I’m reading, and really enjoying, my first John Hillaby book at the moment, ‘Journey Through Britain‘, “an account,” as the back cover tells us, “of an eleven-hundred mile walk from Lands End to John O’Groats by ‘one of the world’s greatest walkers’.” I’d never heard of Hillaby before I lucked upon this 1979 edition at the Lifeline Bookfest a couple of weeks back.
I always have good luck at these events if I trawl persistently enough through the several-tables-long travel section: This time my treasures included a coffee-table book of mountain photos with an intro by the great English climber Chris Bonnington; ‘Turn Right at Land’s End’, another account of a long trek (7,000 miles!) by fellow Englishman John Merrill “around the entire British coastline”; and ‘The Walk West’, the sequel by Peter Jenkins (this time with his wife, Barbara) to his ‘A Walk Across America’, which I scored at an earlier Bookfest and is still waiting in my to-read pile.
l have pretty broad tastes when it comes to reading, but my shelf space is limited, so apart from the life-changing volumes I can’t bring myself to discard, I specialise in a few genres that I collect and keep. One, you might have guessed, is true long-walk stuff. I’ll talk about them more in a future post. They keep my mind a-wandering when job, climate or debt have my backpack gathering dust in the corner.
Hillaby, who died in 1996 after writing several ‘Journey’ titles, was a real find, and I’ve ordered a couple more of his works through Amazon. A long walk through the British Isles, connecting several famous routes, has been a fantasy of mine for years. Rural rambles have a long-established place in English literature and it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to detect a propensity for strolling through the hills in the British character. Indeed several of my walking books are by Englishmen. Hillaby describes Wordsworth, for example, who “by the age of sixty-five…had covered little short of 180,000 miles.” That’s — what? — 80 Appalachian Trails?!
Hillaby’s is one of those travel stories characterised by sudden detours into history, geology, ecology or literature. The essayist William Hazlitt, he tells us, accompanied the voluble Wordsworth on some of his strolls, but “couldn’t see the wit of walking and talking at the same time.”
The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go on a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more than to get rid of others. It is because I want a little breathing space to muse on indifferent matters…that I absent myself from the town for a while… . Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and three hours’ march to dinner — and then to thinking… . I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy.
I suspect the ever-discursive Hillaby and Wordsworth would have enjoyed a good hike together. I’m at the point in his book where his trek has delivered him — and his reader — to the gateway to the Scottish highlands. It’s that part of a good story where you keep distracting yourself from buckling down and finishing it because you want the journey to last. I’ll tell you some more about ‘Journey’ and Hillaby’s own walking philosophy when we get to John O’Groats in a few days, a mere dozen delectable pages or so of journeying.