As I’ve mentioned here before, I hadn’t heard of Linda Cracknell before reading Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” The first of Cracknell’s books that arrived in my mailbox was her little book, Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Among Mountains; the two stories (essays? what genre have I been reading?) in that book are included in Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory, and so I won’t be writing about them again here. After I read Following Our Fathers, I wondered if Cracknell’s work might serve as a model for what I intend to do. Now, after reading Doubling Back, I’m sure that it could.
Phil Smith includes Cracknell, along with Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane, in a list of writers about walking whose work is too traditional and too interpretive; when interpretation happens in an account of a walk, he argues, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (54). I think Smith prefers writing that captures the performative nature of a walk in some way (not an easy thing to accomplish) rather than writing that is clearly literary in intention. (He also prefers walking that is relational, or influenced by relational aesthetics, and many of Cracknell’s walks, though not all, are solitary affairs.) Myself, I’d be happy to be included in any list beside Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane; I’m coming to realize that my ambitions are literary rather than performative. That’s not a bad thing; there are many different ways to walk, and many different ways to respond to walking.
Cracknell’s text begins at a writers’ retreat in Switzerland, and it returns there periodically as a way of introducing the walks she is writing about. At that retreat, she walks every morning with a notebook: “There may be chatter or observations I need to note down, a new story idea, or solutions to my writing problems. It’s as if I think better on the move, think more creatively, or as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have it, ‘my mind only works with my legs’” (12). That quote is apparently from somewhere in the Confessions, a book I should probably be reading as part of this project. Cracknell remembers that she was a walker in childhood:
I suspect I was a strange child, internalised, tearful, quiet. But I remember that there was always a lot going on in my imagination. . . . I learnt about my need to discover, to make sense of local geography by propelling myself through it. I trod routes into familiarity, let my imagination work on the things left behind by others, and got the dirt of the place under my fingernails. I found self reliance and independence there. (14)
Walking is still part of her life: “I’ve remained both a daily walker and an ‘expedition’ walker. My life has been shaped by it to some extent. An enjoyment of walking in remote and mountainous terrain explains in part my move to Scotland in 1990 from where I started to write five years later” (15).
The walks she writes about in this collection were made over the previous eight years: “They are mostly retreadings of past trails either taken by myself or others. In the act of doubling back I discover what remains or is new and listen for memories, some of which have become buried. I also explore how the act of walking and the landscapes we move through can shape who we are and how we understand the world” (15). The notion of “retreading” is important here, and it’s the reason she uses the word “doubling” in the book’s title. All these walks are, in some way, rewalkings; she is self-consciously following in the paths of others, and that notion links the various walks she writes about. She describes those walks as
ambles, treks and expeditions ranging across mountains, valleys and coasts in Scotland, Kenya, Spain, Cornwall, Norway and here in Switzerland. Each setting is the realisation of an obsessive curiosity and seems to have chosen me, rather as stories choose to be written. Sometimes they have similarly unforeseen resolutions. (16)
The words “ambles, treks and expeditions” cover the range of walking Cracknell writes about; her walks range from the difficult and dangerous (her climb in the Alps, which I won’t be discussing here because I’ve already written about it) to regular and routine (her walk in the Birks of Aberfeldy, which concludes the book). I like the idea of a range of walking practices; not every walk needs to be a difficult solo trek, and while some walks are better made alone, others walks require the presence of fellow-walkers.
The first two walks, she continues, are
“saunters” because they are musing and exploratory. Neither of them are steady lines between two places, but meandering rambles with opportunities for distraction and deviation. They take me to places significant in the early lives of Thomas Hardy and Jessie Kesson, landscapes that had long legacies beyond the writers’ youthful roamings and inspired their later texts. I’m also following my younger self. I want to explore how the freedom of certain places at significant points in our lives can encourage us to become close observers of the world, or transform our imaginations, or simply, transform us. (16)
Those introductory words lead into Cracknell’s first chapter, “The Opening Door.” Back in 1976, while staying at Boscastle, in Cornwall, she hears the story of how Thomas Hardy had fallen in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford while a guest at the same guest house she’s staying at (22-23). After Emma’s death in 1912, he returned to the area on a “painful pilgrimage” and wrote poems about her (23-24). Cracknell herself returns to Boxcastle in 2008, “fearful of shattering dreams”: “I rarely like to return to places that have had a powerful hold on me—perhaps it’s a fear of deflation or that things will have changed, but mostly it’s a fear of experiencing too keenly a sense of loss for that past time” (24). She remembers meeting a young man in 1976 and feeling torn between him and her boyfriend back in suburban Surrey (28). She also recalls exploring the cliffs east and west of Boscastle:
I walked in increasing circles and offshoots from my centre—circles which moved me towards orientation, recognition, familiarity and finally a sense of “owning” the place, or perhaps it owning me. This walking ritual, a sort of “beating of the bounds,” that I learnt here is now instinctive when I visit new places, a link perhaps to Hardy who walked his way to a native knowledge of London in the five years he lived there. (31)
Cracknell has been influenced profoundly by Hardy: his “dialogue between landscape and character, human mood and nature, had captured me as a reader by 1976, and has coloured my own fiction writing. Almost unconsciously, I conjure characters out of particular places, or observe places and landscapes through the state of mind or qualities of my characters” (32). But, more importantly, Cracknell’s return to Boscastle is an opportunity to reflect on how she has changed in the intervening 30 years: “A door opened for me when I was here first, and now I see a clear pathway between that 17 year old who was learning to draw and paint and the woman who writes in 2008. We are not so different. I’ve not outgrown the romance that helped me ‘find my feet’ and shaped my passion for paths and for walking as well as for literature” (35).
