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Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way
Let me tell you about Bleaklow. It’s as cheerful and beckoning as its name suggests: an alien, featureless wilderness of peat groughs and hags – the former being the channels cut through the latter by the action of water, wind and countless lost souls trying to find their way out. You can’t see where you’re going, you can’t see where you’ve been and you lose all sense of direction along with a substantial chunk of your will to live. In all my walking years I’ve only once encountered anywhere else in the UK as spirit-lowering and unfriendly as Bleaklow – and that’s Cross Fell.
Cross Fell is the highest point on the Pennines at a hiccup under 3,000 feet, and it’s the only place in the British Isles that has its own, named wind – the Helm Wind – a merciless north-easterly that blows down the escarpment to generate storm force winds in the Eden Valley. The top of the fell is frequently shrouded in fog, and snow has been known to lie up there for four months of the year. The locals used to call it Fiends Fell.
Both Bleaklow and Cross Fell lie on the 267 mile long Pennine Way – described pithily by Simon Armitage as:
In many ways … a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.
It is normally walked from south to north – from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm, just over the Scottish border. Armitage, however, decided to walk the Way ‘backwards’ – from Kirk Yetholm southwards. His reason for tackling it the ‘wrong way round’ was that as he lived in Yorkshire, he would have the incentive of walking home …
He also decided to tackle it without any money. He was, in effect, travelling as a true troubadour: giving poetry readings in the evenings in everything from village halls and pubs to the glorious Theatre Royal in Richmond, staying overnight with people who volunteered their spare rooms and living off whatever his audiences chose to drop into the (clean) sock he passed around. Blister plasters and painkillers featured prominently in his takings.
Walking Home could so easily have turned into one of those comfy ‘Aren’t the British a rum old bunch?’ sort of books – full of affectionate whimsy and wry observation. Instead, it’s part travelogue, part meditation and, inevitably, part personal journey – because no-one who tackles the Pennine Way can remain completely unchanged by it. Parts of it, indeed, are quite frankly bleak – for how could it be otherwise when it co-stars some of the most remote, unforgiving and unpopulated countryside in England and starts out in the wilds of Northumberland on the same day that Raoul Moat is being hunted by the Police forces of three counties?
That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its share of whimsy and wry observation – it most certainly does – and to anyone familiar with Simon Armitage’s poetry it will come as no surprise to hear that much of it is laugh-out-loud funny and informed by his self-deprecatingly deadpan sense of humour (we are talking about a Yorkshireman, after all); but the lightness is counterbalanced by the grim legacy of Saddleworth Moor, the uncompromsing vagaries of the Pennine climate and his moments of misery and crippling self doubt. Oh, and mud. Lots of it.
Walking Home is not only about the Pennine Way of course; it’s also about the people he encountered along the way – enthusiastic, eccentric and reassuringly old-fashioned – who fed him, transported his massive backpack (nicknamed the Tombstone) between overnight stops and got lost with him on mist-shrouded fell tops. And it’s also about the journey; not the one on the ground – the one in his head, where he is accompanied by Gawain and Odysseus. He is a poet, after all, but he wears both his muse and his learning lightly.
Written with touching honesty, it’s an engaging, entertaining and illuminating read – and you don’t need to have ever set foot on any part of the Pennine Way, or even donned a pair of walking boots – to enjoy it. There are a few poems, but this is not a book of poetry. There are more than a few jokes, and a couple of them alone are worth the price of the book. More than anything else, however, there is Simon Armitage – flawed, human and hilarious – meticulously counting out the takings from his sock every evening and depending on the kindness of strangers.
And how did he fair on Bleaklow and Cross Fell? Well now – that would be telling, wouldn’t it? But the sock ended up containing £3,086.42.
Faber and Faber. 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0571249886. 304pp. Also available as a digital download.