Will Self and Robert Macfarlane: Walking wild Britain

Jun 25, 2012
Will Self and Robert Macfarlane sitting down on an empty track

Will Self and Robert Macfarlane are two of Britain's best chroniclers of the art and joy of walking. Read the results of their joint walk to 'one of England's strangest wastelands'

Will Self writes:

Pigeons blackened so much they were devilish sprites, a clank of ancient rolling stock – the cast iron columns dull as wet anthracite and the oily swirl of diesel fumes in that special sepia light quality that the London terminuses had before modernity took a dump on them, shitting out the glistening commercial turds of Delice de France and Knickerbox.

I always find it difficult to get back behind the stage set of Liverpool Street Station as it is today – every time I take a train from there, or debouch from one into the anciently bloody and metallic aroma of central London.

I remember arriving from Suffolk in the early 1980s with a head full of psilocybin mushrooms and being privileged with an insight into deep time – not simply sensing but seeing the Victorian genius loci hissing up above, flattening its steam punk scales against the dirty glass of the barrel roof.

I find it difficult to get back behind the stage set of Liverpool Street Station – not least because WG Sebald, in his novel Austerlitz, took the station and its deceptive temporal bends for himself – for it’s there that his eponymous protagonist finally stumbles on the truth of his past, and sees the ghostly child that he was arriving on the Kindertransport that brought him from Nazi-occupied Prague.

The station has flaunted some particularly tacky memorials to the children of the Kindertransport, bronze uglifications to rival Paul Day’s nauseating giant couple at the refurbished St Pancras up the road – but that’s another matter: on this particular rain-dashed May morning it was difficult to disentangle literary associations and my own hallucinations, because I was en route to Woodbridge in Suffolk, then on to Bawdsey on the coast, where I would meet the writer Robert Macfarlane for a day’s walk.

Sebald had his connections to Woodbridge also: the unnamed – but undoubtedly autobiographical – protagonist of his book The Rings of Saturn ends up at Woodbridge after a despairing trudge south down the East Anglian coast – whereas Robert and I would be heading north.

Feeling the k’ch-k’chunk of the bogeys rumbling up through my spine as the train pulled out of the station, I thought back to my own time living within the orbit of that dreamlike and erosive shore: in the early 1990s, in between marriages, I fetched up in a cottage set down in wheat fields three miles in back of the Sizewell power station, I wrote my novel Great Apes there, and in order to get myself into the mindset of my chimpanzee characters I brachiated and knuckle-walked through the scrublands of Dunwich Heath and the Minsmere Bird Reserve, hooting and howling to the oppressive sky. Some years later I realised that my own fictive path and that of the ambling Sebald might easily have intersected.

On the train I read Kafka’s story Description of a Struggle, and meditated on the nightmarish flight of its protagonist through Prague and up the Laurenziburg, the hill beyond the old town. The insanity of the Olympic site at Stratford slid by: a dream so bad not even Kafka could’ve dreamt it – Sebald stood in a sort of discipular relationship to Kafka, and Macfarlane, who I was on my way to meet for the first time, stood in something of a discipular relationship to the writer Roger Deakin, whose moated medieval farmhouse in Suffolk was at the epicentre of the widening ripples he breasted in his marvellous book about wild swimming, Waterlog.

Macfarlane had written about a trip with Deakin to the strange post-nuclear-testing shingle bank of Orford Ness in his own equally evocative book The Wild Places, which I, in turn, had read on the island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides – close both to where Deakin had taken some of his swims and to Barnhill, the remote house where Orwell wrote 1984.

Books, books – of the making of many of them there is no end, and as you get older, and you have read more, and you have walked and swum and travelled more, so these lines of type and footprints cross and re-cross more and more, a convolvulus that may be meaningful, or simply nonsense…

At Woodbridge the cab was waiting for me in the misty and sodden morn… business was, the driver said unprompted, bad… and then we swished on and on along the lanes across the desert of rural weekday England.

At Bawdsey the land faded into the mist and the silt of the estuary, the aluminium spars of the moored yacht tink-chinked. By the modern echolocation of mobile phones Robert and I established that we had confused our rendezvous – so shifting my pack on my back I trudged up the beach to find him.

It was a strange sort of blind date, this walk, with The Big Issue acting as matchmaker. I had read and enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s first two books – Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places – and I had begun his third, The Old Ways, the previous evening, lying in bed, my legs trudging through the soft and sweaty fields of my duvet. I had a portrait of him in my mind as a decade younger and fitter, several stanzas more poetic and sincere than I.

