The modern troubadours who walk the waves

New books by Simon Armitage and Patrick Barkham follow walks through the south of England.

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The etymology of “troubadour” is problematic: perhaps it comes through the Latin for song, or from the same root as trouble. Troubadours, then, were peripatetic songsters, or troublemakers. Europe is criss-crossed by pilgrimage paths and bridleways where troubadours were once a common sight. Europeans remain fond of literary walkers, though they no longer expect them to sing for their supper: Patrick Leigh Fermor had his allowance of £1 a week; Geert Mak had his stipend from a Dutch newspaper. Of the most celebrated, perhaps only Laurie Lee was really a troubadour, busking his way from Gloucestershire to Spain.

In the summer of 2010 the poet Simon Armitage decided to revive the idea. But could he earn his way, walking the 256-mile Pennine Way, solely by reciting his poetry? The route would take him home, so the book was called Walking Home. As a professor of poetry (first at Sheffield and from next term at Oxford) and a translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he was more than usually conscious of his literary predecessors; he subtitled the book Travels With a Troubadour. It was a critical and commercial success, and five years later he has published another walking book. Walking Away covers 265 miles of the South-West Coast Path from Minehead to Land’s End, and from there on to the Scilly Isles. This Further Travels With a Troubadour is conceived as “a neat symmetrical opposite to the previous adventure”; not moors and uplands this time, but “holiday destinations and tourist traps, towards accents and dialects different to mine”. Although he will pass a collecting-sock round the audience after each reading, his room and board for this trip are prearranged by an assistant.

Leigh Fermor and Lee opened their walking books with flourishing accounts of departure, but Armitage begins with three sharp, funny and beguiling pages on how indispensable his new walking hat is. I was reminded of Ford Prefect’s encomium to the towel; in prose, Armitage is more at ease channelling The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than A Time of Gifts or As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. He is a serious poet and his journey is an attempt to put serious poetry on trial, yet he wants us to know that he is creating something accessible, humorous, even ephemeral.

A tension is drawn between the high art of his poetry and the pedestrian demands of his prose project, though he doesn’t include a poem until page 83. In Porlock Weir Margaret Drabble gives him a fiver, which reminds him of the occasion 25 years earlier when she was part of a committee that awarded him a fat cheque (he confesses he used the prize to buy a car and a corduroy jacket; “I’m sure it was money well spent,” she replies). In Calstock he does a reading at the old premises of Peterloo Poets, where 40,000 volumes of unsold verse sit in the basement. “. . . I feel as if I should offer some explanation for the mausoleum of contemporary verse beneath our feet”, he says of his reading that night, “but just for a moment I seem to have lost my tongue”. At St Enodoc he meets golfers taking a break to look at the local churchyard and point out Betjeman’s grave: “There he is,” says one of them. “What’s-his-face.” In Padstow a Sinatra lookalike draws a bigger crowd, and in Newquay a woman shouts out that her daughter plagiarised one of his poems for a creative writing assignment and only got a B for it: “Much laughter in the room.” Armitage wanted to put poetry “to the test against the hubbub of holidaymakers in a region ­defined by tourism” and by this testimonial, poetry didn’t come out too well. Which is a pity; but it’s eminently brave of him not to have exaggerated his success.

When interviewed in 2012 for this magazine Armitage said of Walking Home that it was “a book about people: the kindness of strangers and communities”. Walking Away suggests a shift in perspective: the strangers this time are less integral to the journey than grist for the mill of the book. “Every day a new chapter, every word a footfall . . .” reminded me of Paul Theroux’s “That was a page, and here’s another page, and there’s probably a page in Anstruther” (The Kingdom by the Sea). Armitage often prefers his own company, pulling up his hood to scurry past the welcome parties that turn out to accompany him. Those who do join in are sketched as witty but unflattering caricatures – maybe there’s truth in the idea that troubadours are nothing but trouble.

