The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

4.14 of 5 stars 4.14  ·  rating details  ·  1,211 ratings  ·  246 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...more
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published October 11th 2012 by Viking Adult (first published 2012)
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"'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...more
Heather Roberts
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 the most pleasing benefit of well craf...more
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
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
Douglas Dalrymple
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
(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...more
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
Jo Bennie
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
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 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...more
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...more
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
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...more
Laura Leaney
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...more
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...more
Robert Macfarlane set off from his Cambridgeshire home to traverse the pathways, cartways causeways, ancient tracks, and even the sea paths that cross the British Isles, and many territories beyond. He explores the landscape and its formations, and resurrects old voices and ghosts that went before. His explorations recount pilgrimages and rituals that build to make a history of landscapes. He meets walkers and artists along the way – each of them made in some way by these landscapes they inhabit...more
This book leaves me a bit torn because in theory I might have liked it, and Macfarlane seems like a nice enough guy and has the odd idea that can be quite moving, but overall it felt pointless. The writing, about which many get so enthusiastic, is obtrusive. So many sentences are over-crafted and slow the reader down. Instead of showing the landscape the metaphors are distracting, referring to all sorts of wildly disparate things. There's a nice attempt to link landscape and lives, or walking an...more
Nimue Brown
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...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
Recounts the author’s walks through much of England and Scotland, plus Israel, Spain and Tibet. He is thoughtful and thought-provoking about what it is to walk and to see, constantly twinning paths both physical and verbal. Words I didn’t know or couldn’t quite define if pressed include hachures, gurnard, toponyms, geans, mycelial, albedo, chiasmic and hierophany (all found in the glossary, it turns out). An extensive bibliography, a “categorized index…inspired by the work of Richard Skelton and...more
Shannon Polson
A new favorite author. Macfarlane's perception of the places he travels is so richly layered in geology, history, arts and the connectedness of humanity across the ages. It is at its heart a travel book; there is nothing personal or external at stake, but such is appropriate for a British travel writer. A reader needs a strong tolerance for the author's use of geological terms; I downloaded two dictionaries and found they didn't include words he used easily, and then found the glossary at the en...more
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.
A beautiful, wanderlust-inspiring book about how personality is influenced by and influences landscape. Full of pitch-perfect descriptions ("the sea shampooed the rocks") The Old Ways threads a path through biography, cartography, history, and nature writing in search of the essence of place and the essence of being in a place.

I highly recommend it.
The little one paragraph review of this book in a news-magazine must have caught me in the strangest mood, because when I read about a "poetic" book about "walking", I immediately purchased it for my Kindle. Which is just downright strange.

I really enjoyed reading this perhaps precisely because it was so utterly different from anything I would normally read. Perhaps, also, because its slow and introspective walking pace was a wonderful calm in contrast with my increasingly hectic work and family...more
Fascinated by paths and traveling, Robert Macfarlane set out to follow some of the oldest paths in the world. These include several land and seaways in Scotland, the tidal Broomway, cross-country Icknield way, and many paths across the Downs in England, as well as paths in Spain, Israel, and Tibet. He lyrically describes his surroundings and his walks, and reflects on the effects of travel on a person.

I thought I would like this more than I did. I've always been fascinated by old paths and what...more
This was an interesting read and would be enjoyed by 'serious' walkers as well as the weekend types(of which I am one). Beautiful written with some wonderfully evocative descriptions. I finished the book thinking that he was really quite brave to venture on some of the walks on his own. The linking of the landscape to the history and people of the locale made it much more than a simple description of some walks that some person did. I was left wishing for a bit more history etc but the type of w...more
If you're looking for a book to read over a nice cup of tea, I propose Robert Macfarlane's The Old Waysas a contender. It's a terribly relaxing experience, lounging around and perusing word pictures of the chalk downs and old sea routes of England, the battle trenches of France, and the bullet-ridden gullies of the West Bank.

I'll admit that I'm not much of an expert on walking, or what other people do out-of-doors, so I spent a great deal of time (while reading this book, anyway) pondering t...more
Nick Wastnage
This book became huggable, and gave me a warm feeling while reading it, despite some parts containing descriptions of icy places. It’s a non-fiction account by Robert Mcfarlane – an acclaimed writer of the wild – of many old walks, passageways, and sea roads around the world: routes and ways that have been used for centuries.

He travels them all, and describes his experience together with the history connected to them. Many of his journeys are in the United Kingdom, however in Part 3, titled Abr...more
We are not in the wilderness anymore, friends, and this perspective on walking in Britain and overseas was fantastic and different and chock full of knowledge. It defines erudite. It didn’t move me, but was worth it anyways. The author explored footpaths that are more ancient that the ones I tread every day, yet are surrounded for the most part by civilization and development. I have so many post it place- markers the book looks like a source for an important paper I have to write. Like a 50-pa...more
If you like the idea of waxing poetically about putting one foot in front of the other next to the preserved foot prints of cave men, or while retracing the foot journeys of under appreciated early 20th Century British poets, and are a bit of an anglophile, and if listening to the musings of an erudite young Brit with a taste for the old fashioned gets you going then this is the book for you! This book could have easily been a pretentious bore but the author is such a good writer and is very car...more
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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.
More about Robert Macfarlane...
The Wild Places Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination Holloway Silt Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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“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.' ”
“Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss.... We easily forget that we are track-markers, through, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete--and these are substances not easily impressed.” 3 likes
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