Journey Through Britain.

By Tim Stephens

Printed: 1987

Publisher: The Folio Society. London

Dimensions 20 × 27 × 3 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 20 x 27 x 3

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In a fitted box.Cream cloth with brown viaduct image binding with gilt title on the spine.

  • F.B.A. provides an in-depth photographic presentation of this item to stimulate your feeling and touch. More traditional book descriptions are immediately available.

Folio Society edition of Hillaby’s classic 1968 tour of Britain from Lands End to John O’Groats.

Review: From his writing, I imagine that John Hillaby would make the perfect walking companion. He is well spoken and straightforward, learned and curious. He has a gentle sensitivity for his surroundings and a taste for adventure, coupled the honesty to admit to fatigue, self-doubt, and crankiness. He has all the qualities that would intensify the pleasure of a walk while remaining erringly human, and humble enough to acknowledge the fact.

His prose style carries a marvelous economy, where even passages that attain considerable lyricism read as unassuming reactions, the simplest means of conveying the extraordinary:

“Tremendous landslides have choked the floor of the glen with large, irregular blocks of rock that glint with mica. No trees. No grass. Only rocks sculptured by fire and ice. In places they are piled high, one above the other in chaotic architectural form as though, during a violent spasm, a cathedral had collapsed. This is Glen Dessary, a rift in the edge of Lochaber. Daysary the sheep-gatherers say, lingering on that last syllable of desolation, as though it betokened the end of the world. I never saw a wilder glen.”

Passages like this one are intermingled with down-to-earth narrative, digressions on regional dialects or pre-historic civilizations, and descriptions of the geological and biological landscape whose matter-of-factness belie Hillaby’s well-studied and sensitive eye. The various elements are thrown together with a casual ease that gives the book a gentle rhythm, like a boat rocking on the swell: walk walk walk description walk digression walk walk moment-of-heartbreaking-beauty walk digression walk walk description walk walk walk. The rhythm is infectious, hypnotic. The book is so simple, and yet so beautiful, so hard to put down.

Despite Hillaby’s distinctive voice, he retains a sense of objectivity through humility. He passes his knowledge on to us as a casual guide, remarking on matters of interest as if he were commenting on the weather, and suggesting further reading like a friend pulling books off his shelf for our perusal. And yet, there is no pretense to omniscience: we sense that he is learning this stuff as he goes along, and that we could too, should we so choose.

Likewise with the logistics of the hike itself. Things go wrong for Hillaby quite frequently, and while his misfortunes sometimes become a source of humor, he isn’t ashamed to tell us that sometimes he is miserable, sometimes he doubts himself, sometimes he is tempted to accept the offer of a ride. But these confessions never take on the form of bravado: if anything, Hillaby understates the challenges he faces. There is no doubt that the hike is difficult, but he isn’t so boastful as to complain about his hardship.

Modern travel literature generally aims at simplicity, with the naïve humor of misadventure jovially thrown in. Hillaby’s account is one of the masterpieces of the genre, achieving sublime effects without a trace of pretension. He puts to shame the derring-do and studied humor of the Bill Brysons of travel literature, whose ego and forced bombast leaps out of every page. Hillaby doesn’t force the excitement of his adventure on us but rather gently narrates, allowing us to discover the excitement for ourselves.

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