Friday, 24 May 2013

Walking Home. . .

Over the course of my walks in the UK, I'm often bumping into parts of the Pennine Way, which stretches 256 miles from Kirk Yetholm in the north to Edale in the south. You encounter it on the Coast to Coast, and the path up to Top Withins near Haworth is also part of this long distance trail. So I was very intrigued to read poet Simon Armitage's Walking Home: Travels With a Troubadour on the Pennine Way.

Better him than me.

From all I've heard from people who have done this trail, it's one long slog. There are many boggy bits, some rather tedious landscape, and if the weather at all acts up, it can not only be dangerous, but downright miserable.

So it was quite enjoyable to tackle it from the comforting warmth of indoor spaces, and Armitage is a good companion and guide. As with most travel books these days, there needs to be a twist but Armitage's is slightly less gimmicky than most: he attempts to walk it entirely by relying on the hospitality of strangers to put him up for the night, and to finance it completely from poetry readings given along the way. He also eschews the traditional direction of south to north, preferring to walk in the opposite direction and thus towards his home, near the start (or end) of the walk. He's not a seasoned walker and he's also not Bill Bryson; this trip isn't detailed primarily for laughs, although there are some comic moments and people encountered who are as every bit as odd as those you'll find in Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.  Instead it was more a thoughtful mediation on the physical and mental act of walking, the solitary aspects of it (ideal for a poet one suspects), the way it challenges your body parts (some of which you never knew you had until they start to hurt), with a bit of philosophizing about the nature of quests and fulfilling them (or not).  Which is appropriate since he uses Sir Gawainas one of his spiritual guides (he's previously written a translation of the poem). Also along in spirit is his uncle Robert, a veteran of the First World War who helps put his daily grind into perspective. Armitage inherited his uncle's war medals and takes them with him:
I carry them with me as an example of what one blood relative endured just so following generations could go strolling about in the great outdoors without a care in the world. Compared with mushing a packhorse through the trenches of northern France among the flying bullets and exploding bombs, the Pennine Way is a doddle, and quitting for any reason other than actual death would not only be a pathetic failure, it would be a betrayal.
I really enjoyed cheering him on throughout this book, even though it has definitely turned me against ever doing the whole walk myself, though I have earmarked certain stages that would make lovely day hikes. Perhaps the most heartening bit was reading about the willingness of people to travel quite a way to rather obscure villages to hear him read his poetry; his nightly takings in the sock he passes around are always quite decent. This summer he's embarking on another long distance path (and another book), this time walking the South West Coastal Path (bits of which I've also done). If you want to walk along with him, his itinerary is posted on his website here. I'm not surprised he's tackling another route; long distance walking does get addictive.  When I was walking the Coast to Coast last summer, I definitely identified with Armitage's conclusion:
. . . over the past fortnight, my habitat has become the journey itself and my new habit is to walk. That's what I do now: I lace up my boots and head into the hills, then do the same again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Where do I live at the moment?  On the move. It's a routine, a rhythm, the norm. I walk therefore I am. And now that I've got used to it, I feel too lazy to stop.
He'll also be in Liverpool giving a reading at Leaf on Monday, June 10th.  I might just saunter along to hear him.

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