In 2010 poet and national treasure Simon Armitage set himself a challenge: to walk the Pennine Way, from Kirk Yetholm to Edale in Derbyshire armed only with a sock and a headful of poetry. He covered 265 miles in three weeks and described his adventure in the travelogue Walking Home. Three years later Armitage was again to be found embarking on another long distance walk. Feeling restless, as both a walker and a poet, in 2013 it was time to set off again. He began in Minehead, Somerset and headed in the direction of Land’s End with the hope of making it on to the Isles of Scilly. This journey would take him along the northern coast line of much of Devon and Cornwall; the South West Coastal Path. So why did this Yorkshire man decide to attempt another long distance walk, this time about as far as you can go from his home (hence the title Walking Away)? “I conceived the walk as a test of my poetic reputation … in some ways I felt as if I was testing the reputation of poetry itself.” Would it be possible for a poet to survive so far away from his home and the urban performance spaces he was used to, and be able to use nothing more than his reputation and his poetry to sustain him for the three weeks or so or travelling?
Unlike Walking Home Armitage was more prepared this time. He is accompanied by his monumental suitcase the Galapagos Tortoise, well-wishers, walkers and organisers of readings and rest stops. Part of the experiment was to see how well one could live and travel relying only one’s wits and talents and this Walking Away appears to prove. However he is well equipped, beginning his tale with “I have bought a hat” and the story of a holly stick that makes him look like Moses. This journey is more organised than his last, having sourced free accommodation and pre-arranged multiple poetry readings in advance. On occasions the sock does come out for listeners to contribute as they wish. Some of the more interesting donations include a signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain, McDonald’s vouchers, sweets, seashells and one hard-boiled egg.
There is a touching moment in the first few chapters when a journalist calls him asking for a quote about the recent news: Seamus Heaney has died. The death of the poet and friend strikes a chord. His wife Sue dashes down to his B&B where they spend the night reading Heaney’s poetry by the glow of a mobile phone. Heaney was, and still is, a towering figure in modern poetry and had that natural touch that meant his work was welcomed in the most surprising of places. Would Armitage be received in the same way? He is very well received in general with his poetry finding an audience wherever he goes. The one exception to this is his first overnight stop at the holiday resort Butlin’s in Minehead where he is unable to gather the courage to compete with the red coats and cabaret. This was perhaps a shrewd move on his part.
There are only four new poems in the book, leaving his fans and readers hoping for much more. After all he is a poet first and foremost. Fortunately he does bring his way with words and interest in the natural landscape to the text, which feels intimate and immediate; as though he wrote notes as he travelled. This adds to the honesty that runs throughout Walking Away. One feels his moods go up and down with the coastal path, with his weariness coming through at times. This is a realistic image of a middle aged man trekking the frequently difficult coastal path. At times we share his innermost thoughts; when he feels tired, in pain and the landscape has gotten boring and the company is more of a hindrance than a help.
Armitage makes for a humourous, relaxed and companionable partner through the wilds of the south west. However did his prior organisation impinge on the journey itself? There is a constant need to keep walking, to meet deadlines. When it comes to his walking partners and hosts there is a lack of real feeling and depth, with little time given over to getting to know his companions well. At times he even seems a little disinterested and when his mood drops so does the quality of description. An entertaining and worthwhile read the purpose of Walking Away seems a little unclear. Armitage had a direct personal connection to the path he trod in Walking Home that is missing here. As he told The Telegraph “Although I got lost in the Pennines sometimes, I did feel at home. I don’t here. I feel like a stranger.”
On his journey Armitage did manage to take in many seaside holiday destinations. Walking Away took me back to many a childhood holiday destination and I felt myself in his steps revisiting the beaches and seascapes of my youth. For several years I lived on Cornwall’s south coast and have an enduring love and fondness for the area. Although he only briefly visited tourist hubs such as Falmouth and St. Ives it was a relief to see his generous and friendly musings on the county peppered with his customary self-depreciating humour. He has a keen eye for the absurd and unusual. Part of his challenge was to take his poetry away from the urban arts scene and into the fringes of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall: arts centres, hotels, friends’ houses and anywhere else that can hold a poet and his audience. One thing that shines through is the exceptional kindness and hospitality of his fellow walkers and accomplices on this coastal wander across cliffs, beaches and roads. The poetic wanderings of one of Britain’s most beloved poets’ helps to prove that there is always an interest and affection for linguistic beauty and hopefully it will encourage more artists and writers to break away and take their work to the beautiful south.
Simon Armitage, Walking Away, (Faber and Faber, London, 2015). ISBN 9780571298359. 276pp., Hardback