July 11, 2017


Country matters on Booksquawk

448 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

It’s time to dig our old walking boots out from the back of the cupboard.

Of course they smell funny! Be something wrong if they didn’t…

Our guide is Robert Macfarlane. His bestselling The Old Ways is about the act of following paths, and describes journeys he’s taken in the UK and elsewhere.

Macfarlane isn’t afraid to get spiritual as he seeks to delineate the paths of the mind and the psychological topography our feet follow, on clearly signposted routes and uncharted territory alike. In considering the way, you will consider yourself, things that have happened, things that might happen, and things that happened to other people. These paths are internal as much as external, the author reminds us.

This type of thinking was old news to the Aborigines going Walkabout, or the peregrini and holy men of other religious persuasions, looking for enlightenment on the road throughout history. We’re travelling on a very, very old path indeed.

Macfarlane was friends with the late, great Roger Deakin, and indeed the Waterlog author haunts the early part of this book as Macfarlane considers a walk they’d taken through an ancient holloway. Other long-dead writers also keep step with Macfarlane, particularly Edward Thomas and Nan Shepherd. Indeed, Macfarlane pens a vivid reconstruction of the former’s last days as he prepared for the front line in the First World War – before the poet’s pathway was cut short in the crude straight lines of the trenches.

To follow Macfarlane’s line, writing about the natural world and our paths through it is as important as actually walking. Considering the act - reflecting upon the act - becomes as necessary as putting one foot in front of the other.

Macfarlane examines the literal bedrock of Britain – chalk, gneiss – and the shifting sands and silt above it as he walks, often in the company of fellow enthusiasts. The book’s sub-title is actually a bit of a misnomer, as a good portion of it is dedicated to following paths by sea to the Hebrides on a boat, where no footsteps have voluntarily treaded apart from those laid by maniacs in Victorian diving suits. Macfarlane’s companions aren’t quite in the “rich eccentrics and artists” category we see now and again in Roger Deakin’s work, though there are a few people who seem charmingly detached from the cares and hassles of ritualised, 4x4 beat wage slavery. Who doesn’t want to get away from that, frankly?

Special mention must go to the artist Macfarlane stays with, who has acquired a human skeleton. He wants to bore a hole in a gigantic rock, like coring an apple, place the bones inside, then replace the bore hole and leave it for a few millennia until someone discovers it, and wonders what was going on.

I have been thinking about this for months. To quote The Joker: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.”

Other routes include part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and a perilous track – for more than one reason – in Gaza.

Perhaps the most memorable walk is on the Broomway in Essex, a beach path which is swamped by the tide at certain times of the day. Under a strict time limit, in misty conditions, with the hard-packed sands like glass under their feet, Macfarlane and a companion dice with death. Their journey is hazy, almost psychedelic in tone, divorced from reality in a dreamlike state. Like the strange compulsion which might seize you to leap off a cliff face as you peer over the edge, Macfarlane’s feet seem to want to take him out to sea, even as it advances towards him, and certain doom.

Climbing can be a deadly serious business, of course – quite literally. The hairiest things ever got for me was a stroll along Striding Edge in high winds, but I’d bet that drop has accounted for surer feet than mine over the years. Macfarlane keeps loftier company, heading out among the big boys in the Himalayas. He focuses on the high country near Mount Kailash, a place of ancient pilgrimage for Buddhists in Tibet.

He enjoys the trip, but his guide tells horrendous stories about people who have been killed trying to reach the summit. Macfarlane successfully fights the urge to reach for the top. In considering that spectacular snowy peak, cut through with black rock, he echoes the thoughts of Roger Deakin, who planned to swim in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, only to think better of it on the day. Some natural phenomena are absolutely fine to just look at.

There’s more hair-raising stuff when Macfarlane recounts a hike in the Cairngorms, when he follows the footsteps of an earlier, unknown climber in the snow only to find that the tracks appeared to have vanished off a cliff-face. For a few decidedly hirsute moments, it seems as if the author might follow. He is candid about his feelings of panic and guilt at having veered off a safe route and come so close to a nasty end.

There are other-worldly fears in The Old Ways, too. Macfarlane joins Guy N Smith in the club of “British writers who claim to have seen a feral big cat in Britain” after a creepy encounter with a glowing-eyed creature as he drives through the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire. A friend who is with him corroborates the sighting, and also thinks it was a big cat of some kind.

Even spookier is an experience he has while camping out alone in Chanctonbury Ring, a notoriously haunted copse in the South Downs where he is menaced at night by an unseen, shrieking creature outside his tent.  If it’s a bird, then it’s no bird he’s ever heard before.

Even if you’ve never experienced hillwalking outside of screaming abuse at Tomb Raider in the 1990s, or embarking on Peter Jackson’s entire Lord Of The Rings special edition saga on DVD, this is a gripping journey. It is infused with the spirit of adventure, but also a sense of wonder – an unbeatable combination.

If you’re like me – someone whose spirit would haunt less well travelled paths, should spirit exist – The Old Ways will make you hungry for the open road, and eager to head for that twilit blue world glimpsed only fleetingly, like the green ray, somewhere between the treeline and the far horizon. 

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