High hills and holidays

S.P.B. Mais was another prolific writer and promoter of walking and travel. Like Morton, Mais was a journalist, and had also worked on the Daily Express newspaper, as a book reviewer and leader writer.

Mais claimed to have walked over most of England. He wanted people to stuff their pockets with maps, “to wander about at home” in Britain and published his first travel book, See England First, in 1927. [1] He went on to write many books promoting travel and popular walks, especially using the railways.

In 1932, the BBC commissioned Mais to travel through England, Scotland, and Wales, and to describe his experience in seventeen radio broadcasts. The talks were gathered, and published in a book titled This Unknown Island.

In a relentless schedule, visiting a new area each week, setting out on Thursdays, returning by Saturdays, compressing all he had seen into a 20 minute talk given each Monday, he covered 15,000 miles, avoiding well known places like the Lake District and “the well-known South” on purpose. [2]

History and literature

He obeyed instinct. Each place he visited was a gamble, relatively unknown at the time, and no place let him down.

He travelled, and took his walks in winter. He travelled by car, bus, and train, and he walked whenever he could, always in touch with history. But it was an older, less political history than the one we have today, less social, more personal, stories of families, wives and husbands, daughters and sons, of legends and ancient kings and Kett’s rebellion and Withburga, youngest daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles, who became Saint Withburga.

It’s a kind of history that many would wish to see back in our teaching today.

He was also always in touch with traditional British literature, visiting places linked with Milton, Spenser, Austen, Scott, Hardy and Burns, and many more.

People accompanied and guided him; the daughter of an innkeeper, a gamekeeper, a blacksmith, drivers, and bus drivers. They were hospitable times and people often helped without expecting payment.

Foreign and strange

He was given a ride on a lorry. He drove himself. He took buses. But he walked when he could in Dorset, Shropshire, Lancashire, Somerset, Derbyshire, Ayrshire and many more places.

He gives us a glimpse of travel in a world that is lost, where where men carried coracles on their backs in Carmarthenshire, where he could get a cup of milk or a drink of water from the farms he passed, where food was localised and where local accents and dialects were confusing.

His book today creates nostalgia but he never saw it that way. He always avoids sentiment. For him his home land was a strange island, as foreign and strange as anywhere.

Off the beaten path

He was a lover of high hills. He wanted to stimulate his readers and listeners to explore and rediscover Britain and he enjoyed enormous success. Thousands flocked to take up the travel he promoted including those who joined and stayed in youth hostels.

On one occasion he ran a night train from London so that people could climb the South Downs to watch the sunrise. On the first occasion forty walkers were expected and 1440 turned up.

He never stayed in a youth hostel but he was a YHA member because, as he wrote in support of hostels in the first YHA magazine, he supported the kind of holidays that transformed people, that avoided the bandstand and the beach.

He didn’t dislike seaside holidays or Blackpool, but he thought enough people promoted those places and holidays.

He aimed for something entirely different, a style of travel that he admired as much as he admired youth hostels, because he wanted adventure, off the beaten track, travel that came with a sense of revelation and exhilaration.

Notes.

The image above, courtesy YHA Archive, was used by YHA on a poster and in a monochrome format as a cover for its first magazine. It bears an intriguing resemblance to a Southern Railways poster used to promote Mais’ walking books, a link I’ve never been able to properly make.


Bibliography

  1. Mais, S.P.B., This Unknown Island, Putnam Press, London, 1932.
  2. See England First, Richards, London, 1926
  3. Rucksack Magazine, Winter, 1932
  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

References

  1. p 36 See England First
  2. p 373 This Unknown Island

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