The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Around the Coast of Britain

A few weeks ago I read ‘Slow Coast Home’ by Josie Dew, which gives an account of Josie’s attempt (which turned out to be broken and curtailed) to cycle the coast line of Britain. Cycling isn’t my thing, so it’s not the sort of book that I would ordinarily buy, but having been dragged into a book shop (I try to avoid them as a rule: to enter a book shop usually involves accidental purchases) and finding it reduced to £2.99 it seemed like too good an offer to refuse.

According to reviews on Amazon, it’s the worst of all of her books, but I enjoyed it. I’ve not been inspired to straddle a saddle, but it was still a good tale of travel, meeting people, injuries and camping in interesting conditions.

Spurred on by enjoying Josie Dew’s tales of a British coastal journey, I then bought a copy of ‘The Sea on Our Left’ by Shally Hunt, which is the account of a couple’s 4300 mile walk around the coast of Britain in the mid-1990s.

Having already read ‘The Sea Ahead’ by the same person (her account of their walk along the E2 from Cape Wrath to Nice in 2003), I had a feeling that The Sea on Our Left would annoy me a tad. As it went, it annoyed me a lot, and for reasons far beyond those that I had expected.

In my opinion (and it is just my opinion; of course people can walk around the coast against whatsoever rules they chose), if you’re going to walk around the coast that’s exactly what you do. Catching ferries across estuaries is a pretty standard allowance but, in my opinion, catching a bus and a train to the other side of an estuary when a ferry is not running is pushing the definition of walking around the coast. But catching a train past Port Talbot because the industrial area was too dull? Or catching buses because you’re running a bit behind and you have a schedule to keep for accommodation purposes? Now I may be misunderstanding that last point, but it was the impression that I got from what was written.

Even ignoring the fact that they didn’t, as the front cover purports, walk around the entire coast (and perhaps we can forgive someone a few miles out of 4300) most of the book is far from inspiring. It starts off as a very stilted account, which moves between subjects without warning (the bit about looking at protruding ribs in the bath in one sentence and talking about passing a lighthouse in the next confused me until I realised that she’d moved on to another day). And whereas one may expect some amusing accounts of the folk that they met on the way it seemed that, with a couple of exceptions, Shally was determined to find fault with every single person they met on the way and every B&B owner. She comments at one point that she saw herself as a prissy snob, and that’s exactly how she came across. Amusing anecdotes there were not, although I grant that she was pretty enthusiastic about the coast of Scotland and managed a flowing and interesting account of that section.

But, none of that is what really annoyed me about this book. Perhaps I’m picky, but if I’m being asked for fork out £7 or £8 for a professionally published book then I expect it to have been proof read, maybe even edited, and most, if not all, of the spelling errors ironed out of it. On some pages I didn’t spot a single error but more often than not there were several.

I accept that some people have issues with spelling and I don’t claim to be without error myself (but then I’m not charging anyone for my witterings and rants and I wouldn’t dream of putting them in a book shop), but even in the mid 1990s there were spell-checkers and as for place names, all that is required is to write with a road atlas by your side. There is no excuse, as happened far too often, for a place name to be spelt incorrectly in one paragraph, correctly in the next and then incorrectly again two later.

It was with annoyance (and sometime amusement via pure incredulity) that I came across all of these errors (my personal favourite: ‘wear-with-all’).

Anyway, I’ve ranted enough. I must, sometime soon, say something about the books that I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed – I only seem to comment on those that I find fault with. For the moment just let me say that if you want to read an account of a walk around the coast (and bearing in mind that I’ve not read John Merrill’s (oops, just slipped and bought a copy, mind)) then I would say that Two Feet, Four Paws by Spud Talbot-Ponsonby is leagues ahead of Shally Hunt.


  1. I hope you get further with John Merrill's book than I did. I have started it two or three times over a period of many years but always found it too boring. It seems to be more about meeting Lord Mayors and attending Rotary Club luncheons than about walking.

  2. I found Merrill's book OK, but that was nearly 30 years ago!
    The American contingent is worth a read, first Paul Thoreau's 'The Kingdom by the Sea', the Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island'. I really enjoyed the former, though I see it gets some vitriolic reviews on Amazon. Bryson's effort, which you probably have read, is much lighter.

  3. (second attempt at a comment here - don't know what happened to my earlier attempt)

    Given the very small price that I paid for Merrill's book, I've probably already had my money's worth by the introduction and appendices that I've already read, even if I don't get through the rest of it. His philosophy on long distance walking certainly seems interesting.

    As for Bryon, I'm afraid that I didn't think much of Notes From a Small Country (can't remember why now, it was a while ago). I read it, and fortunately didn't let it put me off reading other of his books, but I definitely found it to be his poorest work. Give me 'Walk in the Woods' any day, which I found to be a jolly entertaining read, even if I did feel that some of it should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.