The next Poet Laureate Simon Armitage went on a walk, leaning on the hospitality of strangers and saying poems out loud for his keep. I went with him.
The wandering poet is exhausted. “It’s hot out there,” says Simon Armitage, his famously boyish fringe plastered to his forehead by sweat.
His cheeks are red with the effort of walking and his day-old beard is smeared white with sun cream. He has come 11 miles today, through a heat haze that suits the surfers and sunbathers but is not so great for a 50-year-old Yorkshireman in hiking boots, long trousers and a polo shirt, with a pack on his back.
“I am a bit knackered,” says Armitage, in a soft lilt familiar from the documentaries he presents for the BBC. He is one of our most popular and admired poets, the creator of verse that is subtle and deep but direct and immediate. He has a knack for connecting with people, which is good because his well-being over the next weeks depends upon it. Armitage is halfway through a trek along the north coast of Devon and Cornwall designed to test his body, his mind and – more unusually – his calling as a poet.
Each day, he sets out to walk the unfamiliar South West Coast Path with no real sense of where he will stay that night, trusting in the kindness of strangers. The idea is to go without money, offering poetry readings in return for dinner, bed and breakfast and “a few butties” in the morning.
“It’s working so far, but I don’t want to tempt fate.” Over the past nine nights, there have been readings in a restaurant, a village hall and somebody’s home, with free entry, but a (clean) walking sock passed around for donations.
“I ask people to put in what they think I am worth,” he says, adding drily: “Sometimes that has not been money.” Among the “gifts” have been a dental appointment card and a slip of paper with a phone number on it, saying “Brenda – call me!”
The poet’s gloomy disposition suggests that he and Brenda did not hook up for a night of bliss, but then Armitage is both happily married and deliciously dour. So much so that one critic declared him to be the Eeyore of Walking, after reading his account of a previous adventure along the Pennine Way.
Walking Home ends in lovingly-described misery and failure only a few miles from the village in West Yorkshire where he was raised and still lives, with his wife and teenage daughter.
It also includes an encounter with “a little old man” on a fell who says he bumped into the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney only a week before. Armitage fears “walking into the Old Nag’s Head in Edale in a couple of days’ time only to find Heaney sitting at the bar, having already got there first, Amundsen to my Scott, the story already told, the book already written.”
The older poet has been an inspiration to him all his life, and a close friend in recent years, but there is a sadness to the story now. Heaney died last week, and Armitage only found out about it when a reporter from BBC News managed to get through to his mobile as he was walking from Porlock Weir to Lynton.
“I didn’t know,” he says. “Then my phone was just going bananas. I was very upset about it. I switched the phone off. I felt quite lonely about all that.”
They were a generation apart, but still close. “I knew him well,” he says. “We did a reading together a few months ago in London. That was probably the last time I saw him. He’d had a stroke six or seven years ago: it wasn’t a secret, he had written about it, so physically he was frailer than he had been before that, but absolutely just as sharp.”
He feels bereft, in the way he last did when Ted Hughes died. “They were like the last big beasts of poetry, the Magi. People whose spells you could fall under. They were of that school, that generation. When Seamus died, I texted another poet that I know and I said, ‘We’re on our own now.’ We’ve lost a chieftain.”
When Armitage was a young lad growing up in Marsden, finding a rebel song in poetry, Heaney was already a master. “He was just part of the landscape. Now he’s gone. It is like you get up one day and somebody has taken one of the mountains away.”
It was Heaney who convinced him that poetry was not just about the words on the page. “His character and personality, the way he was with people, his presence at the readings, and his voice, it all fed in to the totality of his poetry.”
He looks a little lost for a moment, still raw at the loss. “My wife came down and walked with me for a day, partly because we were both so upset about Seamus and wanted to spend some time together, but I won’t see her again until the end now,” he says. “That seems a long way off.”
