Cover of hardback edition of The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

A review of “The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane

April 13, 2014 · 5 comments


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”!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Marice April 13, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I do not think I would enjoy this book very much but I find your evaluation really entertaining. I would not use a guide from a man with an apparent death wish for choosing a walk, and find the notion of a landscape knowing me as bizarre too. My experience of walking in ancient landscapes alone is the shear unimportance of myself in that environment.


Charles April 13, 2014 at 6:31 pm

Haha. You can imagaine the conversation with him can’t you as you are about to cross the quicksands.
“On a level of 1 to 10 how risky is this route?”
“Oh I don’t know, about 2 I should think. It’ll be fine”
Glug glug.


Paul Steer April 13, 2014 at 9:16 pm

And this from a man who wanted to walk along the Ffestiniog railway line !


Charles April 13, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Haha! I was only testing you of course. if you had agreed to walk along it I’d have had you sectioned!


Anne Wareham April 15, 2014 at 11:50 pm

(that sounds like you, really)


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