Alex Roddie reviews a great new book by Chris Townsend – perhaps the author’s best yet.
This review was first published in the October 2018 issue of The Great Outdoors.
The latest book by Chris Townsend is about division and unification, about a thread that separates one half of Scotland from the other while binding the country, its landscapes, and its people together. The concept of the Watershed is simple: a continuous line, from the southern border to the north coast, that marks the boundary between water flowing west towards the Atlantic and east towards the North Sea. The Watershed passes through hugely diverse landscapes from the Southern Uplands to the Central Lowlands, the Highlands, and the Flow Country. It’s a line some 1,200km in length with an average altitude of roughly 450m, crossing 44 Munros and 24 Corbetts. Chris Townsend set out to walk it in the summer of 2015.
Although the Watershed was first hiked by Dave Hewitt in 1987, it received little attention until Peter Wright’s landmark Ribbon of Wildness in 2010. Peter Wright was a major source of inspiration for Chris Townsend, and they actually walked together at the start of Chris’s route.
This author has written many books on long-distance walking, some classics, but I found Along the Divide uniquely enjoyable. This is not just a book about a big walk. It’s written in a conversational, almost companionable style, as if you’re sitting beside a roaring fire swapping stories with the author, and as you might expect in such a context there are frequent tangents and digressions – all of them interesting and relevant to the story. The Watershed lends itself well to metaphors. Politics, conservation and history all get plenty of airtime in this book, alongside the lovely descriptions of landscape and insights into Chris Townsend’s hiking style. But these important topics are not mere chitchat: Chris Townsend makes a compelling case for restoring and enhancing upland habitats, protecting wildlife, safeguarding access rights, and much more. I feel that the writing is more immediate (perhaps more opinionated) than in some of this author’s other books.
Along the Divide treads that skilful line between serious, important landscape writing and a damned good tale that you can kick back and read for the pleasure of reading. This quote from the book sums it up for me:
Looking back, I saw the Watershed as a spine that holds the Scottish mainland landscape together. Everything runs from this twisting, turning line of high, wild land… Long-distance walking changes lives and, in this case, it made me aware of the Watershed and aware of the need to conserve it in a way I hadn’t felt just by reading about it.
Along the Divide: Walking the Wild Spine of Scotland by Chris Townsend is published by Sandstone Press (£9.99, 20 September 2018)