An enjoyable, fascinating and thought-provoking read by an author who truly knows his subject.
I love going for long walks, as followers of my blog surely know by now! I especially love walks that last for weeks or months and follow routes few others have followed. But when I can’t go myself I love reading about such walks, especially when they are described with the passion, honesty and insight that Chris Townsend brings to his book, Along the Divide.
Chris Townsend has dedicated most of his life to long, immersive walks in wild places. He has authored over thirty books on the subject, many of them narrative accounts like this one. Since his first big walk in 1978 he has spent an unimaginable amount of time travelling alone though an impressive array of wild locations – from deserts to forests to high mountains to the Arctic – and has built up a level of knowledge, experience, and appreciation of nature and wilderness travel that very few people can match. It is said that someone has to put in 10,000 hours to become a master of any specific discipline. Well, by that reckoning Chris Townsend must be a master of wilderness travel and wilderness travel-writing many times over.
Which, as Along the Divide demonstrates from its very first page, he very clearly is.
Along the Divide chronicles a 700-mile, 1,000-km walk along Scotland’s watershed that was undertaken in 2015. Heading south to north, Chris followed the divide that separates waters draining to the Atlantic from waters flowing to the North Sea. There was no guide book for this walk, no official trail, and often no trail at all. This walk was most definitely a journey off the beaten path, and extremely interesting because of it. There are (arguably) too many books now about walks along famous well-established trails. But there are far fewer about unique journeys like this one. This alone would make this book different and worth reading, although there are other reasons too.
Partly inspired by Peter Wright’s book, A Ribbon of Wildness, Chris Townsend set out to walk the Scottish watershed in one continuous journey. As described early in the book, and fleshed out articulately throughout, the reasons for undertaking this journey were many. One reason is that Chris loves to walk ‘to see places properly, to see details and subtlety missed at faster speeds.’ He loves long-distance walking the most ‘because there is time to immerse myself into nature and wild places, time to really feel a part of a place.’ But as well as the natural history, Chris was also walking to learn the human history. And he was walking to explore and highlight the state of Scotland’s wild places, many of them under serious threat. And he was also walking to get to know his home of several decades, Scotland, in a deeper way – a reason made even more meaningful because the journey took place during a pivotal time in Scotland’s own quest for identity.
This diverse range of reasons adds a depth to the book that is so often lacking in other hiking narratives, just as the diverse landscapes encountered throughout the journey add richness to the journey itself. Weaving all this together would be a challenge for many authors – the tale could have become unwieldy and confusing. But Chris manages it with a deftness of touch that keeps the story flowing. Readers get to experience the passing miles, the places, the human encounters, the ups and downs, the weather good and foul, and the inner musings in a way that make them easy to digest, easy to follow, and deeply engaging. It’s easy to feel you are right there, walking along with the author.
Chris’ writing is wonderfully understated, lacking the over-the-top hyperbole that makes some outdoor books so hard to enjoy. There is no ego present in this book, not one ‘look at how amazing I am’ moment. (For what it’s worth, Chris IS amazing, although you have to read far between the lines to see it. I suspect Chris may not even see it himself!) Instead of the adrenaline-fueled prose that can be found in many adventure-travel narratives, or the flowery over-descriptive prose in some nature writing, Along the Divide delivers well-crafted passages in an almost matter-of-fact way that pull readers in, gentle passages that offer rewards and insights if you pause every so often to carefully consider what you have just read.
This book could be consumed swiftly and easily for entertainment alone, and it would be a quick and enjoyable read. But it also rewards a slower and more thoughtful approach – which is poetically appropriate, given that wild places also reward a slow and thoughtful approach. This is a book by a wilderness connoisseur who has spent decades thinking about his subject and has a great deal of value to say about it. Approached without pre-expectations, this book won’t just be a good read; it will get you thinking too.
One of the greatest strengths of Along the Divide is the breadth of subjects it covers. It doesn’t restrict itself to only the land underfoot but also looks to the horizon, and often far beyond it, to politics even. Lesser walking books limit themselves to events that only occur on the trail, as though a trail or a mountain range exist in some kind of vacuum, as though the outside world has no impact upon them. But this isn’t the real world, as most reasonable people know. Towards the end of this book Chris Townsend writes: ‘Escaping politics may seem a reason to go for a long walk, and I certainly didn’t think about such matters much of the time. But if we want wild places, a healthy environment, increased biodiversity and a world worth living in, politics can’t be ignored. Those decisions made in parliaments far away in big cities can have a profound effect in nature. Campaigning so the voices of those who love wild places and the natural world are heard is essential’.
Chris Townsend clearly loves wild places. His love of the wild, his passion, empathy and joy for it, and his deep knowledge, shine from every page of this book. You don’t have to know Scotland to appreciate Along the Divide, or be a hiker to enjoy it. This is a book for anyone and everyone who loves nature and the outdoors, and who wants to share a remarkable journey though the hills with a knowledgeable and friendly companion.
As stated earlier, I have a passion for long walks, and this book made me want to be back on one, and especially this specific one! I have read a great many walking narratives over the past 35 years. (Too many, probably!) But Along the Divide stands out. It is highly recommended.
Along the Divide is published by Sandstone Press. Sandstone Press
Chris Townsend’s always excellent blog can be found here: Chris Townsend Outdoors