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Travelling at Home - Six favourite recently-published books about exploring Britain
Published in Country Life, December 12, 2012 >A month ago, I interviewed one of Britain’s most celebrated travel writers, and asked him why he’d never written about his homeland. Without so much as a pause for breath, he quoted Dr Johnson with a twinkling eye, “He made some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it all by travelling at home.” That got me thinking. So I asked some well-read friends about the shape of recent British travel writing.

The first passionate recommendation was for Matthew Engel’s Eleven Minutes Late: a train journey to the soul of Britain. It begins with a description of as long and occasionally irate a train journey as can be managed in Britain, from Penzance to Thurso. But it soon shunts itself off into a witty, thoughtful exploration of the obsessional British relationship with trains: Betjeman, Beeching, Bradshaw, Brunel or Brief Encounter. Mr Engel proves himself supremely well informed, whether exposing the identity of ‘the thin controller’ or explaining how the British genius for innovation and engineering has always coexisted with political expediency, a taste for nostalgia and muddling on through. As a child brought up in a Peak-district village in Yorkshire, Simon Armitage was always aware of the trickle of hardy backpackers trudging along the 256 mile Pennine Way. Half a lifetime later, he finally follows in the wake of these muddy heroes, who smelled of dubbin and sweat and Kendal mintcake. But being a paid-up member of the awkward squad, he decides to walk backwards (from north to south) and to offer himself as a poet-guest singing for his supper like a modern troubadour. He reads his poems in noisy pubs, cafes, cultural centres and drawing rooms every evening of the walk. And so Walking Home, the journal of this 20-day hike, is not just a loving description of the Pennine uplands but a keen-eyed observation of the inhabitants of Northern England. We also get a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be a bluff, good-natured Yorkshireman who can talk football and mechanics with the best of them at the bar while dreaming of Gawain and Odysseus on the moors.

Ronald Blythe has explored the nature of the world by concentrating on a very small and specific part of it, his native East Anglia. And, like an old badger, he digs himself ever deeper into his homeland. At the Yeoman’s House tells the story of the 16th century farmhouse that is his home. From descriptions of the wood that it’s made of, and the lost skills of its working yard, once at the centre of a 40-acre farm powered by the vital team of horses who plough and work the land, he goes on to tell how the house was reborn as the refuge of a talented war artist escaping the suffering that he’d witnessed in the world wars. The book is a hymn to England, made handsome like the old crafts it describes with maps, sketches and photographs thanks to the admirable production qualities of the Enitharmon press.

Jasper Winn’s Paddle: a long way around Ireland offers up an entirely different experience. This is a muscular, occasionally dangerous, often thrilling journey of adventure, as Mr Winn (who I’d normally expect to meet in southern Morocco, riding out with the Ait Atta nomads) kayaks his way right round the cliffs, rip tides, deserted islets and marshy estuaries of Ireland. He travels alone and in what I would consider extreme discomfort, but makes up for this when the summer storms ‘confine’ him to the shore and he literally sings and plays the guitar for his supper. For this, if not for the Eskimo roll or the million paddle strokes, one longs to set off in his wake.

Kathleen Jamie is not a sailor, and indeed, with an endearing honesty, reveals herself to be no more than a seasick wretch on her journeys to investigate such remote Atlantic islands as Rona and St Kilda. But you would expect nothing less from this searingly honest poet and writer, who, in her latest collection of essays, Sightlines, quarries for truth and a sense of joyful mortality. She throws out analogies to motherhood as she contemplates gannets nests cemented together with bird-shit and looks with the same awe and wonder at cancer cells in a pathology lab as the family pod of killer whales which circle the remote isle on which she is marooned.

My final exhilarating read, The Green Road into the Trees, was in the company of a man better known for his exploration of South America. Walking with Hugh Thomson from Dorset to the Norfolk coast was a delight and a revelation as he deepened stories and fleshed out monuments and myths that I thought I knew as well as any man. Mr Thomson talks, walks, drinks and dozes his way across the land, sifting the rough traditions to discover their true value. So that we need not worry ourselves looking for Arthur’s Camelot, but instead cherish his role as a heroic representative of stoicism in adversity and a lost golden age. Thomson’s own foreign travels have clearly sharpened his eye, just as such other quintessential English observers, like W. H. Hudson and Cobbett, had honed their spirit of inquiry during years of exile in the Americas.

On this occasion therefore, if no other, I have to disagree with Dr Johnson.

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