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Trekking Over Hill and Dale
Washington Post Book World, September 23, 1984

 

JOURNEY HOME: A WALK ABOUT ENGLAND
by John Hillaby.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 319 pp; $15.95.

"FEW THINGS are more pleasant than a village graced with a good church, a good priest, and a good pub," John Hillaby says with a perfectly straight face. He has just stumped into a dot on the map called Little Yeldham and found the vicar "over a pint of Greene King with the company around a cheerful fire in the Stone and Faggot." Little Yeldham? Stone and Faggot?

Is the reader in the coils of a Monty Python? Well, hardly. Hillaby just writes that way sometimes. And for irreparable Anglophiles like this reviewer it's perfectly okay. But anyone not permanently besotted with donnish asides and Merrye Englishness may cry out now and then against the chattiness of this long distance walker.

For Hillaby is unabashed. His idea of a stroll is trekking all across Europe, or up the length of England from Land's End to John O'Groats.

Whenever he stops walking for a second he starts talking - and then puts it all in a book. This technique has thus far resulted in five fine volumes, including the classic Journey through Britain, all based (Hillaby admits) on the chesty presumption that everything he does, or thinks about, "will be of general interest."

By the author's standards, the voyage celebrated in Journey Home is a mere toddle: from the Irish Sea just below the border of Scotland, into the Lake Country, down and across Yorkshire to the Wash, a turn in Norfolk, thence into what he calls "the milky shires of Saxon England," and so finally to Hampstead Heath. The way often follows the upper reaches of trouty streams with names like The Swale and The Little Ouse. It is short on roads, for he keeps to upland tracks on moors, fells and wolds, but long on odd and fascinating facts, niblets of History & Lit, descriptions, geological notes, birds, flowers, jokes and personal memories. (It is characteristic of Hillaby that he once clocked the pace of an angry green mamba, and reports that the deadly reptile could only make 4 mph.) Given wolds enough, and time, in fact, it is hard to imagine anything that Hillaby might not get round to saying.

Naturally, on English walks he is often up to his boot tops in the cry of the curlew, and the trail of the convolvulus. But he is a master at summing up a day's trek, or a foggy week, on the head of a pin, to have more space to tell a story, or fill us in on the battles of Bonnie Prince Charlie or the vagaries of poets' families. (One brother used to greet guests by saying "I am Septimus, the most morbid of the Tennysons").

Descriptions flash from the page. From a hill, on a day patchworked with sun and fog, the lowlands are "as bright as scarves." At one campsite he leaps in pursuit of a Mountain Ringlet butterfly "as one might after a wind blown five pound note." Discussing the wolfish origins of dogs he recalls a moment flying over the Canadian Arctic when caribou "were accompanied by, but not pursued by, packs of a dozen wolves which ran alongside them like cossacks on the flanks of Napoleon's army."

Weaving it all together Hillaby shows a genius (any personal essayist must have it) for swift, effortless transitions. In one breath he will note that the feverish fiddling with tent strings in the dark may be "fairly compared to milking a mouse," and then, as his new wife wrestles with the rubbery, free-standing shelter they've just bought, be reminded of Telemachus trying to pin down Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.

That rubbery, free-standing tent, by the way, is widower Hillaby's concession to his new wife, a lady it would appear of a certain age, but great charm and grit. Hillaby is 67 now, by my reckoning. The pictures in the book show him as one of those tall, lean, stringily muscular Englishmen in spectacles who look as if they couldn't pull the wing off a dead bee but in fact can endure anything. He notes that he generally prefers to sleep in barns or in the lee of hedges or walls, then blithely quotes Stevenson: "To live outdoors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free." The lady, it must be admitted, though convincingly described and admired in the book, is rarely heard from.

This is not a practical guide to walking or camping. It would be hard to follow Hillaby's route in detail, even with a good map of England to supplement the rather lumpishly stylized maps in the book. What you get is the contents of Hillaby's head, a lifetime of trivial (and not so trivial) pursuit, offered with wit and what passes very well for wisdom.

We learn when the last Great Bustard was seen in England (1832), what the symptoms of lead poisoning were among 16th-century miners (blue gums, general weakness), where women were burned for talking to cas, and Johnson's reply when Boswell asked him if the Giant's Casueway was worth seeing ("Yes, but not worth going to see"). He offers Mrs. Beeton's recipe for rook pie, and a fine, affectionate essay in praise of toads (they are docile, long-lived and home loving).

A few of the anecdotes he stops to tell would keep a drowsy emperor on tenterhooks, most notably one about "Sarkless Kitty," a poor drowned girl whose naked body mysteriously disappears.

Hillaby, thank heaven, does not worry the subject of why he walks. If you have to ask, you'll never know. But once, after hiking all day in a cold rain he notes that you can get used to anything "which, in my opinion is a shrewd argument against the existence of hell." And he closes with a telling quote from R.D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone, describing a great frost in the 17th century which did great damage in Exmoor and all over England:

"Our ancient walnut lost three branches, and has been dying ever since, though growing meanwhile as the soul does in the body."

"In that last sentence," Hillaby concludes his book, "there is something of the very essence of travelling."