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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

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Robert Macfarlane travels Britain's ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape.

Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world - a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.

433 pages, Hardcover

First published June 7, 2012

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About the author

Robert Macfarlane

97 books3,313 followers
Robert Macfarlane is a British nature 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.

Robert Macfarlane is the author of prize-winning and bestselling books about landscape, nature, people and place, including Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways (2012), Holloway (2013, with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards), Landmarks (2015), The Lost Words: A Spell Book (with the artist Jackie Morris, 2017) and Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019). His work has been translated into many languages, won prizes around the world, and his books have been widely adapted for film, television, stage and radio. He has collaborated with artists, film-makers, actors, photographers and musicians, including Hauschka, Willem Dafoe, Karine Polwart and Stanley Donwood. In 2017 he was awarded the EM Forster Prize for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,301 reviews
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,538 followers
October 13, 2014
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 been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it.

MacFarlane finds insight in how much human language is infused with words for travel paths and their purpose. For example, an Aboriginal tribe in western Canada has the same word for ‘knowledge’ and ‘footprint’, and the Tibetan word ‘shul’ carries the senses of ‘path forward’, ‘footprint’, and awareness of past events. English is particularly rich in pregnant words for pathways:

Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite—holloways, bostles, shuts, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

MacFarlane reckons he was walked 5 or 6 thousand miles on his foot journeys. Some of his predecessors were even more obsessed with this mode of being. Wordsworth is believed to have trekked over 100,000 miles. Wittgenstein literally couldn’t think properly without walking. His favorite walking afficionadoes are the British poet and essayist Edward Thomas, who worked early in the 20th century led him and inspired Robert Frost to write his most famous poem, “Two Roads”, and Nan Shepherd, who wrote philosophical meditations in the 1970’s on her experience with the high rocky trails of the Scottish Cairngorns. As McFarlane visits the ancient pathways they explored through the British geology of chalk and granite, he revisits their ideas on the conflation time and space:

Paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over. The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also. The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land—onwards in space but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers. As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation, the records they yield of customary journeys, and the secrets they keep of adventures, meetings and departures.

The concept that “the earliest stories are told not in print but footprint” is brought home by a walk on a beach where erosion of each tide uncovers prehistoric footprints preserved in the mud. He walks in the path of a hunter and spies prints left by playing children. He makes a wonderful digression on the anatomy of feet:

The whole foot is a document of motion, inscribed by repeated action. Babies—from those first foetal footfalls, the kneading of the sole against womb-wall, turning themselves like astronauts in black space—have already creased their soles by the time they emerge into the world.

McFarlane finds further roots for his mode of thinking in the romanticism of George Burrow in the mid-19th century and early environmentalism of John Muir toward the end of the century. But as with classic travel books, he takes delight in the inspiration of the colorful, living people he meets on his journeys. His story is enriched as he expands his line of thinking to seaways and riverways. A trip in a small boat in the Outer Hebrides to a remote bird nesting island long targeted for an annual harvest leads to ruminations on how human use of known pathways over the water in prehistoric times made these apparently isolated communities by the sea more connected culturally with comparable seafaring peoples in the Baltic and Mediterranean countries than with communities of inland U.K. at the time--the sea as gateway. A visit to ancient pilgrim paths in Spain and Tibet rounds out the wonderful journeys in this book.

This book brought me exquisite pleasures and permanently shaped how I look at the world. I place it on my spiritual shelf with treasured “travel” books such as Mattiessen’s “The Snow Leopard”, Cotwin’s “In Patagonia”, and Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” The inscription to the volume still resonates:

“…it is about a road which begins miles before I could come on its traces and ends miles beyond where I had to stop.” Edward Thomas (1913)
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
February 10, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Kelly.
889 reviews4,127 followers
December 29, 2013
"'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 people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagine range for self to move in'.

Therefore, he does not belong to the tradition of travel and nature writers who primarily believe in the exploration of nature as an escape or a forgetting exercise, at least not purely. He repeatedly reaffirms his agreement with the Scottish novelist Nan Shepherd's belief that when she went walking, she ended up walking not 'up' but 'into' mountains. He says "these are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel the easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing."

He frequently cites examples of famous thinkers (Charles Darwin, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and in the least shocking news ever- Wordsworth) who found walking to be the same as thinking, who needed to be moving through a landscape in order to process their thoughts properly- indeed they could not think without the aid of this mechanism. He thus identifies himself as a part of this tradition of intellectual walkers that began in the nineteenth century and continued after the carnage of WWI when wounded, horrified soliders sought a way back, a way to rebuild... well... everything. Their felt connection to the land inspired some of their most important work. MacFarlane is particularly inspired by the nature walks of one of his personal heroes, the poet Edward Thomas. His story appears and re-appears throughout the book as an increasingly loud melody, his story the proof positive of MacFarlane’s somewhat mystical belief in the power of the land we walk on to shape us all.

