The Moorposted on 17 Nov 2017
The Moor by William Atkins
I’m not an outdoors type. I really don’t like walking in nature and I would much rather spend my time in the labyrinths of a city than on the bracing green sward. I don’t even like to listen to music outdoors – festivals are vile things that seem to rob music of its essential links to debauched, late night cellars and shabby dance halls where your feet stick to the carpet.
So a book which is an exploration of the Moors - some of Britain's wildest and remotest places - seems an odd choice for me to make I suppose but I was drawn into it by the sub-title Lives, Landscape, Literature which promised an interesting way into a bit of literary background I probably didn’t know about. But in truth I found the book almost as arduous as an actual yomp across one of those famous Moors.
Atkins takes us to all the major Moors, starting down south with Bodmin, Exmoor and Dartmoor and moving progressively north. The Moors are described as neither mountain or fertile lowland but something trapped in-between – volcanic rock eroded and stripped of its trees. The land is acid and peaty and seemingly in a state of almost perpetual semi-swamp that makes everything ankle deep with mire and even deadly dangerous at times. The land defies logical attempts at cultivation and it’s just bewildering to me why so many people tried, failed ignominiously and continue to try.
Atkins is great at uncovering the historical stories of grinding poverty, failure and men who seem to take to the Moor to avoid having to have relationships with the rest of the world. In fact the combination of dreadful weather, horrible wilderness and danger seems to draw men (it’s always men) who see solo walking a challenge to be taken on – the more extreme the better, as the man walking from Lands End to John O’Groats seems to highlight.
What did disappoint me was the rather sketchy literary profiles of the books that have used the Moors as a setting. The obvious ones are there – Conan Doyle, Daphne Du Maurier, R.D. Blackmore, the Brontes – but there was little here that was new or revealing.
What puzzled me most was that I got the distinct impression that although Atkins was often awed by the Moors he visited, he didn’t actually seem to like them very much. Jon Day writing a review in The Telegraph puts his finger on this very well I think:
What remains unclear is what he wants from the moors. Often Atkins seems to go on his walks in search of stories only to return with a few relics and little narrative closure. That might be the point, of course. When he gets to Cranmere Pool, in the heart of Dartmoor, Atkins reflects on the arbitrariness of his destination – the pool is nothing more than a foxhole scraping, designed to lure tourists to an otherwise unexceptional spot. The moor, sublime in its endless sameness, is “barren, featureless, self-similar”, and so becomes a place of manufactured pilgrimage.
I think there’s a book somewhere in here that would have been more to my taste but as it stands it doesn’t inspire me to think I might be wrong about the great outdoors nor does it give me an insight into some of the great literary works set in this environment.
The book isn’t for me but then again I'm probably not the ideal target audience. I’m pretty sure some people will really enjoy it. The book can be purchased for not very much on the second hand book sites and so it’s not a big risk to take.