Troubador The Opening Country

Petersfield Shine Radio - Talking books with John Micklewright - October 2021

Released: 28/03/2021

ISBN: 9781800461277

eISBN: 9781800469204

Format: Paperback/eBook

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Author Website

The Opening Country

A Walk Through France


In this journey of discovery, John Micklewright travels the slow way, on foot, on paths, tracks and byways from the Channel to the Alps – from the coast of Normandy to the flanks of Mont Blanc. 

The Opening Country is a beautifully written account of his progress through the French countryside, an evocative patchwork of landscape, nature, history, literature, film, and – drawing on his father’s diaries that stretch back to the 1930s – of memoir. 

Always curious, absorbing all around him, ready on a whim to divert from his chosen route as he heads unhurriedly southwards. The natural world unfolds as spring turns to summer with surprises of bird song and butterflies, against a constant background of reminders of the economic and social story of rural France and of wars past. The result is an engrossing record of a classic long-distance walk through Britain’s nearest continental neighbour.  

The Opening Country is a book to fire the imagination – a call to travel slowly, to open eyes and ears, to discover and explore.

Photos from my walk through France can be seen on the blog that I kept at the time:

French Property News

France Magazine

Hampshire Chronicle

This is a charmingly understated book describing the journey on foot by John Micklewright as he crosses France from The Channel to Italy. Following to some extent a route made by his father some years before, the author takes us on his travels. The beauty of the book is the balance between personal anecdotes interwoven with historical and geographical facts - not in a lecturing manner but gently interspersed within the descriptions of sights and sounds. By the end of the book, you feel as though as you’ve been on the journey and feel the desire to grab a rucksack and walking boots and get moving. In the time of COVID-19 this is a book that lifts the spirits and brings a glimmer of future travel inspiration.

by NetGalley review

Lovely prose and beautifully descriptive, replete with flora and fauna. Good stock of history. If you are charmed by France, you will be charmed by this book - good one to add to your collection.

by Amazon review

What an engaging companion for a long walk through France, especially during lockdown. The pages are packed with friends and family, birds and butterflies, unsettling commentary and history of points en route, food and drink and lots more. I thoroughly recommend this book to Francophile walkers - and everyone else.

by Jill Saltmarsh

A wonderful read I really enjoyed following the author on his walk.He shares personal comments history and geography.His father at one point made this walk and he in a certain byway is following in his path.A view of French people of the country he walks through.Since I’m reading this during COVID It’s a lovely way to leave my home and travel to France.

by NetGalley review

Engaging and interesting account of the author’s walk across France with his father’s comments from decades before as occasional guide and companion. Elegantly written, the author shows a keen appreciation of the natural world- especially butterflies- conveying a vivid impression of the countryside he passes through. Highly recommended!

by Kate Brice

The Opening Country is a book which is exactly the type of non fiction, travelogue/memoir that I love to read. The premise is simple, the author has walked from the north coast of France, right down through the country, across the Alps and into Italy. I have nothing negative to say about the book. These are the things I most liked:

It is very well written. John Micklewright is an academic and has written throughout his career and I think it is obvious in the book that he is an experienced writer. There is a sentimental aspect - he reflects on childhood holidays in France and refers to his father's diaries and memories of his father's love of France. The journey is aspirational in several ways. The time taken to make the journey, the distance covered and the non obvious route taken. Observations of nature along the way are quite frequent. I particularly enjoyed the mention of the birds and butterflies seen along the route. Literary references appear throughout and are wide ranging. War and Peace seems unlikely to be mentioned in a book such as this and yet it sits in the narrative in a very natural, appropriate and amusing way! History is not a particular interest of mine, but I do admire the extent of research undertaken for the author to write knowledgably about war memorials, buildings passed and even lavoirs in rural villages. The bibliography for the book is extraordinary.