In The Old Ways, MacFarlane explores the relationship of the self and the landscape through exploring the “old ways,” of England, Scotland and Ireland, with some illuminating side trips elsewhere. He follows well-worn pilgrim trails and forbidden, almost-gone trade routes of Palestine, the ”holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, greenways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways and herepaths,” of pre-modern life that have almost been forgotten. He is interested in the permeable, non-linear nature of time that can be created by experiencing such paths through the lens of then and now. He is following those thinkers, walkers, and post-WWI soldiers who hoped that "walking such paths might lead you- in Hudson's phrase- to 'slip back out of this modern world'. Repeatedly, these wanderers spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as séance, of voices heard along the way." They half-hoped, half-feared to meet ghosts on these paths, and more often than not, found them.

Each chapter recounts a walk that MacFarlane took down one of these “old ways” that he’s chosen to walk. In the first chapter, MacFarlane walks out from his Cambridge home to the Ickneid Way, supposedly the oldest path in Britain, and the subject of a short book by Thomas himself. This is followed by a high-tide-only present path called the Broomway, replete with quicksand and a sometime bomb-testing site, a strictly time-limited trip down the historical way. He then explores coastal “sea-lanes” in the waters off Scotland with the sailor-poet called Ian, and makes a trip to an island in the Outer Hebrides to see the secretive annual slaughter of unappetizing birds on an inhospitable rock known as Sula Sgeir. He finds an almost-gone crofters road on the isle of Lewis with only the aid of some stones, placed like Hansel and Gretel to guide one safely home, finding it by looking only for “disturbances to the expected… being alert to unforeseen interactions,” in a “glen of stones.” It is the most enchanted walk in the set, all the more so for the back country nature of it. But if you read one chapter, just one, you must meet Miguel Angel and his Madrid “Library,” of over one thousand walks, and find your past, your present and your future in its Borgesian mysterious glass cases.

In perhaps the darkest and certainly the most haunting walk of all, MacFarlane takes a trip to China to walk the countryside around and just beneath the terrifying mountain of Minya Konka. When he inquires why they cannot attempt to climb at least part of the mountain, he is told a horrifying story about a previous climbing party. This party had come to the mountain approximately twenty years earlier and only got as far as the base area of the mountain before it was hit by an avalanche. Two of the climbers had serious injuries, one escaped unharmed, but one, a nature photographer named Jonathan, broke his neck and died in the arms of one of the other climbers. The men, having no real choice at the time, buried the dead hiker in a crevasse in a glacier nearby the site, marking the spot with a ceremonial cairn. Twenty years later, one of the hikers returned with the daughter of the dead hiker, who wanted to discover what it was about the mountain that her father had died for. When they arrived, they found the cairn, but also found:

“a flap of Gore-tex showing beneath the stones. He understood straight away what had happened. The glacier had shifted, and the cairn had shifted with it, but- in the surprisingly tender way of glaciers- Jonathan’s frozen body had been pushed to the surface.’

Rick told Asia [the photographer’s daughter] to wait at a distance and made her confirm that she wanted to see her father. She did and so she approached, and there her father was, not returned from the grave but returned by it. She was able to see him in the flesh, preserved, twenty years later, as well as the day he died. She could touch his face, and she did so. She cut a lock of hair. Shortly afterwards, they reburied Jonathan, twenty years on from his death.”

* * *

It is difficult, given the set-up, structure, content and highly-educated British nature of it all, not to compare MacFarlane’s journey to that other erudite, epic walker of British extraction, Leigh Fermor. Both men are artists of the Self who find that Self through extensive walks in unfamiliar places, where they change and are changed by their surroundings and the poetic, eccentric, beautiful and singular people and places that they meet along the way. However, there is no danger of confusing them. Leigh Fermor’s personal kaleidoscope has him processing nature through human culture and looking outwards on a more macro level. He is interested in seeing Holland’s farms through British paintings, German politics as somewhat grotesque adventure, and the backwoods as a fairy-story. He paints himself, like Jane Austen, through what he says and does and leaves it to us to decide what his character is from what he has shown us.

By contrast, MacFarlane looks much more explicitly inwards. He offers extensive, almost journalistic descriptions of his surroundings, heavily woven through with literary comparisons and metaphors that give us the flavor of his mind. But he is much more inclined to soliloquies that directly discuss the state of his thoughts and his analysis of others- he tells us directly about the memories he carries with him, and his “peak experiences,” of emotion as he stands at the edge of a cliff. One of my favorite insights from MacFarlane in the book is a variation on this theme: "We lack- we need- a term for those places where one experiences a 'transition' from a known landscape onto John's 'far side of the moon,' into Berry's 'another world': somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. I have for some time been imagining such transitions as 'border crossings'."

