Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Walking home by Simon Armitage

Some years ago, I heard Simon Armitage when he was in Wellington for Writers and Readers Week, and bought his book All points north straight afterwards. Lately I've been enjoying his latest book,Walking home (sub-titled Travels with a troubadour on the Pennine way.) Simon Armitage is an English poet who came up with the idea of walking the Pennine Way north to south - against the prevailing weather conditions, and the usual direction of walking it - with the intention of finishing near his childhood home, a village called Marsden on the edge of the the Peak District. The idea was that the humiliation of failing to make Marsden would act as a spur to completing the 256- mile walk.

The trouble with many travel books is that they can be very self-absorbed. The writer makes it sound as though they are the only one exploring this fascinating part of the world, whereas if you've been there yourself, you know perfectly well that it must be swarming with other tourists. That's why I enjoy reading travel writers like Bill Bryson who can season their work with a lot of self-deprecating humour and write about fairly ordinary places while making them sound fascinating.

And that's why I'm really enjoying this book, because Simon Armitage is constantly poking gentle fun at himself and the whole idea of a 'travelling poet" (a big part of his expedition involved giving poetry readings each night) but his focus is usually outward, at the scenery, and the weather, and birds and flowers and geology, and the people he meets en route who take on board the "travelling poet" idea, offer him hospitality, organise the readings and become part of the whole project.

When we lived in England, we did a lot of walking in the Lake District, and also embarked on a misguided attempt to complete the  Coast to Coast walk in March. (It ended halfway across in a blizzard, so I can sympathise with some of Simon Armitage's descriptions of the inclement weather he encountered, even in summer.) We still have a couple of Alfred Wainwright's guides  - A pictorial guide to the Lakeland fells is one I've just picked off the bookshelf, Book Seven - the Western fells, crammed full of Wainwright's trademark maps and detailed drawings. So I'm also enjoying the language of the place names which are condensed poetry in themselves (from just one day's trek: Billysbeck bridge, High Cup Gill, Maize Beck, Meldon Hill, Birkdale Farm, the Cauldron Snout waterfall and the cliffs of Falcon Clints) as well as relishing the unusual and wonderful vocabulary he employs.

I also admire his determination to stick to his own rules, reading his poems in all sorts of venues after a long day's walk, when he must have been exhausted and yearning to hide away in a quiet place by himself.


The book is also peppered with references to other journeys, and other travelling poets - Wordsworth, the great walker, and Odysseus of course - and with occasional anecdotes that tell the stories behind some of the poems he reads, like "Causeway". Altogether it's a lovely mixture of travel book, memoir and poetry. I'm getting to the end of it now and I'll be sorry to come to the end of the journey.


  1. It sounds like something Barbara Murison would love....
    The place names sound great...we are so boring here with out place names....

  2. There is certainly something special about English place names. They range from the poetic to the picturesque to the bizarre, and maybe it's something to do with the fact that you know they've been used for so many hundreds of years. But American place names can be a mixture of the poetic and the bizarre as well - so can Australian ones! And maybe that's how people from outside NZ see our place names as well! Your comment made me realise tho that I do have trouble dreaming up interesting place names for stories set in NZ. Usually the names I come up with are pretty routine and a bit humdrum. I wonder if there is a place name generator somewhere online - esp one that you can specify the country you want??