If you like to read about walking alone or with a friend, through countryside, alongside rivers and canals, through woodlands, farmyards, up hills and across mountains, then I highly recommend this book. It is perfect for anyone who enjoys reading Bill Bryson, Robert McFarlane, Patrick Barkham or similar. Prior to the book, there was a blog, which can still be found on the internet. The blog is worth a look too, to see the author's photographs.

by Amazon review

Lucky man! I'd love to just walk across a country and see where my feet take me. Lovely read. I do enjoy books like these. I can live vicariously as they are so well written, one feels like they are right there! Wonderful for all the shut in days we have been experiencing over the past year. Actually, walking across even a state would be pleasant, and probably safe to do! I'd love to walk across France, or Spain, or England....! adding to my bucket list!

by NetGalley review

There is something for everyone in this book and depending how much of it is 'for you' will depend how much you enjoy it!

I loved the travel aspects -who wouldn't want to walk across France, amazing. and the same with the language/linguistic elements as this is very much 'my bag'. I enjoyed how the author teases out where some of the names of places, objects, animals etc came from and why.
I also found the historical references, to war, economic development and more extremely insightful and interesting - not sure this would be to everybody's taste however.

For me lengthy and tedious referrals back and across to other writers and texts spoils a reading book - I'm delighted to see them in a reference text but this isn't what I pick up a 'bedtime' book to find. This was also the case for me with the seriously detailed descriptions of butterflies...several pages at times on one 'spotted' critter.

What I developed for this book was a new reading style - selective skipping - so I could whizz through the literature and lepidoptera lessons and concentrate on the aspects that made me smile and piqued my interest.
Hence why I think everyone could take something from the book and I would recommend giving it a go.

by NetGalley review

The book describes a walk across France from the channel to Mont Blanc. It is beautifully written and captures the atmosphere, sounds and sights seen from walking. Bird song, butterflies and the countryside are all there, with the villages and towns all brought into the context of their history. I was not sure at first but by the end I could not put it down. Not often the effect of a travelogue! Bravo!

by Amazon review

Just finished this and it is brilliant. It is a wonderful mix of local histories (I am very curious to know more about the child who escaped the Nazis by jumping out the window in Izieu), meditations on walking and being alone, the author's relationship with his father and (of course) butterflies. Told with wit and humour. I am not much of a walker myself but this is enough to get me off the sofa and out the door! The perfect salve for those missing travel and adventure. Read it and experience the “vertiginous freedom” of a walker at a crossroads.

by Amazon review

John Micklewright’s book is a delight to read. His long walk from Ouistreham to Mont Blanc takes him along a succession of Grandes Randonnées (GRs) and mysterious byways. He flavours his story with fascinating pieces of the history of WW2, insights into the evolution of French agriculture and the shift of population from small communes to larger towns, snippets of French literature and comments on the birds and butterflies he meets on the way. The closer he gets to Mont Blanc, the more I found myself regretting that his memorable journey was nearing its end.

by Waterstones review

What was most inspiring about this book was the way in which the Author weaves a poignant mosaic of modern day France, by mixing his detailed knowledge of the historical and economic developments it has gone through since its revolutionary days, with his enjoyment of nature and the simple delights of walking across its countryside, towns and villages all the way to his final destination. This is without any scripted agenda and through routes that truly open up what lies within.

Together with his own interest in birds and butterflies, which feature extensively in the book, there are the additional pleasures of enjoyable suppers in small hostelries, finding a field to sleep in under the stars at night and sharing parts of his journey with his wife and close friends who join him at different stages.

So much of the essence of France and its sense of adventure, that the Author brings out in his book, only goes to show how much can be missed in travelling by car across such a large and diverse country through its busy and noisy network of autoroutes.

This book is a worthy successor to Laurie Lee's classic " As I walked out one midsummer's morning" and recommend it to anyone who has an interest in knowing more about all there is to discover in France, and experiencing its vast culture, history, towns, cities and countryside.

