Thursday, 17 December 2015

Walking Through Britain

I have recently read two books about walking through Britain - one by Peter Hillaby, who walked over 1000 miles through Britain in 1966 and recalled it in Journey Through Britain.  The other book, Broke Through Britain by Peter Mortimer, details a similar but shorter journey (500 miles between Plymouth and Edinburgh) in 1998. Two middle class men, two writers with similar aims - to get through Britain by foot. There are crucial differences between them though. Hillaby was a journalist and an independent, self-sufficient traveller who carried a tent and money.  Mortimer's journey was more about self discovery.  He threw himself on the mercy of the great British public and took no money or credit cards, no tent and no supplies. In a way it isn't fair to even try to compare them, they set out to do different things 30 years apart.  On the other hand the authors have a somewhat similar writing style and they have a lot to say about the experience of walking through a complex land.

John Hillaby
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Hillaby, who sadly died in 1996, wrote many travel books that were highly acclaimed.  He was a keen observer of people and wildlife.  He also gathered anecdote and local history like blackberries for a well-made pie.  Juicy, succulent nuggets which he liberally sprinkled through his travelogue.  He said he "walked to places that are inaccessible to get to by car," which is true for his African adventures described in Journey to the Jade Sea, but in Britain he found himself trudging roads for long sections - there being no deserts or savannahs to tackle (although he did take on Dartmoor).

Journey Through Britain is not only beautifully written, it is a glimpse of a long lost country when the M1, M5 and M6 were still being constructed and there was no "super-highway" into Wales. If you wanted to venture into Celtic country from the south you either went via Gloucester or took the Aust Ferry near Bristol.

The greatest wilderness Hillaby took on was Dartmoor when there were only phone boxes on the edge of a vast, misty moor with treacherous bogs, low cloud, little shelter and few clear navigation points.  An experienced walker, he still got lost and almost trapped in a thick pool of mud.  It is a reminder of how comparatively safe we are today with GPS and mobiles.  But then in Hillaby's Britain there were no home computers, no smart phones, no social media, few cars.  There were lots of local accents and lots of wildlife.   In one section he said there were more nightingales singing in a wood in Shropshire than there were people in the local village. Imagine that now. It was a time when Cornwall felt cut off and people still spoke welsh near the borders.  Local accents were a common source of interest as were boxing hares in fields and adders basking on footpaths.  In a launderette in Stoke-on-Trent he felt the need to comment that a young woman was washing a man's shirt and underwear even though she wasn't wearing a wedding ring.

Britain appeared uncrowded and awakening to a new dawn.  The population was booming (55 million in 1966 - today it is 64 million) and people were optimistic about a future of white hot technology.

It wasn't all good - pollution was worse and the air around cities and many rivers were in a terrible state.  It was the worst era of mass farming and pesticides were eradicating life in the countryside.  Hillaby wrote about getting lost in the "sterilized grandeur " of  "the dead vast." We were a nation of inward looking tea drinkers.  We were happy to endorse the spreading of  DDT everywhere, as well as the ripping up of hedgerows and the intensification of livestock in awful conditions.  We were notoriously suspicious of strangers and different races.  We were isolated by the sea and soaked in the legacy of empire.

Intriguingly Hillaby walked past the end of the road where I lived in Sneyd Green, Stoke-on-Trent.  I was probably riding my bike up and down the street or playing in the rough field at the top of the road.  I wonder if we glimpsed each other.

Hillaby camped a lot but he also took refuge in B&Bs and hotels, his journey was not about deprivation.  He never took a lift though and walked every inch between Lands End and John O'Groats. His journey was about people and their different ways of life from the perspective of a walker. Throughout  the book Hillaby the man features little apart from the occasional section on the state of his calf muscles (not good at first), the need for light shoes (not heavy boots which are a killer) and the problem of finding food to buy on a Sunday(absolutely nothing open).

He describes people he met with warmth and affection, never appearing superior.  A tramp showed him how to shoo a cow off a piece of grass it had been lying on to provide a warm spot for a nap.

This classic, as it is now viewed, is a must read.  He captures eloquently what he states, "Walking is a way of being somewhere, rather than striving to arrive."

Thirty years later Peter Mortimer took to the road.  He took a King Charles spaniel called Sam (for company and sympathy), a small bag with just a change of clothes, a brolly and torch and a few toiletries - nothing else.  He wanted to walk penniless and rely on the generosity of people to support him.

