I started reading Walking Home, Simon Armitage’s book on the Pennine Way, just before Armitage was appointed Poet Laureate – and I considered giving up on the book right then. Benjamin Zephaniah has already explained why honours in the name of the British Empire are a bad thing: Armitage has compounded the shame of his CBE with his recent appointment as a paid flunky.
Still, Walking Home is not a bad book. At the start, Armitage slightly oversells the toughness of the walk – I guess he’s trying to add some drama – but I’ve seen some fairly unfit people get by just through persevering. The book that follows is a gentle description of the people he meets, the scenery and his poetry gigs along the way.
The best thing about the book was reliving the trail. Armitage does it in the less popular direction (i.e. into the wind) and was unluckier with the weather than most people – his experience of Pen-y-ghent was as rough as mine. There are some great descriptions, particularly an early one of the Cheviots – “The view in every direction is delicious: a solar system of summits, majestic but benign hills overlaid with lush grass and the odd rectangle of planted conifer., And, somewhat incongruously, in the far distance to the east, the sea.”
While Armitage says he wouldn’t walk the trail again, the book made me want to go back, not least because of things I’d missed. For once, I didn’t realise that Jodrell Bank was visible from the Pennine Way. And I’d love to walk the Cheviots again.
There’s something interesting about how walkers can have such different experiences of the same path. It reminded me of the way we interpret texts differently, based on what we bring to it ourselves, and the conditions at the time. The route might be the same, but the walk is different – just like we have different readings of the same text.
And there are similarities too. Armitage had the same sensations of space as I did, the amazement that our ‘overcrowded island’ contains areas so wild, so barren. Armitage also wonders about the flagstones, a thing of controversy for some walkers, since they make difficult paths accessible in tough weathers. Armitage points out that these huge stones are sinking and will, in time, disappear into the moorland.
The most disappointing thing about the book is that Armitage does not actually complete the trail – he abandons the final day for the comforts of home. I’ve spoken before about how we pick our own rules for hiking. But when you’ve chosen the terms of your walk, you have to complete it on those terms. Armitage’s failure to complete the last stage is only mentioned at the end of the book, where he tries to frame it as something that doesn’t really matter. This seemed dishonest.
Not completing the route is something of a trope in successful books about hiking, as Robert Moor pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker article, Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance. Discussing Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Paul Coehlio’s The Pilgrimage, Moor asks “why are the three most famous accounts of hiking three of the world’s most famous long-distance trails written by people who did not hike the whole distance?” It’s a good question, and Walking Home provides further evidence that this is indeed A Thing.