Cracknell’s second chapter, “Dancing, Kicking Up Her Legs,” is also a return to a place that was important to one of her literary influences, the writer Jessie Kesson (whose work I don’t know). She travels to Achbuie in Scotland, where Kesson went, at the age of 19, after a year in a mental hospital:
It was curious about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the northeast of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair—a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrol-glazed blue of age. (41-42)
For Kesson, “[r]ites of passage were played out here,” and she met the man who later became her husband (42). Cracknell sought out Kesson’s writing, “discovered more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years” and “began to realise that it was the intensity of the inner life of troubled children” that she was connected to (44). Cracknell makes a second visit, ten days later, and spring has progressed (46). She walks along a burn and gets lost:
The sense of a well-loved, shared path keeps pulling me Loch-wards, until it leads to a wicket gate in an unyielding high fence. Beyond it I see the purple flash of rhododendron, hints of laid paths, ponds and house roofs. I skirt the fence to the southerly burn looking for another way, smashing through bramble and brush and over fallen logs. My legs are scratched and bloody, torn by the open edges of dead bracken stem. With soil and moss smearing my hands, I’m returning to my childhood garden, my wilderness of rust-glazed water and bracken. Hints of suburbia hang between birch branches and drone with the distant lawnmower. (49)
Getting lost—a common hazard for walkers—becomes a conduit back into Cracknell’s childhood. But I think Cracknell’s primary concern here is the influence of walking in Achbuie on Kesson:
When she walked on this edge of land and water at the age of nineteen she was perhaps already becoming comfortable with the rebellious identity that would free her from unpromising beginnings and define her as a writer. . . . I like to think it was an extreme change of environment and the experience of spring here that propelled her into that self. (50)
“After six months,” Cracknell continues, “the sensuality and physicality of the place became overwhelming and she ran away,” although she returned for her honeymoon and chose it as the place her ashes were to be scattered (50). The chapter concludes with an assertion of similarity between Cracknell’s walking and Kesson’s: “With limbs swinging I laugh and pant, sweating up through the green song-tunnels beside the burn. Jessie’s granddaughter described how her grandmother would be remembered—‘Dancing, kicking up her legs’—and it seems an apt description also for this hillside in springtime” (51).
Next Cracknell returns to the writers’ retreat in Switzerland, where she is becoming more comfortable with her surroundings:
I don’t take the map on my morning walks any longer; I’ve learnt my one-hour radius and stay within it, walking almost as I do at home, without making decisions, just seeing what each junction decides and greeting the dog-walkers along the way. There’s still an element of exploring as I join up the paths I know, experiment with the route so I can miss out a section on a road, or cut out some up and down by going through a vineyard. I take delight in my ability to improvise. (54)
She introduces her next two walks, on paths in Spain and Kenya:
I hoped to understand something of the places they connect and pass through, and of the people who walk or walked them. They both kick up issues of tolerance and humanity along with dust and pebbles. Walking “in someone else’s shoes” (or without shoes if they are) and on their paths connects one to their stories and rouses the imagination. An open mind accompanying a good walk might just increase our ability to empathise and cross boundaries in a complex world and make for better participants in the “human race.” (55)
The idea of walking without shoes is an important part of her walk in Kenya; she walked barefoot because her Kenyan companions did as well.
