A very long walk indeed

In the summer of 2010, poet Simon Armitage decided to walk the Pennine Way from Kirk Yetholm, just north of the border between England and Scotland, to Edale in Derbyshire. His 256-mile route would take in the wilds of the Northumberland National Park, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District, as well as the many highways and by-ways in between. The result is ‘Walking Home’.

Walking Home

“I wanted to write a book about the North,” he explains in the preamble, “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.”

In an interesting twist, Armitage leaves home with only enough money to get himself to the start of his walk. For board, lodging and everything else that he’ll require en-route, he (almost literally) sings for his supper, staging poetry readings at the many towns and villages that he visits and collecting donations from his audiences.

I bought this book because (a) I like walking, (b) I like travelogues and (c) I was interested in getting inside the head of a poet. And while the book does give a fairly decent account of walking the Pennine Way, I found myself reaching the end of the last chapter a little disappointed. And that’s because, while the book does indeed cover the full length of the Pennine Way, it does so with surprisingly little in the way of depth.

Don’t get me wrong. The book’s nicely written and tells a good tale. There are even some nice poetic turns of phrase. But I just think that it could be more. Perhaps a little less about the nuts and bolts of walking and a little more about the inner life of the itinerant poet. The book reads, at times, more like the route description you’d find in a walking magazine than a travelogue penned by an accomplished writer.

We do get some insight into the author’s mind, into what makes this poet tick, but they are sadly few and far between. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by travel writers like Bill Bryson and Will Ferguson, who have the uncanny ability to tumble into a place and seize upon its very essence. Writers who combine personal narrative, encounters with local characters and insightful historical context to makes the reader feel like he or she can actually see, smell and feel the place around them.

Or perhaps I’m being too harsh. The critics clearly liked this book and it made the Sunday Times bestseller list. So some people clearly like it. Or, at least, bought it. But for me, it doesn’t really do justice to what the author set out to achieve. Or, for that matter, to the people and places that he encountered on his trek. Which is a shame, because with a bit more thought it could have made for a fantastic read.

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