Having missed hearing Linda Cracknell’s recent offerings on Radio 4, I was delighted to have the chance to review the book. Doubling Back is an account of ten walks undertaken by the author, in the footsteps of various famous writers as well as those of her own relations. These take place all over the world: from her doorstep to half a world away; from the coastline of Cornwall to the mountainous Isle of Skye; and from dusty, dry Kenya to the frozen slopes of Switzerland. She tackles a variety of terrains and levels of difficulty: some are ambles, wanderings; some are treks; and others are expeditions in the truest sense of the word. Yet this book is not so much about the act of walking, or should I say walking as a physical exercise, but much more about the journey. Yes, the geography is a huge part of each tale, but Cracknell places greater emphasis on the history behind her routes, along with the emotions she experiences along the way. In an inspired introduction, entitled “Saunters”, she explains her almost pathological need to explore and move, to touch and smell and feel every aspect of her journey as one developed at the earliest of ages, and still carried with her into adulthood.
Cracknell’s writing style is intensely descriptive, often using two or three adjectives where one would suffice. During one Cornish coastal ramble, she observes: “Sessile oaks climb the hillside like giant, be-mossed human figures gleaming in partial light, bare arms reaching up in search, branching just before the canopy into a show of tiny swaying fingers each anxious for light.” Yet, her prose is not overly wordy; it is distinctly rhythmic, moving across the page’s white space, words become an integral part of the journey itself. We are drawn into the personal and sensory but also given the opportunity to open our own eyes and look around. Words undoubtedly paint a picture and Cracknell has an incredible ability with the descriptive that makes it appear multi dimensional.
Some of these journeys are made alone; others with friends and relations – many of whom share their stories along the way. An understanding of the landscape and its history is provided by those who live in and with it. Among Cracknell’s new acquaintances are numerous testaments to the human kindness, generosity and wisdom that can be found the world over. With their aid, she traces long trodden trails and, in doing so, reaffirms a connection with the land and its history that we can all share in, should we care to open our eyes and look a little.
In a narrative which includes personal memories and emotions, there is always the danger of being too “self” related. Cracknell manages to steer clear of this for the majority of the book, though she does stray into dangerous territory on one particular journey to Skye. At this point, the I’s self-exposure rendered me a distinctively uncomfortable voyeur. The narrative demonstrates the visceral nature of walking and movement through a landscape at a slow steady pace but by committing such thoughts and feelings to paper in the way that she does, might they become less meaningful and less powerful?
Would it be fair to pick out favourite tales? That would be a difficult job. The narratives are varied, appeal on so many levels and in so many different ways. For anyone who enjoys being connected to the landscape in the most basic of ways, these tales feel like an invitation to explore – to immerse oneself in the great outdoors and feel the touch of history and legend. In a world where so many people plug in and zone out when they move through their landscape, it is a brilliant example of all that you can experience if you simply allow yourself to.