Colby Press, 2002, 320pp. ISBN 0 9542051 0 3, £9.99 plus £2 p&p from Colby Press, 39 Madeira Avenue, Bromley, Kent, BR1 4AP.
Two recent - and very different - books have become the latest additions to a curious annex to the library of walking: accounts which tell of having followed, on foot, the whole of an island's coastline. Here Andrew McCloy reviews Douglas Legg's onshore circumnavigation of mainland Britain, while Chris Tyler discusses the round-Skye effort of Andrew Dempster.
EVER SINCE John Merrill's ground-breaking walk around the coast of mainland Britain in 1978, there has been a steady trickle of people attempting to follow in his footsteps. Merrill's obsessive tendencies meant that he stuck rigidly to the shoreline, so that his estimated total of 6824 miles has rarely been surpassed. Most of his successors have opted for an easier route near if not always on the coast: Spud Talbot-Ponsonby's 4500 miles (Two feet, four paws, Summersdale, 1996) and Shally and Richard Hunt's 4300 miles (The sea on our left, Summersdale, 1997) are typical, while John Westley's mammoth 9469-mile walk made him the first person to walk continuously around the coast of Britain and Ireland (And the road below, Meridian, 1994).
Douglas Legg comes from a totally different angle. Like the others he uses the trip to raise money for charity (Save the Children in this case), but he's not bothered about distances or records, while corporate sponsorship doesn't even enter his head. And it quickly becomes apparent that he has little experience of recreational walking, either. Borrowing an old pair of boots, he finds a rucksack abandoned on a dump, and together with a discarded sleeping bag he's all set to bivvy and borrow his way around Britain. He doesn't have to take time off work because, apart from a bit of gardening, he doesn't seem to have any. Legg, it is quite evident, lives on the fringes ("Walking on the Edge" is an alternative title for the book in more ways than one), and it is this that sets his engrossing book apart from the various other coast-walking accounts.
If there is a comparison it's with Peter Mortimer's Broke through Britain (Mainstream, 1999), an account of one man's penniless journey from Plymouth to Edinburgh. Mortimer's is certainly a more crafted and literary work, but both books are frank and at times disturbing. Will our ruthless and marginalising society lead to more books like this, I wonder?
No Fixed Abode is presented in a diary-like format. It's long (500 days in 320 pages) but generally well written, full of the honest and often beguiling observations of a 64-year old man who quite clearly has graduated from the University of Life with first-class honours. It's generally interesting and in places amusing, even if the text suffers from too many proof-reading errors (plus there are un- defined acronyms dotted all about). But the most intriguing aspect of his walk - which is why I think his 5000-mile total is rather nominal - is the manner of his route. Legg has very little money, so he begs and borrows along the way. When he can afford the petrol he uses his old car as a base, moving it on to a different coastal location every so often, then hitching back to it some time later. He stays in the occasional youth hostel or cheap B&B when his giro comes through, but otherwise heads for Salvation Army hostels or simply bivvies in barns and sheds, under bushes and in caves by the shore.
Along the way he is hounded by the police, afforded unexpected generosity by complete strangers, has his rucksack pinched and absent-mindedly loses one item of equipment after another. And, of course, he comes to know the British coast incredibly well. He dislikes much of the industrial and urban zones while appreciating the many stretches of wild coast further north - his description of sunsets over his campfire on the west coast of Scotland made me envious. Occasionally he decides to buy a map, but otherwise he asks the way or wilfully trespasses. And then he regularly decides to stop entirely for rest and recuperation. Usually these "interludes" are just a few days, but one at the Salvation Army hostel in off-route Leeds lasted three months.
Despite the occasional repetition, the endless anecdotes and encounters give the book a decent flavour. For instance, Legg experiments by cooking his morning porridge with sea water in an effort to boost his salt intake. He's also more than happy to stop for a natter over a cup of tea - whether it's with a coastguard, district nurse, dog-walker or down-and-out. The text is interspersed with a few black and white photos - quite clearly taken on the occasions where Legg has saved up his pennies to buy a new film - and there are basic hand-drawn maps.
Legg says that the idea for walking around the coast came to him while he was driving back to Europe across the Sahara in 1978. He was inspired by Merrill's walk of that year and suggests that with so many people now doing circumnavigations they should form what he calls the ABWA (Around Britain Walkers Association). Mind you, there won't be many doing it in the style of Doug- las Legg, which is why his book remains a singularly worthwhile read.
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