Cracknell’s third chapter, “Stairway to Heaven?,” begins with a quotation from Hamish Fulton’s Seven Short Walks: “Walking—cuts a line through 21st century life” (61). This chapter is about a walk in the Valle de Laguart in southern Spain: “The Valle de Laguart in the mountain ranges of La Marina in southeastern Spain has been coined ‘la catedral de senderismo’—the cathedral of walking. I first came across a Mozarabic Trail here when walking about ten years ago, and was taken by its ingenuity and precipitousness” (62-63). Her plan is to walk the trails for a week, through La Marina to the Valle de Laguart, a continuous walk (63). She explains that Mozarabs were Christians who retained their faith under the Islamic government in Spain, Al-Andalus, although they weren’t allowed to ring church bells (63).The paths they made are, she says, remarkable, and she compares their construction to the making of books (which were important during the Al-Andalus period; libraries were burned after the return of Christian rule in 1492):
The making of a book requires investment and multiple skills—writing, translation, papermaking, printing, binding. A path must be built with an understanding of both land and human bodies. It involves surveyors and stonemasons, requires strong builders and insight into the human mind. (64)
“Perhaps if we want a measure of the civility of a period or nation or community,” she continues, “we need to look at the importance placed on both books and the ways for pedestrians” (64-65).
Much of the chapter narrates the experience of walking and camping alone:
In the last minutes before dusk at six each evening, I would look for a camping spot on a high terrace. Overnight, my tent compressed a mattress of wild thyme into a small scented bed. The slither of plump olives down the flysheet often punctuated the hours, along with owls’ calls and, frequently, the close grunts and snuffles of wild boar. When I lay down on my first night, the tent at my feet became a screen on which played the shadow puppets of pine branches tossed by wind against the full moon. (67)
The terraced hillsides she mentions here were developed by the Romans and expanded by the Moors. They were, she writes,
a sculptural intervention as captivating as any piece of land art. Each terrace was an echo of the one before but with a subtle adjustment for the lie of the land—a tighter arc above or a longer stretch, or a spreading to accommodate a decrease in steepness. Looking at a whole hillside covered in terraces from a high point above the Valle d’Arc, I was mesmerised by how they fitted together in great arcs and cirques, one building in a spiral to the top of a conical peak. It was like watching a complex set of eddies and whirlpools in a river. (70)
“I was awed by the land that I crossed,” she writes, by the mountains she climbed and descended every day (72). At first she travels on what I think are gravel roads:
I often followed broad unmade roads on this journey, many in good enough condition to take a car. They sweep in great arcs to find a steady rise or fall, to avoid the deep ravines, and they make their way to the ‘cracks’ in the defences of long mountain ranges. Cross-country walking in this landscape is made near impossible by cataclysmic drops and by the fierce growth of gorse, kermes oaks and other spiny plants characteristic of the garrigue and maquis amongst the boulders. (73)
Eventually, though, she began walking on Mozarabic trails rather than roads, leading to another kind of retreading or rewalking:
After the village of Castell de Castells, heading for Languart, my way began to incorporate short stretches of Mozarabic Trail. I knew them by character straight away. Narrow and stone-lined; polished with use but trustworthy. One side often hugs a terrace wall, while the other is marked by a low boundary of white boulders. They twist and zig-zag through steep ground, worming deep into the gloomiest parts of the gorges. They’re a secret shared between those who walk and the land itself. Walkers are subsumed between terraces, disappear into the inner track of ravines and fissures. The trails are wily and direct, a welcome contrast to the broad tracks, making a virtue of the smallness and dexterity of human and animal feet. Although these short lengths didn’t yet have monumental continuity, and I often found them cut across by bulldozed tracks, they always gave me a skip of delight, as if I’d made a great discovery. I found myself walking them slowly, savouring each step, admiring as I went. I added my footfall to the thorough polishing that my predecessors had given the rock. (73-74)
Those trails had survived many things over hundreds of years, including flooding from storms the previous autumn (74). They were well-designed for pedestrians carrying freight:
I’m laden with a rucksack myself, and regretting it as I consider my first steep ascent. Voices echo up from below me. I see three figures dazzled to black by the limestone boulders in the river bed. They’re looking up towards me, admiring the shadowed route that’s just carried them down. Reassured by their success, I entrust my feet to the first steps.
Soon I find an easy rhythm. Stride for stride, the steps fit me perfectly. They never force me to drop deeper or stretch further than my body’s comfortable with. On each corner, steps fan out into a perfect dovetail, like pages hinging open from the spine of a book. They allow a significant drop with ease, one that my mother’s knees might manage. Steps built for pathways in the Scottish Highlands are sometimes too high or widely spaced to fit a natural rhythm, and I’ve noticed the scuffed paths that arc around them causing erosion that the path is precisely designed to avoid. Not these. (75)
“I relax, accept the grace of the path, thanking its considerate builders with their Arabised skills,” she writes (75-76). “I arrive at the white boulders on the riverbed and look back up at the shadowland of cliff, crag, buttress, hidden steps, almost laughing at the ingenuity. Already the path has made the landscape seem less severe, more familiar, now that I’m cleft within it” (76).
