Was there one formative moment as a youngster that made you love the outdoors or was it a gradual experience?
When I was very small I was slightly obsessed with an area across the road from my Nan’s house in Wigan that we called ‘The Flashes’. It’s been reclaimed and improved now into a pretty leisure area with yachting club and such but back then it was just a bleak but mysterious stretch of post industrial wasteland; vast fishing lakes, gravel pits, slagheaps. It was no-one’s idea of beautiful but it was weirdly alluring and I would often wander off there and have to be brought back by anxious search parties. That feeling about the outdoors has always stayed with me; what’s around that hillside, where does that path go, what does this blank part of the map look like when you’re actually there.
Where do you particularly like to walk?
Anywhere, everywhere. But my absolute favourite places are Shetland, The Lake District, Cornwall and the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.
Ramblers are currently bigging up city walks. Any recommendations?
I like a good canal walk. There are loads around the Midlands and Worcestershire. Try the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship Canals from Salford into Manchester on a summer’s evening ending up in a Castlefield beer garden, or a circuit of the city walls of Chester.
You’ve often looked at walking as a form of protest – you were involved with Kinder Scout commemorations and your latest book the Long Road From Jarrow also charted a protest. Can it still make a difference?
Absolutely. Physical presence and physical action are still the most striking and direct expressions of protest and engagement. It’s collective and healthy and social. The act of putting one foot in front of another is invigorating and empowering.
As the president of the Ramblers, what do you see at the key challenges facing walkers and outdoor enthusiasts?
Access is my big thing. The British countryside is a birthright that’s been encroached upon and stolen from us from the enclosures onwards. The right to take the air in a landscape their families have worked for, and sometimes fought and died for, is an absolute right for British people I feel. I respect people’s privacy and private property within reason. But the idea of hills, forests and rivers belonging to individuals or companies is anathema to me.
Has there been a truly great song/album about hillwalking?
I love Winter Hill by Doves. The chorus really gives a feel of the exultance and wildness of high lonely places. And everyone from my part of the world knows Winter Hill. It’s our Skiddaw, our Matterhorn. And who doesn’t enjoy that part about wage slavery in Ewan McColl’s Manchester. There’s far too little about wage slavery and the ownership of the means of production on Ed Sheeran’s last album. I hope he corrects this on the next one.
Why is it important to get young people into the outdoors?
I think it’s important for everyone. It encourages us to abandon the self-absorption and entitlement that I think modern technological culture has created. You’re not really that bothered about a Twitter spat when you’re on Sharp Edge or getting a face full of spray on Lizard Point. The outdoors connects us with older, deeper ways of being and moving. Also, like Whitney Houston, I believe the children are our future. Children and robots.
Who are your dream walking companions?
My family and friends, my late little dog Muffin, Nile Rodgers, Abba, JB Priestley, Sean and James from the Manic Street Preachers, Vaughan Williams, George Orwell, Clive James, Marina Hyde, Caitlin Moran, Alan Bennett…