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Marina Lewycka, A Walk With The FT, The FT Magazine

“I’d more or less given up and giving up took the anxiety out of it. I no longer had this idea of being an author with a capital A.”

The sky over Stanage Edge is cloudless. A ribbed jet trail mirrors the Edge’s uneven, four mile cliff line. Downslope, Marina Lewycka arrives in the Dennis Knoll car park.

She used to walk in the Peak District every weekend but then success intervened. In 2005 her first published novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, came out and, at 58, the Sheffield Hallam University lecturer became a million-selling novelist. Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue, and now Various Pets Alive and Dead followed, but so have publicity tours, literary festivals, less walking time.

In the car park, Lewycka offers me half her prawn sandwich then explains the difference between this, north Derbyshire’s Dark Peak, and south Derbyshire’s White Peak. “Up here it’s millstone grit, it is dark and sinister; down there it’s chalk, limestone, like white bones in the earth.”

We leave on a sandy track to begin one of her favourite walks: from the moorland of Stanage Edge to the valley village of Hathersage, taking in an 18th-century packhorse trail, North Lees Hall (Charlotte Brontë’s inspiration for the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre), the grave of Little John, he of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, and afternoon tea.

The track curves between bracken, heather and shed-sized boulders, to cliffs like half-formed Easter Island statues. Walking helps Lewycka’s writing. “It’s time to mull things over in my head or try out conversations and bring disconnected bits of plot together.”

It’s hot. 4×4 tracks mark the ground. “You come for a day of soul-building, and they are in a convoy, lumbering around. Sometimes I shout at them. They treat me as a mad woman, best ignored.”

We crest the Edge, absorb the view, south through mist to Hathersage and west to Winhill (we decide after wind-battered map reading). The Packhorse Trail’s doglegs take us down to rest by a birch wood. Marina offers me a prawn sandwich again, only stopping when I accept a banana.

What builds her soul here? “The grandness of the landscapes, the – ” She is interrupted by a dog walker’s hard-eyed bull terrier, which sniffs her sandwich. Lewycka gives it a cheery pat and genial “Off you go!”

“When you worry about reviews or publications, whether you’ve said the right thing, you come here and everything seems insignificant. It’s almost like a meditation to sit still and go through your senses.” Metal clinks from climbers on the cliffs. “The texture of the rock and the air. How shadows are picked out.”

Senses sharpened, the Packhorse Trail leads us down valley. Hedges replace drystone walls; grass replaces heather. North Lees Hall, the same grey millstone grit as the Edge, emerges square from trees, a blunt tower on top. It was built by Catholic landowners, the Eyres. Lewycka looks around for their ruined chapel, burnt in the Reformation. No ruin, or people, in sight, we approach the heavy wooden door of the Hall (now a holiday let).

She whispers, “If you wanted to be brave you could stand on a chair and peer through a window.” Wobbling on a garden chair, I see comfy holiday fittings; no Jane, Rochester or mad first wife. Lewycka contemplates the tower, and Charlotte Bronte’s mind. “Imagine seeing that and thinking, ‘Ahh: mad woman, locked up, sets the whole place on fire’.”

The very English valley closes in towards Hathersage. Does Lewycka, born in a German camp to Ukrainian refugees, value life here more than the native-born? “It’s true, you look at things and you look for things. Being an immigrant, you want to learn to fit in, so it makes you very observant.”

In the graveyard of Hathersage parish church we stop. “Now this is Little John’s Grave, notable above all for the parking meter, for people to make donations.” It stands next to an eleven foot grave, whose headstone states Little John died in a nearby cottage. “I’m sure it’s mainly here for the tourists.”

Heading for tea and talking religion, we pass the Georgian vicarage where Charlotte Bronte stayed (between inspiring walks). “If I was anything, I’d be a Quaker. When you are in a landscape like this it does make me think of the Quaker saying, ‘There is that of God in everyone and also that of God in everything’”.

Like the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins?

“I adore Hopkins. But do you know the Mystic Henry Vaughan? ‘I saw Eternity the other night/ Like a great ring of pure and endless light…’” Energized, her slight Yorkshire accent strengthens “…Like a vast shadow moved; in which the world/ And all her train were hurled.’”

We sit by the gnomes in the garden of Cintra’s Tea Room. The success of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian surprised her. “I’d more or less given up and giving up took the anxiety out of it. I wrote a more light-hearted book than before. I no longer had this idea of being an author with a capital A.”

We take Baulk Lane back up the valley, birdsong replacing traffic. Literary life has drawbacks: A Short History’s portrayal of two sisters increased the distance between Lewycka and hers. “It’s very difficult. It’s terrible curse being a friend or family member of an author because you inevitably draw on your own life, even without realising you are doing it.”

And the literary festivals that keep her from the Peaks can be boring. “But you get to hang out with writers because otherwise, writing, you can be on your own for hours and hours, in your own head, which isn’t good.”

The sun is low as we enter The Warren wood, the air cool. We take stepping stones wide as kitchen tables across Hood Brook. “This is almost my favourite part of the walk. This and up here, these industrial remains.” She leads up stone steps to a long dark mill pond crowded by trees. “This is a magical spot. See how still it is. How it was used in industrial life I have no idea. I’m not sure anyone does. It makes you realise industry is quite ephemeral.” Industrial decline haunts Lewycka’s new book too, but of a contemporary kind. “It’s gone but in a much uglier way.”

Drystone walls replace hedges. Stanage Edge looms, still in sun. We climb the final stile. “Nothing much else matters here. It’s those lovely lines of Wordsworth, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks, and stones, and trees.” That’s a good way to finish.”

23 March 2012

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