Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookebnds.
One Man and a Mule: Across England with a Pack Mule. Hugh Thomson. Preface. £20
Robert Louis Stevenson dragged his reluctant donkey Rosinante through the mountains of the Cevennes well over a century ago. His aim was “to come down off the feather-bed of civilization”. Hugh Thomson is bold or desperate enough to have dragged his mule across the breadth of England from St Bees to the coast of the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay. Jethro, the mule he eventually obtained from the RSPCA, was, he was told,“very intelligent. He’ll only do something if he wants to.”
A sentimental journey took Hugh first to Stoneraise Place, near Wigton, the farm where his great grandfather had been born. His great grandfather had been William H Bragg, mathematician and physicist and a Nobel Prize winner. The farm was busy, but George Bainbridge, 84, a retired farmer remembered Bragg from a visit he made when he was a boy.
The first real test on the journey was to take the Old Moses Trod over Honister. Ponies had passed that way for centuries carrying their loads of slate over the fells. He looked down on Haystacks, the final resting place of Alfred Wainwright. He thinks of his guide books: “Handwritten and hand-drawn, these are books made with the love and dedication of a medieval monk.” Would AW have approved of that zip wire down Honister, The Via Ferrata? He’d have welcomed the employment it offered, but he would have found it an abominable way of getting down a mountain. Walking with Jethro is a companionable business the chance to think and muse on the mountains, to fantasise about running as a hare across the fells being hunted by hounds.
He met Susan, “in her forties, with a warm approachable face”, who, “sick of working to pay the rent” had thrown everything up and was living in an old panel van like it was a gypsy caravan and was planning to go to Morocco. Except, she was a little terrified. She’d set out with the boyfriend – it was his van – and then they’d split and she was doing it all by herself.
He thinks of Hugh Walpole and his novel Rogue Herries. He’d found happiness telling stories like a boy in the dormitory, imagining walking up Honister and finding a dead man there “with his throat cut or a knife in his belly”. But for Hugh Thomson “what makes the Lake District so sublime is the very mundanity of its inhabitants”. “The humble bus trundling up the Borrowdale valley” gives the scale to the grandeur of the peaks.
As they walk the route to Skiddaw House, Hugh’s Irish companion, Jasper, remarks that, “I always find that walking with an animal is like a marriage”.
And the walk across the country proves as companionable as a continuing marriage. Hugh and Jasper and Jethro met Jeff in the Old Crown in Hesket and sampled Blencathra, Skiddaw, Helvellyn Gold and Great Cock-up and handled his collection of ice-axes. On their way to Grasmere they were offered a field for Jethro by Peter and Joanne Bland of the famous Bland fell-running dynasty. And then with “a tintinnabular clatter” they were over the fells and through the Howgills, past Kirkby Stephen and through the Pennines to Richmond and beyond to the Vale of Mowbray and eventually down to Robin Hood’s Bay. There, Jethro the Mule gets a certificate to say he’s completed the Coast to Coast Walk.
Hugh’s is an entertaining book. This is no guide or stride by weary stride account, but an entertaining journey with an engaging companion. Hugh can strike up that conversation with the intriguing stranger and he knows a thing or two about the places he travels and about the wider world. After all he’s taken a mule over the Andes.
A mule isn’t essential if you’re thinking of walking from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay, but this book is.