Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Explorers' Footsteps

I was honoured to spend World Book Night (23rd April) in the Explorers' Room at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Perth reading from 'Following our Fathers' ina room packed with maps, photographs and books. What a treat! I was reading with Gavin Francis, talking about polar travels, and Jamie Grant talking about following his father on the Bolivian Altiplano. A great evening.

Friday, April 13, 2012

walking home from the office

‘Nothing educates the eye for the features of a landscape so well as the practice of measuring it by your own legs’. Leslie Stephen said this in an essay, ‘In Praise of Walking’, and it perhaps sums up best the impulse that pushed me out of my office and through the back gate of Stirling University to start my walk home on a sunny March evening recently.

I emerged into the leafy streets of Bridge of Allan, passing through sandstone mansions, the scent of cherry blossom, the thwack of tennis balls across nets. It was all pleasingly familiar, with the Ochil Hills just behind the town hinting at remoteness, and the A9 humming in contradiction. And yet I had never walked home before. I’ve taken an hour to drive this route countless times over the last 17 years, travelled it by trains and buses more recently, since not having a car. But I’d never had the experience of measuring it with my own legs, perhaps not surprisingly as the journey is about 50 miles long.

I’ve worked part-time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Stirling over the last three academic years, and with my time there now coming to a close, it seemed appropriate to ‘walk home from the office’ as a sort of ritual of transition. Long journeys on foot make wonderful rites of passage – to draw a line under a job, mark a significant birthday, or any kind of change in our lives. There’s time to think and there’s the rhythm, the fresh air, the observations and so on, and there’s a pause in normal life while the transformation settles within and starts to flourish. It is meditation and refreshment.

On my first full day of walking, high up with curlews burbling around me on the Sherrifmuir road in the Ochils, the spread of Strath Earn still to cross below, and the rise beyond of hills marking the start of the Highlands where I would climb in two days time towards home in Aberfeldy, I took a phone call. A new position was offered to me, a departure and a challenge. It seemed an intrinsic part of the walk that I was leaving one position and could begin looking forward to another.

The timing of this walk was significant in another way. Queues were snaking from petrol stations as the fuel ‘crisis’ took grip. I’ve often enjoyed reading accounts of people walking significant distances to jobs, or to fetch a cow or go to university prior to our seemingly universal expectation of car-use, and I enjoyed a sense that I was doing the same – walking to get
somewhere because that’s what you do. I was appreciating the real distance. And perhaps within my lifetime, the real distance will become more of a consideration in the planning of our journeys.

Although the round hills and green valleys of Perthshire are unremarkable in some ways, at the pace of foot travel and with the dullness of familiar vision removed by a slightly different route, giving a fresh angle, they became less so. (Not to mention the delirious thrill of early Spring sunshine). There are so many natural features here to enjoy – the river Earn snaking me through rich farmland to lead into Crieff; the canyon-esque entrance to the Highlands represented by the Sma’ Glen. And the human features here whisper of layers of history and sometimes conflict – Roman forts; graveyards; abandoned farmhouses; a disused railway to follow as part of the route; golf courses and wind farms. But the final day of my walk was the most exciting in terms of undiscovered history on my doorstep.

I’ve always wanted to follow Wade’s Military Road between Crieff and Aberfeldy. In the winter light especially, I’ve caught sight of it marching straight across the moor when the road veers, but never fully realised that it’s possible to walk its 25 mile length with recourse to only tiny stretches on the A822. Built as part of the attempt to quell the Jacobite uprisings in the early 18th century, the road is not only still easy to follow, but also makes a really enjoyable route, passing over the delightful bridges which characterised Wade’s roads, and often still visibly bordered by two lines of boulders. It kept me marching all day, enthralled to discover each new section after 17 ‘blind’ years of living and passing so close by.

