It’s 8.25am on a cold winter morning, and somewhere in Ribblesdale in North Yorkshire, Alastair Campbell is busy muttering to himself. Plus ça change, you might think. But don’t worry! No TV producer is about to receive an irate call, no politician a thorough bollocking. Campbell is actually talking to a stick, on the end of which is a 360-degree camera; he’s here by design, the latest companion-at-a-distance in Winter Walks, a series which having begun in lockdown proved so successful (and, perhaps, cheap to make) the BBC has now brought it back.
Where’s Campbell going? I mean literally, not existentially. Well, he begins at Scaleber Force, where the crystal clear Stockdale Beck tumbles 40 feet over limestone cliffs; proceeds to the delightful market town of Settle; and finally ends up at another waterfall, Catrigg Force, a place much beloved of Edward Elgar (though Campbell doesn’t mention this, being more interested in his bagpipes and whether, if they were in his rucksack, they might be played in time to the tuneful plashing that’s all around). The route is about five miles, and made even easier when the dishcloth sky causes him to wimp out of the cross country route, taking the road instead (a “sensible decision” according to the subtitles, the weather in these parts being more unpredictable than any opinion poll). But I must be honest. There are moments when it feels like he’s walking the full 268 miles of the bloody Pennine Way. Are we nearly there yet? I kept wondering, like a child. When can I have some sweets (or a large gin)?
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I like Campbell, for all his faults (so shoot me). But I do think that some are better suited than others to this format, which comprises one individual, the
360 camera and an occasional aerial shot courtesy of a drone. The first series came with the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, and he had all the words; you saw things with fresh eyes. But the walkers this time – the others are the Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen, the priest and reality star Kate Bottley and Radio 5’s Nihal Arthanayake – struggle to narrate, to capture the beautiful, the transporting and the numinous, with the result that you often find yourself wishing they’d just shut up; the crunch of their boots would be enough of a soundtrack. It’s touching when Campbell speaks of those members of his family that he has lost and how, outdoors, he talks to them (I do this, too), but I think we needed more of it. Did he – incredible thought! – lack the confidence to freestyle? Is this why he recited Emily Brontë’s poem “The Night is Darkening Round Me”, which I’m willing to bet he didn’t know before he signed up for this show? I suppose it’s possible, though, as he said to his stick, he has a huge ego. (By my reckoning, it’s about the size of Ingleborough, a hill he may have been able to see in the distance as he tramped.)
But still, Winter Walks does cast a certain spell; I hunker inside each episode, as if in a too-big cagoule, trying hard to ignore the rain. It’s a series that brings me to worry away again at something I thought about a lot a year ago: the question of what, if anything, we’ll carry from the pandemic into the future. I was always a walker, but in those dark months when we were locked up, it became central to my life. Round and round I went, the revolutions widening every week. One day, like some tiny figure in a fantasy novel, I finally reached the end of the city, finding myself unexpectedly on a hill in a park from which I could see a river (not the Thames) and, beyond it, the petering out of what Patrick Hamilton called “the crouching monster” that is London.
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It was a strange moment, so unnerving I burst into tears. What’s even stranger, though, is that ever since we were released from our captivity, I’ve avoided my old routes (like the plague, you might say, aptly). Somehow, it’s just too painful to go back; to remember, perhaps. Watching Campbell in his beanie, striding over some of the countryside that I love best in the world – like him, I find dry stone walls entirely thrilling – I considered all this and felt… what? Even now, Winter Walks is a paradox: the sedentary (your screen) vs the ambulatory (what’s on your screen). I love it, and hate it, in equal measure. Happy as I am to be writing this, would that I could be out there now, on those fells, in that wooded gorge.
Winter Walks BBC Four, aired 29 November,
7.30pm; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back