He suggested that we might call such "lands that are found beyond our frontiers," as "xenotopias," which means "foreign places" or "out-of-place places."

This wish for a “between space,” somewhere sacred and apart from the present, halfway between the past and the future, where time is all one and all time is beautiful reminded me a great deal of T.S. Eliot, particularly his first quartet, with the bird in the garden inviting us into another world where the light dappled differently across the pool and witches’ ingredients lay in the moss at the feet of each tree.

I don’t hesitate to compare him with Eliot, as I found MacFarlane’s writing to be vastly gorgeous the vast majority of the time. He has exquisite taste in picking both a suitable and unexpected word, and expanded my naturalist vocabulary (in both English and Gaelic) many times over, and yet it avoids feeling pretentious. He has a lovely ear for imagery and his descriptions are striking and catch one off guard- not just for the word choice, but for the way that he processes the imagery. I also think that his clear passion for each of his subjects is crystal clear, but mostly conveyed in a way that suggests that this adds to his knowledge and supports his thesis, rather than detracting from it. I also think that his choice to mix genres here, a mash-up of a formal academic essay (with the thesis statement, set-piece and literature review all properly up top) and a personal journal, worked for him. It allowed him to veer back and forth as it suited the experience and his particular argument he was making at the time (though some might find the academic expectations set up at the beginning frustrating as they are not fulfilled). Finally, I actually just deeply admire how thoroughly he seems to be able to remember and process each moment of his experience, filtering it through gorgeous literature and his prism of experience.

However, he can become rather mystical at times. I suppose this is unsurprising. He also never met a metaphor that he did not like. Indeed, what meaning there is to be derived from this book comes entirely from whether or not the reader can connect with the metaphors that he uses to process what is happening around him. His proposed thesis is simply that we are affected by the landscapes around us, whether we realize it or not, but his evidence, however powerful and passionate, is anecdotal, so how effective it is will largely depend on how much you are able to connect personally with his viewpoints and the stories told. Finally, he can become rather repetitive as the book goes on. I expect this is one of those books that is best read in individual chapters, spaced apart by days or even weeks. I read it all in one big chunk, and eventually the hundredth magical description of a magical forgotten land started to run together in my mind. I suspect that this was a disservice to a book that deserved all of my mind’s attention on each word of exquisite prose.

But even despite my poor reading plan the power of his passion was enough to carry me through, as he tells us over and over to take one more look, just one, at what we have around us, and does it with such a lovely passion that it is usually not a strain to listen one more time:

“Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: "scapes", it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives, but instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term for the temperature and the pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme), and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews967 followers
March 17, 2018
What I like about this is that it helps me to see the land and the biosphere, feel the land and its life in my body, to relate myself to the land, even in memory, and in the future. As Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, love will save this place. And for many of Robert's fellow British, who have been (what Klein, again, calls) rootless consumers for most of our lives, feeling connected to the land (other than in a proprietorial or nationalistic way I guess) might be something we can't even remember, something we have to learn like a new language...

I guess this book is all about the human in the land, about history, traces of other people, ancient and now. And maybe thinking into the land this way is awesome and helpful. In nature is excitement and sustenance and restoration, half a way out of the deadness and disaffection of our culture.

But something seemed disturbingly unconscious about it, how nothing about it made me feel the threat of climate change, how the text is almost studiously apolitical, even in Palestine.
Her brow furrowed. "The Israelis have stolen this land from us, they are thieves. I once wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan, I knew it would go in the waste-paper basket, but I needed to get it off my chest. 'Dear President Reagan,' it began...

I stopped listening.
And went on with his own thing. Like the president.

At first I thought Robert was old, but when I realised he was not much older that me, he started to remind me very intensely of someone (another white guy) I used to know, who treated me like dirt when I became inconvenient. And I started to think this is not so much about the human as about the self. The self with the luxury to choose when and where to connect. And it was an effort for me to read sympathetically after that. But, he does pick some fine words and fine quotes, especially from Nan Shepherd, who I'd already been looking forward to reading.
Profile Image for Richard Newton.
Author 27 books569 followers
May 1, 2013
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 down and one or two pieces are excellent and moving (especially the penultimate chapter). This is not quite the masterpiece it could have been, and whilst a good writer with some excellent passages which just float over you, MacFarlane is occasionally heavy handed. Sometimes he takes you with him, but on other occasions you are a more distant observer. Also, whilst there is a general topic of walking it does not quite hang together as a coherent whole. It is shame in a way, because had more of it been like the end of the book and less like the start and this could have been a masterpiece. However, it is still worth four stars and my criticism is less that it is not good, but not as good as it could have been. I would still recommend it as a pleasing, intellectual and yet generally easy read.
Profile Image for Lyn Elliott.
699 reviews187 followers
January 9, 2016
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 dissolving paths whose passage leaves no trace beyond a wake, a brief turbulence astern. they survive as convention, tradition, as a sequence of coordinates, as a series of way marks, as dotted lines on charts and as stories and songs' (p88)..