Macfarlane was, besides being an English don at Cambridge, a hardy mountaineer and explorer, who thought nothing of sleeping out on a winter night in the wastes of Rannoch Moor. By contrast I was an amnesiac flaneur, a quondam sybarite and erstwhile decadent who stumbled across asphalt, grazing my hurting mind – at best a stoic, at worst a cynic; my prose is scumbled whereas his is clean-limbed, my attitude bitter whereas his outlook – judging from his books – is sweetly intense.

We met on the sea wall beneath the lowering weirdness of Bawdsey Manor and bonded over the bizarre extent of its rock garden: how had it come to be there? Xenoliths – Robert said – that was the technical term for rocks brought from another place. He was indeed handsome, fit and disarmingly charming; and as we loped on along the shingle crunching and chatting it became abundantly clear that our problem that day was not going to be an awkward silence.

There are two main types of walk so far as I’m concerned – and I expect Robert would agree: the determining factor is not a walk’s length, whether up hill or down dale, if it is sleeting or shining, but only accompanied/unaccompanied.

For the purposes of writing – in order to create picaresques and other narratives – it is essential, for me at least, that I walk alone; only then can thought unspool from my arachnid mind and silkily entwine with the places I go; but with a companion who is as engaged and informed as Robert, and under the pressure of a first date, there was little possibility of any silence – and certainly not an awkward one. Fine.

We talked and we walked and we talked. We talked our way up the coast to the Martello tower recently taken over by the artists Sarah Lucas and Julian Simmons, where they gave us coffee and a tour of the battlements. We walked and talked on along the dyke that protects the marshes from the inundations of the German Ocean to the remote hamlet of Shingle Street, where, by chance, we encountered the artist Lida Kindersley, who for years now has been tending to a long line of white shells that snakes across the stony beach.

She began it with a fellow Dutchwoman as a celebration of her recovery from cancer, and has continued to maintain this deceptively simple and frail artwork, until by force of her activities alone it has become a durable inscription on the debatable foreshore.

We walked and talked on, racing to reach the ferryman Robert had arranged to take us across the river to the Butley side. Our queered rendezvous had made us late, and so we had no time to mosey or be moody about the gloomy weather; although by around one o’clock the rain and mist had started to lift and there were surprisingly long and legible views along the coastline.

The ferryman, John, reminded me of the marshwiggle in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair: a tall figure in a floppy-brimmed hat and an antediluvian mud-coloured Barbour jacket. He rowed us across the river while his absurdly silly Labrador plunged out of the boat and breasted the waters.

We said goodbye and talked and walked on to Orford, where Gary, the National Trust warden of Orford Ness, was waiting for us with a launch to take us out to this, one of England’s strangest wastelands: a 10 mile-long stony peninsula that reaches down from the seaside town of Aldeburgh to end in a bled bedizened with the remains of weapons testing, the concrete blast walls and outlandish pagodas built in the ’50s and ’60s which remain minatory warnings of a future that may never come, except in a haze of irradiation.

Gary, it transpired, hailed from another flatland: Denge Marsh in Essex, and on landfall the three of us walked and talked on across the Ness, stopping only for a few mouthfuls of the smoked eel I had bought in Orford and a cup of black tea. We talked our way to the eastern shore of the Ness and stood there beneath the old lighthouse looking out over the pewter waters, tired, replete, more or less talked and walked out. 

And what – you may ask – did Robert Macfarlane and I talk about during our 14-odd miles of walking that day? Need you ask? Two writers about walking together on a walk – why, we talked shop, of course; we talked about fees and royalties and editors and word lengths and book sales and colleagues. A busman’s holiday it was – only without the bus. 

Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella, will be published by Bloomsbury in August

Robert Macfarlane writes:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the River Deben, bending northwest and inland. Fog on the Hollesley marshes where they slide down to the sea. Fog in the rigging of the small boats moored in the Felixstowe shallows. Fog on the water of Woodbridge Haven, fog settling soft on the shingle, fog creeping round the Martello towers, and fog in the test chambers of Orford Ness.

Fog is everywhere in Suffolk, and out on the coast the foghorns are bellowing their warnings – great bovine reverbs drifting up and down the shores. Fog in my eyes and throat, and the foghorns sounding in my chest and shaking my lungs.

Late-morning and I’m sitting on a sea wall, looking south through the fog, and waiting. Nothing. No movement. No people. No gulls. A still sea, a still sky, an absence of wind. Just silver water, silver fog and the tall black stanchions of the groynes. Then – the crunch-crunch-crunch of feet on shingle: sound reaching me before sight does. A tall dark figure stepping from the fog, walking fast towards me, walking with intent. A fugitive? A murderer? A ghost? Ah no, it’s Will Self.

He reaches out a hand in greeting, but doesn’t break stride. I jump down from the sea wall, and we’re off – on a fast tramp for 15 miles north east, past silt flats and sandbanks and sea walls and farmland to eerie Orford Ness, the untrue island. There will be owls, there will be ferries, there will be meetings, and there will be a very dead eel.

Will and I are both walkers. We leg it. In fact, we long-leg it (I’m 6’ 2” and Will is taller still). We walk a lot, we walk to talk, we walk to write and we walk for thought, but we walk very differently. We were both brought up in walking families. Will made epic traverses of Dartmoor with his father. I spent my childhood holidays in the wilder parts of Britain, stomping up mountains, learning how to navigate by map and compass, how to scramble, how to eat Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells in a freezing gale at 3,000ft.

What started for both of us as frogmarches or forced pastimes became, later, not just a pleasure but a necessity. A need to walk: a longing for lactic, for the burning leg. Walking as a way of making sense of the landscape, and of ourselves.

I started walking young, and I mostly kept going. I’d guess I’ve walked 8,000 miles or so on footpaths and mountainsides to date; maybe more, it’s hard to tell. More than most, but not so many as many. I’ve covered thousands more foot-miles in memory because when, as most nights, I find myself insomniac, I sent my mind out to re-walk paths I’ve followed – and in this way can sometimes pace myself to sleep.

Most of my walking has been done in wild places: mountains, glens, islands, shores. I’m drawn to these landscapes for their elementality, their storms and sunlight, and the challenges they pose to our senses of scale and of self. Most of Will’s walks are urban, suburban or rurban: the hinterlands of cities, the overlooked and understudied terrains where towns fray into fields.

The crackle of substations, the rackets of pallet-yards, the steady sweep of sewage-farm rake arms. He’s walked to Heathrow Airport from his home in south London, caught a flight to California, and then walked away from Los Angeles airport. These are harsh landscapes to navigate: an airport’s environs are arguably more disorienting and difficult for the walker than any Himalayan peak or Orcadian cliff-line.

So the Suffolk coast is a halfway house of a kind for us: remote but messy. A mix of the military-industrial (oil tankers, sea defences, crumbling pillboxes, former MoD secret sites) and the wild (unbiddable salt marshes, long-eared owls hunting the field margins and the North Sea stretching away to our east).

There we are, crunching along the wrack-line, remote in our luminous socket of fog – wool-packed from the rest of the world. But there we are, too, trudging past a high-end finishing school for wealthy adolescents, past faux-picturesque pleasure gardens, past barbed-wire fences and sea-torn hunks of ferroconcrete.

The early miles are easy. Navigation is simple: keep the sea on your right and keep on going. At Bawdsey we reach the first of the Martellos: thick brick-walled defensive forts built during the 19th century as a first line of defence against invasion from the east.

Squatly elegant and formidably sturdy, most have survived and some have been reclaimed as real estate. Will knows – but of course he does! – the owners of this first Martello, so we knock on the door and they welcome us in. Vast cathedral curves of brickwork, walls 12ft thick and coffee fresh from the stove. On the table sits a green and shiny human skull: jade or malachite, or maybe moulded PVC. It grins at us as we re-caffeinate: a welcome boost after an hour-and-a-half on the hoof.

From there it’s on and up, following the line of Martello towers. We rock-hop along a massive berm of boulders: tens of thousands of tons of blue Norwegian granite, quarried there and then shipped down the sea lanes and dumped here on the soft Suffolk coast, as a sea defence to protect a Martello.

Surface rock is a rarity in East Anglia; surface granite an astonishment. Geologists speak of ‘xenoliths’: foreign stones that don’t belong in the terrain in which they are found, having been transported there at some point in earth history, usually by rivers or glaciers. Well, this is a whole shore of xenoliths, vast xenoliths, transported by APM-Maersk or Hapag-Lloyd.

Birds are busy everywhere. Shelducks, smart as snooker players in their green and white plumage, bash about on the mudflats. Buzzards cruise for lunch. A wren whirrs from elder bush to elder bush so fast it seems to teleport. The long-eared owl hunts ahead of us. We stalk on.

At Shingle Street we cross the quietly famous ‘shell line’: a trail of white whelks laid side to side that stretches from a fisherman’s cottage, out over the shingle for 200 yards or so, before dipping towards the sea. A woman is on hands and knees near where we reach it. She seems to be mending a hole in the line. She stands, talks with us. Her name is Lida Kindersley and she is the maker of the line.

She survived cancer and decided to start the line with a Dutch friend of hers: a way of connecting those two North Sea landscapes. Now it’s a case of keeping the line complete, she says, for it’s always getting broken by dogs or walkers or wind. We leave her to her mending – Penelope to her tapestry, Scheherazade to her story – step carefully over the line and walk on north.

