I am unpacking again in my cottage in Dufton in the Pennines. The backpack and most of its contents have been with me for 10 years. The boots crossed 3,000 miles before the waterproofing frayed. The down-jacket has served as my pillow in 500 different village houses between Turkey and Bangladesh and smells like it. So I should know what is in the pack. But I am checking for the third time in half an hour because underneath the waterproofs lies a woollen tie and a series of leaflets saying “As the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border … I will be spending the next few weeks walking through Cumbria”. I am no longer just a walker, I am a walking politician.

Six months ago I wasn’t even a member of the Conservative party because my jobs, briefly as a soldier, as a diplomat and the founder of a charity in Afghanistan, hadn’t allowed me to be involved in British politics. My work convinced me there was a widening gap between government rhetoric and reality from Britain to Baghdad. I wanted to help change the culture of government. So I put my name forward, after the expenses scandal, when David Cameron said he was prepared to have candidates who, like me, had never been involved in politics before.

I applied for Penrith and the Border in part because I found it the most beautiful place in England. But more than 300 others also applied. The “open primary” for the final six was held in Penrith Auction Mart. Anyone in the constituency, regardless of party, could ask questions and vote. When I stepped into the ring, the expressions of the farmers implied they had seen mule shearlings who would make better candidates and I don’t think they liked my answer on the liquid milk price. But, to my surprise, the people in that mart chose me. My friends and family were appalled: they predicted that I would soon be wrecked by some inevitable scandal before being spat out: bankrupt, frustrated, discredited and definitely still single.

I decided to begin by travelling around on foot. Almost a decade ago I learnt more in 21 months walking across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal than in the rest of my working life: feeling the soil and the distances, listening to everyone and, most importantly, staying the night in village houses to hear families talk. I learnt how distant my colleagues and I in government were from the lives of others. Our policy papers existed in a grotesque jargon space of misleading phrases about “transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes”. I had become more confident disagreeing with policy because my walk had showed me real people in real places. If a document claimed that “everyone is committed to a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state”, I could think of a particular man in a specific village and say “that is nonsense”.

Penrith and the Border is the largest and most sparsely populated constituency in England. Penrith, with a population of less than 15,000, is the largest town and almost all the remaining 50,000 voters live in small villages spaced over 1,200 square miles. When I set out, in the week before Christmas, I had much to learn. The village of Morland, for example, was not for me a living place: I had only half-seen it from a car. I had tended to visit the same friends and return to the same places. I had talked into the night in cold kitchens with friends who were farmers and businessmen about their work, but I had no idea how many members were on the district council.

I was nervous about knocking on people’s doors and saying “I am the prospective parliamentary candidate for . . .” (did it sound more natural to say Tory or Conservative party? There was something off about Rory the Tory). I assumed voters would want to know what I could achieve in Westminster and I expected to be interrogated on the financial deficit, overseas aid and the budget. My friend Tommy said: “It’s not like crossing Afghanistan. I’d call the police if someone looking like you knocked on my door at night. No one’s going to put you up. You’ll probably be mugged on the first day. I’d stick to the Taliban.”

On the first day I walked 15 miles through a mizzling rain. As I readjusted to the weight of my pack, I felt the sodden weight of the turf under my feet, became aware again of the silence and saw the wide sky silhouetted by bare hedgerows.

I arrived in Kirkby Stephen five minutes before the town council meeting at 2.30pm. In an Afghan village I would have gone through an elaborate ritual of greeting, sat cross-legged over glasses of tea, while the elders spoke and I dozily half-followed the conversation in Dari. In Kirkby Stephen I had to tie up my sodden boots and hobble with my pack between the community centre, the shops and the church hall for six meetings before the pub quiz at 9pm. I scored zero in the music round.

Instead of elaborate ritual, I had to focus on the new child protection centre, the lack of credit, the names of the councillors opposed to the plan to merge the parish with neighbouring Appleby. I recorded 50 new names in my notebook. Five people told me they hated Appleby because they were roundheads and Appleby was with the royalists in the civil war.

In three of those meetings people offered me a bed for the night without my even mentioning the subject. I have since been given a bed in a 17th-century house in the centre of Orton; in a cottage in Morland; in a medieval keep beyond Penrith; in a pub in Threlkeld; in a farmhouse above Pooley Bridge; and the GP put me up near Castle Carrock. As in Afghanistan, villagers often join me for sections of the walk. My companions have included a vicar, recently retired from the army, a painter who is chairwoman of her parish council, a trout fisherman, a man with a clothes shop, three school-leavers, a housewife, a B&B owner and a lurcher called Prospero.

Walking allows me to capture the spirit of a place in a way that I could not by car. Walking into Morland up the Vale of Lyvennet in the dark, I feel the gradient and hear the tumbling echo of the mill stream. Next day my host shows me the Saxon tower and explains about his mail-order business. We pass the new housing estate and half a mile outside the village meet Henry Strong, a powerful 75-year-old who has just been thrown into a beck, smashing his forehead, but is now out again milking cows, rubbing “the hole in my head”.