He sounds like an Arctic explorer, but we are actually just sharing a pot of tea at the Beach Cafe in Westward Ho! – a Victorian resort named after a novel and built to capitalise on its success. The walk he has finished is the sort of thing ramblers do on their holidays, although only the more dedicated would follow the path for 250 miles over three weeks.
Armitage has also deliberately created a situation that makes him feel vulnerable. Rather than sink into a bath at a nice hotel somewhere, alone, he has to be social with new hosts and then haul his weary body into an upright position to entertain an audience with nothing but his own words. Every night. He’s feeling it. “Although I got lost in the Pennines sometimes, I did feel at home. I don’t here. I feel like a stranger.”
The walk began in Minehead, where he stayed in a chalet at Butlin’s, so what did the punters there make of his poetry? “I didn’t do a reading there. I chickened out. I just couldn’t compete with A Tribute To Olly Murs.”
His favourite reading so far has been in a Baptist chapel converted into a home. “It was so quiet and there was a slight sense of it being a sermon. It had these lovely old chapel windows, the sun was going down outside and the people of the village had gathered. I felt very relaxed there. That might have been to do with the fact that I sat down while I was reading …”
He is dosed up with painkillers for a bad back. “I’ve got a wonky spine, and even a couple of months ago I was thinking I couldn’t do this, but so far I’m holding up, just tweaks and pulls and twinges. I’m quite hot. I’ve got a blister on my left toe,” he says. “My boot split the other day. I mended it with a bit of Araldite. You couldn’t be surprised by the lack of cobblers in Braunton.”
Soon he is whisked away for a shower and a shave at the home of tonight’s hosts, Oliver and Fiona Chope, owners of Walter Henry’s Bookshop in Bideford. They saw an appeal in the local paper for people to organise readings along the route.
“We never thought we would get him, because we knew the school and the library would want him,” says Mrs Chope. “We don’t often get big names in Bideford.”
By 8pm, the little bookshop is full of 40 or so people. Armitage appears rested and clean-shaven, wearing fresh jeans and a shirt that someone has ferried in a suitcase from the previous stop. Is that cheating? What about the credit card he keeps in a hidden pocket, only to be used in absolute emergency? Armitage compares himself to a medieval troubadour, but they did not have personal websites on which to appeal in advance for help. Then there is the fame. He is one of the few poets who get recognised in the street, or by their voice.
Simon Armitage is also the sort of writer who gets big public commissions, such as the poems he wrote to be carved into stones along the Pennine Way. He won’t talk about the money, but does admit to earning “more than I would have done in my old job as a probation officer”.
He is also required reading for students of English in schools, which he mentions during the night’s performance. “I get people coming up to me all the time, saying, ‘I read your poems at school.’ I always wonder if they are bearing a grudge.”
Cue titters. Then come murmurs of appreciation during his wonderful, hypnotic poem You’re Beautiful. Earlier in the day, he said poetry was “an art form that goes back to the campfire”. Here in the bookshop, there are clearly still people who enjoy the magic of storytelling, and concentrated moments created from carefully chosen words.
Between poems, he keeps the banter light. Somebody asks what has caught the poet’s eye on his walk through the north Devon landscape, and he smiles. “The ice cream van at Appledore waylaid me, momentarily.”
Then he ends with a poignant poem capturing the middle-aged feeling that time is running out. (The sort of feeling that might compel a successful poet to risk his dignity like this.) The boy who goes out to play at the start of Evening comes back to the same house a man, finding his wife mending and his child sleeping. “You’re sorry. You thought / It was early. How did it get so late?”
The applause that follows is warm, but how much is it worth? “Keeping the money a secret until I’m done,” says Armitage in a text the next morning, well on his way to the next town. He is happy enough, though, to send a list of other things found at the bottom of the sock.
This, then, is what the people of Bideford gave to express their gratitude for an evening with one of the great British poets of our age, as encouragement for Simon Armitage on his journey: “Five McDonald’s vouchers, a Campaign for Real Ale membership form, a handwritten letter about obscure goalkeepers, and a plastic badger.”