The highly sprung tension between Armitage’s sense of his work as a poet, and what he has to write in order to get the book done, uncoils quite suddenly as he approaches Land’s End. His feeling of liberation is unmistakable: poetry and prose merge seamlessly “in the trailing ellipsis of the European archipelago”. A final poem, “Scillonia”, condenses his experience of the islands into a series of elegant metaphors: a dunnock nests in an open palm; Harold Macmillan lies in his grave with a crown of thrift, “eye sockets full of the west”; constellations shimmer in a firmament of beacons and buoys. The writing is tender, insightful, carefully balanced; admirers of Armitage’s verse, like myself, may wonder why we have waited so long for it. The final pages of prose list every non-cash item collected in the sock over those 265 miles, from a German condom to a 5p fuel coupon, from a cranberry teabag to a hardboiled egg. The quotidian silliness of the sock’s itemised contents, balanced by the delicate poetry of “Scillonia”, could stand as a distillation of the whole book.

Armitage’s true subject is himself and his poetry, while in Coastlines the littoral landscape and its communities remain centre-stage. With no sock or stipend to keep him going, Patrick Barkham has accepted support from the National Trust, which manages some of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the British Isles. “Enterprise Neptune” was the name given to the campaign behind the trust’s project, begun in the 1960s, to buy up coastline in order to protect it from “rampaging tourism and industry”. It now owns 742 miles of this “Neptune Coast”, which for organisational reasons omits Scotland entirely (the National Trust for Scotland is a separate body).

He didn’t tramp every one of those 742 miles, but has “instead chosen places that have entranced me with their stories”. The book tries to fuse two kinds of writing: it must be a working travel guide, offering practical information on each site, but maintain Barkham’s reputation for lyrical, thoughtful writing about nature, as established by his earlier works The Butterfly Isles (2010) and Badgerlands (2013).

Barkham does more listening than talking, and what fascinates him are the tales he is told and how these shed light on the various ways the coastline has been used over centuries. His chapters are themed accordingly, “War”, “Work”, “Art”, “Faith” and so on, liberating him from the tyranny of geography and providing categories into which he can gather his reflections. In “Art”, the narrative zooms between Penwith in Cornwall (the St Ives artistic community), the Llyn Peninsula in Wales (following R S Thomas) and the Suffolk shingle (where he meets Maggi Hambling, much as Armitage paid his respects to Drabble). In “War”, he visits Dover for its fortifications, Northumberland for Dunstanburgh Castle, and Suffolk again for Orford Ness, with its military laboratories and cold war installations.

Barkham is voluble, wide-eyed and well read, bubbling with enthusiasm even as his writing veers between the poetic and the prosaic – a consequence of having to combine those seemingly incompatible genres. The sea can be “wild and tough and joyous”; telegraph poles are “a wiggly line”; lawnmowers roar “like a kind of delirium”, while mackerel move in “shimmering shoals”.

In the final chapter, “The Shores of the Future”, Barkham wrestles with the perplexing question of which beaches should be protected against relentlessly rising sea levels and which should be left to nature – a process of “managed realignment”, as the National Trust puts it. Marine reserves occupy less than 0.12 per cent of Britain’s seabed and he points out the absurdity of protecting only those environments we can see while neglecting those that lie underwater. He concludes with a sane appraisal of the merits and demerits of offshore windfarms, and a discussion of the ways in which the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland is threatened by laxer development laws than those pertaining in England and Wales.

As a secular island nation, we both fear and worship the sea – there’s a reason the National Trust named its coastal enterprise for Neptune. We also value our tradition of pilgrimage. Perhaps that is why we admire authors who will walk in our stead.

At the start of his book, Barkham admits rather sheepishly that “our bookshelves are groaning under the weight of guides to our coast” but says that with this one he hopes “to provide something slightly different”. In that respect, both he and Armitage have succeeded, and both Coastlines and Walking Away will squeeze on to those over-burdened shelves.

Gavin Francis’s most recent book is “Adventures in Human Being” (Profile)

He appears at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 29 November

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism