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Travel Books - Singing for his Supper: Simon Armitage on the Pennine Way

In the summer of 2010, English poet Simon Armitage decided to walk the Pennine Way. There is nothing too unusual in that, several thousand people do it every year, but Armitage’s walk came with a bit of twist. First, most people walk the trail south to north, so that the sun, wind and rain are at their back; but Armitage grew up in Edale, a village at the southern end of the Way, so he decided, somewhat perversely, to walk the trail in the reverse direction, so that he would end up where he began—hence the title, Walking Home. The other unusual thing he decided to do was to advertise his walk on his web site and offer to give free poetry readings in return for room and board along the way. In doing this, he felt he was part of a venerable tradition. Poets have always been wanderers, he asserts, and they have always had to sing for their supper. (The subtitle of the British edition is “Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way”).

The Pennine Way is Britain’s oldest public trail, opened in 1965. It is also regarded as Britain’s most rugged, giving those hikers who successfully complete the 260 mile trail considerable bragging rights. Armitage makes the whole affair seem dismal. There are few happy days. Most of the time he has to contend with wet bog underfoot, biting insects, driving rain and thick fog. He also seems to spend a considerable amount of time lost on the featureless moor. Nevertheless, his descriptions of conditions on the trail can be quite entertaining in their way. Take this description of the wind on Tan Hill:

“A woman in a yellow cape is sheltering under a bridge eating a sandwich, and when I ask her what it’s like further on she just shakes her head, which is Pennine Way sign language for horrible. But before the swamp we have to deal with the wind, which is absolutely raging against us, and which is loaded with a fine vapour, not really rain, but stinging to the eyes and the skin, and at this air-speed, like being spray-painted. There must be something comical about the three of us trying to push forward into it, cheeks flattened with the G-force, coats ballooned with air, trousers vacuum-packed around our legs, hair streaming behind along with scarves and straps and anything else that isn’t tied down or tucked in, but it’s hard to see the funny side. It’s even harder to say anything, the wind tearing off and shredding every utterance as it leaves the lips, and it’s during long, grueling, uphill passages like this, disadvantaged by every element, that I concede the Pennine Way really should be tackled from south to north, not north to south.”

The journey takes three weeks, and most nights he gives a reading, but the venues are varied. Some are quite posh, like the library in Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford estate or the Ted Hughes Theatre in Mytholmroyd or the eighteenth-century Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, whose steeply tiered boxes remind him of an old operating theatre. But most nights he reads in the village pub to the accompaniment of “the clack of pool balls or the chatter of locals in the snug” or in the parish hall. One reading is outside in a wind-whipped marquee where he shares the stage with a shepherd balladeer and a woman playing the Northumberland pipes who “looks like she’s giving physiotherapy to a small marsupial wearing calipers and smoking a bong.” His smallest reading is to just six people in his host’s living room. At each venue a sock is passed around to collect donations to help further his walk.

Sometimes he walks in company, at other times he walks alone. On occasion he gasps at the rugged beauty of the North Country. He muses about poets and poetry, even composes a few poems along the way. He contemplates the stories of Odysseus and Sir Gawain, comparing their travails to his own. And in the end concludes that: “In many ways, the Pennine Way is a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route, and for no particular reason.” He certainly cured me of ever wanting to follow in his footsteps, and yet, paradoxically, I loved reading about his journey.


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