One of the most challenging aspects of any author's life is the way in which ideas can circulate in the ether to emerge from different pens at the same moment. It is impossible to pick up Hugh Thomson's book, tracing the prehistoric Icknield Way that bisects England at a diagonal from Norfolk to Dorset, without being aware of Robert Macfarlane's recently published The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, which includes the path in its itinerary.
This route passes close to both writers' homes, Thomson's in the Thames Valley and Macfarlane's in Cambridge. Both are at least partly inspired to follow it by Edward Thomas's account of walking the Way, published in 1913; both were friends of the late nature writer Roger Deakin. There is even a moment when they both spend a night in the hills near Luton, Macfarlane sleeping in the "Neolithic dormitory" of a hill-fort, Thomson trespassing to Ravensburgh Castle. Perhaps they stumbled past each other in the dusk?
However, differences are immediately apparent in what propels these two protagonists. While Macfarlane is escaping the rigours of the Cambridge academic life, travel writer and film-maker Thomson is an inveterate wanderer, recently returned from Peru. It is the powerful strangeness of a jamboree in his local town, where a brass band is playing Abba's "Dancing Queen" to tattooed farmers' wives, that persuades him to set about exploring his own "complicated and intriguing" country.
His decision to walk is pragmatic: he has recently lost his driving licence, comforting himself with the idea that there is "nothing like being on foot to get the taste of a journey". To add to his kitbag of troubles, he is shortly to be evicted from the barn he lives in near the banks of the Thames, in a village where he grew up river swimming and messing around in boats.
Peripatetic or not, he doesn't hang about. "The cure for a hangover," he explains, "was to keep drinking. The cure for jet lag was to keep travelling. I was on the train to Dorset the next morning". He is an illuminating companion, his wide experience of the Inca heartlands a lens through which he deciphers Bronze Age Britain. Pausing only for coruscating condemnation of Prince Charles's architectural folly at Poundbury, he strikes out from the coast for Wiltshire. Here he is at his best, explaining why Stonehenge should not be seen as an isolated site but instead as part of a wider "ritual landscape", akin to that of the Inca in Peru.
Refreshing himself with Peruvian coca tea in order to let off Orwellian broadsides against aristocrats, bureaucrats, politicians and prelates, he is pulled towards a prehistoric epiphany at the site of "Seahenge" on the Norfolk coast. Frequently comic, his voice is original and engaging; proof that it is the walker, not the path, that counts.
James Attlee's 'Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight' is published by PenguinReuse content