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The scene could be lifted straight from a poem: a weary traveller, having walked the windswept hills of the Lake District, arrives at the resting place of William Wordsworth.
There, at St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere, Cumbria, he is greeted by a warm huddle of wellwishers, who have strewn palms and grass on the floor.
“To be honest,” says Simon Armitage, perhaps the nation’s most recognisable poet, “it was a bit of a Life Of Brian moment.”
The tale, though not in couplets and rhymes, fits neatly into his latest composition, Walking Home.
The book is out in July and traces his journey along the Pennine Way without a penny in his pocket.
His only currency was words.
“I put a notice on my website with my itinerary,” he explains of the logistics of finding lodgings.
“I’ll be at such and such a village at such and such a time. If you want me to come and read, I’ll do it for nothing, so long as you put me up.”
The idea was to ramble the route in reverse, from Scotland towards Marsden, West Yorkshire, his home town. The former probation officer turned broadcaster and professor of poetry would be a modern troubadour, relying on the kindness of others.
“I figured I would need that incentive to keep going, be forced to get to the finish by the embarrassment of not turning back.”
He never expected to be welcomed into a site of worship as a saviour, nor turn up to new villages and settlements on spec and expect to be put up.
“I’m not that much of a messiah.”
When he reached his final destination, however, things went as predicted.
“It was the worst reading that night.
Everywhere else had been a triumph of a kind. They say you can’t be a prophet in your own parish, and the audience in Marsden was largely made up of family and friends.
They just wanted to get to the pub.”
Runners have conquered the Pennine Way in three days. Armitage took 19.
“The guidebook described it as moderate,” he jokes.
“But it wasn’t about speed. It’s about facing emotional and physical challenges, and sometimes overcoming them.
It’s nature writing, but with people at its heart.”
There were no blisters but many interesting locations: stately homes, council houses, village halls, churches.
He even slept at Ted Hughes’ former house in Aspinall Street in Mytholmroyd.
He says Hughes’ poetry has figured hugely in his life. It’s up there with his love of music, which he celebrated in Gig, a love letter to concert-going, and made good on by forming a band, The Scaremongers, whose tracks once made the BBC 6 Music playlist.
But with TV commitments, fitting music into his life is impossible.
“I did something on Countryfile the other night and when I went to the shop, everyone was saying, ‘Aye, I saw yer on’t telly last night.’ “So much for being incognito.”
Life on the Pennine Way suited his worldview better. It allowed him to rediscover the poet who woke him up to words.
“I was pretty sleepy when I was at school but it was Ted whose poetry woke me up.
“There was one book in particular, Remains Of Elmet, which is very much about the moorland landscape around Hebden Bridge and the Calder Valley and not too many miles from where I grew up.
“There came a point in the walk where I started recognising those horizons and the poems, which was another draw for me to walk south from Scotland.
“Mainly because the night before I got back I slept in the house that was his birthplace.
“It’s an end-terrace. Back-to-back. Significant but not glamorous.
“Before I arrived, I had a conviction I would try to write a poem in the house that night.”
Apropos of nothing, the line goes quiet, as if we’re out on the moorland, with not a soul.
Simon… hello…and did you?
“Ah,” he gasps, “You’ll have to read the book.”
Corn Exchange, Church Street, Brighton, Saturday, May 5
Simon Armitage, Edna O’Brian, Andrew O’Hagan and Linda Grant will be guests at Faber Social, a celebration of words and music and lively readings.
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