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Walking Across Northern England With ‘One Day’ Author, David Nicholls

Walking Across Northern England With ‘One Day’ Author, David Nicholls

David Nicholls has been one of my favorite authors since I sobbed through One Day, which was recently made into a #1 tearjerker of a Netflix series. His new novel, You Are Here, takes a completely different turn and, in fact, Nicholls himself calls it “my funniest book yet.”

As a reader, I was engrossed. As a travel writer, I was intrigued by the Coast to Coast Walk, a 16 day, 192 mile hike through the English countryside that I had never heard of before. I studied the maps that accompanied each chapter and read more about the route and its history after following the book’s characters, Marnie and Michael, as they make their way across England, finding themselves and each other along the way.

I reached out to Nicholls to learn more about the famous walk that provides the framework for a page-turning novel with as many twists and turns as the trail itself.

Here’s what he had to say:

First, congratulations on another great book. I felt like I was really on the journey with Marnie and Michael and I could envision all the places and landscapes they were experiencing. To me, that’s the sign of a very special book – it’s so vivid, it totally takes you away and makes you forget you’re actually just sitting in your house. That’s something your books do brilliantly. Plus, as someone whose husband walked the Camino de Santiago three times, it made me feel like I had accomplished a walk without having to exert myself so thank you for that.

Thank you! That’s very generous and hugely appreciated.

Why did you choose to set this story around 1) a walk and 2) specifically the Coast to Coast Walk?

A walk is a kind of story, I think. A structure, different acts, literal twists and turns and changes in pace. A long walk, in particular, has dynamics, a forward momentum and motivation, a destination that may not be the one intended. I loved the idea of the terrain and weather reflecting the mood, and the Coast to Coast fits the brief perfectly: the right length for the story, a variety of terrain, a clearly defined beginning and end and even a three-act structure – the Lakes, the Dales, the Moors – that matches the mood. There’s a symbolism to the C2C, a very clear beginning and end, like a belt across England, and a mythology and set of traditions too; the pebble that you carry across, the ritual of dipping your boot in both seas. It’s the perfect setting – epic, varied, often beautiful, sometimes grim but always at the right time in the story.

Are you a walker yourself?

I wasn’t growing up and certainly not in my twenties. In my thirties, I’d go on walking holidays with my children until they rebelled and refused to leave the city, so now I walk alone – a revelation! I don’t have to worry about weather or the distance (I like to walk 20-25 miles a day, depending on terrain. Kids do not enjoy this) and I’m free of the obligation of conversation, wonderful though that can be. There’s a physical challenge of course – walking is just about the only physical activity I can do well – but what I really relish is the time spent alone, thinking, listening to music, reading quietly in the evenings, sleeping well.

Tell us about some of your favorite walks.

I don’t always love coast walks, which can get a little dull, but the Northumberland Coastal Path is beautiful, with vast empty beaches, castles, a unique atmosphere and not too many tourists. Also, a lesser known route, the Dales High Way, is a beautiful diagonal path from Skipton, outside Leeds, to Appleby in Cumbria. An absolute beauty.

Have you done the Coast to Coast Walk yourself? Details, please!

Very much so! I can’t imagine writing the book without that experience, though family duties meant that I had to break it down into three sections. It’s lovely, especially the early sections in the Lakes. There are, I think, better ways to cross the Yorkshire Dales, and the stretch before the North York Moors is one of the most boring walks I’ve ever been on, but the best bits are quite beautiful. I’ve never been more cold, wet and angry than when descending into Honister Pass, but I now have no regrets about it at all.

What’s your favorite section of the Coast to Coast? Why?

The ascent out of Borrowdale in the Lakes. Some claim that it’s the most beautiful spot in England, though it’s also the wettest part of the country and I don’t think I’ve ever left it with dry socks.

What are some interesting/surprising things you learned while researching the walk?

It was devised by Alfred Wainwright – the titan of British hiking – in the early 70s as his preferred route from west to east though, of course, there are all kinds of diversions and alternative routes. Usually a two-week trip, I was wary of being away too long so I did it in eleven very long, tiring, wet days. It’s hardly a secret – thousands of people do it every year – but I love the symbolism and the traditions associated with it. You have to pick up a pebble in St Bees and bring to it Robin Hood’s Bay and dip your toes in the sea when you start and finish. It’s wonderful to sit in the bar of the Bay Inn and watch the other coast-to-coasters walk down the slipway to throw their stones into the North Sea. Like completing a marathon, it’s emotional in an entirely unexpected way.

For your chapters, how did you decide how to break up the walk by days? Did you choose the specific locations of each day to say something about what’s happening in the story?

Certain story beats were preordained, others took their inspiration from the landscape and the experience of the walk. That terrible climb in the rain – even as I stumbled and crawled, I thought, well, I can use this. The novelist’s privilege, I suppose. There’s a wonderful small lake on the fourth day, Angle Tarn, and that immediately suggested Michael and Marnie’s attempt at wild swimming. The duller stretches meant that, like the characters, I had to come up with something interesting for them to talk about. So the mountains and the rain and the motorways all chipped in with story ideas.

If readers want to copy Marnie and Michael’s walk, could they follow that same path/schedule? I know you said you made up the restaurants, hotels and pubs along the way – were those wishful thinking or are there other actual options available for walkers?

Yes! I love the idea of people reading and walking at the same time, though some of the days are very, very long. Day three in the novel is really a combination of two walks, so that’s a twelve hour hike. But someone reasonably fit, setting off early each morning, could follow the schedule, though they’d need to think carefully about accommodations. While it’s hard to ever feel entirely lost on this densely-packed island, there are a couple of stretches which are really quite remote and, as in the novel, some of the options are quite … basic.

In your book, Us, the journey itself is also an important part of the story. What do you like about using travel to help tell a story? How does travel impact or reveal something about a relationship?

I’ve always been able to point to a map and say, ‘It happened here.’ It’s like finding the right location for a film, and even if I don’t overload the text with research, it helps me hugely to know the backdrop. Us came out of the press tour for One Day. It my first encounter with a lot of Europe, and while it was undoubtedly a privilege to see those places, there’s exhaustion in travel too – the early starts, the coffee breath, the perpetual sense of running for a connection. I feel that a relationship that can survive a grand tour of Europe, as in Us, or a 200-mile hike must be in pretty good shape. The hours and hours of conversation, the inevitable frustration and disappointment, the missed turnings and dull stretches – a long journey is a relationship in condensed form and perhaps that’s why I find it more relaxing – or at least less stressful – to travel alone.

I love that Marnie and Michael get to know each other through their playlists. Music is such an important part of travel. Can you share some of the tunes on your personal playlist?

Well, I’m a little shy about this because the music I listen to when walking is quite … personal. It’s a playlist called Private Pleasures and it can clear a party faster than any compilation you’ve ever heard – a potent mix of Kate Bush B-sides, eight minute prog-rock epics, jangly eighties art-pop, Sondheim, Krautrock and the Jesus Christ Superstar movie soundtrack. Singing along to Yvonne Elliman’s performance of I Don’t Know How To Love Him in the rain on the North York Moors – awful, but also bliss.

Will you get a chance to actually travel now on a book tour or just for pleasure? What’s topping your travel bucket list now?

I’ve used all my travel days for this year I think, and I’m also wary of returning to the Coast-to-Coast. Writing about a subject, then talking about it at length has the unfortunate side effect of removing all its appeal. But I’ve barely walked outside England so perhaps that’s next. The West Highland Way, the Camino in Spain, the Dolomites – I feel like I’ve barely started.


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