Published by Hamish Hamilton

ISBN 978-0-241-14381-0

Paperback edition here at Amazon for £6.99!

(the pics are just for pretty)

Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge with a post of Senior Lecturer in Post-WWII Literature in English. His research and writing interests include the nature-writing tradition and travel writing – mostly about walking. He has published four books in this area to date: Mountains of the Mind – A history of a Fascination (2003), The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways – A Journey on Foot (2012) and (jointly written with Dan Richards), Holloway (2013). 

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The author describes the subject of the book as “the relationship between paths, walking and imagination”. It is his imagination that makes his writing most distinctive as he explores ghosts and voices which he feels haunt ancient paths. He lives in a world (inhabited, too, by writers past) that in walking ancient paths one might “slip back out of this modern world”. Although not wishing to claim to be a mystic he nevertheless sounds mystical when he thinks we should be asking of any strong (sic)  landscape “What do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself”.

Mistletoe walk 2012 way back-1

I should say from the outset that I find this aspect of Macfarlane’s work difficult to relate to. The idea that a place can somehow know me makes no sense to me at all. Neither do I really understand how or why I might know something in a particular place and then somehow not know this thing if I move to a different place. I’ll put my hand up to not being the most intellectual of people but this seems to me a question of empiricism rather than belief. I’ve probably walked several thousand miles in the British Isles in many different parts of the country and at different times of day (and even a little at night) and in all sorts of weathers, alone and in company and have never felt that I was in the presence of anyone other than myself or my companions and perhaps the odd badger or fox or other rustling creature of the night. And lots of sheep, of course.

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This is not an argument that I need over emphasize, though. Most of the time Macfarlane’s feet are firmly on the ground and what he sees and describes in his walks would be able to be seen by the most stunted of intellects. And his descriptions, though perhaps over-laden with unlikely similes, are vivid and he is generous with interesting background and history.

The majority of Macfarlane’s walks were made in either England or Scotland. He has yet to discover Wales, which is his loss and mine as I would very much like to compare my own experience of a route with his; I have not walked in any of the footsteps he makes in this book. Three chapters are located abroad, in Israel, Spain and Tibet.

This is a book where a dictionary might come in useful (OK Kindle users, you can wipe that smug look off your face). There is an 8 page glossary of terms. I knew most of them (wiping smugness off my own face). It is also a book that will guide you to other reading; his select bibliography runs to 12 pages. Footnotes take up 18  pages (I did say that he is a scholar) and if that is not helpful enough he has provided an index of over 20 topics covered in the book, page referenced to his text. So at 432 pages you certainly get your money’s worth.

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Macfarlane starts his walks on the Ickneild Way- said by many to be “the most ancient land route in Britain” (an extraordinary claim for which he does not explore). He took with him (in his mind) Edward Thomas, who he describes as the most important of the dozens of people who feature in the book, and who had walked and cycled the path 100 years before him. Thomas is so under Macfarlane’s skin that at the end of the book he attempts what he describes as a “bio-geography” of his hero in a chapter written in a form that I found so irritating I could not finish it; “He walks with a stick……He dislikes wearing a wristwatch….. He walks usually with one inch maps….He keeps a journal of natural events…..”. ….and so on and SO ON.

Quite how anyone tackles a walk with a bicycle in tow is beyond me. All that carrying it over stiles, pushing it up the steep bits, and generally feeling like you’ve got an expensive load of junk that would be better off in a skip. It certainly didn’t do Macfarlane much good as less than two miles into his journey he came off it at speed, breaking a rib, cutting his arm and damaging a knee. I think most people would return home at this point to lick or at least dress the wounds and re-schedule for another day. Not Macfarlane. He appears to have cycled 5 more miles that day and walked 30. He might be a fair bit younger than me, but 30 miles of walking (in that state) is a punishing walk in anyone’s book. To follow this by a night sleeping out and to describe oneself the next morning as being “in a positively good mood” reveals his astonishing resilience.

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This is not by any means the only example of extreme self punishment in the book which Macrfarlane clearly finds invigorating, but I was left in the dark about where his sado-masochism comes from or quite what he gets out of it, other than experiencing extremes of discomfort.

