The old ways : a journey on foot

by Robert Macfarlane

Hardcover, 2012




New York : Viking, 2012.


"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.… (more)

Media reviews

This book is as perfect as his now classic Wild Places. Maybe it is even better than that. Either way, in Macfarlane, British travel writing has a formidable new champion.
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Macfarlane writes superbly. He sustains admiration from first to last, in spite of doubts about the book's structure and overall purpose.
The core of the work consists of half-a-dozen specific walks in different parts of the world, often physically very demanding, remembered in intense detail and often exquisitely described. It is overhung, though, by the intermittent presence of a spectral walker from the past – the poet Edward Thomas, who was killed in the First World War and who was perhaps the inspiration of the most famous of all walk-poems, Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken.
One senses Macfarlane trying to keep all his subjects in balance: he is writing about Thomas, about himself, about himself tracking Thomas, about paths in general and in particular. At times there are too many points of focus. But this is a spacious and inclusive book, which allows for many shifts in emphasis, and which, like the best paths, is always different when you go back to look at it again.

User reviews

LibraryThing member timtom
I really wanted to like this book. I tried to pick it up several times but I found that I could never truly engage with the text. The subject is fascinating, I love walking and traveling, and I have several such "psychogeography" memoirs among my favourite books, but I found MacFarlane impossible to follow. The description of his travels are intertwined with lofty literature commentaries and historical innuendos that are too much for mere mortals like us. Also, why aren't there any maps in that book? A nice map of each trail could maybe have saved the book for me, but that was the last straw.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Robert Macfarlane has produced a marvelous and haunting book. Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanual College, Cambridge, and he is well known for his scholarly introductions to a wide range of works. He is, however, also a keen (obsessive?) walker and climber, and has walked literally thousands of miles all around the world.

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.
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LibraryThing member cstebbins
A worthless book. I should have known when I read on the back that it was recommended by Philip Pullman. The author strains to be thought a scholar, a philosopher and a master of prose style, but seems to be only a dilletante, a fashionable pessimist and a writer of portentous but vacuous obscurities. I doubt I will keep the book, but I may leave it here for the sake of my opinion.… (more)
LibraryThing member Iambookish
I was looking forward to this book because I love reading about people taking these long walking journeys and reading their thoughts and observations, but this just wasn't that kind of book. It was more cerebral than I expected and pretty dull if I'm honest. I got through it, but I skipped large portions and focused on the author's interactions with the people he met along the way rather than the history lessons he was trying to impart.
This is not to say that the author is not an excellent writer, it just wasn't the book I was looking to read.
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LibraryThing member johnwbeha
I don't keep many books for re-reading or dipping back into, but this will be an exception. If I had read it on my e-reader, I would have taken a lot longer; firstly because I would have looked up words for their precise meaning; but principally because I would have kept highlighting phrases, sentences of paragraphs for the sheer beauty of the writing and carried them off to my digital notebook.
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!
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LibraryThing member Steve38
It is easy to see why Mr MacFarlane gets lots of praise for his nature and landscape writing. He certainly has a way with words even if it does occasionally stay just this side of pretentious. He's the nature diary's equivalent of Will Self with his use of obscure but scientifically precise words. I enjoyed the way he is able to use both scientific references when mentioning geology and plant life for example but also literary and artistic reference points in his use of poetry and painting. It's certainly an enjoyable read if a little like a set of themed short stories. His 'Old Ways' range from the Scottish Highlands to the South Downs to the Tibetan Plateau. But then he does say that all is necessary is to lace up your boots set forth and the road will open up before you.

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.
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LibraryThing member Panopticon2
I've never had the pleasure of reading a travel book as poetically written as this. Anyone who finds themselves transported by the act of path-walking should treat themselves to this wonderful piece of writing.
LibraryThing member nmele
Most libraries and bookstores will probably classify this as a travel book, but Macfarlane writes books that are partly about his travels, partly about humanity's impacts on our world, partly about literary predecessors, and partly his reflections on art, time, change...This is a lovely book, evocative and often beautifully exact in his descriptions of nature and the roads people walk or sail through nature. If you haven't read Macfarlane yet, this is a great place to start!… (more)
LibraryThing member ChrisNewton
I really wanted to like this book, but I have given up. I don't like it. I wanted to go on a journey on foot traveling the most ancient paths in Britain, but this is not the book. There's something mystical about the way these old paths enter your consciousness and make you understand mysterious things that you can't really write about directly so Macfarlane has hints at them so indirectly that I usually had no idea what he was writing about. Plus the flowery prose, and the supposedly wacky people he meets, I found myself scanning and hoping, but after 200 pages, I was floundering, so I hereby give up. I'm a simple man. I like a simple story simply told. This ain't it.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
Macfarlane has quickly become a favorite author of mine. I am not sure anyone writes about the natural world better than he does, plus he “walks the walk” and just doesn't write about it.
Here he travels Britain's ancient paths and routes that criss-cross the British Isles. Not only does he comment on nature but the reader gets a vast history lesson on a variety of subjects, past and present. His prose is smart and beautiful throughout. The only issue I had was that I listened to this on audio, (the narrator was wonderful) but I surely missed a lot, so I hope to revisit this one in print.… (more)
LibraryThing member GalenWiley
From the acclaimed author of The Wild Places, an exploration of walking and thinking

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.