This is a far more complex book in many ways - to my mind anyway.  I loved reading it and I found Mortimer's sense of humour, vulnerability, dogged determination, sense of odyssey - yes and some whining - enjoyable and insightful.  It does not have the depth of comment on British life but it does have a lot to say about what it is like to be poor.  Time and again he talks about the isolation of poverty.  A townie all his life he found towns the hardest places to be once there was no money to spend.  It was the countryside and the country people that seemed to be the least suspicious and most generous.

He found solace in nature, he only found boredom and deep unease amidst the constant commercialism elsewhere. "Only the culture of the countryside was capable of sustaining this lifetime urbanite through his journey."  He became acutely aware of the "rootless, drifting, spiritual crisis in the world."  He met "lost souls silently screaming ... through life." His conclusion was that a profound disconnect exists between people and the planet.  "Everything we humans make or manufacture, we eventually tire of.  What's made or created by nature, on the other hand, never wearies us."

It was an odd journey in many ways.  Why do it?  Why create a falsehood (he isn't penniless in real life) and why assume anyone would care about - what some saw as - a self-indulgent experiment?  I personally found it extraordinary and courageous and I'm not at all sure I could do it.  It's true - you certainly can't compare Mortimer's travels to Satish Kumar's walk across the earth to give "peace tea" to world leaders.  He had  no such lofty aim.  Nor was he documenting cultural life.  This was an inner journey to find out what it meant to be utterly at the mercy of others - and that I find interesting.

Many people rejected him and dismissed him as irrelevant and annoying to have around.  They didn't want to be reminded about uncomfortable poverty and simply couldn't understand his idea.  Yet it was surprising how many people did give him food and shelter.  I was particularly impressed by a vicar who was wary but allowed him to sit in the garden and drink tea and eat a snack.  The reason he refused to let him in the house was that a previous unfortunate had talked his way into the Vicarage then robbed and beaten the poor priest to an inch of his life.  Amazing he found the spirit to offer hospitality again.

John Hillaby commented in his book on walking through Europe that often people on the continent would happily accept a stranger..."you can turn up and look like a drowned rat, and they will not worry about the outer rat but rather the inner man."  Mortimer did find those souls here in Britain more often than we are led to expect.

Mortimer never slept in a ditch - he always had some kind of roof over his head. Some of those roofs were just a corrugated sheet covering a barn - more often he was offered a caravan or outhouse.  Once he had a luxury hotel with a free enormous breakfast.  A surprising number of people welcomed him into their own homes and let him stay more than one night.  They even took him a few miles up the road the next day. How many of us would let a strange man with an improbable story in to our precious heartland?

Some reviewers saw his accepting lifts as cheating.  Not so - he needed a helping hand (or foot) considering how much his distal appendages were suffering for a large part of the journey.  Some also found his attitude to those who wouldn't offer hospitality as churlish.  I'll let you decide.  One lady questioned him.  You expect food and shelter for free, then you write a book and get the profits?

Most of all what Mortimer discovered was how powerful money is - even just enough change for a cup of tea allows one access to normal society.  He realised that being down and out hides the real person from the world.  Without money he felt part of an underclass of failures and scroungers.  Hard to imagine feeling like that for most of life. He resorted to stealing fruit occasionally.

Mortimer walked when mobiles were used to make phone calls, and not everyone had them.  Social media was unheard of.  He commented how few teenagers he saw and no ethnic minorities.  Global terrorism was a few years away and apart from some fear of the IRA, we felt safe and secure in our island home.  Life has changed beyond measure in the 50 years since Hillaby then Mortimer faced British society alone.

I am interested that Mortimer found the countryside less threatening than towns and its people more accepting.  Is that true today as the  merging of town and green belt is far greater?  Are we spreading a lack of generosity outwards from city centres? Most of the world's population live in towns and cities now, and that trend is increasing year on year.  By 2050 two thirds of the world's population will be urban.  What does that say about the future and our ability to welcome the stranger? If we feel more crowded together and more surrounded by consumerism then how will we have open hearts that have room for those who haven't "made it." The increase in population will certainly put untold strain on the earth's resources but it will have profound psychological effects too - and becoming more inward, suspicious and less generous to the needy may well be a consequence.

So - all in all two excellent books that give much food for thought.  They were both courageous journeys. Hats off to you gents, you have my utmost respect. Who is doing the sequel?

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