Cracknell’s account of walking is accurate and funny. She wakes up on her last morning dehydrated and sunburned:
I look again for the spring marked on my map that I searched for in half-light last night. I used my remaining water to cook up pasta and went to sleep dehydrated, with my face roaring from too much sun. But I fail again to find the spring. This is my last day of walking and I begin to feel the need to eat properly, to spread out a bit, perhaps even to speak to some people and get clean. My socks smell like an intensive chicken farming unit. But the trajectory towards comfort is still hanging in a balance with the desire to continue the journey. (79)
She climbs up to a castle on the top of a mountaintop and hears church bells from below along with the sound of hunters’ gunshots: “I’m cowering from the naked sun, the back of my mouth sticky and slow, and the skin of my face sultana-dry. I head down; down into the tinkling valleys with questions still ringing in my mind” (81). What those questions are isn’t clear; perhaps she is thinking about the history she has walked through and the differences between that history and the world in which she lives.
In her fourth chapter, “Baring our Soles,” Cracknell thinks about the meanings of walking barefoot. “Walking barefoot can have multiple meanings—from penance to pilgrimage to protest and empowerment to poverty and powerlessness. But it also has a sensory impact,” she writes, noting that her friend Philo Ikonya compares it to talking to the earth (87). “It was a long time since I’d walked barefoot anywhere except on a beach, but I was willing to try,” she continues. “Philo had told me that women and girls all go barefoot on these village paths. The rainy season transforms the hard red earth into a clogging swamp and shoes are completely impractical. But for me and my friends used to wearing shoes in Nairobi’s streets, it was strange and difficult” (88). Philo’s tells Cracknell about her late brother’s perfect feet: “Philo described the shape of the heel as a zero, with an arch so high that the foot didn’t meet the ground again until the next little zero at the ball and the ‘dot, dot, dot’ of the toes. She would know his footprint anywhere, she said, printed onto the earth paths radiating from the house, layered now under the marks of more recent walkers” (89-90). My flat feet are completely different, and I would find it difficult to walk any distance barefoot, without the lift that orthotics give to my arches. But Cracknell and Philo meet a woman who regularly walks from Nairobi to the village barefoot—a distance of 30 kilometres:
“She says she can perfectly well afford to buy shoes, but why would she not want to walk barefoot?” Philo signalled the smooth red earth, the maize and coffee plants lifting in the breeze, the absence of vehicles.
I wondered how the woman’s walk would be interpreted in Nairobi, where, as Philo had said earlier, “the city ways are hostile to barefoot travellers.” Would people read poverty rather than pleasure in her steps?” (93)
Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that walking barefoot was common even in Scotland’s cold climate, although it’s become unusual, and Cracknell rarely thinks about her feet, especially in the winter:
They’d been bundled up in recent weeks, even as I sat at my desk, or crammed into boots when I’d gone out, boots that seemed to make unbending planks of them, as if appending their natural functions with something more useful. I’d looked at them with distaste in the bath—the thickening yellow toenails suggesting fungal infection, the puffy arthritic joint of the left big toe. And now they’d been released to this! (95)
Cracknell and her companions wash their feet under the garden tap when they arrive at their destination: “The red soil streamed away, the water cooled hot soles, gilded our feet with sunlight. We put on our shoes again. My soles tingled, and as we started back, my gait was shifted by the elevation from the ground. A new perspective, a sense perhaps closed off, but I felt deeply refreshed” (96).
The chapter ends with an account of Philo’s arrest in Nairobi during a peaceful protest outside Parliament. When she is released, the police kept one of her shoes (99). “‘It’s one thing to love to walk village paths barefoot,’ Philo wrote in an email afterwards, ‘another to be forced to step on cold cement. . . . Our feet celebrations turned into tears.’ She compared it to the humiliation of being stripped,” Cracknell relates (100). After her release she walked back across the city, “barefoot and defiant, carrying the one remaining shoe to demand its pair at the police station” (100). Cracknell recognizes her privilege here: “My own feet still recalled our walk; some of the toughened skin was peeling off in a translucent film grained with contours. I enjoyed the sensation, the visceral reminder of the meeting of our skin with the skin of the earth. But it took on a different meaning now” (100).
