Christopher Somerville’s 35-year journey as a walking writer, chronicling Britain’s footpaths for The Times and The Daily Telegraph by Steve Keenan
Christopher Somerville has been walking for a living for 35 years. His walks have been published weekly in The Times for 15 of those years and, before then, in The Daily Telegraph. He has also written 40 books, the latest being Walking the Bones of Britain: A 3 Billion Year Journey from the Outer Hebrides to the Thames Estuary.
It’s a lot of words about walking – but he regrets how parsimonious newspapers have become about space. ‘In the 1990s, when The Times was a broadsheet, I could write 1,500 words about a walk, with anecdotes and detailed transgressions. Now I only get space for 600 words.’
It’s not really a rant – Christopher is not by any definition a ranter. He was a teacher for 15 years before taking a different path and he speaks gently, with a permanent twinkle in the eye. He is now 74 and lives in Somerset. And he is a listener.
It was a book by John Hillaby – Journey Through Britain (1968) – that first inspired him to write.
He has, to date, filled 470 notebooks, all filed in chronological order on his bookshelves. When lockdown curtailed his walking, he used the time to rifle through these archives. In his recent talk at The Travel Book Company in Semley, he said: ‘The notebook pages are creased and stained with mud, blood, flattened insect corpses, beer glass rings, smears of plant juice and gallons of sweat. Everything I’ve written about walking the British countryside has had its origin in these little black-and-red books.’
And in conversation later (we detoured to The Benett Arms in Semley!), he told me: ‘I find myself interested in almost everything people tell me. View from the Hill is a compendium of a gazillion stories which I wrote down but which never got used in my articles. I thought: “I shall see if I can whip up a narrative of my last 40 years” and it became a book.’
Each of his walks is designed from scratch, researched and put together with his wife, Jane. As Jane is a botanist, he says: ‘I’ve effectively got two pairs of eyes. We walk together but have different ways of looking at things.
‘We choose areas from all over the country, then turn to the OS maps and try to work out a circuit of, say, six miles. Then we try to find a place to park that won’t upset anyone!
‘My favourite walk? Upper Teesdale, between the Durham and Yorkshire Dales, from Appleby to Middleton on Teesdale. One of the best walks in the world. I’ve done it many many times but printed it only once. As for my favourite bit of Dorset to walk in… impossible to choose! The coast of the Isle of Purbeck (where I went to school) and the cliffs around Golden Cap are very special, but so are Bulbarrow, Blackmore Vale and the downs. Plonk me down anywhere thereabouts and I’d be as happy as a sandboy.’
(Christopher is guest editor of this month’s Dorset walk – see one of his favourite routes around the Cerne Giant here.)
He says there are fewer people now taking this sort of walk, ‘to go on an adventure from a small footpath. One that is new, and a challenge. People are, for some reason, less confident about going out and forging a path. Now they’d rather do something like The South Downs Way or the Coastal Path – the big routes.
‘There are 140,000 miles of footpaths in the country but they are getting neglected. It is a bit sad. I see fewer walkers on my trails, and fewer walkers on local footpaths. Why? Farmers don’t maintain the paths and very few councils now have full time footpath officers.’
There is still, of course, an army of intrepid walkers inspired by Christopher who regularly leave comments and feedback on his articles. He tries to respond to everyone – he believes it is the polite thing to do. Has he ever had any criticsm?
‘Well, I have a left and right confusion. The newspaper subs usually pick up on any mistake but in one article, it did say turn left rather than right. I had a call from a person who said he was walking with 20 pensioners in completely the wrong direction. They were furious …”
See all of Christopher’s published Dorset walks on his website christophersomerville.co.uk
Christopher is known for his immersive, atmospheric writing, and his ability to bring a reader along on his walks with him.
Here he describes a familiar route around Plush, published in The Times in 2018:
Mist was rolling high on the Dorset downs as we came down a steep green valley into Plush. The little collection of houses lay under mossy thatch along their lane. A few cheerful drinkers at the Brace of Pheasants shook their heads at us over the weather.
‘Going out walking? You won’t see a thing!’
In the chalky holloway that lifted us to the heights of Church Hill grew primroses and violets, bluebells and pink campion. All had burst out together last week, at the first hint of spring warmth. Today the birds seemed subdued by the cold hand of the mist, but a blackcap suddenly produced a mellifluous solo among the oaks, short but sweet.
As we reached the gaunt old barn at the top of the climb a roe deer went bounding away, leaping high over crops and fences.
We followed the rutted course of the Wessex Ridgeway, an ancient drove road running
east-west along the nape of the hills.
The old cottage at Folly was once a drover’s inn, where the hardy drovers in their felt hats, stockinged feet soaped against blisters, would stop in for refreshment while their flocks cropped the wide verges of the Ridgeway.
We passed through woods of oak and ash where bluebells made a hazy sky of the undergrowth, and dropped down a long flinty lane into Higher Melcombe. Lumps and bumps in the fields were all that remained of the medieval village deserted by its people after the Black Death deprived them of their feudal livings. But the handsome old manor house was still there, its chapel walls striped with flint.
Blackbirds sang, and a tractor whined somewhere. We climbed away up a hedge towards a wood, invisible in the hill mist, roaring softly and mightily with a sea-like cadence. Primroses and cowslips spattered the banks of the hollow lane, and among them a hybrid of the two plants raised its dark yellow multiform head on a slender talk.
We skirted the plunging slopes of Lyscombe Bottom, farmed with no pesticides or artificial fertilisers, and descended another deep-sunk old green road into Plush. ‘See anything?’ asked the same regulars in the Brace of Pheasants.
‘No, not a thing,’ we replied.