Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way

Walking Home

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.

10 comments on “Walking Home by Simon Armitage

  1. katkasia
    September 5, 2012

    I know someone who would adore this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! 🙂

  2. Hilary
    September 5, 2012

    I saw this on sale in the British Library, in conjunction with the current (superb) Writing Britain exhibition, in which Simon Armitage figures largely and to excellent effect. I decided to hold off buying it until I’d seen your review, Comrade M, which was really entirely unnecessary. I was and still am really looking forward to reading this.

  3. Martine Frampton
    September 5, 2012

    Just reviewed this myself, a really wonderful book. If you’re not normally one for travel books I would definitely give it a try.
    thanks for sharing

  4. Jane Steen (@janesteen)
    September 5, 2012

    I’m not usually a fan of travel books but this sounds fascinating. A walking vacation in Britain (where I was born, but I haven’t lived there as an adult) is high on my bucket list. Our deceptively green little island contains some of the nastiest hills and toughest walking I’ve ever seen! On my last trip to Dorset I met a mountain climber on the trail who opined that the hills we were on were worse than some mountains he knows… Having descended a nearly-vertical hillside with a coastal wind trying to blow me off the face of the planet, I suspect I may be nodding my head when reading about the Helm Wind.

  5. Moira
    September 6, 2012

    Oh yes. For a tiny island, we have some absolutely ferocious terrain. As you say Jane, hardened international mountaineers treat our fells and mountains with respect. And the Helm Wind is a real b*gger ….

  6. elizabethashworth
    September 6, 2012

    This one is definitely on my Christmas list – if I can wait that long.

  7. Lisa
    September 6, 2012

    I really love the sound of this too. Great review, Moira.

  8. Jackie
    September 6, 2012

    I like the sound of this, the poetry & travel & human stories mixed together. I can’t imagine how heavy that backpack must’ve been to earn such a nickname!

  9. Pingback: Review: Walking Home by Simon Armitage « Alex In Leeds

  10. River Tees
    January 22, 2013

    Hi we are loving this review, references to Cross Fell always please us. which is of course the source of the River Tees. Would you like a link on the Tees website?

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