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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

4.13  ·  Rating Details ·  2,490 Ratings  ·  404 Reviews
From the acclaimed author of The Wild Places, an exploration of walking and thinking

In this exquisitely written book, Robert Macfarlane sets off from his Cambridge, England, home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths that crisscross both the British landscape and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling explor
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published October 11th 2012 by Viking (first published June 7th 2012)
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(showing 1-30)
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Petra X
I didn't enjoy this book at all. I thought it was as boring as it was well-written. Walking isn't a subject that interests me much, but the location and history of the walks does. There was too much about the minutae of the walks - long lists of every kind of plant and a thesaurusful of synonyms. The author is in love with words for words sake. I'm not, I like the words to go somewhere, and these didn't for me.

Written whilst reading the book.(view spoiler)
This one really hit the sweet spot for me. It gets you tuned into walking journeys all over the U.K. with side trips in Spain, Palestine, and Tibet. Lyrical presentations of the author’s sensory experiences with the geography and the flora and fauna are harnessed as a gateway to history of the particular paths he took and the inspired outlooks of people who have thought deeply about the affinity of the human mind and civilization to walking in general and connectedness to the land.

I have long be
"'We picked the path up at the edge of the cloud cover that day,' she said, 'and then we stepped into the mist under the mountain and the rest of the world was lost.'"

Robert MacFarlane is a Cambridge professor of modern English literature. However, he happens to be much better known for his secondary profession- his travel writing on the interactions between landscapes and human personalities. He is interested in how we are affected by the landscapes that we travel in and, even more so:

"how peo
Mar 13, 2016 Heather rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Enjoyed a "re-read" in audio.

Beautiful and so well done. Exactly like walking: ecstatic, meditative, revealing, connecting, mystical, grounding. Left me feeling charmed, lulled, and inspired.

Macfarlane's keen historical understanding of place and literature is poetically, sensually woven with brilliant personal narrative and a finesse for classical nature writing.

His ability to intermingle these in an artful, inviting, delving, transporting, and stylistically unaffected way results in
Karen Charbonneau
My criteria for giving a book five stars is that during the day I think on what I've read, and look forward to continuing my adventure with the author at the end of day; and the writing must be good. MacFarlane's writing is lyrical and masculine, too. Maps? You don't need maps; he's not writing a guide book for you, but inviting you to come along with him over old and ancient paths. Why would he recommend you walk the treacherous Broomway, where incoming tides over foggy quicksand have drowned h ...more
Lyn Elliott
This is a wonderful book. Superbly written, reflective, illuminating on connections between people, places, journeys and times. A treasure.
As Macfarlane himself wrote in the Author's note: 'It tells the story of walking a thousand miles or more along the old ways in search of a route to the past, only to find myself delivered again and again to the contemporary' (p364).

It is not just about walking, journeys on foot. One surprising journey was sailing, on ancient sea roads which, he writes, 'are
Richard Newton
To begin with I found this a disappointing read. I expected to be impressed and enthralled - I love mountains, I love walking, and I like erudite writing, but I found this a little difficult to get into. The writing flows, but the contents don't always work. I think this is because Macfarlane quotes from too many different sources, and it seems as if he is wanting to show you all the clever stuff he has read without saying anything himself. If you find this I say persevere, because it settles do ...more
Oct 18, 2014 Nikki rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The Old Ways was, for me, a bit like reading Richard Fortey's work. Non-fiction that I'm not necessarily very interested in, but which is beautifully written, lyrical, literate. It wasn't boring at all -- meditative, perhaps. Sometimes Macfarlane's a little too airy and mystical for me, too caught up in his imagination, but sometimes he comes round to something like Fortey, like the book I read recently on meditation, like Francis Pryor's book about Seahenge and the ritual landscape.

I'm not part
Douglas Dalrymple
Nov 26, 2012 Douglas Dalrymple rated it liked it
My hopes for this book were dampened by the heavy-handed opening section, but when MacFarlane got to talking about his excursion on the “Broomway,” a tidal public right-of-way between the Essex coast and Foulness (wonderful name), he had me. He had me, that is, but then lost me again after fudging what seemed two promising but poorly accomplished sailing expeditions and unadvisedly taking seriously an “artist” friend who believes his masterpiece will involve implanting a human skeleton packed in ...more
Aug 05, 2014 Will rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel, biography, history
This is pure magic. The old ways are foot-paths and sea-lanes, mostly around Britain, but in Spain, Palestine and China too for good measure. Macfarlane has a wonderful descriptive style; his similes and metaphors are breathtaking yet never go over the top into the purple prose of Creative Writing. Reading them (and I read a few selections aloud to R for the sheer pleasure of hearing the word-plays and allusions) is almost like reading poetry. Within each chapter, there are digressions into the ...more
Nov 08, 2013 Joanna rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
As a walker I wanted to like this but gave up after the first few chapters.

I found it over-written and full of self importance, with far too many cultural references thrown in (to prove how well read he is, no one else could possibly be more of an authority!) and way too many adjectives. (This probably explains why the book is so long.)

