Obituary: John Hillaby

Douglas Matthews
Monday 21 October 1996 23:02 BST

Pedestrian was the last word to apply to John Hillaby, though he has been called the most celebrated pedestrian in England. Yet like his contemporaries, Clive Wainwright and Wilfred Thesiger, he was admired as much by armchair idlers as by the serious walking fraternity. Whether pacing rapidly through the streets of London or across the high moors of his beloved Yorkshire, his tall, spare figure was instantly recognisable, and even in his seventies he could leave younger men struggling in his wake.

Born in 1917, the son of a printer, he was educated at Woodhouse Grove school, Leeds, from where he made his early countryside excursions. He began his career as a journalist on local weeklies in the West Riding, but was quickly caught up in the Second World War, seeing active service with the Royal Artillery, notably in the retreat through Dunkirk. He married, first, in 1940, Eleanor Riley, with whom he had two daughters, though this marriage was later dissolved.

Returning from the war he took up journalism again, and from 1949 was zoological correspondent on the then Manchester Guardian. The New York Times engaged him as European science correspondent from 1951, and the New Scientist as biological consultant from 1953. He published his first book, Within the Stream, in 1949, and all the time he was travelling, in Africa, North America and, of course, in Britain. He never scorned modern transport (though he hated motorways), but used it mainly to get him to where he wished to start serious travel, which for him was on his own two feet.

Disembarking from the boat at the Hook of Holland at the beginning of his walk to Nice he observed that:

Most of the passengers drove ashore. They hooted at each other. They hooted at me. Normally, there is nothing I hate more than being hooted at . . . It gives me high-minded notions of being the only traveller in step in a world gone mad on wheels.

Hillaby was a director of the Universities Federation of Animal Welfare, and a frequent broadcaster on radio and television. He was made a Fellow of the Zoological Society, was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by the City University, and in 1973 was appointed Woodward Lecturer at Yale University.

After publishing Nature and Man in 1960, Hillaby really made his impact upon the literary scene with Journey to the Jade Sea (1964), about his remarkable thousand-mile walk from Northern Kenya to Lake Rudolf, alone except for his hired bearers and a string of camels, many of whom acquire personality and character under his pen. His rueful sense of this noviciate, inept with the animals, awkward with his rifle, and dependent on the Africans for guidance and support, is belied by the achievement itself and by the professionalism of his planning and organisation. The reviewers gave it warm praise, as much for its literary quality as for the journey itself, and the book remains a classic among travel writings, having brought a new, individual and endearing personality before the reading public.

It also set the pattern and style for his later writings: Journey Through Britain (1968), an account of his walk from Land's End to John-o'-Groats, almost entirely on tracks and bridle ways; Journey Through Europe (1972), his similar walk from the Hook of Holland to Nice by way of the Alps; and Journey Through Love (1976), on scattered travels in Britain and America, which also recounts the death from cancer in l972 of his second wife, Thelma ("Tilly"), whom he had married in 1966.

Hillaby was deeply affected by Thelma's death, but although he was a solitary walker he was a companionable man, and in 1981 he married Kathleen Burton. Katie was to bring him more than domestic support. A doughty Yorkshire woman who had lived much of her life in Ceylon, she proved to be as enthusiastic a walker as John Hillaby himself, and from now on she accompanied him on his travels and appears as a cheerful, practical figure in several of his subsequent books.

These were Journey Home (1983); John Hillaby's Yorkshire (1986); John Hillaby's London (1987); and Journey to the Gods (1991), in which he returned to his earlier format with an account of his walk from Athens to Mount Olympus. His last book, Hillaby's World: Adventures Across Three Continents (1992), is a selection from his earlier writings, and makes available some of his more fugitive pieces.

In his books Hillaby was always able to strike the right balance between comments on the observed scene and his own participation in it. His personality invests the writing, but always humbly, and in spite of the extraordinary range of learning and knowledge he demonstrates. Archaeology, architecture, geology, climate, plant and animal life, philology, literature, music, and, always, people, he communicates all with wit, wisdom and originality. Curiously for somebody whose prose reads with such ease and grace, the act of writing came very hard to him, and the apparent spontaneity was the result of much sweat and torment at the desk.

Before any journey Hillaby would prepare his mind and his body with equal rigour: his mind by extensive research into the region he was about to visit (he was a familiar figure at the London Library where he had a genius for unearthing offbeat pieces on his chosen subject), and his body by punishing walks through the streets of London burdened with a deliberately overweighted backpack, which he constantly modified and adapted. The physical accoutrements of walking were important to him, and his practical advice to others is invaluable.

London was his home for many years, and he walked daily on Hampstead Heath, to which he was devoted. In his late sixties he was knocked down by a car outside Green Park underground station (the irony was not lost on him), and never fully recovered from his injuries, though he was able to resume his long walks.

He settled in York for the last four years of his life and there, towards the end, was afflicted by osteoarthritis of the spine, which rendered him practically immobile, struggling to walk as far as the corner of the street, a condition with which he found it hard to come to terms.

John Hillaby had an unobtrusive but committed religious belief, and at the same time was a man with a huge relish for life, gregarious, generous, and endlessly interested in everything. He was passionate about the natural world, and thrilled to its diversity. Once, visiting Cuckmere Haven with him, I saw him ecstatic when he caught sight of a kingfisher plunging into tidal waters, something he had only heard about, half-disbelieving, but was now witnessing for himself. It was this sense of delighted wonder that he was able to convey to the world, directly as a companion as well as through his writings.

Douglas Matthews

John Hillaby, writer, naturalist and traveller: born 24 July 1917; married 1940 Eleanor Riley (marriage dissolved 1966; two daughters), 1966 Thelma Gordon (died 1972), 1981 Kathleen Burton; died York 19 October 1996.

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