Walking the hill country around my Aberdeenshire home, my feet seek tracks to follow, ways that have already been made plain. Animal tracks direct me to water, guide me through a bog, or along the firmest contours of a slope. But the human pathways through the hills are more compelling – the old drove roads, church paths, and whisky routes have bigger horizons: a path made by humans over centuries speaks of purpose, shared ventures, a story.
The British have long had a passion for the literary pedestrian, from Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes, via Laurie Lee stepping out one midsummer morning or 19-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor embracing the almost inconceivable distance between England and Constantinople, to the contemporary Robert Macfarlane, following in the old ways. Doubling Back establishes Linda Cracknell as one of that aristocracy of great walker-writers; a writer whose work is redolent of physical courage, a walker whose engagement with the stories of those who have gone before her takes the reader to wholly unexpected places, in both the landscape and the mind.
In Doubling Back, Cracknell walks ten paths, in locations ranging from Scotland to Kenya and from Cornwall to Norway. She follows the footfall of Scottish cattle drovers and Northumbrian saints, discovers the complex political language of barefoot walking in Kenya, looks for shared memories with her long-dead, mountain-climber father in the Alps, and scents out a war time escape route through Nazi-occupied Norway. “In the act of doubling back,” she says, “I discover what remains or is new and listen for memories, some of which have become buried.”
The keys to this work are in the first walk, around Boscastle in Cornwall, where Thomas Hardy fell in love with Emma, and the teenage Cracknell began to understand herself as an artist-adventurer. Contemplating Hardy’s “slow movements of his characters through landscapes”, she lays out, as she finds them, the connections between the road and the story that will become my own internal map of her journeyings. Later she describes a chateau as “laced into place by small lanes, tracks and paths between farms and villages” and as the book progresses, her understanding that the human consciousness and the land are inescapably bound by an intricate history of pathways begins to emerge.
Cracknell’s writing is a constant pleasure, her compact, often alliterative phrasing reflecting the physical and emotional temperature of her themes. On a mountain trail in southern Spain, the lines “…bleach-white boulders in the dry river bed. The gorge is shocked in half”, convey the harshness of landscape and light. On a pilgrim route in the north of England, “A tractor towed behind it a dark wake of soil and a white, airborne flock of cries” becomes a fishing boat in a fertile sea, hints at contemplative travel, suggests St Cuthbert as a fisher of men. I am greedy for her descriptions: “The wind carved down the lochside, and the bare birches rang maroon against a clear sky,” is superb, lyrical, shorthand for a Highland winter landscape. Of an old drove road she writes: “I felt its ancient quality under my feet. It contoured the hills thoughtfully, eased me through the rough terrain.” The path as companion.
Cracknell doesn’t do easy. In following a journey her father took as a young man on the Finsteraarhorn in Switzerland, the author chose a dangerous ascent, accompanied by more experienced climbers. But for me, the most successful chapters are where she walks alone and the physical demands give way to equally taxing inner challenges, the act of moving one foot in front of another allowing her mind to slip sideways, to make connections, to discover the self, to exercise – and exorcise – difficult emotions. Finally, she acknowledges, “as well as doubling back, walking moves me forward into some new terrain.” She will take with her all who are fascinated by the landscapes of the mind.