Sorry, but I'd rather go for a walk.
Jan 14, 2015 Ken rated it really liked it
MacFarlane has some poetry to his credit and it shows. Of course this is not surprising, as he is a travel writer, and travel writers are all about description... imagery, in other words. They are our planes, trains, and automobiles, bound to get us there. And, in this case, once there, McFarlane asks that we walk by his side and listen as he identifies the rocks, trees, birds, cloud types, and historical back stories. These are the "old ways," the foot paths -- the link, if you will, to our anc ...more
Aug 06, 2012 Sienna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, kindle, 2012
(Deep breath: this may be effusive.)

How best to read The Old Ways: in transit — in motion — walking or riding or flying a path either unknown or familiar, deeply and thoughtfully, recognizing that it alters you as you change it, any way at all, really, so long as it's not quickly, lest one of the otherwise indelible stories this book contains slips by you.

I devoured the first few chapters before forcing myself to slow down and savor Macfarlane's way with words, the unexpected, compressed perfect
Laura Leaney
Aug 30, 2013 Laura Leaney rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Occasionally, while hiking or walking , I’ll have some kind of contemplative moment, or I’ll hug a tree in order to feel the cool greenness of lichen against my cheek, but usually when I look at an oak tree or a shale slope I see an oak tree and a shale slope. My mind, as Hedley Lamarr says in Blazing Saddles is “aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.” The “seething cauldron” of non-peacefulness.

I walk a lot. I live near the ocean – and so
Jo Bennie
Nov 30, 2014 Jo Bennie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: m
MacFarlane completes his trilogy of nature writing with a meditation on walking. It can be read seperately but dovetails beautifully with its companions. MacFarlane's first book, Mountains of the Mind, was an exploration of how the cultural concept of mountains has changed over time. The second, The Wild Places, of the concept of wilderness and our need to reach for it. This third book, The Old Ways, speaks of the lost pathways that were used by our ancestors and are almost, but not quite, forgo ...more
Nimue Brown
Dec 19, 2013 Nimue Brown rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite what the title may suggest to a Pagan reader, this is not, exactly, a book about old religion. It’s about walking. Much of that walking however, happens on ancient trackways, and pilgrim routes, so the old ways in the sense of roads connect with the old ways in the sense of our ancestor’s beliefs.

I’m a walking Druid. For me, walking has become an act of communion and ritual. Author Robert MacFarlane expresses how and why that should be so, in beautiful, lyrical depictions of journeys. Wa
Mar 03, 2013 Sher rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The finest essay writing about ways -- paths both terra firma, water, sand, snow, and ice. Each chapter is a separate work, and Macfarlane interweaves his story of experiencing the path and introduces the reader to past travelers and present masters of the path. Moments of the most brilliant prose (naturalist perspective) I have ever read. Sentences I would read again and again for their freshness and astounding organization. "The moon, low, a waxing half, richly coloured -- a red-butter moon, s ...more
I really enjoyed parts of this book.I have realised now that this is a personal journey for the author -walking with friends, rather than a generic book about old paths, ways -which I was expecting. Most of the walks are set in Southern England, Scotland and abroad recalling facts and feelings about these places and the people the author walks with and meets. I did feel a little let down by the book truthfully . Firstly,as a Northerner (seemingly no old ways come to this part of the country!) an ...more
Mr. Gottshalk
Dec 03, 2015 Mr. Gottshalk rated it it was ok
I've read quite a bit of travel writing. I find it is best when the reader is either following the author as he/she gives a narrative, or we are simply placed in a new setting and a narrator takes us along for the journey. This author often combined his personal story while trying to educate us about a historic place with ancient paths, and it just wasn't very good overall. Although I enjoyed several chapters, like the hike through the coastal flats of East Anglia, the trek through the Himalayas ...more
Cindy Rollins
Jun 24, 2015 Cindy Rollins rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
The problem that I had with this book was entirely my own fault. I had this on my Amazon wish list for a long time and when I saw it on Audible I decided to read it while on the treadmill through audio. Not a good idea.

The audio book was finely narrated but it was not a good book for the treadmill. I kept loosing the thread of thought so that while I enjoyed the book and loved the idea of it, I feel I missed a lot and need to reread the print version.

This week I switched to my 50 hour Sherlock
May 10, 2014 Pamela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I didn’t really get into this travelogue until the closing chapters in which Macfarlane explores a landscape I know well (the South Downs) and muses on the life of the poet, and fellow Downs wayfarer, Edward Thomas (1878-1917), of whom I knew absolutely nothing. The penultimate chapter, titled Ghost, is a beautifully written valediction of a writer who didn’t have any idea that he was a poet until Robert Frost rearranged some of his prose and showed him the way.