He is not averse to taking his life in his hands. The Broomway in Essex is “allegedly the deadliest path in Britain”, having claimed over 100 people’s lives over the centuries. It is a path between Foulness and Wakering Stairs which is only visible at low tide and surrounded by treacherous mud. A friend of his who had done this walk wrote with various tips, the final one being “if it’s misty when you arrive at Wakering Stairs, turn around and go home”. It was misty when Macfarlane and a companion arrived at Wakering Stairs. Well of course they did the walk and to top up their recklessness on the way back they could not resist leaving the path and walking straight out to sea. “We did not know where the sand would slacken to mud and yet somehow it never felt dangerous or rash”. This is clearly not a man whose feelings are in any way to be relied upon, but he is an engaging story-teller and there are many other tales of derring-do in this book.

If you like walking and feel drawn to wild places and wild camping this book is definitely one that you’ll enjoy. But if you are contemplating some of his more dangerous  pursuits don’t think that you will be able to persuade your wife or husband that what you are proposing to do is anything other  than madness. Because they will be more sensible than Macfarlane and put their feet down and say “no way”!

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A circular walk from Salisbury to Old Sarum

March 30, 2014
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Date walked: 16th February 2014 Map used: OS Explorer 130; Salisbury and Stonehenge Distance: around 8 miles (that includes a lot of wandering round Old Sarum and some doubling back where the paths were flooded.) There are public toilets at Old Sarum (before you get into the area that you have to pay for) ************************* […]

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A guided walk around Salisbury (part 2)

March 23, 2014
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Dearly beloved, my text this morning continues to be inspired by following a walk around Salisbury as published in  “Short walks in English Towns” by Bryn Frank. (1988). The first part of this blog was published last week. We had left Frank’s route at The White Hart in St John Street. Carrying on to  the corner of […]

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A guided walk around Salisbury, Wiltshire (part 1)

March 16, 2014
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Dearly beloved, I take as my text this morning “Short walks in English Towns” by Bryn Frank. Published in 1988 it covers 10 towns and cities, one of which is Salisbury, so having booked a holiday there I thought it would be fun to follow his route and see what has changed in the last 26 […]

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A walk around Grovely Woods near Wilton, Wiltshire

March 9, 2014
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Date walked: 10th February 2014 Distance: About 8 miles Map used:OS Explorer 130: Salisbury and Stonehenge There are no facilities of any kind on the path but there are shops in Wilton. *********************************** In what proved to be the wettest winter on record (and our weather  records go back a very long way), the sensible […]

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Three peaks in the Brecon Beacons: Corn Du, Pen-y-Fan and Cribyn

February 23, 2014
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Date walked: 4th January 2014 Distance: around 8.5 miles Map required: Ordnanace Survey  OL12 – Brecon Beacons National Park, Western Area. I get all my maps from Dash4it. They are well discounted, and delivery is free and fast. Nearest shops/toilets at Pontsticill ******************** The forecast suggested that this was going to be a blue sky day […]

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“Walking Home” by Simon Armitage – an account of walking the Pennine Way

February 9, 2014
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Published: 2012 by  Faber and Faber Hardback and paperback editions Paperback cover price: £8.99 In June 1980 ,sandwiched in my photograph album between a bicycle ride by the Thames with friends from Hackney Community Housing and my dancing at the Pontadawe Folk Festival with the  Angel Morris Men,  I spent several days walking on the Pennine […]

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Fan Gyhirych, limestone country and an opera singer

February 2, 2014
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Date walked: 1st December 2013 Distance: about 6 miles The walk is within the area of The Brecon Beacons National Park. ***************** A walk with Paul was long overdue and for this winter trek, which Paul had planned, I had the added bonus of him bringing his son, David, who I had not met before. We assembled at […]

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Wales Coast Path: Machynlleth to Aberdovey

January 19, 2014
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Date walked: 27th November 2013 Distance walked: about 12 miles Cumulative total of miles walked along The Wales Coast Path: 500 The official website of the Wales Coast path is http://www.walescoastpath.gov.uk/default.aspx OS map required:  OL23 - Cadair Idris and Lyn Tegid.  I get all my maps from Dash4it. They are well discounted, and delivery is free and fast. Once […]

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Wales Coast Path: Eglwys Fach to Machynlleth

January 5, 2014
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Date walked: 26th November 2013 Distance walked: about 7 miles Cumulative total of miles walked along The Wales Coast Path: 488 The official website of the Wales Coast path is http://www.walescoastpath.gov.uk/default.aspx OS map required:  OL23 - Cadair Idris and Lyn Tegid.  I get all my maps from Dash4it. They are well discounted, and delivery is free and fast. Most […]

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Copyright Charles Hawes (2012)