Mud, salting, sea wall, salting, mud. Past HM Prison Hollesley Bay (inmates’ nickname: ‘HMP Holiday’), discreetly disguised by hedge and pine. The first shoals of Orford Ness showing out to sea. The Ness is a vegetated shingle spit (the largest in Europe) that has, over centuries, grown and elongated in the dynamic way of such landforms (think of Blakeney Point or Spurn Head).

It’s now 12 miles long and up to one and half miles in width. For most of the last century it was owned by the Ministry of Defence and used as a laboratory for armaments – assessing the oblique-angle penetration power of the Sopwith Camel cockpit-mounted forwards-facing machine gun, right through to vibration-testing the casing for parachute-retarded tactical nukes.

For eight decades, the boffins of Britain worked hard on the Ness to perfect the physics of death. Live munitions still surface from the shingle; beasts from the depth. The test buildings – pagodas, towers – dilapidate and rust. Their spaces echo. It is one of the strangest and most fascinating places I know.

The first of our ferrymen, a cheery Charon, meets us at the Butley Crossing, where a ferry has been running for centuries. His Labrador chases imaginary hares through the saltmarsh – crash, bound, splash! – his black wide-brimmed hat (Witchfinder General) flops over his eyes.

He rows us over the River Butley, threads us through the creeks of the saltings, and we squelch ashore with a wave and a thanks. From there it’s along farm track and tarmac to Orford itself. Vignettes of contemporary Suffolk life: two women hand-combing the tangles from a pair of prize sheep; polythene clothing the crop fields, keeping the soil warm; ‘Please Don’t Park On The Verge’ (bourgeois ‘Git Orf My Land’) signs hammered politely into the roadside grass; and a smokehouse, from which Will buys a whole eel, stiff as a ramrod with a straight tail and a broken neck. He carries it like a weapon, like a fetish, like a walking stick. I walk a few yards ahead of him, out of range of the eel…

From Orford Quay it’s over the River Ore by boat (ferried again), and onto the Ness itself: a spit that looks like an island, joined to the mainland by the thinnest of necks far up the coast. Will pulls out a gas stove, a billy kettle and an Opinel knife. We drink cardamom tea, rest feet, eat eel.

Then we walk east: east across the spit at its widest point, east past the barracks and the Bailey bridge, east past the pagodas and the Bomb Ballistics Building, east to the lighthouse that stands – hooped in cherry-red and toothpaste-white – on the nose of the Ness, and there we stop on pretty much the easter most point of England, happy, happy indeed, with the sea all before us and a walk and all its stories behind us.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane is out now in hardback (Hamish Hamilton, £20)

Walk This Way...
You’ve got your camera, waterproofs, sturdy boots and mint cake. Here’s our brief guide for the beginner, moderate and adventurous walker

1. First-footers
If you’re ready for a trek but like to know what the road ahead holds by way of obstacles, tearooms and buses should you need to wimp out, a sturdy guidebook (with waterproof cover) is ideal. Rucksack Readers have maps, photos and a step-by-step guide to every stile, bog and hostelry en route, from the 100-mile South Downs Way to the 64-mile Cateran Trail following medieval Perthshire’s cattle-rustlers. There are loads of websites packed with ideas: try Ramblers Association, Walkingworld or Walking Britain. The Forestry Commission has hikes for all abilities. Or purchase a good old Ordnance Survey map and pick a path.

2. There and Back Again
There are plenty publications and sites dedicated to famous, well documented routes, including the 212 miles of the Southern Upland Way traversing Britain coast to coast; the well worn West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William (96 miles), tramped in its entirety by 30,000 people annually; the Pennine Way, according to the Ramblers Association one of Britain’s toughest routes, 267 miles up the backbone of England, and the rather more comfortable and commercial historic Hadrian’s Wall Path – 84 miles in the sandal-shod footsteps of the Romans.

3. Bivouacking with Odysseus
Compass primed for a Homerian epic? We can’t promise you’ll end up in Ithaca, but if Britain’s Atlantic-whipped western shores appeal then tackle the new 870-mile Wales Coast Path. The world’s first to cover an entire country, it’s Lonely Planet’s top destination for 2012, beating Kenya, India and Mexico. To walk for days without hailing another soul in Britain’s ‘last great wilderness’, you need the most westerly point of Highland Scotland. Ardnamurchan peninsula is described as “unforgiving” and has only one single-track road. Its neighbour Morvern, with a population of 320 in a 250 square mile landmass, is equally remote, reached only by ferry or on foot.
Words: Vicky Carroll

Photo: Stuart Wood, shot for The Big Issue in Orford Ness, Suffolk, May 9, 2012


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