In the summer of 2010 the poet Simon Armitage set out to hike the 268-mile Pennine Way in its entirety – southwards from Kirk Yetholm in Scotland to Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District.
Armitage’s aim was to walk to the house of his birth in Marsden, West Yorkshire, before completing the Pennine Way with a further two days’ walking to the route’s terminus. Walking Home is an account of that journey. Armitage, a trained geographer, provides a detailed description of the Pennine’s moors, scarps and bogs unfolding in sequence as he proceeds south. However Armitage the poet is always close by: a rickety bridge is “suspended on nothing more than suspension of disbelief”. His first glimpse of Hadrian’s Wall reminds him of a horizon that has “been drawn by a child using a black crayon or pencil”.
Later – in what must be one of the book’s more hallucinatory episodes – Armitage is confounded by the sight of a dot rapidly moving far off in the landscape. It is a “scrap of pure white energy” that “shrinks to a pure point of light, like an electron”. The mundane explanation for this phenomenon, when revealed, doesn’t detract from the power of the experience as conveyed. Armitage is burdened on his journey by his decision to rely solely on the largesse of well-wishers for his nightly food and lodging. He aims to emerge fiscally gainful via the proceeds of a sock passed around audiences who attend his pre-arranged poetry readings, held most evenings.
The Pennine Way’s danger is presumably part of its fascination. However, there is seldom any real sense of the author’s being more than moderately fazed by any of it, even when he becomes lost in mist in the Cheviot Hills. In fact, he seems to breeze through the journey for the most part – much of it in the company of rangers, fellow poets and a friend from university days named Slug. It is his increasingly brooding self-doubt regarding his recitals that begin to hold the real terrors for him.
After a long-anticipated night spent in the house of Ted Hughes’ birth at Aspinall Street in Mytholmroyd, things begin to sequentially unravel. Armitage is joined there by his wife and daughter, and the reunion turns sour when they point out that Armitage has grown uptight since they last met up (during a recital a few days earlier). During that night’s performance, Armitage felt disengaged, and was overwhelmed by a sense that he was reading poems from a menu. The return to his parents’ house in Marsden blurs the distinction between the twin aims of returning home and the completion of the walk, throwing him into further frenzies of self-doubt.
Walking Home is a worthwhile book to spend time with, not only because it provides a haunting portrait of the mist-clad and rainswept features of the backbone of England, but also because Armitage’s own deeper topography seemingly solidifies around him, and in some respects robs him of his achievement.
Nick Papadimitriou’s new book, Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, is out now, published by Sceptre.