Faber & Faber
Aged 15 I participated in a sponsored walk, joining Ffyona Campbell between Selby and York as she neared the completion of her round the world walk. Walking from Lands End to John-O-Groats in one go seems a more than ample distance, never mind circumnavigating the globe; so when one of the organisers asked what my own walking ambitions were I replied “To complete The Pennine Way.” At 33, it’s something I’ve yet to do, although having read Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, it appears I’ve walked large parts of it separately, and tackling it in its entirety seems more achievable than at any time since my schooldays.
I’d seen Armitage in conversation with Stuart Maconie at this year’s Latitude Festival, where he read excerpts from the book, as well as discussing the journey and several shared walking experiences with Maconie. I found myself frequently relating to these experiences and purchased the book afterwards. During the actual process of Walking Home he gave readings each night in order to earn his keep, with a walking sock being passed round the audience, who deposit what amount they saw fit, or in some instances other items, mainly plasters.
The book begins with Armitage recalling the summers of his youth, when ‘foreign creatures in big leather boots and mud-splattered over trousers began descending’ upon his native Marsden, having completed the early stages of the Pennine Way; that is assuming they were tackling it the ‘right’ way, i.e. South to North. ‘as a poet I’m naturally contrary’ he reasons when explaining why he intends to tackle its 256 miles in reverse, whilst ‘the humiliation of failing to arrive in the village where I was born seemed like the perfect incentive.’
Armitage is primarily known ‘as a poet’, yet this book is largely made up of prose, the first of his poems written along the way, Fell Ponies, is almost halfway through the book.
Unfortunately for Armitage he has no equine assistance on his journey, although he is offered advice and joined by a number of people. Again unfortunately for him some of this advice seems wildly inappropriate, such as the man whose thoughts on the
Way are ‘It’s basically like the M1 up there.’ Prior
to commencing the journey his own father judges his rucksack too heavy,
suggesting ‘You don’t need a coat.’
If Armitage’s father’s advice on attire seems ill conceived I think he’d approve of my dad’s advice that ‘You can’t tackle a hill on a Mars Bar alone.’ On the first day, having already consumed gingerbread and Victoria sponge he jokes that it’s ‘A cakewalk’, I certainly count more instances of cake consumption than actual poems throughout the book, with Armitage conceding that ‘this trip is going to be as tough on the teeth as it is on the feet.’ There’s much humour to be found throughout the journey, although inevitably, given the British climate, it’s not all a barrel of laughs.
Even in the early, northerly stages of the
Pennine Way I’m surprised
how many places are familiar from childhood walks with my father. Such as ‘the
highest point in the Cheviots, the unimaginatively named and apparently
unrewarding Cheviot’, which Armitage bypasses, but we took a detour on when my
brother temporarily lost his tracksuit top and a fell runner informed us he’d tied
it to a fence halfway down. Armitage himself loses a pair of walking poles in ; whilst he isn’t reunited with
them he does become the owner of a new pair at Midleton-In-Teesdale, himself
the recipient of kindness from a stranger. It’s an act which renders him, a man
of many words, briefly speechless, and his eventual response ‘sounds horribly conditional
and self-regarding.’ Keilder Forest
I mostly found it easy to warm to Armitage, partly because he shares several of my passions, including music. His love of The Wedding Present surfaces on a couple of occasions. When he is joined by their merchandise man, Des, between Once Brewed and Greenhead, he enquires ‘Is there a lot of call for Wedding Present merchandise these days?’ Des’ response ‘Yes, plenty, but it’s an ageing fan-base. We don’t sell many small or medium T-shirts’ reminds me of the suspiciously large number of t-shirts labelled S or M left in Dean’s house after this year’s Long Division.
The most entertaining interactions for me though concern two individuals, Armitage’s friend from his student days, Slug, and ‘a Huddersfield-born Buddhist going by the name of Subhadassi.’ His father’s initial reaction on meeting the latter provides one of the book’s laugh out loud moments.
Inevitably though there are long stretches of isolation involved when undertaking this journey, and these periods inspire some of the more memorable passages. Illustrating the power of the wind and the exhilaration he feels walking into it at one point he writes ‘I open my mouth to shout MORE, but the force of the air just rams the words back into my mouth and down my throat.’ Finding himself in mist between Hawes and Horton-in-Ribblesdale figures only come into view at the view at the last moment, two of these, a ‘father-and-son team’ provide another touching reminder of my own walking roots. Although as he puts it elsewhere ‘Unless you’ve been lost in the mist on the moors or in the hills, it is probably difficult to understand the true horror of the experience or to fully sympathise with the sufferer.’ I can still recall being on Great Gable in the
Lake District when
the mist briefly cleared, revealing a drop of several hundred feet to my
left-hand side, I had to crawl on all fours for at least ten minutes until my
dad managed to calm me down.
Walking Home has certainly rekindled a desire to put on my walking boots more often as well as delving further into Armitage’s works. Although reading All Points North between my first and second readings of Walking Home leads to one of my few criticisms of this later work, which is that Armitage does cover old ground; with several anecdotes appearing in both books. Having being introduced to Armitage through his TV work and live readings I’d certainly recommend this as introduction to his writing, reading it being something of a stroll in the park.