21 November 2017
Author: Hugh Thomson
Publisher: Preface Publishing
ISBN number: 978-1848094697
One Man and a Mule: Across England with a Pack Mule begins with a warning that the book is “more interested in people than landscape, and in farmers than animals”. Hugh Thomson cheerfully notes, for the benefit of anyone looking for practical details about coast to coast walking, that this book could well get you lost. And so begins a joyous, humorous, beautifully observed piece of writing about anything and everything that you might see, hear or think whilst accompanying a pack mule from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay.
Stubbornly avoiding the temptation to write a guidebook, Thomson has instead managed to capture the enigmatic benefits of walking – the ability it gives you to let your mind wander and experience things in the moment. He muses on a wide range of subjects from the reaction of hostel staff to a man daring to ask for an extra teabag for his flask, to the sound of PVC-clad goths caught by the rain as he passes through Whitby Goth Festival (“a curious slithering noise…like fish that had been caught in the bottom of a trawler”).
It’s not just a whimsical read though – Thomson doesn’t shy away from complex or difficult topics such as his father’s dementia, the decline of rural communities and the disconnect between those working the land and their neighbours. Exhilarated at the feeling of “re-animating a landscape” once thronging with pack animals, he also details just how difficult it was to navigate coast to coast on a bridleway network that has become fragmented and often unfit for purpose because of impassable stiles or poor path surfaces.
The book is beautifully illustrated with colour photographs and, as long as you’re not looking for a step-by-step ‘how-to’ guide, there’s bound to be something of interest. Tanya Kynaston