He did it two years ago, walking the Pennine Way, but will the poet be as successful when he travels around the south-west of England this summer, with nothing but poetry for tender?
After walking the Pennine Waya couple of summers ago I swore I'd never do it again, and I haven't changed my mind. It was a 21-day slog across saturated uplands, most of it in a blur of lead-coloured mist. As a poet, I expect to spend a certain amount of time with my head in the clouds, but after three weeks stumbling around inside them I have to report that the metaphorical and the literal experience are two very different things. Every night I gave readings in pubs, chapels, village halls or front rooms, and passed a sock round asking people to put in what they thought I was worth. I wrote a day-by-day account of the journey in Walking Home, and even though I arrived back in West Yorkshire physically depleted and mentally disturbed, I felt my reputation as a poet had been validated. More to the point, I felt optimistic and more enthusiastic than ever about my chosen art form, concluding that if an audience would turn out for a reading on a wet Wednesday in Wensleydale, then there is still a place for poetry in the hearts and minds of the British public. At the same time, I was happy to concede that it was hardly a rigorous anthropological survey, not least because the north tends to be home ground for me, something of a safe bet. And once I'd dried out, I started to wonder about making another journey as an itinerant but this time in unfamiliar territory and terrain.
After consulting a map of National Trails and other long-distance footpaths in the UK, I decided those criteria were best met by the outward section of the South West Coast Path. By a bizarre coincidence, at 256 miles it also happens to be the same length as the Pennine Way. So, in late August of this year, I intend to leave Minehead and, blisters permitting, arrive at the toe-end end of Britain's outstretched leg in mid-September. Some preliminary research about the point of departure (typing the word Minehead into Google) threw up the Butlins website, and as well as being surprised that the holiday camp still exists, I was amazed to find myself navigating through photographs of stylish apartments and funky-looking restaurants rather than black-and-white images of the leisure gulags of old. How better to begin a test of poetic value through the touristy south-west than by pitting myself against professional singers, seasoned comics and recognised performers on the entertainment circuit? Single-room supplement aside, how about it, Butlins?
A "moderate pace" – according to the guidebooks – means about 13 miles a day, so very quickly I'll be into Coleridge country, hoping not to experience too much of the poetic interruptus associated with Porlock, and passing along the northern fringe of Exmoor national park. Apart from odd visits to resort towns, I don't know the coast of Somerset or North Devon at all, and I have no idea if there are local bylaws restricting the free movement of practising poets along the shoreline. As the peninsula narrows, I'm hoping to find gainful employment on the south coast of Cornwall as well the north, maybe in Falmouth or Fowey. Does the Minack theatre, that staggering amphitheatre hewn from the cliffs near Porthcurno, need a one-off poetry reading as part of its summer schedule? And I hope to be invited into the Cornish interior as well, to its homes and halls, because I know from experience, and socioeconomic indicators, that the inland communities and the seaside towns of that county are two very different worlds. For the most part, though, and in vivid contrast to the Pennines, this journey will be at sea-level, and with the sea as a permanent companion. A journey of tidal rhythms, of more exotic natural history, changing accents and even a separate language. I can't imagine getting lost in the way I did in the Cheviots or on Cross Fell, but I also know from a literary hike from St Ives (Virginia Woolf) to Gurnard's Head (WS Graham via DH Lawrence) that the constant descending and ascending of gullies and cloughs is hard on the calves and thighs. And from trying and failing to ford the deceptively deep and swift-running Hayle estuary, I know that occasionally three miles have to be walked to travel one.
Land's End amusement park sounds like a hell hole so I'm not planning to hang around there, but instead to overshoot the mainland and arrive by ferry in the Isles of Scilly at around the time of a full moon; not for romantic purposes, but for reasons associated with planetary gravitational forces. Because, at certain times in the lunar cycle it is possible to carry on walking between some of the islands, from Tresco to Bryher, then Bryher to Samson, whose population, according to the 2001 census, is "(1)". I only hope that person likes contemporary verse.
I put an itinerary up on my website about six weeks ago and I've already had offers of readings and B&Bs at about half the stops. Nothing yet, though, for Lynton or Lynmouth or long tracts of the Devon coast. I've dangled a carrot in front of the Eden Project, but to only a muted response. I've also been experimenting with a protractor and a pencil, and plotting a course to British territories even further afield. The last time I heard, the people of the Falkland Islands were still hungover from celebrating the results of a referendum on sovereignty, but curiosity, or perhaps even masochism, compels me to wonder how many of its 2,841 citizens would be interested in a poetry reading, especially if I promise not to read that one with the word Malvinas in it? The art of walking on water is something I am yet to perfect, but if there is an offer of a seat on a direct flight from St Mary's airport in the Isles of Scilly to Stanley in the South Atlantic, to be paid for with a poem, then please get in touch.