Why did Macfarlane wait to the end
Dec 18, 2012 Allyson rated it it was amazing
I LOVED this book!
Thoroughly meditative, loaded with amazing information, beautifully written, and a great cover.
Something I want to buy and reread simply for the feel of his world.
Each section was incredible and the only aspect I found wanting was lack of a map. I wanted to know where he was, but guess I will reread with an atlas at hand.
I loved his small tidbit phrase teases @ the start of each chapter and found I reread them afterwards to discover what he felt were important aspects of each
Jul 09, 2015 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really 3.5 stars, but I'm rounding up as the audio narration fit the storyline so well.

The U. K. travels I found far stronger material than the treks in Spain, Palestine, and Asia. Others have found fault with the prose as "too purple," which I can understand; however, the theme here is quite nature-specific, which ordinarily would be difficult to hold my interest, but Macfarlane was fairly successful in that regard. If I had to use a single word to describe the book, "evocative" comes to mind.
Sean Kennedy
This is a hard book to rate - although I enjoyed it, it is more a collection of different journeys rather than a cohesive narrative. Which is fine, it's just that - as with the nature of all 'anthologies' or collections - there are some chapters are fantastic and some which are deadly deadly boring. MacFarlane varies wildly with his storytelling - some have a poetic quality that make you feel the landscape just as if you were with him, and some are so pedestrian and boring you wish you had caugh ...more
Dylan Horrocks
Someone asked what this book was like and I found myself describing it as the most satisfying fantasy novel I'd read in a long time, only it's not fantasy and it's not a novel.

If, like me, your favourite parts of The Lord of the Rings are the bits where they're walking across Middle Earth sharing stories and exploring the magic of place, then this book will rock your world.

Of course, there's much more to it than that, but it's all been said elsewhere; so I just want to add that I'm pretty sure
Alex Sarll
Macfarlane's best book yet, a beautiful and thought-provoking essay on paths, the walking of paths, the art derived from paths and the land through which they run. Along the way it takes in sea roads, a sea path, a shaman (who like all good shamans, doesn't take himself too seriously) and a few brushes with things which probably shouldn't exist.
(Full disclosure: I've only seen Rob once in the past decade, but used to know him fairly well, and one mutual friend makes several supporting appearanc

This is a book that reminds me of so much of all that I love; especially the sheer sense, in rain or shine, of the utter freedom that walking bestows on the human soul. Edward Thomas (the poet) and the South Country, The Hampshire Hangers, Beech woods and chalk. Yesterday, with affection I picked up a complexly sheared flint, which now sits within reach, within feel, on my desk. A sense of place, a love of home,

… yet doubts and humour aplenty:

Casting asi
Another fascinating read from Robert Macfarlane.

In this one he is discovering (and rediscovering) old paths, routes, tracks, drove roads, sea crossing and much more. Some of them he is familiar with - the Cairngorms where his grandparents lived, but mostly he is discovering new places accompanied by friends, colleagues and local people with specialist knowledge of the regions.

The sea journeys around the Outer Hebrides reminded me of the journeys undertaken by Kathleen Jamie in her books Sightlin
Sep 01, 2016 Ruta rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cultural-history
The clarity of Macfarlane's thought and the diamond-cut precision of his diction make it almost impossible to reciprocate in narrative terms. Unless we were to write poetry, like Edward Thomas. Everything else, I fear, falls painfully short of its aim. For this is a book that rewires the mind by alerting it to both the crude and the subtle connections between human presence and landscape. In a stroke of a master, Macfarlane binds wayfaring, sauntering, and pottering about to the depth of grammar ...more
Nov 01, 2012 Christopher rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
Wonderful read. So much I love: wandering the Broomway off the coast of Essex, cross country skiing on the Downs, the haunting image of a mountain lion where it should not be, a friend wanting to slice off the top of a boulder, core it out, and deposit a re-fleshed skeleton, et al.

I loved having Macfarlane as my guide on his many peregrinations about the UK and elsewhere. He is a time traveler and a magician, able to conjure the history of the entire universe in a phrase, without ruining the del
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Book Club: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot 1 1 Sep 05, 2015 11:01AM  
  • Walking Home: A Poet's Journey
  • Sightlines
  • Waterlog
  • The Living Mountain
  • The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
  • Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides
  • Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain
  • Gossip from the Forest
  • To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface
  • Edgelands
  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
  • Roads to Santiago
  • Beechcombings: The narratives of trees
  • Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field
  • Crow Country
  • The Green Road Into The Trees: An Exploration of England
  • A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland
Robert Macfarlane is a British travel writer and literary critic.

Educated at Nottingham High School, Pembroke College, Cambridge and Magdalen College, Oxford, he is currently a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge.
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“Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines. They perhaps most closely resemble the patterns of ridge and swirl revealed when a tide has ebbed over flat sand” 9 likes
“Single trees are extraordinary; trees in number more extraordinary still. To walk in a wood is to find fault with Socrates's declaration that 'Trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do.' Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile. It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind.

"Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed -- incidentally, deliberately -- imagination and memory go with them. W.H. Auden knew this. 'A culture,' he wrote warningly in 1953, 'is no better than its woods.' ”
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