Hillaby, J. (1970) Journey through Britain Paladin Books ISBN 0 586 08019 8
An account of an eleven hundred mile walk from Lands End to John O-Groats, this book (with it’s winning combination of anecdote, close observation, poetic metaphor and local history) was groundbreaking in it’s way and cut the path that led to the flowering of modern English landscape writing today.
My copy of John Hillaby’s Journey through Britain states simply, in the space below the foreword, ‘Christmas 1987’. I’d have been 24, just left art college and on my way to becoming a full-time teacher. It was a lonely time. I walked a lot, mainly in the Derbyshire Peak District. And, this book was a consoling presence. It made sense to me. I admired Hillaby’s erudition; a traveller, a walker, here was a man who really could write. I revelled in his fluid descriptions of people and place. If only I could write like that.
Hillaby walked. And walked. He travelled with a mid-weight pack, sleeping beneath the stars. His sense of curiosity, and his interest in and knowledge of both people and place root every page in an almost physical reality. He was a wonderful story-teller with an eye for telling detail.
Hillaby preferred to walk alone. Thoughtfully immersed. His writing was that of a learned and curious traveller (with a respect for and sensitivity towards his surroundings) allied to a boys-own recklessness, a taste for adventure and a refreshing directness as a journey took it’s toll.
Pedestrian extraordinaire Hillaby was a master of ‘slow’ travel, journeying at a pace that enabled him to savour the intimate detail the landscapes and communities he passed through.
Over the years the book has taken on a new dimension beyond travelogue and has also become an historical record of a Britain we can barely recognise today. His book provides a poignant snapshot of a British countryside and its people that are, in the main, long since gone.
On taking Journey through Britain down from the shelf again what struck me more forcibly than previously, were the frankly rather odd series of b/w images that are to be found at the centre of my ‘Paladin’ version.
From cooling towers to crofts, from monasteries to a mountain of broken toilets, it’s a set of images that would look at home in any of the current crop of books exploring ‘sense of place’ or psychogeography.
Finding the images has brought for me an added dimension to the book. The photos compliment the text in a wonderfully tangential way. They’re fleeting images, seemingly taken by Hillaby without pausing on his walk to click the shutter. Blurred snapshots, that capture the energy and essence of the walk rather than merely illustrating it.
If you’ve never read it, seek out a copy.