Review: Walking Home by Simon Armitage

One summer, Simon Armitage decided to walk the Pennine Way – a challenging 256-mile route usually approached from south to north, with the sun, wind and rain at your back.  However, he resolved to tackle it back to front, walking home towards the Yorkshire village where he was born, travelling as a ‘modern troubadour’, without a penny in his pocket and singing for his supper with poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms.  Walking Home describes his extraordinary, yet ordinary, journey of human endeavour, unexpected kindnesses and terrible blisters.

I first heard about Walking Home at Latitude Festival 2012, when I went to hear, and see, Simon Armitage in conversation with Stuart Maconie, talking about his adventures along the Pennine Way.  I’m a huge fan of Armitage’s poetry, and especially love his ‘translations’ of Arthurian legends, so I was curious as to how his prose would sound.  At the Latitude event, I asked if this walk had been his own ‘quest’, like that of Gawain and Arthurian legend and he said it was, as all writing is, so I was expected hardship, adventure, and, ultimately, triumph.

As it turned out, I very much enjoyed my journey accompanying Armitage on his long pilgrimage through the north of England.  After a short introduction, the book is divided into chapters day by day, setting out where the journey began and ended, the distance covered and the Ordinance Survey map references, in case you’d like to investigate further.  The prose style is flowing while retaining a wry, ironic sense of humour, often self-deprecating. We’re invited to join Armitage in raising an eyebrow at his hubris and bumbling attempts to conquer nature and the British landscape.  That being said, the landscape itself is not left out of the action.  I was left with the impression of beautiful but also brutal wild places, astonishing, breathtaking, but not to be patronised or prettified.  These hills, dales, valleys and peaks are to be admired and respected, not romanticised.  They have a personality all of their own.

Armitage’s experience on Cross Fell is a particularly good example of the difficulty of the journey and the powerful danger of nature:

“Unless you have been lost in mist on the moors or in the hills, it is probably difficult to understand the true horror of the experience or to fully sympathise with the sufferer.  Admittedly, it is not the same level of danger as stumbling around in Death Valley without a water bottle, or dangling from a rope down the north face of the Eiger, or being shot at by bandits in the Khyber Pass, or a million other such situations associated with intrepid adventure or extreme sports.  But it is frightening, and on the few occasions it has happened to me, I have noticed a very alarming and rapid change in my psychology, as if the claustrophobia and disorientation brings about a particular condition, the symptoms of which include fear, panic and loss of logical thought, but also akin to sadness and melancholy, something like hopelessness but also close to grief.  In other words, it is upsetting, and as we leave the foursquare Alamo of Greg’s Hut and begin the climb to the top, I feel the sorrow and unhappiness welling up inside me, anticipating what is to come…”

This visceral evocation of the physical and emotional effects of weather and nature gripped me throughout the book.

However, Armitage has an awful lot of good things to say about his journey too, about the natural world around him and also about the people who host his poetry readings, house him overnight in spare rooms and keep him company for shorter or longer stretches of the Way.  He’s clearly very moved by the positivity of the people he meets, their kindness and charity.

I don’t often read non-fiction, although I do enjoy nature-writing, and books celebrating the British Isles.  I think Walking Home does both, and also provides laughs, pathos and a great, triumphant, story.

Kate Neilan

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