Artists and writers have always been drawn to the coast, taking inspiration from the conflicting nature where land and sea meet. Walking Away sees Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage carry on this tradition, following in the footsteps of Coleridge, Hardy and Betjeman, all of whom crop up in this travelogue, which sees him trek along the north coast of the South West Coast Path and then on to the Isles of Scilly. Heaney is referenced too, though sadly because he dies while Armitage is walking along the Exmoor coast, a stretch that is perhaps the most synonymous with our most famous poets.
“… poets and the sea are natural companions…
Armitage sets out to see if poetry will pay his way, giving readings in exchange for food and lodgings and penning new material. After all, he states; ‘…for well over a thousand years poets of every generation and school have addressed the sea at some stage in their writing life. But poets and the seaside…’
It’s an interesting juxtaposition and one that presents itself more than once as he sets off from Minehead to Land’s End, where the built- up ‘theme park’ of the coastal resorts sit shamelessly alongside the natural beauty of the surrounding coast.
As a fellow descendant of the northern half of the country, from a place that as Armitage says is ‘about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get in Britain’, I was just as keen to see how things would pan out and how he’d be received in the sunnier south. I was intrigued when he records his first experience of Cornish nationalism, for instance. Without stating an opinion, he simply describes a handwritten sign to keep visitors out, which uses less than pretty language, as being ‘scratched aggressively but with a childish hand into the grain.’
His northern view of the world and dry wit seems patronising at times and it’s in this tone that sees him come a cropper when he laments about the litter on the beaches. While not intended as an insult to the locals but rather an emphatic observation, it doesn’t go down well. Neither does his comments about being in Devon to one audience who soon point out that he’s actually in Cornwall. Sitting in the front row, his oldest friend, a Cornishman, smiles helplessly as his homeland takes offence to what he knows is merely a clash of cultures.
Much like the South West Coast Path itself, there are plenty of ups and downs and some onomatopoeic trudging through “sticky mud and squelchy soil”, all the while taking time to step back and enjoy the views. For Armitage, this requires an adjustment to his vision from the ‘moors of home’, but once acclimatised he begins to take the ‘splendour and beauty’ of the scenery for granted.
He doesn’t quite get used to seeing surfers in their signature black suits as he describes them in one instance in the sandy bay as; ‘…dozens of vertical black marks against the yellow background, with dozens of smaller black blobs bobbing around in the waves. Like a Lowry painting but without the clogs.’; and in another ‘…men with the upper halves of their wetsuits rolled down to their waists, partially flensed, or like half-formed creatures still emerging from the tadpole phase.’. In a moment of self-reflection he says; ‘Like life forms from another planet we seem to be the only people not wearing black rubber onesies.’
As he reaches the end of the road, the way people interact with their environment and how the landscape impacts on people themselves leaves a lingering thought about people and place. His poems pay their way and in return, his experiences brings him new material. It seems like a fair exchange and he walks away with his head held high, while looking out across the water towards Samson – his final destination that he didn’t quite manage to reach.
While the coastal landscape never takes centre stage, merely acting as mood music for the physical endurance of this long distance hike and the characters he meets along the way, it is the sea that’s always in sight and inspires what for me was his best poem in the book, entitled ‘From Where I Stand’. It starts like this: