The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
‘…it is about a road which begins many miles before I could come on its traces and ends miles beyond where I had to stop.’ Edward Thomas
I only became aware of author, Robert MacFarlane, this time last year when I read a review of The Old Ways by Roger Cox in the Scotsman newspaper. He’s certainly a writer I wish I’d heard of sooner.
Macfarlane is an award-winning travel writer and is a Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge. His writing is most definitely not of the guidebook variety. Rather it’s about where the human heart and soul meet the heart and soul of landscape. The author himself describes this book as the third in a ‘trilogy about landscape and the human heart’. (The other two being ‘The Wild Places’ and ‘Mountains of the Mind’). Travel for Macfarlane is as much a philosophical, inner journey as it is a physical and outward one. His writing reminds me of the work of Richard Mabey and Kathleen Jamie. His relationship with topography, and the natural environment in general, is reminiscent of John Muir.
My favourite form of exercise is walking. As well as the physical benefit there is also a mental/emotional one too. I know I do my best unforced, free thinking when I’m out walking. Just the act of striding out is usually enough to put problems in perspective, to offload stress and to unblock creativity.
And anyone who walks for recreation, who walks to clear their head, who walks to reconnect will relate to this book.
It is the story of walking a thousand miles. It’s divided into four sections – Tracking which consists of walks in England, Following where the walks are all in Scotland, Roaming in which the walks take place abroad and Homing which is back in England again.
The Old Ways of the title are the trails, tracks, holloways, drove roads, paths and causeways that humans have marked out throughout their existence on the planet. Some of these ways are still visible – others not (except to the trained eye).
His description of ‘footplinths’ – the result of the melting of loose snow around footprints which leaves a raised impression of a walkers earlier footfall through snow – is but one example of Macfarlane’s exceptional take on how we humans make our mark. Coming across his own ascending footprints whilst descending a mountain is, he says, ‘an encounter with altered traces of an earlier self’ and these ghostly marks are also like signs of ‘an inverted spectral presence striding through the solid earth like we stride through solid air’.
I loved the fact that in the index of places walked in Tel Aviv sits between Tarbert and Tomintoul. I also loved that one of the walks is in Palestine and that Macfarlane’s walking companion was Raja Shehadeh, whose book Occupation Diaries I reviewed here last week.
Other locations for Macfarlane’s walks include the Cairngorms, the Western Isles, the Ridgeway in the south of England, Spain and Tibet. Along the way he refers to the writing of Nan Shepherd, the Scottish climber and writer and Edward Thomas, English poet, essayist and natural historian. He is accompanied on some of the walks by a variety of people whom he describes as pilgrims – artists, sailors, a geologist and mountaineers.
What links it all is Macfarlane’s sublime prose and his way of seeing the landscape. He describes a deep vertical connection that is experienced when walking – a connection through time and space from the earth’s core to the stratosphere and beyond – from ancient times to the present and into the future, from earliest humanity to our own modern lives. At times, reading this book you will move briskly – at others you will pause – backtrack -reflect and then move on – much like the walking of the way itself. It’s certainly a journey worth making.
‘The Old Ways’ is published by Hamish Hamilton and is available in bookshops and on Amazon.