Author Linda Cracknell explains how walking connects her to the landscape and inspires so much of her work
In 1976 I arrived alone in Boscastle for a week’s painting holiday with the sullen steps of a post-glandular-fever, first-time-in-love 17-year-old. “I’ve got here but feel terribly lonely and depressed,” I complained to my diary on the first night.
Bringing with me a 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map and an instinct for exploration and recovery, I was soon enchanted. Every lunchtime after our painting session, a group of us sat in the sunny garden with hunks of the teacher’s oven-warm bread and glasses of home-made beer. I revelled in finding myself treated as an adult at the studio, as well as in the guesthouse and the pub. But equally I seemed to need a daily dose of solitude. After lunch I would leave with my map to find a new walk.
Tom, a bespectacled literature-lover staying at my guesthouse, told me that Thomas Hardy had come here as a young architect in 1870 to work on the tower of Saint Juliot’s church in the Valency valley, and fallen in love with the vicar’s daughter, Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he later married.
Hardy’s third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, was set here and loosely based on this experience. He also told me how, after Emma’s death in 1912, Hardy had returned to the area on a painful pilgrimage, retracing their courting paths through the valley and on the high-winged cliffs. His poetry arising from that return thrums with sorrow and forgotten love.
By reading Return of the Native and Tess, I’d already been entranced by the slow movements of Hardy’s characters through landscapes, the connection between walking the road and the tragic unfolding of stories. As I walked those afternoons, I trespassed on Hardy’s memories of the Valency valley, tinkling with water and a sense of leaf-filled, sunken enclosure. For contrast I climbed onto the shaly exposure and vertiginous drops of the highest cliffs in England (if you consider Cornwall to be in England), places that he often conflated with Emma’s spirit, and her galloping pony.
In the poem “If You Had Known”, Hardy describes a wet walk back from Beeny Cliff towards the Old Rectory “by crooked ways and over stiles of stone”. Hardy’s “crooked ways” seem to characterise the scale of inland North Cornwall with its tight valleys, intimate fields and the lanes that tunnel deep below the bordering farmland. The scale means that even a 17-year-old cannot be bored by walking here. A few strides bring a change in view to a sunken church; a small climb reveals the next valley; a dropped hedge reveals the sea. Walking unlocks the treasures of this valley. In that week I had the sensation of tumbling into my adult life – discovering I was someone who loved to be alone as well as gregarious, to make connections through reading, and to affiliate myself to a place through the movement of my feet. In 2008 I returned, not only rereading Hardy’s work but retreading my teenage ways in pursuit of him. It showed me I had not outgrown the romance.
I’ve remained both a daily walker and an “expedition” walker ever since, and my life has been shaped by it to some extent. An enjoyment of walking in remote and mountainous terrain explains at least in part my move to Scotland in 1990 from where I started to write five years later. As for many writers, walking is an essential tool for me – the opportunity for close observation, the rhythmic movement, and the meshing of inner and outer landscapes all assist creative thought. As Rousseau said: “My mind only works with my legs.”
The walks that I’ve written about in my book Doubling Back are similar retreadings of past trails taken by myself or others. Personal memory was an important part of my return to Boscastle and also sent me on a high adventure in the Swiss Alps to follow my father, but paths with echoes of collective memory also drew me.
These were often long-distance routes that once had a clear purpose for foot travellers: medieval pathways in Spain, which winkle their way across plunging lands; and drove roads in Scotland, including a 200-mile journey between my home in Perthshire and the Isle of Skye. The long-distance walk can be a wonderful refreshment – a period out of our normal lives, and yet an intense period of our lives. Especially if taken alone, it feeds the imagination as well as connecting us to memory.
My writing in all forms, from non-fiction to radio drama, has increasingly been chipped from specific places. Between 2010 and 2013 I spent some time on the far north-eastern shores of Scotland. I walked this harsh but energising place into my bones – its dramatic cliffs and the wide sweep of sand and sea at Dunnet Bay.
Along the way, local stories made themselves known to me, such as the small green pool of water in the grave of a “selkie” – half seal, half human – that never dries out; Peter Barker, who was enticed through a doorway in a hillside by a woman in a green dress, never to return; the married man who is told in a dream that he can overcome childlessness by walking before dawn, every morning for a year and a day, the length of Dunnet sands. By walking the place repeatedly myself, its stories, physical geography, even the archaeology wove together in my imagination.
And so, captivated by the Caithness coastal landscape, a local connection to an early Scottish map-maker, and a folk tale, I came up with the story of a contemporary cartographer who isolates herself there and befriends a remarkable boy who seems to embody the place. His own map-making then leads them both into danger. This became the novel Call of the Undertow, published last year. Kirsty Gunn, the novelist, has said of it: “Linda Cracknell’s Caithness rises up off the page and takes form around us… Its light and skies, rocky shores and wheeling, screaming gulls, huddled villages and craggy beaches, its grave, austere beauty… Reading this book is like being there.”
And yet the place is more than a setting to me; more like a character itself. Walking connects us creatively to specific landscapes which will offer up characters and stories if we are open to them.
Here’s something you can try yourself when walking. Summon a character into your mind. Before you set out, invent a few characteristics for them, including what shoes they wear, why they’re in this place and what they carry in their pockets: a clue to hidden purposes. Then walk, making observations through the filter of their emotions and motivations. I hope you will find that asking “What if?” when engaging with a place through the senses and the rhythm of footfall is a kind of play that makes storytellers of us all.
‘Doubling Back’ by Linda Cracknell ( Freight Books £14.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514) at £13.49 + £1.95 p&p
Source: The Telegraph
July 16, 2014
By Linda Cracknell