… (more)
LibraryThing member Rayaowen
Such a wonderful description of landscape and an engaging discussion of the relationship between walking and thought.
LibraryThing member kukulaj
Macfarlane tells us the stories of many of his travels. Each journey gets 20 or 30 pages, so they go by rather quickly. I didn't find much structure to the book as a whole. It seems each chapter stands pretty much independently, though occasionally there are references back to earlier chapters.

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!
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LibraryThing member andrewcorser
A lovely, slow, thoughtful book - full of almost spiritual depth. I read it whilst on a road trip through the Western Isles to Stornoway, and was entranced by both the book and the peat all around me; I even found a bee-hive house, crept in through the 2 foot high entrance tunnel, and was able to stand up (but not sleep!) inside. I was changed by the landscapes I participated in, and The Old Ways helped make me aware of those changes. I even, on Iona in March, paddled through the peat in bare feet to save my boots from being swamped.… (more)
LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
The author describes his exploration of many ancient walkways and seaways, in England, Scotland, Spain, The West Bank (Palestine) and Tibet. It is extremely well written, even poetic at times.
LibraryThing member aoxford
Have you ever listened to BBC Radio 4's Open Country? Then you get the idea here. These thoughtfully written reflections on extraordinary hikes through the British Isles, Spain, the Himalayas, and the West Bank are interspersed with curious bits of history that tie geology, geography, and politics to the landscapes the author travels.… (more)
LibraryThing member JJbooklvr
Can't recommend more highly The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. He walks the trails of history and if it doesn't make you want to get up off the couch and walk there is something wrong with you! The chapter where he walks in Palestine as well as the one in Tibet are particularly moving. One of my top 3 nonfiction reads of the year for sure!… (more)
LibraryThing member adzebill
Immediately want to go back and reread all the poetry, imagery, and metaphorical connections Macfarlane spins, because I was too engrossed in the act of reading to underline or put exclamation points beside them all. A meditation on paths and walking that makes you immediately want to put on shoes, go outside, and roam the countryside with fresh eyes.… (more)
LibraryThing member LynnB
Mr. Macfarlane writes beautifully, and that is what kept me reading this book. While some parts were interesting, I found long streteches of the book boring -- though beautifully written, as I've said. I also found it a tad pretentious in its use of obscure words. If I find a word I don't know in a book, I'm happy to look it up and increase my vocabulary. But when the writer uses words expecting that the reader won't know them and doesn't explain them, I lose patience.… (more)
LibraryThing member camharlow2
Robert Macfarlane’s third book continues his evocative exploration of footpath. His writing conjures the peace of many of the ways and in this book he acknowledges and celebrates the inspiration supplied by Edward Thomas in his prose and poetry from the early twentieth century.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member ghr4
Robert Macfarlane's Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is another masterpiece from one of the preeminent modern nature writers; but he more specifically lays claim to the field of landscape writer, and within that niche his work is unsurpassed. Here Macfarlane explores both the lore and the lure of the well-worn pathways that man has traveled, and takes us along with him as he wends along these ways, seafaring along waters, wayfaring across the land on roads of silt, peat, gneiss, limestone, snow, ice, and more. Macfarlane seamlessly melds their rich history to his personal travelogue adventures, writing with exquisite style, beauty, precision, and wit. Throughout there are innumerable brilliant paragraphs, passages, phrases, and specific word choices that to be fully appreciated must be lingered over, and thoughtfully considered before moving on. This is a book to be savored and treasured.… (more)
LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
Everyone writes about travel, but no one writes about the road...until now...and the subject is approached from the perspective of many walks. The book is at its best when it is most poignant. Several chapters work as standalone short pieces, especially the story of Thomas and Helen, as well as that of the author's father
LibraryThing member willszal
Last year I read "Underland" and absolutely loved it. I had heard of another title from MacFarlane, "Waymarkers," but when I couldn't find that on audio edition, I picked up this instead. You could say that I picked it up primarily out of nostalgia for MacFarlane.

Somehow, MacFarlane manages to write books about topics that normally wouldn't fit within a book. Take this book: it is about walking. Walking is a fundamental feature of being human. MacFarlane takes such an expansive topic, and is able to write about it through personal stories.

In this book, MacFarlane muses on the way that landscapes and weather affect our thoughts and moods. David Abram takes this a step further, to say that mind is a thing external to ourselves, which we participate in. Step twenty feet off a well-trodden path, and you'll find yourself not only in unfamiliar territory, but also unfamiliar thought pattens. Although I enjoyed the snippets MacFarlane had to contribute on this subject, I don't feel like this book fundamentally improves the thinking on this subject.

I recently listened to an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, and he said he has intentionally set himself up as a suburban stay-at-home dad to avoid the pitfalls of autobiographical novelists such as Hemingway and Kerouac, who used their exploits as fodder for their writing, and burnt themselves out along the way. I wonder about this tension; any writer is writing, to some degree, about things they know (even if they're just values, aspirations, or qualities). When is it appropriate to write autobiographically as MacFarlane has done here, and when it is better to leave ourselves out of the story?

I'm not sure if it was just my state when reading this book, but I didn't find "The Old Ways" quite so riveting as "Underland."
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LibraryThing member Iudita
I had to use some self discipline to slow myself down enough to really take in this lovely book but the payoff for the effort was high. The essays are beautiful and evocative.
LibraryThing member Phil-James
A book unlike any modern genre but also deeply rooted in the tradition of travellers that use their travel in the exterior world as a way to talk about the interior life.
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.… (more)



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