Peter Taylor

by Peter Taylor

This book is so poetic and so readable. Immensely informative without ever being boring. It inspires the reader to follow John’s footsteps and seek out the treasures he describes, even to the point of having a go at sleeping under the stars. I loved it. Thank you.

by Amazon review

Such a wonderful book. I really enjoyed 'revisiting' France and remembering my own trips by bike across France through many of the places mentioned
John's journey was so well documented with historical 'nuggets' and local description as well as his experiences along the way.
Highly readable and recommended

by jane

This book was my bedtime reading for some weeks. A satisfying slow read of a passage before sleeping. I looked forward to it as a place to get far away from London when unable to travel abroad. The pace of the writing describing the author's journey walking through France, tracking the Loire, and the close attention to all kinds of details, makes it an absorbing and stimulating book. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to France so it was a pleasure to return to it in this way. There is so much interest, the French countryside, it’s birds and butterflies and gentle heat. The architecture of the villages and towns closely and lovingly examined. And the traces of history, particularly last century's European wars, he found ever present in every village and town. Wars easily forgotten. Enthralling and shocking to read through evidence left about the lives of the people under attack and the occupation by Nazi Germany and the treacherous Vichy government. Also a pleasure to meet the author in his writing, his lively intensity and broad intelligence. There is his touching relationship with his father, present in his father's diary of similar extensive walking through the same region. I have been mentioning it to friends with enthusiasm.

by Amazon review

You feel as if you are in the company of an old friend as John Micklewright walks from Ouistreham to Mount Blanc. The author’s astonishing breadth of knowledge, insights and observations, so gently imparted, are a constant delight. Butterflies, French history, literature and films, the countryside and so much more, including the author’s relationship with his father. Oh and the very extensive bibliography is a treasure trove. A fabulous read.

by Amazon review

“It has to be interesting this time”, is what the author’s wife told him about writing this. Sound advice, given that he was a professor of economics, but he seems to have set much of ‘the dismal science’ aside for this book.

I enjoyed this book enormously. I buy a lot of books about walking, but they can be highly variable, from deadly dull lists of hills climbed with weather reports, through to more eclectic descriptions of the journey, the experience and chance encounters. John Micklewright’s book is at that end of the spectrum.
He touches on many aspects of the French countryside, ranging from the natural history – he has a keen interest in butterflies, which prompts me to think I should pay more attention when out walking – to the social history of the French countryside. (His comments about village life took me back to my own student days, when I’d read Hélias’s Horse of Pride about Breton village life.) His description of the current situation in French villages put a more human face on the challenges of depopulation in rural areas (which seem to be common to much of rural Europe & N America).

As I rapidly approach my own retirement, with hopes to get back out walking again, Micklewright’s book is an inspiration to get on with it, but also to get out without the shackles of having to walk up XXX hill or stick to YYY long-distance path.

Professor Micklewright seems to have taken his wife’s advice, has written an absorbing book, and one which I’d happily recommend, or give to keen walkers.

by Amazon review

The Opening Country is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative travelogue that carries you along, with the convenience that you don't need your walking boots. Perhaps unexpectedly for a book of this kind, it is full of fascinating, read-aloud details. The knowledgeability and charm of the author make it a pleasure to read and by the end I was yearning to see France again, through new eyes. Looking forward to the next journey.

by Goodreads review

This book is an absolute treat. I read it during a lockdown here and it felt like I was wandering the hills and dales of France with the author and breathing in the freewheeling spirit of a walking adventure despite being stuck at home. It often reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor and his famous walk, without ever being derivative or anything other than the gentle and curious character of the author shaping the whole thing. It wears its knowledge lightly and immerses the reader in the varied and wonderful nature of France through the eyes and heart of a curious wanderer. Would highly recommend to anyone as a breath of calm and fresh air. I look forward to Micklewright's next adventure.

by Amazon review (US)

I came across this book about France thinking that it would be in the genre we are all so familiar with - all about restaurants, churches, well known picturesque towns and villages. Not at all. It is a book about many of the lesser known parts of France - from Caen to Courmayer - a voyage on foot from northern France to the Italian border. The author weaves a bit of history, some reflections on everything from land use to WW2, population changes, observations of nature, the rivers of France. His route is always away from main roads and tarmac, beginning in May until he arrives at the Italian border weeks later.

For any of us who love France I couldn't recommend the book more highly. The author is able to paint a vivid word picture of the places and landscapes he walks through, and you can follow his progress through the little map at the front of the book. No long discussions about food, or much about architecture, but a vivid account of an exhausting but rewarding journey towards his long planned goal, and he takes you with him all the way.

by Diana Weir

John Micklewright

An academic economist, latterly professor at University College London, working on poverty and inequality with a number of books on these subjects. He lived and worked for years in Italy including a spell with the UN.

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