Adventure-writer and explorer Robert Twigger has more than a few idiosyncratic pastimes known to his readers: searching for exotic creatures, floating down rivers in inflatable rafts and making perfect omelettes.
But if he had to choose one activity that ranks above all others, it would be walking. Non-stop walking. Across great, interminable, distances.
He identifies so much with this compulsion to plod that he sometimes avoids calling himself a writer (though he’s the author of 14 books), opting instead to describe himself as a professional ambler who carries almost nothing with him, and who sometimes writes about his trips.
Twigger caught the walking bug while striding the length of the Pyrenees as a young man, a story documented much later in a book entitled, not surprisingly… Walk. In 2010, he co-led a 700km journey across Egypt’s legendary dune field, the Great Sand Sea, without riding camels or using vehicles.
His most recent exploit was hiking the length of England, from south to north, following a near-linear string of ancient rocks and ruins which he’s dubbed ‘The Great North Line.’ The book which chronicles the experience is entitled, Walking the Great North Line: From Stonehenge to Lindisfarne to Discover the Mysteries of Our Ancient Past.
I was in the UK when Twigger undertook his trek. I accompanied him for a few days as he wandered through the rolling hills of Yorkshire. He spoke to me recently about his experiences.
How did you discover, or come across, what you’ve coined The Great North Line? How common is the knowledge of its existence?
The ancient sites of Sarum, Stonehenge and Avebury are all on a dead straight north-south line. That’s well known. And there’s even something called The Great Stones Way which is a walk from Avebury to Stonehenge (strangely that path avoids both sites because of rights access). Many people know about that too.
But one day I got out the Ordnance Survey map of Britain with respect to the ancient sites and I drew a line using a meter rule through Avebury, Stonehenge and Sarum. Then, just for the hell of it, I extended it north. I was very shocked and pleased to discover that the line went through Lindisfarne, an island on the northeast coast near Scotland. There has been a monastery there for centuries and was the first place sacked by the Vikings in 743 AD. It also contains Palaeolithic and Neolithic remains. That was a very suggestive coincidence.
Then I checked along the line and found other stone circles and monuments in Derbyshire: Thor’s Cave and Mam Tor. In Ilkley there’s at least three stone circles on the line. One of them is called the ‘Swastika Stone’.
When I started to rule lines every 10-20 miles on either side across the rest of Britain, I found no other longitude that has as many ancient sites of quantity and quality. I liked the coincidence, but I figured there was something deeper to that alignment. I consider it a bit of a discovery.
How did the idea to walk the line and write a book about it evolve?
‘The Line’ provided a nice backbone and gimmick for another long distance walk, which I’d been craving to do for a while. It allowed me to explain the expedition to people, including my publisher, in simple and straightforward enough terms. When I thought about adding some local characters, history, and my own personal journey in search of the meaning of things, I had a potentially good yarn.
Why are you drawn to long-distance walking trips? What is it about that mode of travel that appeals to you?
When I was growing up it was a really big deal if you walked the Pennine Way and other long distance routes that were tens of miles long. It was a macho thing to do. That sparked my interest because most people were, and still are, sheepish about walking. In the past people walked everywhere. But now it’s a massive thing to walk just five miles.
Long walks are great because everyday is new. You’re walking through places you’ve never been before, whereas hiking the same route just doesn’t cut it (it’s like having reheated coffee – it just isn’t as good). You also really get to know the land. You get to live like an explorer. It’s cheap and it gets you outside. All those elements make walking an attractive thing for me.
You spent a lot of time alone on this trip. Describe that experience for people who’ve never done long solo trips. And how do you juxtapose that with hiking with travel companions?
When making a long journey it’s a good idea to do it alone. Lots of people have never done that. My first time doing it, when I crossed the Pyrenees, was a great breakthrough for me. I learned it’s a good way to travel because you’re not burdened by other people’s agendas. It takes a bit of nerve but you definitely have more interesting experiences.
One important benefit of walking alone is you can take your time, you can rest whenever you want, and your health is more easily maintained. The minute you start walking with people, you push yourself harder because you don’t want to hold people up. If you develop a blister that can be a problem.
