Tops of the North is a delightful and esoteric romp across the north that never takes you quite where you expect it to.
Normally accounts of long distance walks focus on the author’s specific experience – on their companions, their mental state, their physical sufferings. There is hardly any of that here; passing mentions of a leg infection or of stepping off the bank into the midst of a racing stream make it clear there’s a fascinating story to be told, but Wilson has other priorities, repeatedly leading the narrative away from his own experience.
Wilson turns to other areas of interest, using the walk to navigate his way through a series of interesting stories and anecdotes for each location. There is little evocative description of landscape or place, but instead his attention is caught by many aspects of local history and myth. I’m not overly familiar with many of the areas Wilson travelled through, but the stories he recounts are fascinating and I enjoyed learning about the history of these areas. It can only be more interesting for those who know the landscape well.
The narrative reads like a long conversation with Wilson, not always entirely focused but following a series of interesting and unusual diversions. Wilson takes you on a merry wander through places of significance and places long forgotten, meandering between villages and moorland, hill and valley, climbing history and ghost stories, discussions of linguistic origin and hand-drawn maps. Wilson unhesitatingly follows any tangent that grabs his interest, strolling off to a discussion on Wuthering Heights that threatens to verge into a full-scale literary critique, then falling straight back to his walk on Crow Hill.
Particular highlights were the journey across the Durham moors – one of the few places Wilson seems to find truly captivating, letting himself get drawn into a rare few sentences of description – and a historical snippet of how men used to knit whilst walking to pass the time. Tops of the North II might verge into the occasional ramble but it’s certainly never boring; Wilson’s storytelling makes for an entertaining and informative read.
Predominantly climbing/outdoors literature, mountaineering history and nature writing.