Published: 2012 by Faber and Faber
Hardback and paperback editions
Paperback cover price: £8.99
In June 1980 ,sandwiched in my photograph album between a bicycle ride by the Thames with friends from Hackney Community Housing and my dancing at the Pontadawe Folk Festival with the Angel Morris Men, I spent several days walking on the Pennine Way. My memory only provides me with confirmation that I did do this (I was 25 at the time) but from the captions of the few photographs I took I can say for certain that I walked its route in the Yorkshire Dales between Ponden Reservoir near Howarth to Goredale Scar – a distance of perhaps 25 miles, though I might have done a fair bit more.
I still have the little two-man tent that I had carried and the walking boots, though I use neither for walking now, the former being too heavy to carry by modern standards and the latter both heavy and uncomfortable. I clearly had beautiful weather for my trek. Written notes on a map show that I went back the following year and did a section further south, presumably with my tent again as I noted a “good camping spot” above the Lower Gorpie Reservoir.
I have crossed the Way several times since; when I walked the Coast to Coast Path, where it meets at Keld in the Yorkshire Dales, in Northumberland where is shares a few miles with the Hadrian’s Wall Path, and, most recently when I walked the Dales Way. In the back of my mind I held the possibility of tackling the whole of it one day. After reading this book, that thought has been pushed back a little further.
In July 2010, the poet Simon Armitage, set out to walk the whole of the 256 mile Way from north to south. He was 47 years old at the time.This is the opposite way that most guide books to this first of the designated National Trails have been written. The rationale for the south to north preference appears to be that it is better to keep the sun and rain at your back rather than to have it come at you from the front. Most of our wind in this country comes from the west and the least favoured wind must surely be a cold, wet one coming from the north, but Armitage had a more compelling rationale for his direction. He lives near Marsden in West Yorkshire and by starting from the Scottish end, he would be “walking home” . Except that he wouldn’t, Marsden being two days short of the official start/end of the path at Edale in Derbyshire. After passing Marsden things go rapidly downhill for Armitage; to say more would be to spoil his dramatic finale.
If more motivation than getting home was needed to complete this challenging path, Armitage had given himself it in spades. He had devised an original and immediately engaging structure to the walk. He started with no money in his pocket and would fund his travels though giving a reading of poetry each night at or near his chosen destination, passing a sock around for voluntary donations. He also wanted to write a book, this book, “about the North, one that could 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”. And having conjured up this plan and his walking itinerary over 18 days (a reasonable pace for an experienced long distance walker, which he wasn’t) he announced it on his website, putting himself in his readers hands as to where he might give his readings and inviting offers of bed and breakfast.
As pressures to complete such a walk, go, I cannot imagine much greater. But just to top them up he carried with him the First World War medals of his uncle. “Compared with mushing a packhorse through the fields of northern France amongst 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.” Hmm, not sure that such a comparison makes much sense!
Armitage is clearly a sociable chap who is not too fussy about the company he keeps. So each day he starts off with hangers on from the previous night’s readings, or is joined by someone from the press, or by an old friend or some ranger or other knowledgeable type. For me, although his vignettes about his hosts and walking companions were always entertainingly written, I think that he has censored, and therefore made somewhat tame, his reactions to them. I would have rather he had risked at least some rather blunter assessment of character than he offers.
Where he does quietly acknowledge difficulty is with the daily exposure to meeting a new person on whose hospitality he is dependent and then dealing with the whole business of being given tea by his host, shown the room, sharing the bathroom etc and then having to perform his work.
“These are the difficult hours” he admits, and comes back to the issue several times. For me this would have driven me nuts. After a days walk in company I need some peace and quiet (and preferably a bath and a snooze). Bed and breakfast owners usually understand this and leave you alone but Armitage gets little respite from socializing. After a days walk respite what I usually want is a quiet drink in a pub (though Bob provided great entertainment one night on the Coast to Coast with a near perfect karaoke rendition of The Kinks “You Got me Going”) and maybe some crib (when I usually take money off Bob).
What Armitage has to do is then perform his work and still he has his hosts to think about at the end of the day. Some of his performance venues are not exactly on the doorstep. One night his gig as 50 miles away in Grasmere in the Lake District.
With all this to pack in I did at times feel that the countryside that he was walking through rather missed out. Which is a shame as he writes well and quite knowledgeably about what he sees on the way and with an acute ability to observe his surroundings.
If he is soft on his descriptions of people, he pulls no punches when it comes to his responses to the landscape. Despite the fact that he had chosen one of the best months to tackle the path, he had little luck with the weather. From the conditions that he encountered you might be forgiven he was walking on the cusp of a wet autumn for all the sun he saw. Towards the end of the book, this is an extract of his concluding description of his feelings about the path:
“It has done everything in its power to see me fail. It has laughed at me with the wind and pissed on me with the rain. It has lured me into thick fog, misdirected me thorough forests and woods, and abandoned me in the empty fells leaving me to sigh, swear and on at least one occasion to weep”.
He goes on like this for a fair bit more and there is no “on the other hand” to soften these blows. So although he does have some good days, this is not a book that does a great job of “selling” the path. To their credit the Pennine Way Association list it second to Wainwright’s volume in their long bibliography of books about the path. It makes me wonder how well they read it!
The book is punctuated by the occasional black and white photograph – around 20 in all. These snaps reproduce very poorly in the paperback edition that I was reading and for me their choice seemed largely arbitrary and insignificant. A couple of sheep, part of a field, a poorly composed shot of a couple of cairns, a room with a couple of bunk beds. You could have left all of these out and most of the others without losing anything, though I was glad of a least a glimpse of the author clasping (no doubt to stop himself being blown away) a finger-post.
There are also three poems reproduced, though Armitage doesn’t say if they were written before after or during the walk. I suppose they offer a sampler of his work and perhaps this is what was intended. We hear next to nothing about what moves him to compose a poem or about how he goes about the task which was a shame.
Whilst I don’t think that Armitage did a particularly good job as far as his own aspiration for the book is concerned, I did enjoy it. He’s funny, too. But perhaps read it after you have completed the walk, rather than before. And good luck with the weather. It was great back in 1980.
After I finished reading the book I read Sara Maitland’s new little book “How to be alone”. She refers to Armitage’s book and lists it in her anthology.