge, where they were told they'd be given food. Many died from starvation along the way; corpses with grass in their mouths were found by the side of the road.
"My editor said the Doolough walk would be too downbeat as an end to the book - but I reckon it's just the opposite," he says. "Although it certainly isn't the happiest of subjects, it ended up being the most uplifting. Firstly because it's such a beautiful part of the world; and then I was cheered by the fact that although all those people died there, and there isn't a grave or even a record of their names, some good has come out of their tragedy in that Doolough has become a place where people focus on human-rights issues."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has done the walk, as have refugees from Zaire, the Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailovic, and, on several occasions, Choctaw Native Americans. "The Choctaw tribe collected $700 and donated it to Irish Famine relief in 1849," says Connelly.
"They really identify with the Dooulough walk because they were forcibly moved from their native lands in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana by the US government and made to walk to Oklahoma, a distance of roughly 500 miles. For all these reasons I think this walk makes a perfect ending to the book; it really celebrates all the un-named people in history who have had a great impact on the world."
Born and brought up in London, Connelly is currently living in Dublin. "I'm living in Clontarf, and I'm loving it," he says.
"My background is Irish, but I don't know much about it because there was a big family row. My dad's mother died when he was six, and the rest of the family left my grandfather to bring up three kids on his own, pretty much. So my dad didn't speak to them. Now that he's about to retire, he's trying to find out about the family, and while I'm here, so am I."
He's also taking Irish-language classes but that's just for fun, he says. Mind you, the last language Connelly studied was Russian, and he ended up singing a duet with an Uzbek popstar live on Uzbek telly. So you never know.
And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2,000 Years of British and Irish Historyis published by Little, Brown, £11.99
THREE GREAT WALKING READS
The Rings of Saturn
by WG Sebald (Harvill Secker)
This record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia has been compared to Proust, but for my money it's much, much better. The German academic combines genius and grumpiness in about equal measure: prepare yourself for stories about skulls and silkworms, fishing fleets and dreadful fish dinners. One of the best travel books, never mind walking books, ever written, it will change the way you see the world.
by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin)
They broke the mould when they made Rebecca Solnit. She has a highly individual style, which irritates some but inspires others to defend her to the death. In this admittedly roundabout history of walking, she documents the links between pedestrianism and philosophy, poetry, spirituality and whatever you're having yourself. The book is structured in such a way as to reproduce the rhythm of a good walk as you read. Go figure.
Robert Falcon Scott: Journalsedited by Max Jones
(Oxford University Press)
The mother of all books about walking. No one has ever frozen to death as gracefully as Scott, who kept writing almost to the end, and this beautiful edition restores a good deal of material which was edited out of his published journals. It includes original photos, and a facsimile of the final page, with its heartbreaking understatement: "It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more."