Another interlude at the writers’ retreat in Switzerland follows, which introduces her walks in the mountains of Norway and Switzerland. After those walks, she writes, “I became less intent on walking to ‘get away from it all’ and more interested in walking those paths that beat with a human resonance” (102). Her walk in Norway is a turning point in the project: “I set out on this walk principally for a holiday, but it came to mean much more. I discovered a richly peopled landscape. . . . the generosity of strangers playing their part contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (128). She returned home thinking about that: “I felt the need to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot” (128). That realization leads to her walk in Switzerland, in her father’s footsteps. After her account of those two walks, Cracknell returns to the writers’ retreat in Switzerland, but this time she’s gone away to walk in the Alps: “a day walk, a loop. I resisted the lure of well-marked trails leading the eye towards lengthier possibilities. It’s a joy, though, that’s hard to beat: setting out on a long walk, the agenda for forthcoming days dictated solely by the beckoning road. The landscape unrolls, fitness grows, and even the slight sense of hardship and rationed foot is enjoyable” (163-64). “On a long walk in remote terrain life becomes simplified into a line, daily rituals, the rhythm of day and night,” she writes. “Added to this, a passage through a mountain landscape is punctuated by dramatic geographical features; passes and rivers to cross, junctions, inns and settlements, each of which can gather symbolic significance in a mind channelled by motion and perhaps solitude” (164). Because walking connects places together, she continues, it creates continuity, and those places are both physical and mental:
We discover ourselves as we discover the world. Perhaps reclaiming our own stories through a physical act can help ensure that life’s momentum doesn’t take us sleepwalking onwards, shedding memories carelessly along the way. We may even walk ourselves into a whole new geography. In an age in which our major life changes are mostly unmarked, a long walk can fulfil a necessary ritual. (165)
Those thoughts lead into Cracknell’s seventh chapter, “The Return of Hoof Beats,” an account of a droving journey in the Scottish Highlands. “Our modest body of people and animals moving as one across an ancient-feeling landscape in Scotland was an ‘unnecessary’ journey,” she writes, but it “felt connected to a stream of time and a legacy of working journeys with animals. I’d envisaged it being a bit like a medieval pilgrimage; a flock of us grouping and regrouping as we moved, stories told along the way, and more created” (172). The group travelled “at a drover’s pace of 10-12 miles a day using old ways and passes which once forged lively connections between places” (172). They moved through a “statuesque landscape” that “seems ‘wild’ now because of its remoteness from most human traffic and habitation. It’s relatively unmarked physically by the web of seasonal trails that would once have kept it busy” (172).
This communal journey was organized by Joyce Gilbert, a historian of the old ways of travelling in Scotland. The journey was inspired by the history of droving in Scotland, a practice that ended in the second half of the nineteenth century (174), and participants, Cracknell writes, were fascinated by journeys and “the urge to discover a sense of place. There were also individual motivations such as a wish to walk with animals, explore and draw creative inspiration from the landscape, follow old ways and keep traditions alive” (173). However, few in the group had any experience with ponies, the animals they were walking with; only one woman, Vyv Wood-Gee, who in 2010 had travelled 800 miles with two ponies from the Isle of Skye to Smithfield Market in London, knew what she was doing (173). Leading ponies on foot is a skill: “you depend more on head-to-head proximity, and your voice, a hand on the pony’s nose, the occasional titbit to induce rapport. This gap between control and trust requires the human-pony relationship to be reciprocal, demanding respect on both sides. It feels more egalitarian than riding” (176). Cracknell is confused by the “slightly contradictory advice” they had received at the beginning of the journey:
We were told that the ponies needed us to guide them—where best to put their feet, how to keep out of trouble in bogs and on steep ground. They needed to be able to trust us. But we were also told that they would need a very long rein, giving them the freedom to pick their own way, to jump if necessary, swerve out of danger. It suggested that their wayfinding was superior to ours and that they would know the best route. So which was right—did they need us or us them? (176)
It’s a good question, one that could only be answered through practice and experience.
The journey is an emotional one for Cracknell. She describes their arrival at Blair Castle:
I felt intensely aware of the fluid movement of our line; the beat of our feet and clatter of forty hooves on tarmac. . . . We must have made a bedraggled, raggle-taggle spectacle, having come through heavy rain with our loaded panniers and muddy boots. Neatly dressed visitors to the castle watched us go past. I heard a woman answer her daughter’s question with: “They’re travelling with their ponies, love.” I felt a great rush of pride; tears almost. I was a person of the road with my pony beside me, a pony that had become so much more than a luggage-carrier. (182)
That rush of pride is interesting, and suggests that Cracknell has adopted a temporary identity through her experience; she has become a drover, rather than just a walker. There are important differences between this journey and others she has taken:
The rhythms of any camping journey—pitching tents, cooking, sleeping—were extended by looking after the ponies’ needs—untacking, turning them out, finding water. The compassion we needed to find for our animals even when we were tired and hungry, characterised the culture of our expedition, and softened it. (182)
“Over the week the animals became like members of our extended family with distinct personalities and allegiances,” she continues (183). In addition, she writes, “[t]he journey also gathered people to us. Despite our often remote location, and the sense at times of a haunted, abandoned landscape, each night we had extra company of some sort; folk joining us with songs or stories, or hosting us in their fields and steadings” (183). Sometimes local communities would hold “Meet the Drovers” events where “local people and tourists” would “pat the ponies and ask about the way” (183). “It was clear by now that a nerve had been tingled by our quirky procession; a way of life suggested because we were moving alongside animals,” Cracknell writes. “Perhaps it raised a folk memory, barely lost, of our partnership with working animals and the land” (184). Travelling with ponies also brought the group “into tune with the landscape,” making them feel more a part of it and allowing wildlife to come closer, and allowing the travellers to notice more (184). There was something powerful in the repetition involved in this journey, and although detractors might describe Cracknell’s account as overly romantic, clearly she experienced something on that journey that she didn’t on the others she writes about.