On the other hand, walking with someone provides companionship. It creates a shared reality that can be eventful – which is why it’s quite important to think carefully about who you walk with. You can start walking with certain people and the whole experience becomes suddenly boring. You stop seeing interesting things.
The human chemistry on a trip, I find, can either attract or repel certain experiences.
Exactly. There are people who you travel with and stuff happens almost effortlessly. And it can make for great material.
When you and I walked together, within the first few hours we came across an old man and his blind dog named “Homer.” They were both incredible characters. That interaction may not have happened on my own. We created a joint reality that probably drew the man in. Also, you kept pointing out weird name places along the way which I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. I felt like I was channeling your Canadian foreignness.
But back to pros and cons of walking alone: you meet more people when you’re solo because you’re compelled to interact with locals. With a travel companion your attention needs are met, so you end up having fewer conversations with those regulars at the pub or with that bird watcher standing on the side of the footpath.
You like to challenge yourself by traveling bare bones. No elaborate camping gear. On this trip your tent was made up of a walking pole holding up a tarp. Because you often slept in settled areas you lived a bit like a homeless person. Did that give you a window on the kind of life that homeless people lead?
Obviously ‘homeless’ is a newer denotation for what we call a tramp or a vagabond. The difference is that homeless people stay in cities and don’t wander great distances. Nonetheless, I did get an insight into aspects of the homeless life – both the attractions of it and the way in which you learn to move through barriers.
Homeless people tend to do almost everything in public, like lying down in the street. It took me a while to get to that stage of comfort. At first you hide away and don’t force yourself on the public. But that eventually changes. There was a breakthrough point in the book where I just camped on the lawn of somebody’s garden. I thought to myself, “Fuck it. You have a big house. I’m going to camp here.”
You start off by seeing yourself as a settler and later realize you’re no longer one. You become an outside figure to the rest of the settler world. A vagabond. That was intriguing. Also, I didn’t know where I was going to sleep every night, which for me is also the essence of adventure.
How did you choose where you would pitch camp? What do you take into consideration?
If I’m in a forest setting I’ll take the first good spot I find. I’m not one of these people who always looks for a better location. It’s true that sometimes you come up with gold by doing that. But I’ve also had experiences where it will start to rain and there’s nowhere to camp. So I’m usually looking for spots quite early.
When you choose a campsite, you definitely don’t want to be somewhere that’s windy. That’s bloody awful. I learned from Native Americans that putting your tent up in smaller trees, in thickets, is great because you’re not going to get lots of wind that will flap your tent around. It also tends to stay cool in there on hot days. Camping on top of a hill is really windy and horrible by comparison. Bedouin always camp closer to the ground with their back to the base of dunes.
In semi-urban environments, I look for places where I’m not going to be seen: in woodlands primarily. I also look for plantations. Some maps in the UK will mark the plantations. Those places are densely wooded and there are often no paths through them, which means nobody is going to be out walking in them.
Proximity to water is also important for different reasons. The feeling that a river is a public and permissible highway to travel on seems to extend a little past its banks. So if you camp beside one you don’t feel like you’re trespassing as you would by dropping in the middle of a field, say.
You were concerned about getting caught sleeping on private property. But apart from one incident in the book, you didn’t get much hassle from people. How do you explain that?
I think it was my own bourgeois paranoia. But that worry wasn’t without basis.
When I was a kid, farmers generally gave you permission to camp in their fields. They even gave you water to drink. But I noticed on this walk things have changed. Properties are worth a lot more now in Britain. There are a lot more ‘No Trespassing’ signs. And the biggest thing is rural crime. That was non-existent when I was a kid. You never used to hear of rural farmers losing tractors and gear to thieves. That has really increased in the last 30 years.
The second thing is that walking has become cool among the general public. So now you have urban people, wearing the latest gear, flooding onto the land. With those two changes, suddenly as a walker you’re a bit of an intruder to the rural folk.
But overall my fears got the better of me. English landowners are not a bad bunch. To their credit they’re not like Americans. They don’t shoot at you, or drive you off their land. On only a couple of occasions did I come across footpaths that had been wired over.
What were some of the big takeaways from this trip? What did you learn?
I learned that where you live, and move through, is very significant. It’s no less important than the people you spend time with, and what you spend time thinking about. Belittling and disrespecting landscape is a mistake.