He combines detailed, precise observation with poetic perception, imaginative extension and philosophical reflection. For instance 'Landscape has long offered us keen ways of figuring ourselves to ourselves, strong means of shaping memories and giving form to thought. (p193)' 'Travellers to the Holy Lands have always moved through a landscape of their imagination' (p220).
Of his multi-lingual grandfather he wrote 'He picked up languages like stones and dropped them like feathers; they left him only slowly' (p 187).

He refers to books which he 'appeared to open, but which actually opened me' (p242). This book has opened me to new ways of thinking about journeys, and the two way connections between us and the places we inhabit - we influence them, they influence us. some thoughts and some perceptions are only possible in particular places at particular times.

I read this on kindle, have bought several copies since - one to keep so I can flick through it and several to give away to people I care about.
Profile Image for Fiona.
843 reviews448 followers
October 18, 2020
No hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Translation: There is no road, the road is made by walking. Antonio Machado

There are so many outstanding reviews of this book that there is little, if anything, new for me to say. Robert MacFarlane’s prose is as luscious as ever. He writes of the lore of pathways, of those who wrote just as eloquently about them, in particular Edward Thomas; he walks on the moor paths of the Isle of Lewis and sails the sea roads off its coast, walks across the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorms, on the Broomway off the coast of Essex, allegedly the deadliest path in Britain and for good reason. He walks in Spain, China and Palestine - I could go on but these are the most memorable for me. I enjoyed learning more about geology and the book’s index, divided into topic rather than simply alphabetical, is a wonderful resource and reference guide.

If you have a particular interest in the writer Edward Thomas, you will enjoy the last sections of the book. As I haven’t, other than loving the poem Adlestrop (and doesn’t everyone?), and as I’m not very familiar with the South Downs in England, I frankly found these sections a bit of a bore. That’s purely on the basis of personal interest, however, and didn’t detract from the pleasure the rest of the book gave me.

I could relate to the euphoria he often experiences when walking by himself. One sentence particularly resonated with me and reminded me of a summer’s day years ago when I was sitting on top of Hen Comb, a fell in the Lake District, eating my lunch with a view through to Buttermere, not another soul in sight, my arm around my beautiful dog, Nell.

I felt uncomplicatedly happy to be in that place and at that time.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books568 followers
January 4, 2020
This was my first book by Macfarlane, and my first book of this decade, and a good start on both fronts. I really enjoyed his style of writing, which felt immersive, though the pace of the book was sedate. I love walking myself, it is, for me, one of the most meditative things I can think to do, and The Old ways is a sort of ode to the practice. Definitely curious to read Macfarlane's much-praised newest book Underland soon!'

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Mir.
4,868 reviews5,034 followers
December 5, 2017
This was an interesting and well-written book. The author clearly love words and is frequently intoxicated by them.

I enjoyed the first half more than the second. His familiarity with and attention to the details of the local is wonderful. Later, when he travels Abroad and clearly does not have a feel for the terrain or its history, it was not so great. And I could have done without the long biographical section on Thomas.

Just a passing comment, as this is not a concern of the book: I found it a bit odd that someone so attached to the landscape would seemingly have so little concern for environmental destruction or the slaughter of animals. Perhaps he didn't want to be "political" by venturing into that territory.

Anyway; somewhat more highly recommended than my rating indicates. If you are interested in walking, in premodern paths, or in British landscape you will probably enjoy reading at least a few chapters. There isn't much of a progression, more a meandering of thought, so no pressure to complete the book.

I found it restful as a bedtime read, except for a few sections such as the Guga men.
Profile Image for Quo.
292 reviews
February 28, 2022
Soren Kierkegaard spoke of every day being able to walk himself "into a state of well-being, away from every illness & into his best thoughts." Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a book that endorses the therapeutic value of walking but in particular, following the old & sometimes ancient pathways within the U.K., especially the Hebrides and to points well beyond, including Spain, Palestine & Tibet.

This is a work that rather painstakingly charts the various walking journeys Macfarlane has made, employing rather elegant language to detail specifics about landscapes, geological consistencies, cloud formations, bird life, flora & underlying human history of the place--all rendered in a most painterly fashion, using the names of rocks & minerals as chapter headings.

In fact, nearly each step seems dissected by the author, becoming a walking taxonomy of time & place. Along the way, we are taken along the Essex coast via The Broomway, a risky passage shrouded in heavy mist & periodic warnings about marshy underpinnings, irregular tides & the possibility of dangerous quicksand, causing a traditional English footpath to become an adventure.