In her eighth chapter, “The Dogs’ Route,” Cracknell walks for two weeks to the Isle of Skye from her home in Perthshire: “My route had been trodden before me by the numerous cattle-drovers who had once herded animals south to market at this time of year, streaming in black ghost-lines in the opposite direction” (190). Cracknell finds this walk also very moving, perhaps because it reminds her of passages or changes in her life:
Like a series of thresholds, there had been many crossings on my journey so far—rivers, railways, roads, the Great Glen fault-line, mountain passes, transitions between rock types, the boundaries of mental geography. Each threshold arose to demand from me a commitment of sorts, to the next step in a new terrain. (191)
Her ferry journey from the mainland, for example, took on “a mythic weight. I was in no danger of life or loss, but there was anxiety, the need gnawing at me to put the territory of the past behind me and complete a journey” (191).
Perhaps this journey was so moving because Cracknell began at her home; that certainly made it different from the others she writes about. “The start in a familiar landscape joined up my day walks, gave me the pleasure of naming places, but also noticing the shifts in colour, and the slow changes in the bulky shape of Ben Lawers as I skirted its sides.” she writes. “It was strange but lovely that for the first two nights I was near enough home to stay with local friends” (193). “The line of the walk was taking me out of familiarity and then returning it to me. Crossing thresholds and linking places” (195). And I have to say, having just finished a walk in Scotland, I was waiting for Cracknell to finally get her boots wet, which she does while crossing a peat bog: “I abandoned the preserve of dry boots and socks. For the first time on the walk I was out of my comfort zone, wet and peat-spattered, travelling very slowly in an unknown land” (194).
Cracknell was walking alone, but because part of her route coincided with the West Highland Way, she found companions on the road:
I fell into step with two lads I’d met in the pub the night before. Then I left them with a group of cheery Germans who stopped on the summit of the first hill to brew up coffee away from the midges. . . . I passed on to walk with two women from London, and then from them to two young Israeli men struggling under 25 kilo packs, and demanding reassurance about three words that were shivering them with apprehension about what was ahead: “The Devil’s Staircase.”
Unlike a cocktail party, no excuse was ever needed to pass on to the next conversation. It happened naturally with the tying of a bootlace. (196)
Conversations spontaneously happened during a lunch stop at a pub (196), which suggests something about the difference between walking and other forms of transportation:
I don’t think I’ve ever struck up a conversation with anyone in a motorway services, and yet the pubs and cafes on my route were rich with encounter. It was as if my solitude inclined me to drop barriers and delight in sharing experience. With walkers there’s always subject-matter—the route, weather, memories of past walks, advice on new places. Such journey-talk is a small step from how we choose to live our lives and what we value. It’s not, to me, superficial. (197)
Cracknell sometimes stays with friends, and while she enjoys the break from her journey, the impulse to continue moving always reasserts itself:
Despite the kindnesses, the tea and food and drying off, the exchanges of news about mutual friends from university days, I suddenly felt the need for movement. Pressed in this tight drama of valley, water, rock, memory, I needed to breathe, to be alone again, to work out what to do next. I needed to reclaim the journey; to prove that the line I’d partly invented behind me could also continue forwards. (205)
The impulse to move, and to be alone, are interesting here; not every walk needs to be made with other people, and sometimes the forward motion of the journey comes to take priority over other concerns. I’ve felt both of these, and that experience is one of the reasons I reject the prescriptive suggestion that long, solo walks are somehow without value.
Cracknell’s arrival on Skye leads to several important connections with others, however, One is with her B&B host, a man named Philip Tordoff. In the morning, he stands outside with her,
continuing our conversation about the value of walking the old ways, about what it means to find enlightenment in land and books. . . . I walked off into a dry morning, gusted past the Co-op, and my boots strode me back into a rhythm. Rather than turning for home, I turned south-west towards Elgol, and the road rose to meet me. (206)
At this point, Cracknell reveals the reason for her interest in thresholds and her anxiety about completing the walk: “I’m not an old woman, and yet if you’re considered old once your fertile years are past, I’m heading towards that different way of being. This journey was challenging to my body, calling for stamina, energy, strength, mobility. These were qualities of youth” (207).
