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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Hexham (not Haltwhistle) - the centre of Britain

We have selected two top books to escort you around the highways and byways of Britain "see a location through an author's eyes". Discover Britain!

Are We Nearly There Yet by Ben Hatch tells the story of Ben, his wife Dinah and their two pre-school children, Phoebe and Charlie who are commissioned by Frommers (the American equivalent to Time Out) to set out on a 5 month family odyssey, an 8000 mile journey around Britain. Only the foolhardy, surely, would take up the baton and set off from the Brighton area in a westerly direction and then up to the northern sphere, with a boot and roofrack full to bursting with luggage, two tinies in tow... but gamely, they embarked on this trip with aplomb and enthusiasm. In parts a chronicle of hilarious experiences, in part a travelogue that honestly charts the sights worth seeing (and those to be missed), interspersed with enough poo and vomit to keep the whole family (and the readers) down to earth (including an unusual encounter with a toothbrush, which results in a visit to Hexham Hospital). Encounters abound, with the World's Largest Pencil (or possibly not, as it transpires) at the Cumberland Pencil Museum (and Borrowdale graphite was the drawing material of choice of Michelangelo, well, I never....); from negative encounters in the Lake District (this is depressing when it is England's largest and best known national park, and is widely considered the most romantic spot in England - Bill Clinton proposed to Hilary here, as did Sir Paul McCartney to Heather Mills, which, of course, did not end well....); to the Robin Hood Experience (worth a miss, it would seem); to Craster, which at the turn of the 20th century was the UK Kipper Capital, smoking over 25,000 fish per day (the fish were "gutted by Scottish fishwives, who lived in ramshackle buildings called kip houses, suitable only for sleeping in" - hence the saying, to have a kip.

Scotland gets short shrift at just 3 pages and the geography goes a bit haywire at this point.
Daughter Phoebe has a larger than life presence in the book, and in the background is the tragic demise of Ben's Dad.  Relationship officionados will also be able to glean a bit about the couple's marital fit, and observe the interpersonal exchanges that really keep the show on the road! Overall, a gamut of emotions contained in one informative travelogue. In the next print run we would love a map to be included in the book, that charts their, at times, erratic journey!

Our second featured book is a work of fiction, and at 87 days and 627 miles it covers considerably less ground. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. is a gentle meander from Kingsbridge in Dorset to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England, as Harold Fry finds a fit of passion on his way to post a letter and just continues walking in a northerly direction. Along the way he encounters beautiful English countryside, which is dreamily described and will just transport you to this green and pleasant land: Trees and flowers seemed to explode with colour and scent. The trembling branches of the horse chestnut balanced new candle spires of blossom. Rambling roses shot up garden walls, and the first of the deep red-peonies opened like tissue-paper creations. The apple trees began to shake off their blossom, and bore  beads of fruit; bluebells spread thick like water through the woodlands. The dandelions were already fluffheads of seed  all kinds of weather is thrown at him, from blistering sun to rain that drove at him in thick pins... (isn't that just a lyrical description of England at its best?).

This is a slow story of love and loss and love regained, Harold's aim to see his old friend and work colleague Queenie before she dies of cancer.  He shows unplumbed depths of determination as he ploughs on, accumulating a coterie of people who want to latch on to his journey, in the hope that his inspired walk will rub off  them and they too can take ownership of his "pilgrimage". Towards the end he diverts briefly to Hexham, to try and catch up with someone he met earlier on his walk.

A gentle and meditative novel, that entices you to keep up with our hero, tand to share his trials and tribulations as the miles pass by. Bit by bit the shared history that he,and his wife Maureen have long grappled with begins to take shape. A languorous read that will transport you to a ruminative place, but will frustrate readers who like a fast-paced book.


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