Walking Away: Further Travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path, by Simon Armitage - book review: his return to perambulatory prose only occasionally ignites

Faraway fields are not greener

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The Independent Culture

We’ve come this way before. If not in a literal, geographical sense, then in terms of a genre invented by its author: the prose account, by one of our most renowned poets, of a long hike along a scenic route, at least partially financed on his way by collections taken in an old sock at nightly poetry readings. Walking Home, Armitage’s previous book, saw him traverse 256 miles of the Pennine Way, drawn irresistibly southward towards his home village of Marsden. As well as an experiment in long distance panhandling, that walk was an opportunity to think about the North and the places and the people that had formed him as a poet.

The motivation behind Walking Away – “a neat symmetrical opposite to the previous adventure” in the shape of a similar distance along the South West Coastal Path of Devon and Cornwall – is more elusive. His previous quest had left him with “unfinished business”. Could he repeat its success on unknown territory, far from his home patch?

The task Armitage sets himself, of walking all day, day after day, appearing every evening in public bars, private houses and cafes to read, remaining polite to his hosts and those members of the public wishing to accompany him on his odyssey while still finding time to record impressions of his journey, is nothing less than heroic.

Like the troubadours of old whom in some sense he hopes to emulate, he finds his way beset with difficulties. Almost immediately after setting out, he sounds an alarm: the landscape is “non-Pennine in formation, and a reminder that this is new ground for me… textbook British and peculiarly English, but foreign to these eyes and feet”. The steep descents and excruciating climbs that are such a feature of the path, “more tiring and perhaps tiresome… than the Pennine Way”, seem to suck the poetry out of him.

On his previous epic perambulation, Armitage was moving through a landscape rich with autobiographical resonances. Faced with responding to the unfamiliar while also battling fatigue, homesickness and the attentions of the public was always going to be more of a challenge. Instant impressions are part of travel writing, but they cannot be relied on. Sometimes nothing happens: for the poet with a fixed timetable of miles to tick off, there is no opportunity for a return visit.

Perhaps we should not be surprised therefore that the prose only occasionally ignites. This is a chatty and often amusing report on the day-to-day business of being a public poet taking a long walk rather than a poetic description of the landscape he travels; a record of a noble experiment, of “business… now concluded”. Those who have accompanied Armitage on his journey from the Scottish Borders southward may well wish to continue as far as the Scilly Isles. Others – including, the reader suspects, the author himself – will be relieved his eventual arrival leaves him free to return to poetry.