THIRTY-ONE-year-old Tom Dennis left behind his life as a strategic consultant in Merseyside to embark on a journey across Britain – on foot. Holly Lennon asks what on Earth inspired him to walk the length and breadth of the country, and why the Isle of Skye is one of “the most beautiful places in the world”
You previously worked as a strategic consultant. How did you get to where you are today?
I had long been a socially-minded aspiring writer, but, owing to the weight of my debts and my lack of experience, I fell into the post-university corporate trap. The battle between my desire to be a useful writer and the pull of the standard salaried life reached a critical point during the 2010 election, following the economic crisis. At the time I was living in Paris, and I watched the ascendancy of [David] Cameron from abroad with horror and fascination. This seemed to be a pivotal moment in the future of Britain, and, in Cameron’s eventual election, I felt very strongly that the country was continuing, indeed accelerating in the wrong direction. Although the crisis arrived during a Labour government, it seemed to me that its causes were firmly rooted in the Right (specifically the neo-liberal economic policies of [Margaret] Thatcher and her successors).
On my return to Britain shortly after the election, I began to synthesise my literary aspirations with my political and social concerns, inspired my various second-hand copies of British tourism guides that I found in London. I became more and more frustrated with working as a strategic consultant, and had one of those at-the-desk ‘I can’t go on moments’. I handed in my notice and set about preparing for the walk.
What inspired you to walk continuously around Britain, and then write a book about it?
I had always dreamt of touring Britain. I loved Bill Bryson’s Notes on a Small Island as a teenager, and loved walking in the countryside. I suppose I had affection for the idea of wandering writers, and in general I believed that engaging first hand in life would lead to a more balanced view of the reality of existence on these islands. I found that there was power in the idea of a continuous walk across Britain, which derived its strength from the energy invested and the face-to-face nature of the experience. I had conceived that this power would justify the presentation of my ideas. In many ways the walk was a suitable vehicle for everything I wanted to achieve: my social and political concerns, the aspiration to be a writer, the desire to go and see our islands.
Which part of Scotland was a particular favourite for you?
My favourite part of Scotland is definitely the Isle of Skye. I think it one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I thought at the time that it was quintessential of Scottish beauty: a mix of maritime and mountain scenery. There are many good pubs and restaurants on Skye, and the history is a little magical. I arrived there after a long, wet stretch through the Highlands, and it was a tonic to be out in the open again. Finally, I very much appreciated the efforts to maintain Celtic culture, which I did not find to be nationalistic or offensive. Instead, I felt that they were just quietly getting on with what they wanted in a positive manner.
How did things change throughout your journey?
In general, I think I would have to make the point that society and culture changes as you move north, and that this is true in Europe, America, Asia and across the whole of Britain. I think this is in part simply a case of decreasing population density, so you might well find similar characteristics in remote England, Wales or Ireland. With decreasing population, there is an increasing reliance on community as well as an increasing level of self-reliance (as opposed to a service culture), greater intimacy between people and a more stable culture in the long-term. This I would say is more true of the north of Scotland than of Edinburgh for instance, and more true of Edinburgh than of London. Alongside this I find that people in Scotland are more honest, more down-to-earth and have a self-deprecating sense of humour. Again, I think this is a scale from north to south across the whole of Britain. Other random asides: the Scottish have a greater appreciation of local history than most other parts of Britain, and have a more value-based approach to life, rather than the vacuous zeitgeist approach of many Londoners.
The book is described as “light on itinerary, heavy on social and political reflection” – was this something you set out to achieve when starting your journey?
Yes, I was very keen that it was not boring, and my experience of travel writing is that it can get a bit ‘one thing after another’. ‘Then this happened, and then this etc. etc.’ Certainly, I wanted to find the basis for a different perspective on how Britain might develop in the future than is found in Mayfair or Paris where I had spent most of my working life up to the point of departure. To a great degree, I had already decided on what I wanted to say, I just wanted to energise it with a tour of Britain.
What did you learn about Scotland that you wouldn’t have otherwise known?
I did learn a significant amount of Scottish history, about the clearances and uprisings, which are largely swept under the carpet in the English history curriculum, which prefers to emphasises the ideal of a unified empire fighting the evil force of Nazism. I was also generally delighted by the standard of restaurants, which are often excellent and thus in contradiction to standard notions of fried mars bars and a jaundiced population. I think there is also a greater level of social diversity than I imagined, with people often allying themselves with the Celts, the Norse, Afro-Caribbean cultures, Asian cultures or the English, rather than there being a consistent ‘Scottish’ population.
You speak about regional injustice in Britain in the book, especially in the Highlands and the Hebrides.
I think these places are good examples of where Britain is going wrong. I think that there is a virtuous cycle in local capital accumulation, whereby a greater degree of local investment in ‘one’s own lot’ leads to better decision making – things are well-managed, built-to-last, etc – and crucially, a greater degree of the value flows being retained for the people, rather than flowing out through international corporates or high net-worth individuals. For example, generally you find that locals pay tax back into society, whereas international corporates often do not; locals are more likely to weather financial and economic storms, rather than pulling out, as corporates often do, without an emotional connection to the consequences; locals will spend the money created from trade and industry in local shops, whereas high net-worth individuals will spend more abroad.
If, as a country, we manage to group together to kick-start and support local economies then ultimately we will better off, with more of the fruits of our own labours being retained for our own future benefit. What we have today is the opposite, whereby because a greater and greater share of our economy is owned by beneficiaries outside or disconnected with this society, then we have ever less and less to invest in the future. This is a negative cycle, and the decline is obvious. I cannot quite decide whether the Conservatives are deluded or are duping the rest of us.
The Hebrides and Highlands I think are poignant examples, as they have a lot of potential: in beauty, recreation, craft, e-living and e-business etc. I would say that Britain has made a series of choices that, rather than benefiting places like the Hebrides and Highlands, has led to a southern-biased inequality, which ultimately has left the country worse off than it might have been, with a pitiful level of free cash flow and a population that has largely lost its entrepreneurial nature. The more we let the regions down, and the more we rely on international corporates, the weaker and less self-reliant we become. I think we are losing our independence to financial elites.
What advice would you give to anyone who is looking to start walking?
If you are planning a long walk then I think the most important thing is that you don’t rush at the start. As long as you have enough time to adjust to the challenge, whether over one day or over one year, then you should always be okay. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to climb the mountain and cover twenty miles, you want to have options for backing-off a little and letting your body adapt.
In general, for shorter walks, I favour just setting off from where you live and seeing where you get to. You get to learn of all the cafes and pubs, and public transport routes, and then you can build up a recipe book of ways for getting out and about. There are local footpaths all over Britain that most of the residents nearby do not use and do not even know about. I do strongly believe that walking at least a mile or two everyday is one of the best things you can do for body and mind, even if you don’t live in an area of scenic beauty.
I would also say that I think compasses are far more important than maps. As long as you’re going roughly in the right direction than you should be okay in the end.
• Great Britain – A Walker’s Guide is available now for £2.99 directly from the author’s website or on iBooks with Apple devices