Walking Home

By Simon Armitage. I would highly recommend it. For its beautiful writing. And for the walk we cannot walk at the moment.

“In summer 2020 Simon Armitage* decided to walk the Pennine Way^. The challenging 256-mile route is usually approached from south to north, from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm, the other side of the Scottish border. He resolved to tackle it the other way round: through beautiful and bleak terrain, across lonely fells and into the howling wind, he would be walking home, towards the Yorkshire village where he was born.

Travelling as a ‘modern troubadour’ without a penny in his pocket`, he stopped along the way to give poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms. His audiences varied from the passionate to the indifferent, and his readings were accompanied by the lacing of pool balls, the drumming of rain and the bleating of sheep.

Walking Home describes this extraordinary, yet ordinary, journey. It’s a story about Britain’s remote and overlooked interior – the wildness of its landscape and the generosity of the locals who sustained him on his way. It’s about facing emotional and physical challenges, and sometimes overcoming them. It’s nature writing, but with people at its heart. Contemplative, moving and droll (“curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement”), it is a unique narrative from one of our most beloved writers.”

That’s what’s written on the jacket of the hardback copy I borrowed from a family member, posted all the way from Wales before the apocalyptic episode of COVID-19. A few further pieces of research I did:

*Simon Armitage is an English poet, playwright and novelist with quite a few important-looking titles that unfortunately have very little meaning to me. This was my first attempt to read his writing, so I had all the excitement, uncertainty and pressure from going into a first date.

^The Pennine Way is a National Trail in England, with a small section in Scotland. Britain’s first official long-distance trail, formally opened in 1965. It’s 268 miles (431 km) long, from Edale, in the northern Derbyshire Peak District, north through the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Park and ends at Kirk Yetholm, just inside the Scottish border. I haven’t walked it myself but it’s a familiar one since its northern section is close to home.

`Troubadour is a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries. Well, I thought it was the name of some type of dog. Sorry.

The book is a travelogue, starting from his planning stage at home. He put an announcement on his website about the idea and the itinerary of the walk and the poetry reading: “I’m doing the walk as a poet. Wherever I stop for the night I’m going to give a reading, for which there will be no charge, but at the end of the evening I’ll pass a hat around and people can give me what they think I’m worth… If you live on or near one of the recognised stopping points on the Pennine Way and would be willing to host or organise a reading for me, be it in a room in a pub, a village hall, a church, a library, a school, a barn, or even in your living room, do get in touch.” He also called for ‘donation’ of accommodation, packed lunch, luggage transit and walking companions. Then he hopped on a train heading north. The walk started the next day.

Chapters are divided and entitled by the beginning and the end of the walk of that day, the mileage, the OS map reference and the date. The chapter starts in the morning when he started the walk for the day, sometimes alone, but more often than not, with walking buddies in various numbers and professions. I usually don’t like reading descriptions of the environment either indoors or outdoors in a piece of writing because my imagination often fails me. So to be able to follow his walking travelogue, I had OS maps open, which was helpful and pleasant.

Some days all went well, weather, conversations and the view, making me wish I could go out and join him now (not possible on many levels). Some days it was such a struggle that I could feel my hair whipping my face in the gale, coldness on my shoulders and my feet where the rain soaking through the waterproof jacket and dripping into my shoes.

I especially enjoyed reading the chapters of him getting lost in the wilderness of Cross Fell, lying in a hot bath. It’s a hard job to keep a reader interested on a walk through their mind’s eye by describing the landscape and the movement of putting one foot in front of another all day. Armitage not only did that, but also narrated what went through his mind: facing the navigation difficulty across the near-featureless terrain with a sense of grim humour (“The route across it seems pretty straightforward on the map, but that’s only because I’ve highlighted it in dayglo orange”), the silence and helplessness in the mist (“But a cairn is just a pile of stones, not a signpost, not a policeman, not a tourist information centre, and after failing to find it on the map we have to leave what little comfort it offered and let it disappear behind us into the void”), the trick of the mind (“The melancholy comes over me again, the dismal misery of not knowing where I am, or perhaps losing any sense of who I am, as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud”), and the overflowing joy when he was found (“I am ecstatic and elated and in love with everybody in the world who is not a cairn or a cloud”). It was affecting. And it was such good writing, all I wanted to do was to jump out of my now cold bath and copy every word down.

The chapters usually conclude with him arriving at the fore-planned town or village for the poetry reading, usually shattered. There was sometimes a room full of fans and admirers hands-clasped and eyes-glittering, listen to him holding their breath. But sometimes his voice would be against the commotion of a pub, with waitresses stacking plates, fruit machine humming and flashing, diners who were there solely for fish and chips. The ending of the walk was a bit surprising but kind of fit for a poet.

Since now I can’t go anywhere, this is probably the best kind of walk I can do.

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