She recalls a letter from her doctor, explaining that she has some kind of “joint disease,” and her response, which was to recall an old man she had seen, nearly bent double, walking along the sidewalk (207). Will she be able to continue walking? At a café in a village, she chats with a smiling woman she had passed earlier on the road, walking (211). She loves walking and encourages Cracknell to continue walking, noting that she has arthritis and can no longer walk: “‘But please, keep doing it,’ she said. ‘Keep walking. For as long as you can.’” (216).
Cracknell gives this journey a strong conclusion:
My journey took fifteen days. I passed through some of the most visited places in the Highlands—Glen Lyon and the Great Glen, and under the most climbed hills of Glencoe, Grey Corries, the Glenelg peninsula. Such was the conspiracy of route or time of year or weather that, with the obvious exception of the West Highland Way, I barely met a single walker on my route between days one and fourteen. (217)
People ask her after the walk if she was lonely, a question she ponders:
There’s a different kind of loneliness that you confront on any walk in the Highlands. Just after crossing the river at the head of Glen Arnisdale at Glen Dubh Lochan, I passed through fragments of a village that was once a drovers’ overnight stance. It would have been a beautiful place to live, on a slightly raised point above the bend in the river. . . . Passing sheilings reduced to tumbled stone and still surrounded by an oasis of green in the high glens, I sometimes fancy I glimpse faces form the corner of an eye, or catch the murmur of voices—curious at a traveller passing. But they don’t discomfort me as the relics left from the deliberate clearance of people from the Highlands do, perhaps because such sheilings were always intended to be temporary. (217-18)
The notion of rewalking becomes personal here:
The line of this walk had linked places and people warm in my affection from a twenty-five year relationship with this part of Scotland. I’d teased up memories of past climbs, pub nights, days spent with friends and lovers. I hadn’t planned the route around this, at least not knowingly, but now I see it as a string upon which the jewels of special moments are held in lapidary brightness. (221)
Her journey, she continues, “traversed a space ‘inbetween’”:
There were thresholds, an equinox, caves, shores, bogs, bridges, tidal flats, roadside hostelries—liminal places which can be turning points or transitions; places where normal limits don’t apply. I’d walked with the gods and with the dogs. It had been a period out of my normal life. And yet it had also been an intense period of my life. I’d set out to follow an old droving trail but I had also opened up some buried chambers inside myself and the walk had given me time to dwell on their contents. (221)
That intensity is reflected in the tears she sheds when she arrives at her destination on Skye and finds it stormy rather than calm (220). I think this might be Cracknell’s most personal walk, even more personal than the walk in her father’s footsteps in Switzerland. It’s certainly the one that provokes the greatest emotional reaction in her.
Another interlude at the writers’ retreat in Switzerland follows. Cracknell realizes that she and her fellow writers have “made a home” of the place they’re staying, and she wonders whether she will “‘double back’ one day to collect the memories of this special time and place” (224). “It’s a common experience for walking to bring a spiritual peace, a sense of ‘home’ or connection with places, nature, people, as well as offering excitement or enchantment,” she writes. “These are slow ways, with possibilities for stillness and reflection, qualities I associate with the melancholy acceptance of Autumn” (225). “This project,” she continues,
this retreading of former ways first with feet and then in words has left me with traces of red dust, glacier ice, granite, in my veins, and a spring in my step. I’ve beaten the bounds of things I half know, uncovered history and inhabited my wild, childish self again, to relive the thrill of being drawn into a landscape, connecting to nature, seeing where a way leads and who or what I meet. I’ve appreciated better the various motives of footfall and made peace with the contradictory impulses of familiarity and ‘otherness’; self-sufficiency and company. And there’s a sense now that, as well as doubling back, walking moves me forward into some new terrain. (225)
Those words lead into her ninth chapter, “To Be a Pilgrim,” an account of another retreading: a walk from Melrose to Lindisfarne on St. Cuthbert’s Way, following in the footsteps of many pilgrims, as well as Saint Cuthbert himself, “shepherd, monk, hermit, and Bishop of Lindisfarne” (231). On this walk, Cracknell is accompanied by her friend, or lover, Phil (232). It is late October: “I felt a need to refresh my body with physical movement, to feel the spark of sun and rush of wind on my skin before giving in to the dark; to walk the length of the daylight hours. But I was less sure of the landscape and the destination, the path safely way-marked with Celtic crosses that would lead us without any need to navigate” (233). She suggests that “any long walk is a pilgrimage, a ‘holiday’ (or holy day) from familiar places and routines, and from possessions. A simple journey with an ultimate goal holds a bud of transformation, a means of renewing lost parts of ourselves. The pilgrim’s goal has a similar focus to the mountaineer’s summit, but it’s steadier, quieter” (234). “I wasn’t walking Saint Cuthbert’s way for religious reasons,” she writes,
and yet I love the stories of many traditions, and hoped to find some of these underfoot and to discover places that beat with a spiritual pulse I could connect to. In a curious way I realised that setting out on a journey, leaving home, also gives me a sense of “coming home.” The dropping away of anxiety and everyday concerns results in a feeling of just being “me.” (235)
Those sentences are interesting: what does it mean to have the journey itself give her a sense of being at home?
