When I order certain books for the store I know I’m going to have to have copies of them for myself, ones to keep on my shelf at home after I’ve read them. When I saw the title, Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey, by Simon Armitage, I thought, perfect, a book written just for me: a travel book penned by a poet. An inveterate walker myself, I also enjoy hoofing it in someone else’s shoes, sitting in my proverbial armchair, a book in one hand, a beer in the other. It’s nice to be able to explore the famous thoroughfares and little-known lanes of faraway cities, to say nothing of the expansive countryside beyond them (the terrain covered in Walking Home), without the expense and hassle of airline travel. (That word, “hassle.” So often attributed to flying, doesn’t it seem insufficient by today’s now hyper-extended post-9/11 standards?)
For a travel book to work—for any book, really—the reader must feel a kinship with the writer. When I turn the pages of a book I hope to feel compelled, rather than obliged to tag along for three hundred of them. I want to like my companion if I’m going to be stuck with him for, say, three weeks, walking arm-in-arm over 250 miles of wind-swept, rain-lashed moor, valley, and peak.
Fortunately Simon Armitage is a companionable sort. At least he comes across that way in print, which is all that matters when it comes to a book. I found myself thinking, I would enjoy a nice stroll with this chap, or more often in the case of Walking Home, a long uphill trudge in the rain. A sort of latter-day Vachel Lindsay—who once tramped from nearby Springfield (IL) to New Mexico(!) offering his poems in exchange for meals and lodging—Armitage, also a poet by trade, sets out to conquer England’s version of the Appalachian Trail in much the same fashion, giving a reading of his poetry at the end of each day’s trek.
The Pennine Way, or simply, The Way, as Armitage refers to it, runs along the Pennine hills through the heart of northern England, beginning in Edale (roughly halfway between Manchester and Sheffield) and ending just shy of the Scottish border. Except that our hero, our Odysseus (he invokes Homer on more than one occasion), does it the other way around, going down the map. Since he lives just down the road from where most hikers begin the trail, Armitage figured he’d start at the other end and walk home. Thus the title of the book.
At first he determines not to drink (alcohol, that is) on this odyssey of sorts, reckoning he’ll need to keep fit in order to make it all the way over The Way. While, in theory, I can admire this sensible approach, I certainly could not adhere to it myself. After plodding some fifteen miles a day into—always into—the wind, I would damn well expect a pint, or several, waiting for me up—always up—the road every evening. Sure, good old Vachel was a teetotaler, but thankfully our Simon is not. So after a couple of nights without proper grownup refreshment, he gives in to common sense, and starts rewarding himself in the pubs at night. Thankfully indeed. Otherwise he would’ve lost one of his companions along the way—me. I’d’ve insisted on stopping at a pub now and again (and again and again…). He’d’ve had to go on without me, as I waved from my bar stool, content to read another book. But, as I’ve said, fortunately for both of us, he partook of his share of pints along The Way.
Did they prove to be enough fuel to get him all the way back home? Well, you’ll just have to read the book yourself to find out. What I will tell you is this: it’s worth finding out. So fetch your walking stick (you’ll need it) and a tall glass of bitter (you’ll need that too), and enjoy walking home with Simon Armitage. It won’t always be easy. But you’ll be glad you did.