Eamont Bridge, down the road, had been flooded. I had seen, a month back, water swirling in kitchens and the wreck of a small chutney business that had been unable to afford insurance. I walk through again and attend a large community meeting, where I am shown how the riverbed has risen 6ft since they were banned from dredging it and see how the bridge contributed to the rise. I therefore have little sympathy with those on the higher ground beyond Penrith who say “Eamont Bridge always floods, what do they expect?”

Farmers are often the first and last people I meet in a village, generally with a greeting of “What are you going to do for farming?” History matters here. The small independent hill farmers are an old Cumbrian tradition. The farmers around Warcop were the first in Britain to buy out their feudal lord, run their own community and elect their own non-conformist priest.

After foot and mouth, which killed almost every animal in the constituency, people have restocked but have also begun to diversify. Wives have opened countless small new businesses. One employs seven in a chocolate pudding factory; another makes sheep’s wool insulation for roofs. More than 20% of those in the constituency are self-employed – almost the highest level in the country. Most of the rest work for small businesses. There is little unemployment; many do two or three jobs.

I meet a different audience when Derek, owner of the Bluebell bookshop in Penrith, asks me to do a reading. The questions are not about my books but “Why did you become a politician?”; “How am I supposed to vote Conservative?” In my most recent job, as a Harvard professor of human rights, I could joke about my ignorance and uncertainty. Now people want clarity and earnest answers: my conclusions, not my reasoning. One man loses his temper as soon as I mention politics: “I am being asked to pay more Vat and you lot are spending it on your expenses . . .” He is almost crying with fury and frustration.

From Newbiggin-on-Lune to Brampton, people gather in groups to meet me in their houses for lunch or supper. I leave my wet boots at the door and deliver political speeches in my socks. With experience, the speeches get shorter and shorter. The central lesson is to shut up and listen. Farmers are almost the only group to focus on national political programmes. Few people raise the financial deficit, overseas aid, the budget or Gordon Brown. Gary in Castle Carrock tells me he has never voted Conservative before but will vote for me simply because I am the first politician who has bothered to come to his village Things that strike me as priorities are not necessarily so to others. The mobile phone reception is worse in Cumbria than in Kabul. Email is very slow. But although people on doorsteps acknowledge the problem, it does not seem to excite them. Other things mystify me: why, when 99.5% of Cumbrians are recorded as “white”, am I told by a man in a Greystoke pub that the No 1 problem is immigration and sharia?

On the last day of walking before I break for Christmas, leaving Alston, the highest market town in England, a driver waves at me. It is Kirsty, the nurse, going to work in Carlisle. She would rather work locally but staff at Alston hospital have been cut and it has been at risk of closure. The out-of-hours GP surgery is 20 miles away.

I pass a covey of grouse in a field, their feathers puffed out against the sleet. Approaching 2,000ft I see red and blue lights, Mr Crabtree, the Alston policeman, and a gritter lying on its side by the ditch. The road to Penrith is blocked and walking suddenly has a more practical point because there is no other way to get to Croglin.

A gritter driver from Alston is watching, seemingly impervious to the blizzard. “How do? That truck is a piece of crap. No one understands what it’s like up here. The Unimog was the right bit of kit – I told ’em.”

“Why did they get rid of it?” I ask.

“Don’t ask me. I’m only paid to think from the neck down. Forgot your skis?”

Walking has given me more than I hoped: living in Cumbrian homes and experiencing the great distances between communities. It allows me to learn from a hundred people I might never have encountered by car. But it has not provided neat solutions. It is easy to see they should have listened to the gritter driver about his truck – but I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district. This is not just about an individual’s decisions, it is about budget lines and regulation insurance and a whole way of looking at the world. I realise that to change government needs not just cutting regulations or giving parishes control of money, but also shifting an entire public culture over decades.

This is not Afghanistan, with officials behind security walls, doing short tours, making extravagant decisions about people whose language and culture they barely comprehend. The people I meet are able to fight for things they value and understand. From Brampton, where a woman tells me of the 30-ton boulders that the council laid in a car park – “as though there had been a meteor shower over night” – and her campaign “to get them back to Mars”; to a parish councillor 50 miles away who had got round council rules by laying the access ramp to the working men’s club himself at night, Cumbrians are balancing their tolerance for government with acts of initiative and subversion.

The snow powder is light but 2ft deep dropping down the next 1,400ft from Hartside, making the going slow. Crossing a bridge at Ricker Gill, I panic a flock of Swaledale sheep, burrowing beneath the snow. At Haresceugh, where the buildings’ fine masonry suggests they were made from the castle ruins, I shout at a barn door. Mr Dixon emerges in a Russian tank commander’s cap.

“Walked from Alston on a day like this? Conservative candidate? Monster Raving Loony more like.”


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