I was quite taken by Macfarlane's suggestion that he found the late author Barry Lopez to be a transformative influence; in fact, the exceedingly introspective language he uses is quite reminiscent of Arctic Dreams & other works by Lopez. The work of Edward Thomas seems an even more profound influence.
I have been affected by the life & work of Edward Thomas: essayist, soldier, singer, among the most significant of modern English poets--and the guiding spirit of this book. Born in 1878 of Welsh parents and from a young age, both a writer & a walker, Thomas made his reputation with a series of travelogues, natural histories & biographies, as well as poetry, prior to being killed at the age of 39, at dawn on Easter Monday 1917 during the WWI Battle of Arras.
It seems that almost every word is accompanied by its etymology, with linguistic declensions abounding in The Old Ways. In charting a path, McFarland comments that...
knowledge became codified over time in the form of rudimentary charts & peripli & then in route books in which we see paths that are recorded as narrative poems: the catalogue of ships in the Iliad is a pilot's mnemonic, for instance as is the Massaliote Periplus (possibly 6th century BC).

Word maps of sea routes occur in scaldic poetry & area also folded into the Icelandic sagas, containing Landtoninger (landmarks) in the 14th century Book of Settlements, whose 100 chapters tell the story of Iceland by the Vikings & include guides to the verstrveger, or western roads of the Atlantic that led from Norway to the Orkneys, Scotland, the Hebrides & Ireland as well as to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland & Greenland, using poetic logbooks or routiers & portolani for trans-oceanic passage crossings.
All of this can become rather tedious at times, rather like the adage about asking someone the time & receiving a long discourse on the history of watchmaking. However, when Macfarlane is actively putting one foot in front of the other, describing scenery & folks encountered along the way The Old Ways is quite definitely a distinct joy to read.

When Macfarlane describes the people he encounters en route, his prose is far less technical, even at times robustly lyrical. By way of an example, in speaking of his late grandfather, Edward Peck, a diplomat & linguist "who picked up languages like stones & dropped them like feathers", someone who is invoked as Macfarlane hikes across the Cairngorms in England as a memorial pilgrimage:
He loved landscapes passionately but he wasn't a landscape mystic. His considerable analytical powers were directed outwards to the explanation of geopolitics & historical tectonics. While I have always been more interested in the relationship between landscape, individual lives & how the places we inhabit shape who we are, my grandfather would have been hard pressed to explain why certain landscapes meant to him what they did.

He reveled in the glory of high country in particular, the companionship provoked by passage through certain landscapes, the fortifying power of hardship experienced at nature's hands & the dignified tradition of the scholar-mountaineer, to which he made a significant addition himself--from the summits of the Himalayas, the Alps, up Kilimanjaro & Kinabalu, as well as all over the British ranges.
When Macfarlane describes the "Guga Hunters", groups that since the at least the 16th century have appeared for 2 weeks every year to cull the flock of Gannets (sea birds) on the island of Sula Sgeir, it is a memorable vignette of an age-old tradition, seemingly untouched by the passing centuries.

One of the fascinating characters encountered is a man named Finlay MacLeod, a Celtic original--a historian on the Isle of Lewis, as well as a naturalist, novelist, broadcaster, oral historian, occasional "selkie-singer" & seal summoner, someone who has devoted his life to exploration, archiving & mapping the archipelago. MacLeod is said to have the same restless curiosity as his hero Darwin, being "only interested in everything."

"In these places & in the name of Christ", MacLeod tells the author with a crinkled smile while standing on the ruins of an ancient chapel on a remote headland, "I have a preference for pre-Reformation Christianity mixed with pagan habits, a time when ale was libated to the sea to increase the fertility of the seaweed & the fish, when there was new-moon worship, dancing & fornication!" MacLeod despises religious fundamentalism because it means, as he put it, "the extinction of metaphor", preferring to celebrate the Book of Genesis as a folktale, not doctrine".

Anne Campbell on Lewis is "searching for the atavistic memory of maps of paths reclaimed by peat & time." Steve Dilworth on the Island of Harris recounts that he "has spent a lifetime making ritual objects from gathered local materials for a tribe that doesn't exist." Colorful characters abound in this book, serving as a pleasant relief from some of the more technical aspects that abide in The Old Ways.

Cautioned by Anne Campbell that walking barefoot is an important way to more keenly sense the landscape one is partaking in, Macfarlane does this for a time, finding it a rewarding experience. He comments that "sometimes the mortification of the sole leads to an amelioration of the soul."

Macfarlane moves solo along the Outer Hebrides at times, occasionally sleeping in cave outcroppings while at other times taking refuge with area islanders, people who are themselves in many cases refugees from a more urban environment. He also takes part in a tenuous sea journey on a barely-seaworthy vessel. He expresses that often "voyages out become voyages in."

The point of all of this is to test what residual magic still obtains in walking so many paths that are bedecked in history, "landscapes that we bear with us in absentia, places that live on in memory long after we have withdrawn from them." In the case of Edward Thomas, a depressive figure who befriended fellow poet Robert Frost when Frost was living in England, "walking and pathfinding became his landscape & his closest acquaintance."

