Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Guidebooks - a source of inspiration and memory

Just one of my shelves of guides
I suppose I’d always been a walker. But aged eighteen and barely a year into the assorted pleasures of university life, tramping the hills wasn’t exactly at the top of my ‘to do’ list.  At least that was the case until I bought a small paperback, which – no exaggeration here – changed the course of my life.

The book was The Backpacker’s Handbook by Derrick Booth, part of the Letts series that were popular in the Seventies and Eighties. More of a ‘how-to’ manual than a route guide, it had chapters covering the kit to buy, the craft of camping; even instructions on how to fashion a homemade tent!  Booth’s mantra was to keep weight to the minimum and time on the trail to the max.

But the Backpacker’s Handbook was more than mere instructions. Apart from anything else, it was beautifully written - Booth's prose resonant with the notion that the simple act of walking might contain within it, possibilities that are more profound.  Here are its opening lines:

Time was when the world was limitless. Time was when the human race moved around - if at all - on its two feet. Time was when man didn't crave freedom to wander but took it for granted...

Forty years since I first read those words, they evoke a yearning that feels as urgent today as it was for a young man uncertain of his place in the world.

Shortly after buying the book, I quit my holiday job and walked the Pennine Way. Later that summer I completed Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, tramped from Tynemouth to Berwick along the beaches of Northumberland and ticked off the major peaks of Lakeland and the Dales. In part, I did this because for family reasons I had nowhere else to go, but also, as I walked, I discovered that those deeper possibilities were real and nourishing - and that I wanted more.

If I look back on the walks and journey’s I’ve since completed, it’s interesting how many were motivated by guidebooks of one kind or another.  My shelves are crammed with volumes that range from the Munros of Scotland to Trekking in Nepal. Last year, I must have bought half a dozen more, including guides to the Haute Savoie, The Cambrian Way and a walk that’s been far too long on my tick list, The Reivers Way in Northumberland. 

Magazines and journals are formative too. It was an article by the late Richard Gilbert in the first-ever edition of High (no longer published) which encouraged me go hut hopping in Austria. In a sense, I owe to him my passion for mountain refuges and all the joy that a lifetime of alpine walking has brought me. Still today, titles such as The Great Outdoors and Trail are packed with articles that provide us with facts and information, but most importantly, inspiration!  For it is this imaginative desire that unlocks the multitude of possibilities from which we are so privileged to choose.

I’m often asked by those who are interested in walking more seriously for advice on this or that route to take. In France, where I spend much of the year, I’m invariably quizzed on the mountain huts; in Pembrokeshire, it’s usually how to make a loop from a trip on the coast path!  I’ve still not figured that last one out very well, though actually, there are guides which address precisely this challenge. Perhaps that’s another reason why I have so many – because they tap into knowledge and experience that’s invariably deeper than my own could ever be. Not every guide is as beautifully written as Derrick Booth’s, but almost all are infused with a love and care for the landscape they are recording.

And it seems to me that it’s this intangible experience of being ‘in and among’ the landscape that’s the real delight of walking. The views from Snowdon’s summit might be spectacular and I suppose there’s a satisfaction of sorts in counting steps or calories burned.  But I’d suggest it’s seldom the highlights alone – and certainly not the data - that we remember most and which compels us to keep on shouldering our sacks.

I have a friend who told me she cried when her boots wore out recently. They’d been with her, she said, at all the best moments of her life aside from the birth of her children. I don’t have that sentimentality for footwear, but somewhere in my garage I still have the rucksack that I bought the same afternoon as the Backpacker’s Handbook. To throw it away, although it is now well past practical use, would feel like discarding part of my past.

My guidebook collection is not dissimilar. The most treasured copies are embellished with notes, their pages stained with water and earth; covers that creak on opening. I have one –Cicerone’s Trekking in the Stubai Alps – that’s been cut into halves to reduce weight on the trail. In researching this piece, I opened my original copy of the Coast to Coast and a little fine sand fell from its spine to my hands.

To walk is to gather memories that make us immeasurably richer. The guides in my study are keys to that store of recall and possibility. I’m grateful to them, just as I am to family and friendships and all the joys which make for the palimpsest of our lives.  Perhaps I should order them chronologically – a sort of personal history told through the landscapes I’ve trod.  From Pennine Way to who knows where… there’s room on my shelves for more.

This post was first published as a feature article in Cicerone Extra 

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