Walking Home by Simon Armitage: Wordsworth; Gawain; Above Ickornshaw, Black Huts

I’ve been really interested in the relationship between poets and walking lately. I’m writing a university essay on how Antonio Machado dealt with the death of his young wife by walking and writing poetry, and I often wish that I had Wordsworth’s infatigable legs that allowed him to write so many great nature poems.

After buying a signed copy, I began reading Walking Home by Simon Armitage – a writer best known for his poetry – on the way back from a short stay in Cornwall with my boyfriend. The book was perfect for the train, although I didn’t have the time to finish it until about two weeks later. In the biographical text, Armitage documents his decision in 2010 to walk the Pennine Way in the “wrong direction” (from North to South as opposed to the reverse). What really individualises his journey is his decision to travel as a “modern troubadour”, travelling without a penny in his pocket, and stopping along the way to give poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs, and living rooms.

Armitage is so greatly supported by fellow poets, family, friends, and locals along the Pennine way. To me, the most charismatic character was his friend “Slug”, a chaotic university friend who unexpectedly joins him for part of the walk:

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?
“Thought I’d surprise you.”
“How long are you walking for?”
“All the way. Unless it’s too far. Windermere?”
“Where are you staying?”
“Dunno. But don’t worry. You’ll think of something.”

Armitage’s writing did make me laugh on several occasions. Also, I loved the literary references that he makes: the story is so enriched by references to Wordsworth’s passion of walking, and evocations of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and The Odyssey. When a poet decides to walk the Pennine Way, you naturally expect some literary reflections to surface. However, I was surprised that he didn’t write a lot poetry. I realise that this sounds really harsh; you can’t exactly declare, “Simon Armitage, you’re a disgrace to the literary world, how hard is it to write poems when you’re walking across Britain with nothing else to do?” To give the man some credit, he did include one poem in Walking Home that I really enjoyed. He wrote it when awake early one morning, right at the top of Ted Hughes’ childhood home, where he happened to be staying (as you do…). I’ve copied the poem directly from the book, and so I apologise for any typos.

Above Ickornshaw, Black Huts

are raised against damp,
on footings of red brick,
landlocked chalets lashed to the bedrock

with steel guy-ropes
and telegraph wire,
braced for Atlantic gales.

All plank and slat,
the salvaged timber
ooze bitumen

out of the grain, a liquorice sweat,
its formaldehyde breath
disinfecting the clough

for a mile downwind.
Seen from a distance,
these tarred pavilions or lodges

make camp on the ridge
in silhouette – black, identical sheds
of identical shape,

though up close
no two are alike,
being customised shacks,

a hillbilly hotchpotch
of water-butts, stoops,
a one-man veranda,

a stove-pipe wearing a tin hat.
And all boarded shut,
all housing

a darkroom darkness
with pin-hole light
falling on nail or hook

or a padlocked box,
coffin-shaped, coiled
in a ship’s chain.

Mothballed stations on disused lines
neither mapped nor named.
Birds avoid them –

some say the hatches fly open
and shotguns appear, blazing
at tame grouse, 

that inside
they’re all whisky and smoke,
all Barbour and big talk,

but others whisper
the locals sit here
in deckchairs, with flasks,

watching the dunes of peat,
binoculars raised,
waiting for downed airmen

or shipwrecked souls
to crawl
from the moor’s sea.

I do think that this book was worth reading, although occasionally it became a little monotonous, and the ending did infuriate me rather a lot (I won’t provide any spoilers!) However, to end this post on a positive note, here’s a lovely extract about Rackwick Bay, on the island of Hoy (Scotland). If the book had more passages like this one, I would definitely have enjoyed it more – there’s something so appealing about poetry being linked to landscape.

To the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, whose entire poetic universe didn’t extend much further than the view from his window and the graveyard at the end of the road, Rackwick became a sacred location, a depopulated valley and dramatic bay which opened its arms to the blast of the Atlantic, full of ghosts, legends, stories and poems. The trip to Rackwick, usually hitched on a fishing boat or passing ferry, became a kind of pilgrimage to Mackay Brown, a challenge to his permanently frail health but a source of nourishment for his soul and his writing. Standing there with the gold flakes of his TB injection tumbling through his bloodstream, I think he say something of Eden in Rackwick, the long grassed valley where the hull of a glacier had once berthed between two barren summits”

Rackwick Bay. Image from www.creelcottage.com.


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