Walking Home, By Simon Armitage
Poetry, and poverty, in motion
Sunday 08 July 2012
The British love a man on a slightly eccentric mid-life journey. Dave Gorman's quest to meet all the other Dave Gormans, Tony Hawks taking his fridge round Ireland, and don't get us started on Michael Palin. So when the poet Simon Armitage decided to turn properly troubadour for a summer, and attempt a long-distance walk – the harsh Pennine Way – without taking any money at all, he put his faith in the hope that poetry would feed and shelter him. And if not poetry, at least the British soft spot for a loon on foot.
Armitage headed southwards from Scotland in contrarian defiance of all normal practice, which says that you begin in the Peak District with miserable weather and proceed in the direction of even worse. But this Yorkshire poet wanted to walk, as the title suggests, in the direction of home. Giving free poetry readings en route and passing round a sock (selected for greater donor privacy), he threw himself on the mercy of generous local poetry-lovers who gave him lifts, put him up and fed him for free.
Walking Home fits into the classic unnecessary journey genre, with a cast of local characters and transcendent moments. Long-distance travel is captured in detail: the obsession with how little you can pack, how good the shower is, and which foot ointment you smear on your aching feet. The British B&B dressing table is here in all its glory, with mini-kettle, individually wrapped shortbread biscuits and laminated sign; but so is the grand array of British summer weather, described with Armitage's customary plain poetry. Huge Northumberland skies of mist and rain, moorland views, and clagging mud are all conjured up with astonishing clarity for the vicarious walker, sitting all nice and warm on the sofa.
Armitage survived weird dropping fogs, misdirections, bizarre sleeping accommodations, savage dogs and angry farmers. You don't really feel he managed alone, for hundreds of people cheered him along: from national park workers to university pals, they came and walked the path with him, and in one village he arrives to find a poster of his face Sellotaped to every other lamppost. Yet in the end, he did walk it. And never will reading about a hot shower and some foot ointment be quite so enjoyable.
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