Beyond that, for Robert Macfarlane, a University of Cambridge professor & the author of numerous other books, including Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places,"the metaphors we use deliver us hope, or they foreclose possibility."

Robert Macfarlane's prose is exquisite but it is also at times exhausting, particularly when he uses words not even held in the OED. And that stands as perhaps my only criticism of The Old Ways, though the reader would have been served by a few maps of the Outer Hebrides & elsewhere, rather essential by way of an example, in visualizing how ones walks across the land-bridge trail between the islands of Harris & Lewis.

*There are some hazy black & white photos and also a partial glossary of some of the more obscure Gaelic, Welsh & other words Macfarlane flings at his readers.

**Included within my review of The Old Ways are 2 images of author Robert Mcfarlane + a view of the standing stones & another near the shore of a coastal village, both on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (UK).
Profile Image for Will Ansbacher.
315 reviews88 followers
August 6, 2014
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 history behind the ways, and historical figures who were associated with them. So this is not just a travel book about walking (and sailing) but a very literary one too.

My favourite I think was Silt, about the Broomway, an almost-path over the tidal flats at Foulness. Such a delight to read. Magical beauty even in black oozing mud pulling at your heels.

When I’m reading travel books though, I do like to know where I am, excellent though the descriptions of place are. But there are no maps, not even sketches! Perhaps we’re supposed to use Google Maps now. If it wasn’t for that, this would have been 5 stars. Oh what the hell, 5 anyway!
Profile Image for Graychin.
781 reviews1,800 followers
November 27, 2012
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 calf flesh inside a hollowed-out glacial erratic.

This might have been a better book if MacFarlane had cut out a couple chapters and tightened up some others; if he had kept the purple prose in check; if he had more love for the complete sentence; if he was not so given to vaguely New Age sentimentalities; and if he had not quoted the idiotic ramblings of everyone he came across and trusted more to his own voice and powers of reflection.

Reviewers of the book (not to mention the publisher’s blurb) have praised MacFarlane’s “exquisite” prose artistry. Sometimes, it’s true, he finds a way through his words. I have some hope for his future work. Too often, however, MacFarlane’s breathy pet phrases, repetition of handy descriptors,and overfondness for obscure terms overwhelms him. It’s not enough to say interesting words, I wanted to tell him, you need to actually say interesting things. Give us more of the latter - oh, and less (please, less) of Edward Thomas’s awful poetry.

Reading the book did get me excited for some fresh walking in the hills. For my companion, however, I’d take Thoreau over MacFarlane any day.
Profile Image for Sonja.
243 reviews
November 15, 2019
I loved this book! So well written. It was almost hypnotic to read. No real action or drama but you just feel good while reading it!
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
January 15, 2015
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 ancestors.

The book starts and ends in MacFarlane's jolly own England. He also hopscotches across the globe to walk in Scotland, Palestine, and Tibet. His descriptions can be arresting. A police state of poetic diction, if you will. Good stuff.

So obscure is some of the ancient language of the old ways that MacFarlane provides a glossary in the back. Good thing. I didn't know that lacustrine means "lake-like" or that chert is "a form of amorphous silica occurring in several varieties, of which one is flint" or that a shieling is "a pasture to which livestock are driven for grazing, usually during the summer months" or also "a hut or shelter constructed near such pasture."

Come! Join me at my shieling for a cup of tea!

The book is a nice mix of personal reflection, narration, and history. Included are extended anecdotes about other great "walkers," including the painter Eric Ravilious and the poet Edward Thomas, both victims of wars.

In short, then, the book wanders down some side paths of its own and, in the spirit of it all, readers are more than happy to come along. It's a leisurely ramble. And a literate one.
Profile Image for Karen Charbonneau.
Author 6 books32 followers
January 13, 2013
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 hundreds? Simply walk beside him as he attempts it. My favorite treks with him were through England and Scotland, as he relates history, anecdotes and the natural beauty surrounding him. But Palestine and Tibet would have had me at the edge of my seat, if I hadn't been lying back in bed. Sail with him along the ancient water roads through the Hebrides. Meet his adventuresome friends, including Isle of Harris sculptor, Steve Dilworth, whom I did look up on the Internet so I could admire his work. The best writing for me was MacFarlane's description of his ritual walk across the Cairngorm massif in Scotland, south to north, to attend the funeral of his grandfather, a mountaineer. I will be reading his earlier book, Mountains of the Mind, in which his grandfather is featured. He follows the Icknield Way and other paths of England in the footsteps of Edward Thomas,a writer and poet, who was killed during World War I in France. As an American, I was not familiar with Thomas' writings, but found MacFarlane's delving into his life and jaunts interesting, and that he was a friend of Robert Frost, who inspired him to become a poet. This book is full of little surprises. A joyful read.

