Heading off the beaten track

Simon Armitage's latest journey took him to the South West coast
Simon Armitage's latest journey took him to the South West coast
  • First he tackled the Pennine Way and now he’s trekked along the South West coast. Chris Bond talks to Simon Armitage.
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SIMON Armitage, perhaps unusually for a poet, has never been one to sit still for too long.

If there was an award for Britain’s most well-travelled poet then the Marsden-based bard would surely be a shoe-in.

It’s five years now since Armitage decided to walk the Pennine Way, which snakes 256 miles along the jagged backbone of England over some of the roughest terrain in the country, from the Cheviots down to the Peak District.

His subsequent book, Walking Home – Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way, was an account of his three-week trek along this bleak and beautiful terrain and the characters he encountered along the way.

Travelling without a penny in his pocket, he gave poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms, passing his hat (or in his case his walking sock) round at the end of each performance.

His audiences varied from the passionate to the indifferent, and his readings were accompanied by the clacking of pool balls, the drumming of rain and the bleating of sheep.

As well as challenging his mental and physical fortitude (ask anyone who’s completed the Peninne Way and they’ll tell you it can be an unforgiving place, especially when the weather closes in), he wanted to see if he really could sing for his supper. “I wanted to test my reputation as a poet and find out whether I could live on my wits as a modern-day troubadour,” he said to me at the time.

He passed the test with flying colours but rather than sitting back and congratulating himself on a job well done, he decided to do it all again – this time swapping the windswept Pennine hills for the dramatic (and yes, windswept) coastal fringes of the South West.

His 260-mile journey through Somerset, Devon, down through Cornwall and on to the Scilly Isles is captured in his new book Walking Away – Further travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path. It’s a companion piece to Walking Home and takes him from the surreal pleasuredome of Butlins in Minehead to a smoke-filled roundhouse on the Penwith Peninsula – from remote rural communities to bustling tourist hotspots.

Armitage enjoyed his latest odyssey through less familiar territory but says it will be the last one he does. “I’ve really enjoyed it and writing the books is an interesting way of re-walking the journey, it works out about one word per step. But the amount of time, planning and effort that goes into it is huge. It took a year sorting it out and then a year-and-a-half writing the book, so it’s a big commitment.”

He also under estimated how physically demanding it would be. “It was different in every way. To begin with it was coastal rather than inland and I completely misjudged how difficult it would be.

“It was a bit of a roller coaster because it’s not just beaches, there’s steep slopes and precipitous coastal paths and a lot of the time I didn’t get out of first and second gear.”

He found the South West full of intriguing contradictions. “On the one hand they’re much more geared up for tourism so it’s less isolated than the Pennines, But in Cornwall, in particular, there’s a feeling you’re somewhere that has an idiosyncratic and alternative view of life.”

As with his trek through the Pennines he found no shortage of appreciative audiences, something that fills him with enthusiasm. “I felt I met kindred spirits along the way and it’s made me much more optimistic about poetry and its place in the world. It’s not just some Victorian pastime, it’s still an important art form that has a voice in people’s hearts and minds.”

Walking Away, published by Faber & Faber, is out now priced £16.99.