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My mother mentioned Simon Armitage's Walking Home, an account of his walk along the Pennine Way, to me when I was reading Hunter Davies's A Walk Along The Wall in preparation for our walking holiday, and then Armitage was on last week's Great Canal Journeys talking to Timothy West and Prunella Scales about the Pennine landscape and, as I was between books (having just abandoned Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light because it simply wasn't managing to interest me at all; I know it's an SF classic, but maybe it's just too much of another time, or maybe it was just the wrong time for me) I bought the Kindle edition and started reading it straight away.

The thing I don't understand is how many books about walking appear to be written by people who don't actually enjoy walking. I know that I was really worried, before our walk, that I wouldn't enjoy it; I think I was actually more worried that I'd have a miserable time than that I wouldn't be physically capable of completing the trail, but in fact once we started it was quite simply the most amazing experience, and minor discomforts were as nothing compared to the sheer joy of being out there, surrounded by the countryside, just having to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not having to worry or even think about anything else. If it rained, well, we had waterproofs, and Gore-Tex lined boots, and waterproof covers for our backpacks, and if it wasn't very warm, well, after half an hour's walking I was generating enough body heat that I was quite pleased the outside temperature was only around 15C and I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt, and if my legs ached after a day's walking, it was a good ache, accompanied by a rather smug feel of satisfaction at having really achieved something. Armitage also had doubts before he set off, which is hardly surprising, as he was a middle-aged man with no experience of long-distance walking embarking on what is probably the most challenging of British long-distance walks (the toughest section of the Hadrian's Wall path shares its course with the Pennine Way, and Armitage's book confirms my suspicion that that is one of the easier bits of that trail), but even once he starts walking a lot of negativity remains; the frequent complaints about the rain and fog and cold, the difficult terrain and hard-to-follow path all give the impression that he really isn't enjoying himself. He can also be rather snide and mean-spirited about the people he encounters. I particularly disliked his comments on a "slower and heavier" couple he and the Pennine Way Ranger he's walking with pass one day, who then arrive at the summit ten minutes after them and "crack open a tin of biscuits"; Armitage can't see them, from where he's sitting, but he "can hear their giggling and the sound of chubby fingers prising bourbons and custard creams out of the plastic packaging". From which I can only assume that he must have amazing powers of recognising biscuits by sound alone, as he's already said he can't see them, and that he doesn't think fat people should be allowed to climb hills and if they do, they shouldn't opt for biscuits as a convenient and calorie-dense snack when they get to the top. I also wonder whether the owners of the B&B in Byrness were particularly chuffed with the way they were portrayed, mocked for the number of signs put up for the benefit of their guests and for the old-fashioned range of snacks on offer in their tuck cupboard.

However, Armitage is a poet, and has a poet's way with language, and he grew up in Marsden, just off the Pennine Way, and has a real feel for the Pennine landscape. He writes beautifully, and the book is definitely at its best when the focus is on the countryside and its flora and fauna; which, to be fair, is actually most of it. Even if he didn't enjoy his long-distance walk, he reminded me of what I enjoyed about mine, although I'm not tempted to try the Pennine Way any time soon (I'm realistic about my abilities, and apart from anything else I don't have three weeks to spend on a walking holiday).

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August 2017

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