Walking England: To the River and Under the Rock

Writers on walking stretches of England, weaving memoir with nature and various musings, has become a popular little sub-genre. I’m intrigued but not totally sold on it yet. Let’s explore two of them.

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“When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.

Olivia Laing, a writer skilled in her blending of memoir with history, literary analysis, and a heavy dose of atmosphere, writes of her attraction to the River Ouse, which runs through Sussex, North Yorkshire. To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (2011) follows her walking its banks, reeling personally from “minor crises” — the loss of a job and a love — exploring woods and water while musing about the river’s role in the land’s history and greater culture.

There was more pondering on obscure history – although since some of it was gruesome and ghoulish, it was of course interesting in a macabre way – than ruminating on what she was seeing, sensing, observing, experiencing. When she does write about that, and how it ties into her personal life or mindset, it’s wonderful. It’s like a very smart, literary travelogue telling a slice of a person’s life at a dazed, emotional time.

I liked some Virginia Woolf biographical bits more than I expected to. I’ve never gotten into her writing but realize I like reading about her life; she had such an interesting one. It’s a shame Woolf never finished her memoir (as I learned here) because the snippets Laing culls from it are exquisite.

Sometimes Laing’s prose is languid and meandering, mimicking the river itself, or referencing it in hauntingly lovely ways: “The present, the present. It never stops, no matter how weary you get. It comes unstintingly, as a river does, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be swept off your feet.” Thanks to her state of mind post-losses, her thoughts around this are poignant and relatable: “This is, I suppose, why people go abroad after a change of some troubling sort, to walk on ground untenanted by ghosts.” The kind of writing that you can get a bit lost in as it returns you to the banks of your own certain rivers.

“Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such a force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one’s corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as if it were nothing more than a mirage?”

Elsewhere, it focuses a little too enthusiastically on details that are hard to conjure, like lists of plants and flowers she’s seeing at a given moment. It was strange that sometimes she evoked landscape so vividly, and elsewhere falls back on just naming things instead of the richer description she’s capable of (consider: “deep blue, the last colour to remain before the dark”). This may have tried to do a bit much all at once and ended up not seeing all of its elements through; nevertheless, it’s quietly engaging, often beautiful.

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Under the Rock: Stories Carved From the Land, by Benjamin Myers (2014)

“See a century that feels like a second. Let life breathe.”

This book caught my eye in a London bookstore in 2018, because the cover was simultaneously gorgeous yet looked like a 90s airbrushed mall T-shirt. Irresistible!

Writer Benjamin Myers moved from London to Mytholmroyd, a village in the Upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. His new home is in the shadow of Scout Rock. I’ll let him introduce this landmark:

“Imagine this wild place. Summon it from the thousands of colours that swirl and merge in the prickling abyss behind your eyelids. See it now as the sun rises and sets behind this sparkling bluff of stone, and then open your eyes and there it is once again: Scout Rock.”

In sections divided by wood, earth, water, and rock, he shows pieces of his village, community, and the natural surroundings. He walks a lot around the valley – 1,680 miles in a year, he reports, “almost exactly twice the length of Britain.”

There’s much to love here, but something was missing for me. It gets abstract, and a little over-descriptive and florid. Then there’s a passage about foxes mating that among other nose-wrinklers includes the line, “She is screaming for seed.” NO. GOD NO. He writes that the recent spate of wandering-the-English-countryside memoirs tend to ignore the uglier side of nature, which; fair enough, but for fucks sake, those words were unnecessary.

Elsewhere the writing is lovely though, and non-disgusting. Some favorites:

“On certain days, when the sun is softly sinking behind Heptonstall church up on its hill, which appears in the pinking light like a ladder to another dimension, or a sugary mist whorls down from the moor to cast the valley in a focus so soft it borders on the mystical and a séance-like mood of communion with the dead pervades, or feeling June-drunk on the abundance of plant life and visually dizzy from the chlorophyll overload, my past life in the city – indeed the concept of all cities – seems like nothing but a story that I once read, in a book that I gave away to a stranger.”

“Perhaps swimming is simply about glimpsing death and then turning away from it, yet returning again and again to face its dark allure, because up against the grim prospect of the limited life of the human body one never feels more alive.”

“I listen to the rustling and wriggling of life, and remind myself that I am but one more species whose lifespan is limited, and nothing much matters.”

The region is part of the mythic English moors, a setting that so easily lends itself to the dark and macabre. I loved a too-brief section looking at some of the eerie, evil things connected to West Yorkshire, including the Yorkshire Ripper, a film of Jimmy Savile in the area, and that John Reginald Christie was born nearby. Myers ties these into a look at the area’s tough masculinity, a fascinating topic to explore.

What wandering in England books do you love? Aside from Robert MacFarlane’s incredible Underland, which took a more sciencey tack in its nature explorations and musings, I’m not in love with this genre, but willing to keep trying.

15 thoughts on “Walking England: To the River and Under the Rock

Add yours

  1. Have you read The Salt Path? Worth reading for its engagement with rural homelessness (one of those less-than-picturesque aspects of the country that Myers mentions). I also really like Footnotes by Peter Fiennes, which is an account of a series of literary pilgrimages across the UK.

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    1. I haven’t read Salt Path but that’s the one I hear about all the time. The synopsis really doesn’t appeal to me at all, though. Footnotes sounds potentially interesting but I’ll have to check out what literature he’s tracing 🙂

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  2. I loved Macfarlane’s The Old Ways and also really liked the poet Simon Armitage’s Walking Away and Walking Home, so they might be ones to look for. I like nature books but I don’t like the author to intrude with a big narrative about bereavement etc so that counts out a good few for me!

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    1. I would love to read more by Macfarlane, I loved Underland so much. I haven’t heard of Armitage, thanks for the tip about those. It does seem like there’s often a big narrative of that kind, isn’t there! I’m not much for anything bereavement-related or just particularly devastating-sounding and anxiety-inducing either, that’s why I can’t pick up The Salt path although that seems to be a big favorite in this category!

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  3. Haha, I don’t know whether I should be glad you’ve warned people about the foxes bit or just sorry I can’t un-read that. That’s just so bad! The first book sounds really lovely though and both do seem to have some beautiful descriptions based on other quotes you shared. This seems like a sub-genre worth investigating to me 🙂

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    1. I know, I’m sorry I had to subject others to that line but I was suffering too much with the knowledge of it alone! 😂 it’s definitely a good sub-genre, I just can’t seem to find one I really love, but I think the others by Robert Macfarlane might be good options! You might find those worth checking out too, I remember you really liked Underland! 🙂

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  4. Myers has certainly un-Disneyfied foxes! Is Olivia Laing the one who wrote a book about alcoholic writers?? Anyway, don’t think nature/philosophy genre is my thing as I live in the countryside and am all too aware of the reality of mud, fly tipping and speeding white van man. Not to mention uncouth animal behaviour (and that’s just the middle class mummies after too much Chardonnay..)

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    1. Yes, I believe that’s hers as well! I’ve read The Lonely City of hers too and it was kind of the same as this one, I liked it but something still not quite clicking to make it an outstanding read for me. The philosophical aspect of these nature books isn’t really doing it for me.

      And the mummies after too much Chardonnay, I’m cracking up! I can only imagine the social dynamics you might have there, actually seems like it would be completely fascinating…

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