WITH a vague idea for a book, Simon Armitage took a chance by setting out to walk the 256-mile Pennine Way. It challenged his poetry, his introverted nature and his mental and physical fortitude, he tells Susan Mansfield
THERE’S something special about undertaking a journey that is apparently pointless. You discover things about the world and about yourself. You discover that the most interesting question might be why you did it at all. “There’s no rational reason for walking the Pennine Way,” says the poet Simon Armitage. Yet, in the summer of 2010, he set out on the 256-mile stretch of mountain, moor and blasted heath between Edale in Derbyshire and Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. He would walk it “the wrong way round”, starting in Scotland and heading for his home in West Yorkshire. And he would walk it as a troubadour, giving a poetry reading every night and subsisting on the audience’s donations.
He had a vague idea for a book, a not-quite-memoir in the vein of his previous books, Gig and All Points North. And he wanted to put himself, and his poetry, to the test. Could a man approaching 50, with no particular training, walk the Pennine Way? Could a poet earn his keep in the pubs and hostels and village halls of the North? What he found was encouraging, enlightening and challenging in a way he had never expected.
We meet at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a short distance from Armitage’s home in Huddersfield, after his book, Walking Home, is published. All around us, the landscape is green, rolling, bucolic. The wildness of moor and heath feels a long way away. But it isn’t. One of Armitage’s discoveries on his 19-day hike was that wilderness is not far away in the North: inhospitable, dangerous wilderness. Most of those who set out to walk the Pennine Way give up in the first few days.
“ I think you tend to associate danger with extreme sports or long distance expeditions to exotic places,” he says “But it’s about altitude, really. A lot of the information we get about the weather relates to the low-lying ground. I wouldn’t want to pretend that I’ve walked through the Khyber Pass or anything, but it’s a really difficult walk, it’s an assault course, really. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody – not the whole of it anyway. It really exists as a challenge. It’s a slog.”
Armitage is thoughtful, now, about his journey. He takes a poet’s care about choosing his words, taking time to let his thoughts percolate before giving voice to them. For all that his book is often funny, wryly observed and self-deprecating, he doesn’t shy away from confronting the darker moments. Out in the hills, you learn a few things about yourself.
On his second day of walking, Armitage set out from Uswayford in Northumberland into the Cheviots. Within an hour, he was lost, and keenly, viscerally afraid. “I think I was very naive when I set off, I hadn’t done much in the way of training. I’d just gone wandering, whistling, into the hills that day thinking it would be like walking down the M1. Everything that I didn’t want to happen happened pretty much straight away. When you go up there, you make yourself vulnerable to exposure, to the elements, but also to your imagination and your thoughts and your fears.”
He was able to put himself right with the help of a map and compass, but he had learned his lesson. From now on navigation took priority. “I had thought that I might write during the day and actually read some of those poems at night. That just proved impossible because, whatever bit of my brain I need to write poems, I seem to need for navigational purposes. I think you need your wits about you when you’re writing, and you need your wits about you when you’re up in the hills as well, and there just wasn’t enough to go around.”
The journey was also about putting poetry to test. Armitage is one of the best-selling poets in the country, his mix of pop culture references and lyricism winning him fans of all ages. Since his first poetry collection in 1989, he has steadily published poetry as well as diversifying into novels, non-fiction, theatre, translations and libretti. He curated the Poetry Parnassus, bringing together more than 100 poets from Olympic countries in June. But in the pubs and village halls along the Pennine Way, he might go unrecognised. He would be putting his verse before “the disinterested, the disparaging and the drunk”.
“There’s definitely an element of taking a chance. Usually I’m reading at festivals or societies or universities and to a certain extent you’re preaching to the converted. That’s not necessarily the case when you’re rolling up at a village hall. People might be coming to see you because there’s nothing on the telly that night. I think I was trying to test the generic appeal of poetry. I was putting my money where my mouth was. My lack of money.”
The results were encouraging. Of course, his website alerted local fans, but the more spontaneous audiences also seemed appreciative. Apart from the occasional battle with a pub jukebox, the readings went well, and the [clean] sock he used to collect donations produced, by the end of the journey, a modest profit.
Through his website, he had also extended an open invitation to anyone who wanted to walk with him, which brought out varying assortments of acquaintances and strangers. This, too, was something of a risk, something of a challenge. Armitage says: “My dad’s a great extrovert, he’s somebody who within five minutes of meeting somebody in a pub he’ll be their best friend. I haven’t quite got that gene, which I think is one reason why I’ve ended up writing poems. I wonder whether I deliberately put myself in a situation where I had to be that person who could talk and chat and befriend because I think my instinct is usually to be otherwise.”
If so, that too was a success. “I found myself to be more sociable than I imagined. I genuinely thought that this whole project would be about me and my thoughts and contemplation and introspection, but it became largely a book about other people. I found myself wanting to write about some of the people that I met, and the stories that they told me.”
It was thanks to a companion, a man called Richard that he met for the first time at the previous night’s reading, that he made it over Cross Fell, the highest peak in England outside the Lake District and the toughest stretch of the walk. After several days of getting into his stride, he hit fog on Cross Fell – known locally as Fiend’s Fell – weather so disorientating he could no longer tell if he was ascending or descending.
“If Richard had not stayed with me, I definitely would not have carried on, I just didn’t have the gumption. Even the risk of not making it to the [next] reading, or finishing the book, or the whole project coming crashing down around my ears, was still preferable to walking any further. My yellow streak surfaced, you learn how frightened you are prepared to be – which, in the event, turned out to be not much at all! At the end of the day they’re all inner fears that come bubbling up to the surface. I don’t know how real they are, but they feel absolutely real at the time.”
He took occasional detours: to read at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, and to spend a night at Ted Hughes birthplace in the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd. Hughes was an important figure to Armitage, who grew up on the other side of the hill in Marsden.
“Reading his poems at school when I was 15 or 16 didn’t just wake me up to poetry, I think it woke me up generally. I think I had a very rich interior life, and suddenly poetry seemed like a legitimate way of getting that inner life outside. It was a kind of permission as much as anything. He was the man from just over the other side of the hill, from pretty unspectacular beginnings, and if he could do it, why couldn’t I? I hadn’t developed many ideas about literature at that time, but I think one of the preconceptions I had was that it belonged to other people, people not like me.”
In a sense he was Walking Home to here, the beginnings of his life as a poet, and to Marsden, where his family – his wife, young daughter, mum and dad – were there to meet him. Armitage has never been tempted by the bright lights of London. Apart from his years at university, he has lived most of his life within a few miles of where he was born.
“You try and search out what is best for you as a writer. It works for me here. The longer I’ve lived here, the deeper and wider it’s felt. I’ve felt all the time that there’s more to excavate and explore. It feels good to have somewhere to come back to, somewhere that I understand and I don’t have to keep figuring out.
“Some people never find home. I have a strong sense of where I come from, to some extent I’m defined by it.”
• Walking Home is published by Faber, price £16.99, Simon Armitage is at the Edinburgh Book Festival, August 24, at 7pm.