Macfarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways – A Journey on Foot Hamish Hamilton Books ISDN: 978 0 241 14381 0

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. pg.26

Perhaps / The truth depends on a walk around a lake. Wallace Stevens pg. 27

Green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets […] holloways,bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths. pg. 13

 

The Old Ways – A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane is the third of a loose trilogy of books that began in 2003 with Mountains of the Mind  which looked at man’s fixation with mountains; the second, was the rather lyrical The Wild Places, a search for wilderness in modern Britain. The Wild Places touched upon the main theme of this third book in that it was as much an exploration of the interior of Macfarlane’s mind as it was of the wilder reaches of the British landscape.

At the most basic level The Old Ways is a story about a number of specific walks in different parts of the world, often physically very demanding, remembered in intense detail and often exquisitely described.

Through journeying by foot Macfarlane seeks to shed light on the shadow paths that weave through history and memory, through literature and landscape, and define man’s relationship with the landscape around him. Macfarlane searches for meaning in walking ancient pathways, it’s a meandering journey, expansively told, and only loosely bound together by ideas about walking and writing, about how the road binds us to the land, and to our past.

The poet and walker Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is a constant presence as are a constellation of writers, poets, artists and intellectuals from Bruce Chatwin and Ted Hughes, to W.G. Sebald and Henry Thoreau who all make an appearance along his hugely erudite and scholerly journey.

At times the book suffers from too many points of reference, the central premises risk becoming blurred, however, like the best paths, sometimes it’s the diversions that lead to a surprising vista or a fresh perspective.

Slightly flawed it might be, but Macfarlane remains a superb stylist, and unlike say Sebald is more than able of telling a good story. The best chapters fairly crackle along vivid descriptions and a powerful sense of place.

If you’re office bound, or mainly indoors, in what remains of Summer, and find yourself dreaming of the Great Outdoors, why not invite Robert Macfarlane along? He could prove to be just the walking companion you’re looking for on any internalised ramble you intend to take.

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