Armitage, S. (2012) Walking Home Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way ISBN 978 0 571 24988-6
Yes, I like journeys, an excursion every now and again, the occasional expedition and even an odd adventure once in a while, but at the end of the day I’m very happy with the way things are, or rather where things are. Which is why, presumably, I’m still living three miles from the hospital I was born in. And why I wanted to tackle the Pennine Way, which would return me to my front door, and why I wanted to do it the wrong way round – to get back to all that is comfortable and familiar, everything I call home.
Writers have often had a productive relationship with walking, and not just since the indefatigable legs of William Wordsworth strode the fells; as Rebecca Solnit reminds us in Wanderlust, her seminal history of walking, strolling as a pastime dates from the Elizabethan garden estate, just when pilgrimage had fallen out of favour.
When Simon Armitage, a modern day poet and author, decided to write about walking the 256 mile Pennine Way in the summer of 2010 from north to south so that, as the quote above says, he felt like he was walking ‘home’ towards Yorkshire, rather than away from it; I thought I was in for a treat, as I’d really enjoyed his first semi-autobiographical novel ‘All Points North’.
Sadly the premise of a talented writer recording his experience of the legendary long distance path is undermined by the main focus of his challenge NOT being the walk itself but more the anxiety over financing the trip with pre-arranged poetry readings at various places along the away. I wondered why he worried;as being a celebrity poet means that volunteers have pre-organised readings and a bed each night, thanks to a notice on his website. So Armitage is a long way from being a penniless wayfarer and far closer to the star on tour (only without the tour bus and entourage).
And sadly, the troubles with this book don’t stop there, as it quickly becomes apparent that Armitage, as he freely admits throughout, just doesn’t really want to be out there on the misty moors of northern England in the first place, and that lack of enthusiasm for the task in hand seeps into every chapter like water into a Pennine hiking boot.
The various other strands for the book:- the author on an epic journey back home; the wandering troubadour paying his way with his own performances; homage to heroes like Ted Hughes etc. all feel a bit half-hearted. In the end the book is neither a true epic tale, nor a poetic portrait of the landscape, it’s hardly even an amusing travelogue – ultimately, it’s all a bit of an anti-climax.
My gut feeling is that it wasn’t written as a result of the impact of the walk on Armitage but rather the walk was undertaken in order to write the book. Frankly I’m baffled by Simon Armitage’s rather grudging mindset throughout. Despite being equipped with mobile phone, satellite navigation, maps, guide books and numerous volunteer guides he supposedly plumbed the depths of despair when lost in the occasional bit of mud and mists along the way. And as for the ending; well words fail me… rather limp seems apt.