"In this exquisitely written book, Robert Macfarlane sets off from his Cambridge, England, home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths that crisscross both the British landscape and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt old paths, of the stories our tracks keep and tell, and of pilgrimage and ritual. Told in Macfarlane's distinctive voice, 'The Old Ways' folds together natural history, cartography, geology, archaeology and literature. His walks take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. Along the way he crosses paths with walkers of many kinds--wanderers, pilgrims, guides, and artists. Above all this is a book about walking as a journey inward and the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Macfarlane discovers that paths offer not just a means of traversing space, but of feeling, knowing, and thinking."--Publisher description.
In this book he is particularly interested in exploring ancient ways, old paths that have existed for centuries. He starts with the Icknield Way, apparently Britain's oldest surviving route which extends from West Norfolk down to Dorset, running for part of its way along the Ridgeway (and there are many who believe that they are both parts of the same ancient route). Macfarlane likes to start early, often sleeping out in the open and starting to walk as soon as he wakes (in the summer often around 4.00 a.m. once the skylarks start their raucous early chorus), and will often walk more than thirty miles in a day. He clearly loves the country, and his descriptions of the flora and fauna are detailed and affectionate. However, his greatest interest seems to be in the geology of his routes about which he is immensely informative without ever losing the reader's interest of seeming to proselytise.
One of the joys of this book is the light he sheds on old routes, some of which remain in use while others have been all but lost. One of the routes he follows is described as the deadliest path in England and actually involves walking across Maplin Sands off the Essex coast, across sea to the island of Foulness, and this can only be done when the tide is out. As with Morecambe Bay, scene of a tragedy several years ago when a troop of bonded labour cockle pickers were drowned, the tide at Foulness comes in with terrific pace, faster than a man can run, so constant attention to times, tide maps and conditions is essential. The walk is known as "The Broomway" because of a series of high brooms planted along the course to show where the safe land is. Macfarlane and a friend completed the path and he gives a beautiful description of the interplay between the land, the sea and the indeterminate margin where one morphs into the other.
He doesn't just consider walking, though. Some of the most ancient routes were across the sea, and before the advent of decent roads (What did the Romans ever do for us ....) the quickest way to travel was generally by sea, using the network of tides and currents that surround the country. Two chapters are devoted to voyages from Stornoway following ancient trade routes throughout the Hebrides.
He also recounts a walk from Blair Atholl to Tomintoul en route to attend the funeral of his grandfather, also an ardent walker and about whom Macfarlane offers a moving memoir. I know the area he depicts in this walk, but will look at it in a wholly different way from now on.
Other walks include a wander through disputed areas in Palestine, the Camino in Spain and around the sacred peak of Mount Kailash in Tibet . The final chapter is a brief but poignant biography of Edward Thomas, the Welsh poet who died in World War One, and who had devoted much of his life to walking, and writing about it.
All in all a very striking book - in fact it seemed like several books in one.
I'm not particularly a walker myself, not now. As a kid I walked quite a lot with my grandfather, who would never have been nearly as poetic about walking as Macfarlane. It's walking in the mountains in Wales that speaks to me, the hot still space at a ford where you could turn down toward home or go on toward a blackberry field, flies swarming on the evidence that a horse had come through earlier that day. Not a trek across chalk or snow or fen land: not this quasi-mystical experience of the landscape-as-self, just a walk on a warm day with blackberries in the middle and a scolding for getting so dusty/muddy at the end. If we went further afield, a hand-drawn map with "Grandma fell here" or some such comment to immortalise the trip.
Still, I can appreciate the sentiment behind this, and the lyrical writing. It just gets a bit too caught up in itself for me.
This is not to say that the author is not an excellent writer, it just wasn't the book I was looking to read.
Like many travel writers, if that's what he is, it seems he just sets out and writes about what turns up day by day. The lack of formal structure turns into a structural format. Good but would have been better with a stronger central theme.
As well as the excellence of the descriptive writing and the thought provoking linkages between walking and other aspects of our lives, this book is filled with wonderful characters, mostly quirky but who one would love to meet. I was particularly taken by the artists, Steve Dilworth and Miguel Angel Blanco.
Almost as soon as I got into the book, I was reminded of a book called "Palestinian Walks" by Raja Shehadeh which I had read a couple of years ago, and, lo and behold, that author appears as a friend of Macfarlane.
But the strongest link to my past reading is the almost constant underlying presence in this book of the poet Edward Thomas. Less than two years ago I had never heard of him. Then whilst preparing a talk for Remembrance Sunday I came across two of his poems in a war poems collection which really resonated with me. Almost immediately after this I picked up a fantasy thriller in a charity shop, which turned out to be deeply awful, but which began with a beautifully written account of Thomas' meeting with the angel of death on the battlefield at Arras. Coincidence struck again when the Kindle daily deal the next week was "All Roads Lead To France", an excellent biography of Thomas. Ever since that 3-4 week period I have kept some of Thomas' poetry to hand for sampling. This wonderful book has sent me back to that poetry several times in the last week. I should point out that I am not really into poetry!
There are some bookends, though, to bracket the whole collection. To start with, Macfarlane tells us about earler travel writers, writers mostly who were walkers, writers who were rediscovering home territory more than newly discovering exotic distant terrain. Edward Thomas was a writer who died at age 36 or so in WW1 and is a recurring focus in many of these stories. The penultimate chapter of the book is not about a journey of Macfarlane but about Thomas's final years, his awakening as a poet, his enlisting in the army, his deployment to France, and his death there at the front.
I have been fascinated by the big walks folks in the past would take. For me, ten miles is a long walk. Macfarlane's journeys are always along old ways and he tells us about those who have walked this ways in the past along with his own travelling in the present. Mostly they are walks but there are some boats in there along with skis. A little bit of cycling, too! Anyway this book inspired me to a big walk today - just under ten miles but 2500 feet up and then back down again so a bit challenging!
The book is written in a very rich poetic language. It is a bit like a dessert tray, these short but rich stories. Maybe a bit too rich for me, actually. I like a big bowl of brown rice! I would rather read a longer tale of a single journey and let the flavor come at me more slowly. Macfarlane gets quite intense with strings of weighty words packed tight. Maybe I should read more slowly and let the flavors linger. Probably I missed a lot, the way I read!
In this exquisitely written book, Robert Macfarlane sets off from his Cambridge, England, home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths that crisscross both the British landscape and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt old paths, of the stories our tracks keep and tell, and of pilgrimage and ritual.
Told in Macfarlane’s distinctive voice, The Old Ways folds together natural history, cartography, geology, archaeology and literature. His walks take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. Along the way he crosses paths with walkers of many kinds—wanderers, pilgrims, guides, and artists. Above all this is a book about walking as a journey inward and the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Macfarlane discovers that paths offer not just a means of traversing space, but of feeling, knowing, and thinking.
In following the paths both in Britain and abroad, both on land and sea, Macfarlane contemplates how the routes often start through the weathering of the landscapes which in time offers easier passage to animals and humans and thus become ingrained in the landscape. Macfarlane’s deft and atmospheric writing reveals not only the landscapes but the history of the people who have trodden the paths over the millennia and how, as we walk them now, we can be influenced by them and gain a better understanding of ourselves.
To be taken at a slow walking pace. When you have plenty of time for contemplation. The audio version is read in an agreeable, deep richly rolling voice. Good before bedtime, I suppose.