Music journalist Stuart Maconie takes us on a tour around Britain's countryside, while talking about his new book, Never Mind The Quantocks
During a 25-year-career, ex-NME journalist Stuart Maconie has rubbed shoulders with some of the most iconic British bands, including Arctic Monkeys and The Stone Roses. More recently, he's been co-hosting the Radcliffe & Maconie Show on BBC Radio 6 Music and authored the best-selling treatise on the north, Pies & Prejudice.
Stuart's passion for pulling on his hiking boots and rambling through Britain’s landscapes is the feature of his monthly column in Country Walking, of which 50 have been selected and compiled his latest book, Never Mind The Quantocks.
Wanderlust's Tom Hawker talks to Stuart about the wonderful facets of walking, glove-thievery on a photo shoot with The Stone Roses and the triumphs of his Country Walking column.
How did you first get into walking?
I grew up in the North West, so I'd always gone to the Lake District with mates, fishing, drinking beer and camping. Then one day my wife told me that she'd like to go to the Lake District. I blindly replied that I knew the Lake District like the back of my hand.
But when we got there, she asked me the name of a mountain and I had no idea. I realised that I knew the pubs but I'd never lifted my hind up to the hillside. So we bought some cheap gear from Grasmere post office and pootled to Helvellyn.
When we got to the top I looked through the Wainwright viewfinder and it was a completely different world up there – something that most people never got a chance to see.
And then I just got that buzz – “Where could this all go?”
At the time I was working for the NME so my day job was travelling all over the world with rock bands, which was huge fun of course. But that wasn't the life I wanted on my days off. The Lake District was the perfect solution.
But that was it. After the Lake District, I never really looked back.
Why do you think walking has become so popular over the last few years? Do you think it's an austerity thing?
Absolutely. Many people can't afford to go abroad any more. I've also noticed that that walking is no longer seen as a preserve of beardy types in Aran jumpers. I think getting out-and-about and experiencing your own country is now seen as quite cool. Or that could just be me getting a bit older!
People are so used to the idea of going on exotic holidays when in reality there is so much to discovered in the UK.
I like a bit of that – the picture postcard places. But I love the bleakness of the Peak District, getting stuck with bog up to my knees.
Yesterday I hopped on a train to Cumbria from Manchester and the rain was lashing down. The mist was down and the river was brown and churning. It really did look terribly inhospitable and yet my first thought was, ‘Cor, I wish I was out there!’
Your enthusiasm really comes through your Country Walking columns…
You never feel worse for getting out, even if it's just for an hour. I think it clears your head doesn't it? You get a great perspective from walking and there seems to be something about the act of putting one foot in front of the other that generates ideas and thoughts.
What I also love about the trips is that you really get to know someone when you go walking. There's the sort that puts their head down and dashes on, and then there's the other that ambles and looks around. I think walking gives real insight into a person's character.
Does it ever get tricky to come up new ideas for the column?
Not really. When I'm out and about, what I tend to do is, I say 'Oh, that'll be good for my next column' and I'll make a note of it.
It took me a while to realise that you can write about whatever you want. Originally I felt like I had to write about a specific place or a specific thing. But then I began to realise you can take a more lateral approach. So these day I might just write about a topic like packing, what to eat or the best boots, as opposed to a specific walk.
Do your more revolutionary ideas – bottles of wine, radios, etc – ever ruffle the feathers of the Aran-jumper Brigade?
No. Perhaps Country Walking gets sacks of mail saying please stop this half whit with his drivel. But all I ever get is nice stuff. Just the other day this geezer clocked me. He said 'Excuse me' – and I thought he was going to say 'Are you Stuart Maconie off the radio?' or 'Stuart Maconie who writes books?' - and he said 'Are you the bloke who writes in Country Walking?' He recognised me from my picture in the magazine!
What walks would you recommend for a newcomer?
I'm a little biased, but if you want to experience everything the English landscape has to offer, then go to the Lake District. It's got pretty villages, beautiful lakes, rugged mountains and luscious forests. It's so wild. Plus it's easy to get to and pretty much everywhere you turn, there's something amazing.
Having said that, my new love is coastal walks. You cannot fail to be bored with the ocean in sight; the sea is there all the time as you're walking and it's always changing. Cornwall is stunning but it's a bit hard to get to, it's the end of the world really.
The Radcliffe & Maconie radio show is big on cheese. Is there a cheese made purely for walking?
Well, Radcliffe and I had our own cheese made on the Jurassic Coast Walk! The Radcliffe & Maconie cheese is made in Devon and it's a strong, mature cheddar. You don't want anything runny or smelly in your rucksack.
How is Radcliffe as a walking companion?
His idea of a good walk would be if we covered a lot of miles. That's slightly different from me. I can do 15 miles in a day but I can also quite happily do two miles and keep stopping, especially on a summer’s day.
I think that focusing on covering miles can be really off putting for some people. I hate when you see a married couple out on walk and he's got his head down in the map yomping off and you see the poor wife bedraggled 500 yards behind. It's supposed to be fun!
So what is the correct way to celebrate climbing all 214 Wainwrights?
The way to do it is to spend a small fortune – well, that's not fair, my mates will think I'm mean if they read this – on hiring a miniature-stately home in the Lake District called Blenheim Tarn and invite all your mates who've ever been on a walk with you. And then go to the Angel Lane Chippie and order Fish & Chips 22 times.
I left a real toughie till last, which was Kirk Fell. And it much tougher than we'd thought. Jonathan Manning, my editor from Country Walking came with us. He had to get us out of scrapes a few times with his GPS.
The sense of achievement was incredible. If you go the back route of Kirk Fell, which I did for safety reasons, it's a long, long slog. It was a big day in every sense. By the evening we were all kind of knackered and elated.
In terms of travelling, you must have some pretty fun tales from your NME days. Didn't you do go on the iconic photo shoot up the Eiger with The Stone Roses?
I did. That was probably the most amazing of my NME memories.
We flew to Zurich and then took a train to Grindelwald up into the mountains. As you imagine it was very cold and I'd not come prepared at all. I was standing around with my teeth chattering while the pictures were being taken. The guitarist John Squire gave me his gloves and I didn't give him them back. I remember thinking in a terrible way that if they did become bigger than The Beatles, they'd be quite a nice artefact to have. Of course, The Stone Roses are legendary but, regardless, I'm not going to put his gloves on eBay.
Stuart Maconie's new book, Never Mind The Quantocks (D&C, £10.99) is available to buy now. Wanderlust readers can order the new book £8.99 – through The Hobby Warehouse – simply quote code R314 upon checkout or call on 0844 8805851
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