Author: The Wolf's Sun
A Devil Singins Small
Profile Image for Julie.
2,012 reviews38 followers
February 9, 2022
I was intrigued to come across this book, which according to Robert McFarlane, is “about people and place; about walking as a reconnoiter inward and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.”

Since for as far back as I can remember I have always been a walker. I walk for pleasure and preferably with a canine companion. I often listen to an audiobook while I walk and indeed, I listened to this one while rambling the local woods. When not listening to a book, long walks may allow my brain the freedom to think and perhaps even unravel some of my thorniest issues.

Sometimes, my imagination wanders as I walk, and I wonder about the characters who have walked these same paths before me. In England, I walked in some of the ancient forests including Savernake and Sherwood and imagined days gone by. McFarlane writes, “As I walk paths, I often wonder about the origins, the impulses that have led to their creation the records they yield of customary journeys, and the secrets they keep of adventures, meetings and departures.”

His explorations have led him to include other walkers in his book such as George Borrow who “spent more than 40 years exploring England, Wales and Europe on foot.” He goes on to explain that “like many long-distance walkers he was a depressive […] walking became a means of out striding his sadness.” I too have found walking therapeutic to my soul.

McFarlane talks about the fellow walkers he meets during his journeys on foot “usual and unusual, quiet and voluble, everyday and eccentric - for whom landscape and walking were vital means of making sense of themselves and of the world. I met dawdlers, dreamers, striders, guides, pilgrims, wanderers, stravaigers, trespassers, cartographers - and a man who believed he was a tree and that trees were people. Of the dozens of people who feature in this book Edward Thomas is the most important. He ghosted my journeys and urged me on.”

It's amazing how viewing others enjoying themselves can revitalize our own energy. At one point after covering several miles, McFarlane stops to watch folk running and playing on the heath and writes, “The pleasure these people were taking in their landscape and the feeling of company after the empty early miles of the day gave me a burst of energy and lifted my legs.”

From the legs, McFarlane addresses the feet and walking barefoot. He writes that “Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one and the souls of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines.”

On landscapes, McFarlane writes “We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we’re in them or on them when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight, but there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia. Those places live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality and such places retreated to most often when we are most remote from them are among the most important landscapes we possess.”

He goes on to write “The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly who can no longer physically reach the places that sustain them. When Edward Thomas travelled to fight on the Western Front the memories of his south country were among the things he carried.”

Talking of war, many men returning from the first World War came home to England with no job or prospect of attaining reliable employment enough to support a family. I knew of this, however what I hadn’t realized was that “The life of the road was the only option available to them, and in the 20-years after the war there was a substantial tramping population on the road sleeping out and living rough. Plumes of smoke rose from copses and spinneys up and down the country as the woods became temporary homes to these shaken out casualties of conflict.” How tragic to give so much and then, come home to meander aimlessly without a purpose, or place to stay.

This is truly a wonderful book about walking and our relationship with our landscape. I highly recommend the audiobook read by the sublime Robin Sachs in his wonderful voice.

Words I don’t recall having heard before:
Bindlestiff: a tramp or a hobo, especially one carrying a bundle containing a bedroll and other gear.
Stravaiger: one who wanders about idly; a stroller; a wanderer.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,109 reviews1,175 followers
June 24, 2019
‘There is no road, the road is made by walking’ Antonio Machado

It's bad luck for Robert Macfarlane that I read his book immediately after The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, which is characterized by its purity and depth. Macfarlane regularly refers to Shepherd and he also wrote a nice preface in the reissue of her book. But "The Old Ways" is much more superficial and more focused on effect instead of content.

Macfarlane really raves with the cult of walking that is now thriving in almost all Western countries, and he sometimes turns it into pure bigotry. I was particularly bothered by his phobia of Neolithic and Mesolithic paths and remains, which regularly turned into a kind of "noble savage"-mania. The author also constantly puts himself in the spotlight as if he were the presenter of a TV documentary permanently visible with all his peddling tics. I was bothered by historical inaccuracies, such as the claim that the ancient Romans only had eyes for country roads and neglected the seaways. His excursions almost always end with hallucinations as if prolonged walking suddenly gives access to another dimension of reality in which ghosts, panthers and other unlikely phenomena can be observed.

But I don't want to complain too much about this book. Of course, I share Macfarlane's enthusiasm for tracing and walking old roads, and exploring their historical and spatial context. It's quite entertaining to read his different adventures, both in the UK as a in some other parts of the world. Throughout the book there are sometimes striking descriptions of the interaction between landscapes and the people who live in them or walk through them, such as this: “Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: "scapes", it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only about the courses of our lives, but instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take 'landscape' as a collective term for the temperature and the pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme), and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment. ” Also his references to Edward Thomas and the moving evocation of the last days of that British poet in the trenches in the 1st world war are quite worthwhile.