I also discovered that England has a significant sense of place tied to its ancient places – as much as Australia does for Aborigines, or North America does for Native Americans. I developed a stronger sense of place for England and realized that this country is not just a blank space. The earth has power spots and needs to be respected and looked after in lots of ways. I got a much greater appreciation of location and place in all its forms.
One other really interesting thing I noticed is that old churches, especially in villages, are largely built on ancient sites. They were not placed randomly as shops are in a modern town or city. I became very grateful for those churches and often used them as spots for brewing-up tea because they’re always open.
(Photos: Robert Twigger)
More than a travel memoir or a hiking guide, this was an account of your journey to read the matrix of the land. To decipher the meaning of landscape. You try to see what’s not easily seen below the surface. Even drawing attention to The Great North Line itself is part of this exercise.
It is. I support anything that gets people away from the ‘been there, done that’ academic tone of their travels. I just loathe that and the way it kills real interest. People just mechanically tick off sites they’ve visited and don’t take the time to look more closely at things. My hope was to find a more artistic and holistic way of appreciating these places without becoming barking or hippy.
I noticed you managed to touch on the mysterious aspects of those ancient sites without doing so in a flakey, or New Age, way.
I believe a lot of the New Age stuff touches on realities – but the language they use is false. It’s inflated and borrowed from other areas.
I don’t think there is an actual language to accurately describe a lot of the situations and places we sometimes find ourselves in. We try to use language borrowed from other cultures and zones of study to communicate those things which only ends up distorting them. I believe it’s the province of the travel writer to put this down by chronicling experiences and events, because a lot of these connections can’t be made in an honest or sensible way using specialized language.
(Photos: Robert Twigger)
You write in your book: “If we want to understand the true unearthly–earthly mysteries of England, her ancient stones and our roots in Stone Age man, we must embrace a non‑utilitarian, multi‑dimensional view of man that ultimately conflicts with the modern academic position.” What do you mean by that?
I think we need to approach these topics with, for lack of a better term, a religious perspective. But not religious in a doctrinaire or traditionally religious way. That’s what I mean by saying there isn’t a good enough language suited to deeper understanding. There is no precise way to convey this notion.
At the same time I sure as hell know that you don’t need to have a PhD or have read the latest papers to understand all that’s important about life. To imply that hyper-specialization is getting us closer to anything other than an increase in information, is false.
Sometimes there’s simply too much information to make sense of experience. It’s known in traditional circles that there needs to be a balance between experience and information. Hence the emphasis in the past on secrets and withholding knowledge. Information was often concealed because people didn’t need it. It would actually cause people problems to know too much. It’s deeply unfashionable to say things like this now. But it’s true.
Do you feel closer to England after doing this walk?
I felt pretty close to England to begin with. I’ve always been patriotic in a non-nationalist sort of way.
What has changed is this: I realize how much of England is mostly empty green fields. For various reasons that are largely economic it pays to be a landowner and have a couple of cows. It’s like owning gold. That changed my view of landowners. I’m definitely more of a right-of-way, common ownership person where aspects of the land is concerned. I’m not political, but I’ve become slightly more politicized about how the monetary value of land distorts the kind of life you can lead on it.
And this is tied to another reason why I walk. When I see a landscape, when I walk over it, I own that land in a sense. I don’t need to physically own it. The idea that somebody has to buy land and physically own it to feel good about themselves is absurd to me. I think that’s a nomadic viewpoint, which is why all nomads find the idea of title deeds for land absurd.
Having walked over England, I felt I owned England. But I also felt there were too many people who’ve put stakes on it. It’s like people who buy a Van Gogh and don’t put it up on a wall for others to see, but instead store it away in a bank vault. They’re just taking something out of circulation. I think that commoditizing and monetizing land to the extent done in England, especially when it’s so scarce, is not a healthy thing. We all need more access to landscapes and to forge a sense of place.
Robert Twigger is a British travel writer and explorer. His newest book is Walking the Great North Line: From Stonehenge to Lindisfarne to Discover the Mysteries of Our Ancient Past.
(Header photo of Mam Tor summit by Bill Boaden; Robert Twigger portraits by John Zada)