Finally it tumbled me down, sore-footed but exhilarated to be in my home valley. I crossed the field that I often walk, its path bordered with twin lines that I now realised were distinctive to something greater. With dusk falling and hunger rumbling, Wade deposited me in the Town Square, just outside the Co-op, where I prepared for a feast.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

'Following our Fathers' reviewed in Northwords

The current issue of Northwords, a marvellous journal, carried this interesting review of the new wee book:
Following Our Fathers –
Two Journeys among Mountains
by Linda Cracknell
Best Foot Books (
Review by Stephen Keeler
Beginnings and endings are rarely clear-cut,
discrete or readily identifiable. Towards the
end of the first of the two accounts which
make up this heart-warming little treasure of
a book Cracknell suggests that she ‘set out on
this walk principally for a holiday’. It is clear
from the outset, however, not only that she
set out for rather more than a holiday but also
that she had ‘set out’ long before she arrived
in Norway to do it.
Cracknell’s first account, ‘Losing my footing,
finding my feet again’, is of her ‘walk’ in
the footsteps of Sven Sømme, a Norwegian
biologist arrested by the German forces occupying
his country in 1944 for photographing
a torpedo station near Åndalsnes. An activist
in the resistance movement, Sømme escaped
during transportation to the regional military
headquarters for summary trial, and headed
for neutral Sweden across Norway’s backbone
of high fells and towering alps. His compelling
and deeply personal account of the arduous
and hazardous trek was published in 2005, as
Another Man’s Shoes, and is Cracknell’s companion
guide, along with Sømme’s daughters
Ellie and Yuli, on a commemorative walk, sixty
years later, to ‘reinforce their father’s route’, to
create their own ‘pathways of personal meaning’,
and to ‘reclaim Norway as a country to
which [they] belonged’. Heady stuff, even for
readers not prone to vertigo.
Cracknell’s skill as a writer is to combine
the poetry and the prose without appearing
to have to try too hard. The hills may always
‘tremble with promise’ but they never cease to
be what Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘granite
underfoot’. The Norwegian west coast
evening ‘stretched out long and late with its
layering of blue-island silhouettes reminding
[her] of the Summer Isles’, but ‘the path crosses
a featureless plateau, and circles behind a small
hill, after which we descend back towards the
lake through rocky outcrops’. Unsurprising
that her desk and computer seem ‘remote
and irrelevant’, that she should contemplate,
in the silent sleeplessness of the high alpine
valley, not only the Sømmes’ genetic legacy
stretching back like the valley itself, but eventually
that of her own family. Just like Sven
Sømme, Cracknell’s father died of cancer in
1961: ‘Although he was a keen mountaineer,
I know little of what and where he climbed.
I have no scent or record of his adventures.
For all I know, he might have climbed here
in Norway.’
And so, of course, the seeds of Cracknell’s
second piece are planted. Lying awake in the
chill of a high Norwegian mountain pass, she
is inclined to think of her ‘valley’ as ‘strangely
punctuated’, as something of a terminal moraine,
perhaps, and of herself as ‘a full stop’: ‘I
returned home thinking about this. I wanted
to follow more whispering ways; to seek out
stories that still echo underfoot…’
The second piece, ‘Outlasting our Tracks’,
is the story of Cracknell’s attempt at the
Finsteraahorn, in the Bernese Oberland
(Switzerland), and is a mountaineer’s account
of a serious climb, full of the insights and detail
an armchair climber longs to read: ‘The
rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of
individual reveries and slow waking with the
need to communicate. Like riding a tandem,
pauses will need negotiation.’ It is also an account
of Cracknell’s attempt to ‘colour in the
shaded outline in [her father’s] photograph’,
for at half her age he had led an expedition to
the Finsteraahorn, in 1952, and this was her
answer to the call to follow him.
Her account of the climb, of fewer than
forty rather small pages, soon has me breathless.
By the time they reach the crest I – merely
a reader – am exhausted by the terror, the effort
and the concentration, and I am about to
be assaulted by a ‘dark twist’ in the narrative
which will replace triumph with solemnity.
There is, however, a sense of loose ends being
knotted, a tidying of affairs: ‘this experience
will echo on. A spell has been untied; a story
retraced and given words out of silence.”
I finish, and put my copy of the book
aside with a sigh. Some readers will find the
photos and maps that occur at various places
in the book add little, and may even detract.
They do, however, emphasise the personal
nature of both the writing and the subject
matter. There is a particular tenderness when
Cracknell considers fathers and their daughters,
as far removed from sentimentality as
it is possible to be. There are gentle insights
into the deep-rooted bonds of kinship, and
a merciful absence of fashionable angst. This
is a book to take with you somewhere quiet,
but take a notebook, too, so that you can jot
down your plans to follow, metaphorically at
least, in the author’s footsteps.