The links between writing and walking are well-explored, not least in Rebecca Solnit's marvellous Wanderlust, but this book adds a great deal more to our understanding of the connection between these two fundamental activities, and of the importance of walking to an individual writer. It's also a compelling account of what it's like to walk a difficult, arbitrary long-distance path, of the fears and doubts that pull at the sense of achievement. At the outset of his walk, Simon Armitage realises that he is "the weakest link" in the chain of strangers and friends who are making his walk happen: "Failure seems unavoidable, with humiliation and shame the inevitable consequence". Lost in the mist on Cross Fell, "a truly terrible place" pitted with shafts from old iron workings, he experiences "the dismal misery of not knowing where I am, or perhaps losing any sense of who I am, as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud". Near the end, however, he contemplates the possibility of not finishing the Way, a deliberate act that transforms apparent failure into "the triumph of personal accomplishment over public affirmation".
A lot of books about long walks are not terribly well-written and can't avoid the obvious label of pedestrian. This is not one of those books. It is beautifully written with an attention to the details of the walks, the readings, the spare rooms of strangers, and especially to the textures of the places Simon goes. Here is a typically precise and evocative description of walking through a forest:
Stumps of old trees are footstools upholstered in velvety green moss. Pine resin is the first thing I've smelt for hours. Except at the very top where their tips bend and flex like fishing rods in some mad struggle, the evergreens absorb the bruising gusts and deafening surges of wind, so there's nothing but static and stable air at ground level where I walk. And somewhere above me, where their coats are thickest and fullest, the trees have absorbed all suggestion of rain, so down here it's dry and cushioned, every footfall received and relaunched by a thick mattress of spongy,brown needles. A form of twilight gathers under the canopy, a cloistered stillness.
As well as being beautiful, it is also very funny, attentive to the bathetic moments that inevitably follow feelings of achievement; Armitage is comically self-deprecating about his performance at the readings, something he describes as "little more than a man in a creased shirt holding a book in his hand for three-quarters of an hour". Every turning-out of the sock after the evening's reading is a source of humour. I love walking, and have dabbled with shorter long-distance paths, but even if you never want to walk further than the corner shop, this is a really rewarding book, absorbing, funny and moving.
Simon Armitage is undertaking a similar walk on the South West Coast Path in August and September this year, so there will be another book to look forward to soon.