British Travel Books Part 5
As far as I regard myself as a travel writer I owe a great deal to a lot of other writers but none more so than to John Hillaby. This is the man who brought travel writing within reach of the ordinary mortal. The man who showed that you didn’t have to be fluttering in exotic places and the man who finally struck the balance that has been adhered to by almost all who came after him. He is very much a part of his own story but not the star of it. He’s present but not obtrusively so. At any point the reader can swap places with him and imagine themself as being there. Something you can’t say of many. He provides the eyes and ears and we do the looking and listening. He disappears from the surroundings every bit as much as we do ourselves.
The balance is between the journey, the traveller and the things we encounter along the way. Hillaby lets us experience the entire route, the changing faces, the rain and the shine, from Cornwall to Caithness. He is our expert, sharing knowledge to make us expert too. It’s the same technique that has made Bill Bryson so popular. No coincidence that Hillaby is one of very few travel writers Bryson references, and about the only one he does with esteem. The key is a tremendous amount of research. To become an expert before we even set off and to build on this expertise as we experience it all and then to put on a third layer of study once we come back. Hillaby was an almost permanent fixture in the London Library for weeks and months before he set off. Bryson does the same and it’s the model I’ve followed.
It was stunning, almost awe inspiring to be travelling through the pages with one who seems to know so much. It’s the journalist’s art. To become an expert in order to share that expertise. Lazy writers can rely on Wikipedia these days. But it shows. It is also entirely pointless. The acquisition of knowledge and understanding is why we travel. It has to be real if it is to serve any worthwhile purpose. There is no substitute for delving deeply into books, articles, papers. Both Hillaby and his more celebrated successor work the hard yards. Both are from a background of newspapers; rigorous newspapers; The Times, The Independent, The Manchester Guardian. Papers where facts matter more than prejudice; where the story takes precedence over the storyteller. (I’m talking about the pre-murdoch Times here though I have to admit that even under the steely gaze of its current proprietor it is probably still Britain’s best newspaper if you want to know what is going on (though you may have to filter it first).
We were blessed with great travel writers in the middle of the last century: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris and Eric Newby to name but three. They were brilliant wordsmiths with the common touch. But they wrote about places you simply couldn’t visit unless you were very privileged. I’m not sure I’d claim that Hillaby was right up there with them in terms of literary merit (though the boy could write) but he was the first to bring this readable style, this researched expertise and his gentle personality to bear on The British Isles. When he set out to walk from Land’s End to John O’ Groats in 1968 he was by no means the first to do the walk. But he was the first to make it a truly shared experience.
“If…you decide…to walk across your own, your native land they tell you it’s been done many times before. Men have set off on foot, on bicycles, on tricycles. Somebody even pushed a pram from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.” Journey Through Britain p10
What made John Hillaby’s walk different was that he was going to avoid all roads (he mostly succeeds) and he was going to turn the walk into a beautiful and inspiring book. He isn’t interested in whether it could be done. The beauty of the book is in its human size. An average human; someone very like the reader. We can be inspired by those whose talents, strengths and abilities dwarf our own. I’m more inspired by people who more resemble myself, in all my great mediocrity, achieving remarkable things. Hillaby is an almost perfect Everyman figure.
“For me the question wasn’t whether it could be done, but whether I could do it. I’m fifty. I’m interested in biology and pre-history. They are, in fact, my business. For years I’ve had the notion of getting the feel of the whole country in one brisk walk: mountains and moorlands, downloads and dales. Thick as it is with history and scenic contrast, Britain is just small enough to be walked across in the springtime. It seemed an attractive idea. There was a challenge in the prospect.” (ibid)
He expected to be one of the last to do it. In fact he is probably responsible for thousands of us amateur writers and wanderers for setting our personal challenges. Challenges which, in this age of blogs and social media, can be professionally recorded and shared following the Hillaby model.
By the time the book was planned I was 9 years old. I’d already clocked up several Lakeland peaks, sections of the newly created Cleveland Way and a day or two’s slog along the Pennine Way. My dad liked walking as a day out sort of activity and I liked walking along side him. He taught me how to use a map and compass and he took me to the sort of places where you need them. It instilled a life long passion for getting from A to B by the oldest method of all; that of putting one foot in front of the other. I imagine that John Hillaby came by his love of the hills and byways in the same manner. It is a love that shines through. This man likes walking in the same way that I do. The exercise, the way it allows you to get to places cars or bicycles can’t take you, the freedom, the aches and pains. And the country he walked through has changed remarkably in that time.
Long distance paths are a new idea. In 1968 the path may have followed established rights of way but that didn’t mean that a right of way was provided. Landowners and farmers were yet to be shown the advantages of having walkers cross their land. I know of a farmer who still keeps a bull in a field to deter ramblers from a path where they are legally entitled to wander and which is clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map. In 1968 there were fewer paths and more obstacles. This book played a part in increasing the former and eliminating many of the latter.
He crosses many counties. The intention of avoiding walking on roads and Bridal Ways is a considerable challenge all along the way but it makes the story. He spends the vast majority of his time alone; so much so that when on Wenlock Edge he copes with the heat by indulging in a few miles of naturist strolling. No exhibitionism here. He was a shy man enjoying the freedom and would have covered up at the slightest hint that there was anyone else about. That there wasn’t anybody else about shows how times have changed.
I like the information we get along the way. The storyteller’s art is an ancient one and the storyteller has to know where to start and when to stop; when to satisfy expectations and when to surprise. All that time in the British Library allows him the choicest fruit from obscure stories and the journey is heavy-laden with such offerings. We pass tin mines and are given a history lesson, pass stone circles and are amongst the archeologists. And all the time his feet move through Cornwall, across Bodmin Moor and into Devon and up onto Dartmoor. The history is brought to life and the present set out before us. It really is the next best thing to walking it yourself, and certainly whets the appetite.
I’ve covered much of the ground myself, either on foot or on a bicycle and these are the sections I liked the best. Because they confirm what I’d felt from the first paragraph. That all is true (incidentally the sub-title of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII which is far from an accurate record). I’ve read the book twice. The first time was the best part of 30 years ago. I picked it up again to skim read in order to write this piece. There was no skim reading. I began at the beginning and pretty much didn’t move until I reached the end. I liked and admired the book the first time around. I loved it the second. Simply because it is telling the truth. No rosy wash, no fictionalised encounters, no effort to present himself more heroically.
He’s excellent company, a truly admirable man, a fine writer (who had to work hard at it, as elegant prose apparently didn’t come easily) and a trail blazer. I’m not sure what he’d think of the mass participation charity fund-raising walks of today. He wasn’t one to condemn. He’d have admired the aims and the exercise and struck off in a quieter direction.
Journey Through Britain has been out of print for some time now but it is still relatively easy to get hold of a copy for a few pence and the price of the postage. If you began your walking life in the middle of the last century and want to re-live what it was like back then, if you enjoy knowledgeable company and a sense of challenge, all written in language, which if it isn’t literary, is at least a fine impression of literary, then I think you’ll enjoy it too.
All photographs are from the book.