REVIEW by Carla Manfredino

NWR Issue r10

Seaside Donkey: A Wayward Walk Around Wales

by Hannah Engelkamp

Walking with a donkey on a thousand-mile trip around Wales is no easy feat. Donkeys don’t like the rain (who does?) and Wales is a wet place. And how is a donkey going to get over the stiles and kissing gates that stud the Welsh landscape? Hannah Engelkamp’s advice given in an interview, ‘Try not to listen to the naysayers, especially your own inner naysayer,’ proves sound throughout the five and a half month journey.

There is no coup de foudre when it comes to choosing the right donkey: ‘I decided against him instantly,’ we are told. But the author soon falls for Chico’s charming insouciance. He can be recalcitrant, biting Engelkamp and refusing to move from a hedge he’s eating. At other times he is the confident leader, a ‘guru’, and it she who needs goading. After a particularly testing moment when Chico plays dead at a busy intersection, she tries to sell him off for ten pounds. It is only after 950 miles of their journey that the narrator begins to understand Chico’s ‘uncommunicative ways’, but as she writes, ‘anything hard won is more precious’, and the bond they form is unique.

The walk is an ‘adventure for its own sake’, a refreshing statement in a society where everything seems to have a monetary value. The spontaneity of their journey leaves endless opportunity for serendipitous encounters, of which there are many. The synchronicity of life is brought to light as they are led by it: the initial curse of the stiles and gates turns out to be a blessing, and Engelkamp and Chico walk a route that is more connected to people and the landscape than the original path.

Engelkamp has time to ponder metaphysical questions that perhaps would not have emerged in another setting. She meditates on climate issues, politics and gender roles. And there are things learned only through somatic experience, for instance, she learns to predict the weather rather than judging it by the appearance of the sky. Trial and error are the teachers when there is no internet to look something up, and she discovers that an electric fence works in the sand.

If ever there was a case of content reflecting form, it is Seaside Donkey (a film about the journey is also available). The sprawling narrative lacks pace at times, just as the journey with all its setbacks and uncertainties does. But Engelkamp’s witty, unsentimental voice maintains our interest. As do her fine descriptions of the Welsh landscape such as the scowling ‘heavy-bellied gunmetal rainclouds’, the sheep skull like a ‘tractor seat’ and the ‘patchwork quilt’ hills of Shropshire.

Seaside Donkey is littered with the history and myths of Wales. The Llanddona witches, Pryderi and Glyndŵr jostle with Richard III, Napoleon and Prince Charles. The stories of the people they meet along the way are retold with compassion and warmth and it becomes a universal journey. Engelkamp finds out about the New Age roots of her old primary school and we later discover that when Chico ran away on the Great Orme, he was actually within the vicinity of his biological father.

Food is central to the journey and it binds people and the narrative when the journey seems hopeless. It also provokes in the narrator thoughts about the ‘animal apartheid’– the divide between the animals we kill and those deemed acceptable for pets – and a sense of her own hypocrisy. Her musings are humbling, funny and poignant.

The chasm between humans and donkeys is clear in the book, yet it is also reconciled: we all have a primal desire for food, safety and comfort. Seaside Donkey ignites a sense of the ‘raw and simple thankfulness’ of human kindness and our animal capacity for endurance. Chico walks ‘his own sweet way and to his own logic,’ which is one of the many morals gleaned from this cheerful tale.

Carla Manfredino’s poem, ‘Betws-y-Coed’ will be featured in our latest poetry showcase video published this autumn.

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previous review: When Marnie Was There
next review: The Search for Mister Lloyd


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