This is an account of an eccentric journey by an eccentric Englishman. Nicholas Crane is the man who, a few weeks after getting married, left his wife at home while he spent 18 months walking along the watershed of Europe from Galicia to Istanbul. Five years later, in 1997, equipped with his trademark umbrella and trilby hat, he was off again. This time the umbrella was in camouflage green, to help him stay concealed when he was trespassing.
He would have to trespass because he was aiming to cross England from north to south following the meridian line of two degrees west. This crosses the north-east coast at Berwick-on-Tweed, and leaves the south coast on the Isle of Purbeck west of Swanage. Giving himself strict boundaries of 1km either side of the line (the line which coincides with the Ordnance Survey’s Central Meridian), there were inevitably parts of the route with no public access. As well as private land there were lakes to cross, and rivers and motorways with no bridges, in his two kilometre corridor.
Crane’s route took him across the open spaces of Northumberland, the Cheviots, and the high Pennines, through small villages (but few towns), past isolated farmhouses, to the industrial townscapes of the Black Country. Emerging into the south of England he passed through gentler arable valleys and over bleaker chalk downs – including a crossing of Salisbury Plain – before negotiating Poole Harbour and finally reaching the end of his line at the English Channel.
But this is not a simple step-by-step story of a 578km walk, and if it was, it would probably be very boring. Although his account is chronological, it is not a diary – in fact the days and dates are hardly mentioned. Instead, he uses a number of techniques to keep our interest alive.
First, his research is extensive. There is a wealth of historical detail, much of it gathered beforehand, some gleaned on the way. Sometimes he presents this as brief snippets of information; at other times he goes into much more detail – for example, the story of Chance’s Glassworks in the Black Country’s Galton Valley, which was the factory that made the glass for the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Then he uses a number of themes which recur throughout the account and give it continuity. So the canal builder James Brindley, and redoubtable traveller Celia Feinnes on her ‘Great Journey’ through England in 1698, become companions who drop in and out of the walk. And the Meridian itself, at the heart of the story of the Ordnance Survey, is a theme that holds the whole enterprise together.
What distinguishes Crane from many other travel writers, especially in the ‘outdoor’ genre, is his interest in and use of the people he meets along the way. As a self-confessed “harvester of stories”, he talks to anyone who will give him the time, listens to what they have to say, and slots their stories into his own.
The result is a book which achieves its continuity in the form of a verbal collage, analogous to Hockney’s photo-collages of the 1980s, where a series of static images are arranged to give an impression of movement and change over time. In ‘snapshot mode’, Crane can nicely catch the essence of an experience – here, a local museum:
“Inside [the Upper Wharfedale Museum] were intimate, bizarre artefacts that would never win gallery space in larger museums: a box of human gallstones, an iron dibble,… two halberds taken to the Battle of Flodden, castrating tools, a teacup with a special lip on the inside to prevent the drinker’s moustache dipping in the tea, the Kalee carbon-arc film projector which stood in Grassington Town Hall, a peat barrow, ration books, a glass nasal douche and sixteenth-century hunting horns once used by the foresters of the Langstrothdale Chase. An enema syringe.”
Crane writes with warmth and a laid-back, at times self-deprecating, sense of humour, not least in his descriptions of how he had to overcome some of the obstacles imposed by his meridional corridor. Setting out to wade or swim the Tyne, he festoons himself with ad hoc flotation aids (rubber rings, plastic footballs) and tentatively sets off, only to find the water never reaches his thighs. Another time he ruefully blames his mud- and cow dung-stained clothes for being turned away from a bed-and-breakfast.
Finding somewhere to sleep on the meridian sometimes gave him problems. One night near Cheadle, in the rain, unable to find a B&B, he tries to sleep on a ledge under a bridge arch. Defeated by the traffic noise, he sets off again in the dusk and rain for another three kilometres “over barbed wire, sodden meadows and ditches on a succession of public footpaths that had ceased through underuse to exist as imprints on the land”. Sitting disconsolately on a patch of grass in a deserted village, a woman in a car eventually asks if he needs help. Taking up the offer of a bed for the night at her farm, but of course having to decline a lift and walk instead, he ends the evening sipping whisky by the fire.
“As we sat with the firelight playing on the amber glasses I saw this sad, wet bloke crawling with a rucksack and an umbrella into a concrete slot under a bridge on the A50. Glancing at Ruth and John, I couldn’t think of a higher pleasure than to have been the recipient of an unexpected, incredible kindness.”
Many other incidents stay in the mind, not least the crossings of the more significant obstacles: Derwent Reservoir (thanks to the local sailing club), Salisbury Plain (thanks to the RAF and the Army), and Poole Harbour (thanks to the Royal Marines). But one of the most unusual aspects of the book is the extensive part – about 30 pages – describing Crane’s travels through the industrial West Midlands. Few walking guidebooks describe the streets, canal-sides, and waste ground of urban England, but Crane is as interested in these landscapes and their inhabitants as he is in the countryside. So we have a picture of a solitary, incongruous figure with rucksack and umbrella picking his way where no-one ever walks – beneath motorways, across canals on ancient iron bridges, ducking through dank passages under railways – and at the same time recounting the history of the engineers and workers who designed and built it all.
We breathe a sigh of relief with him too, when he finally emerges unscathed from this part of the journey. In a typical kaleidoscope of verbal snapshots (you can almost hear a camera clicking and whirring) he reports:
“A series of disassociated impressions: a primary school labelled ‘Electronic Surveillance Equipment’ and ‘Guard Dog Patrol’; reggae from an open door; [a woman] breaking bricks with a hammer; trees beginning to appear at road junctions . . .; a country breeze . . .; another dual carriageway, from Birmingham to Kidderminster, but this time there was a pedestrian underpass, painted with pastel whorls and urine; the first leafy street . . .; another dual carriageway, with trees and grass down the centre; Highfield Lane (a change of labelling here, from ‘Road’ and ‘Street’ to the rustic ‘Lane’); a school; a path; a hedge. A field.”
In the first part of the book, Crane is mostly non-judgmental about the countryside he is passing through, but by the time he reaches the south he is more inclined to criticise what he sees happening to rural England – supermarkets providing free buses and killing village shops, an intolerance of travellers on foot in the shape of overgrown and blocked footpaths and instances of hostility towards an admittedly dishevelled walker going about his lawful business. In a more negative moment he says
“Most country people were welcoming and generous, but they lived in a rigidly controlled no-go zone, stripped of species and dulled by factory farming… The English countryside was closed unless otherwise stated. Rustic enlightenment was tough on the nerves. When I wasn’t breaking the law, I was confined to a grudgingly conceded line across somebody else’s land”.
But I would like to leave Crane in an optimistic mood. Having visited the church and a restored medieval house in Gretton, on the edge of the Cotswolds, he writes:
“The plans for Christ Church, the rejuvenation of the railway line, and the rising of a medieval house all required resources of motivation, time and money. But more importantly they needed passion… I could see that I’d come across countless examples, from Neil and his bird sanctuary in Coquetdale to volunteers who’d refilled canals and revived steam lines, to the postmistresses, publicans and farmers, to the Black Country community workers and whoever kept Pleck Park under the stilts of the M5 in such pristine condition… These were dreams with no unifying umbrella… Cumulatively, they defined everything that was good about England.”
“Straight-line walking is a triumph of faith over expectation; believing in the unexpected rather than expecting the unbelievable”, says Crane. His unusual journey, linking people and places with nothing else in common except geographical accident, gives us a sympathetic and intriguing picture of present-day England.
Overall verdict: Mad idea, interesting outcome well worth reading