Walking with Phil interrupts the forward movement of the walk; he likes to stop to pause, to photograph what they see: “He didn’t worry about time and ‘getting on.’ We were using our feet to explore; to digress for a ruined house or linger over the colour of a beetle. The pause was as important as the pacing” (239). Aside from the weather, the walk is relatively uneventful, until they arrive at their destination and decide to try to cross the mudflats to St. Cuthbert’s Isle at dusk, against all advice. I was expecting disaster, but they manage to cross to the island and back without incident: “Behind us, the world had turned to monochrome. The sea washed away our footsteps and cast Lindisfarne off to become an island sanctuary again, a lulled cradle. Tide and the night stopped our feet, halted the onward rhythm of our journey. We had arrived, and the place insisted that we rest a day or two before we go on our way again” (243). This journey, as many walks in the UK do, ends at a pub, The Crown and Anchor. How appropriate that an account of a journey, one in which the journey becomes home, ends at a pub with the word “anchor” in its name.
Cracknell’s tenth chapter, “Friendly Paths,” is the story of a domestic or home-like walk: “The Birks of Aberfeldy,” made famous by a poem by Robbie Burns (249). It’s an hour-long walk, “shared by locals and visitors with dogs and children” (249). “I’ve walked The Birks often, in many seasons and weathers, even at night,” Cracknell writes:
The way responds generously to my habit, offering words or images when I’m stuck for them, or the gift of a change in mood. It airs my mind and exercises my body when it’s cramped and subdued by work. I walk it with friends, too, visitors or local people. I’m never bored by it, and can always vary the route slightly; descending by a different track or exploring further up the hill beyond the Falls. Sometimes I leave the etched ways and follow fainter, incipient paths, just to see where they go. They might dump me in bog or snaring heather but I like the deviation; the combination of heartily sharing the ground and absconding to the margins. (250)
As I read those words, I thought about my regular walks in this city, and the way that I do get bored by them, partly because those faint, “incipient” paths are harder to find here.
Walking the Birks of Aberfeldy is one of the first things Cracknell does after returning home from being away: “I re-learn the land with my repeated steps, my circuits. But it’s not static. Things happen. Each time there’s the possibility of new discoveries. And I might meet someone by chance who’s taking their own turn of The Birks” (250). “By keeping the paths beaten, our feet earn us the right to be here,” she writes, (250) noting that “birks” is the Scots word for birches (251). (It’s easy to forget that Cracknell isn’t Scots, despite having lived in Perthshire for 25 years.) As she walks, she thinks about Dorothy Wordsworth, who wrote about the place when she came her with her brother (253). She also considers the connection between walking and writing, and the importance of repetition and return in both activities:
The writing of any story is mostly re-writing. My first draft will have a rough sense of direction and content, a provisional resolution, but then I’ll revisit it again and again, re-seeing the material to tighten it, or even to allow it, if it insists, to follow a new route. I think of it as a repeated walk; a loop with varieties or diversions. Revisiting our own memories is like this too. We subtly reconstruct them as we go, so that our life stories are less like photographic, objective reality and more like an act of imagination, re-invented over and over again. (256)
A repeated walk also generates layers of memories: “On a walk like this made over many years, and on many occasions, I’ve cached so many memories amongst the rocks and trees and hills, that re-turning the walk also gives me a way of retracing my own story” (256). She thinks of the arthritic woman she met on Skye and the promise she made to her to keep walking (257). “And now my walking mind gives in to the familiar, agrees to close the circle as I turn, double back towards the town on a level road with views into the valley,” she writes (257). “Contained within this walk each time I do it is the forever-pleasure of turning for home. At this point I always start to think ahead to putting on the kettle and making tea. Tomorrow perhaps I’ll take a turn of the story once again” (258).
This has been an important book for me, not only because I admire it, but because it confirms my recent thinking that I need to incorporate a variety of different walks into my project—not just one epic plod across the prairies, but other kinds of walking: shorter walks, made alone and with other people. I have ideas about how to proceed, and Doubling Back suggests to me that I’m on the right track. Cracknell’s walking, and her writing about those walks, might prove to be a model for my work, and so I’m happy to have read it.
Cracknell, Linda. Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory, Freight, 2015.
Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.
Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.