But yes, this book has disappointed me a little. Macfarlane wants to tell to many things at once, and he is also very indebted to predecessors (which he leaves unquoted). For more original and in-depth reflections on walking, you should go to Rebecca Solnit (A History of Walking) and Tim Ingold (Lines), and of course first and foremost to Nan Shepherd. (2.5 stars)
Profile Image for Deborah Harkness.
Author 30 books29k followers
February 16, 2021
I've got this book on my bedside table right. I'm really enjoying reading a chapter or two every night of this very evocative nature writing about ancient paths through the landscape. The writing is stunning--I really feel like I'm walking the paths with him.
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
520 reviews42 followers
November 18, 2022
This book took me so long to read because McFarland took me to places I knew nothing about, so I “had to” do a lot of side-reading, a leading indicator on how much I am going to love a book. His sensibilities about place and our interaction with it, being in and passing through a place, putting our being there, were wonderful to share. I highlighted many passages that are quite moving and here is one. “Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.” Walking a path connects us to others who came before and those who come after us.

The walks he takes us on aren’t just daily constitutionals but historic or religious or even miraculous like walking on water. I really loved it but sometimes I was confused about who or what he was talking about. He throws in Thomas or “he” and I was always unclear, some writer or artist mentioned and I’d lost context, feeling I dishonored him or he did me a disservice by not paying close enough attention. But otherwise, a wonderful book that took me many places historical, geographical and metaphysical. (A very model of a modern major general, lol)
Profile Image for Lee Prescott.
Author 1 book149 followers
September 11, 2023
Impeccably written and when good, exceptionally good. Hard as it is for me to give anything with 'The Old Way' in the title anything less than 5 stars there were too many chapters where the book just either repeated itself or drifted and didn't really say anything new. Perhaps MacFarlane managed to get across that state one can get into which is the joy of walking, where there is sheer pleasure in the act of motion, in his writing, but I found myself switching off and skimming a fair bit of the content.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
October 18, 2014
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 particularly a walker myself, not now. As a kid I walked quite a lot with my grandfather, who would never have been nearly as poetic about walking as Macfarlane. It's walking in the mountains in Wales that speaks to me, the hot still space at a ford where you could turn down toward home or go on toward a blackberry field, flies swarming on the evidence that a horse had come through earlier that day. Not a trek across chalk or snow or fen land: not this quasi-mystical experience of the landscape-as-self, just a walk on a warm day with blackberries in the middle and a scolding for getting so dusty/muddy at the end. If we went further afield, a hand-drawn map with "Grandma fell here" or some such comment to immortalise the trip.

Still, I can appreciate the sentiment behind this, and the lyrical writing. It just gets a bit too caught up in itself for me.
919 reviews255 followers
July 12, 2020
So much of this is written so, so beautifully, and I wanted to love it, but again there were just a few... off things that tempered that potential for me. Mainly the fact that after a while it begins to feel so, so very white-male-centric (with Nan Shepherd the regular exception to prove the rule, or at least make it that much more heavy apparent) in a way that feels really quite unnecessary - so much of the book is taken up with a combination of both meeting people who are still alive, and discussing the writings of those who have (usually) passed on, all around the context of walking the old ways, and those he chose to focus on did not always feel worth the attention. Or rather - there are others whose stories might have been far more interesting. The occasional digression from the British Isles alone - to Palestine, and to the Himalayas - shows the potential to have also digressed from this focus, but also lead to uncomfortable moments, like this one, when talking to the mother of his Palestinian friend, writer/lawyer Raja Shehadeh:

Her brow furrowed. "The Israelis have stolen this land from us, they are thieves. I once wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan, I knew it would go in the waste-paper basket, but I needed to get it off my chest. 'Dear President Reagan,' it began...

I stopped listening.

(Just... why, Robert?! This is covered far better than I can attempt right now by another reader in this review. I've also seen him interview Robin Wall Kimmerer in a beautiful hour of reciprocal sharing and generosity of being; the person I saw speak there is very much at odds with the one inadvertently shown in these pages.)

And then there are the digressions of subject, which sometimes work here and often do not - for example the penultimate chapter spends so much time with what feels like the entire life of poet Edward Thomas, mentioning often - and in a weirdly appeasing way - his emotional cruelty to his wife, and giving in great detail the last days spent at the front of WW1. It's all written very beautifully, but is so very off topic (it does return to the idea of paths in a quite lovely way, very occasionally through the chapter, but so much time is spent listing what feels like every telegram sent, every song played by the soldiers on their gramophone, that it's hard to remember what the point actually is) that it felt entirely out of place, part of an entirely different book.

The moments where the work really sings are when MacFarlane is in the beloved spaces he returns to so often in his writing - the Cairngorms, the northern isles - and I could have happily soaked up more hours of listening about the old sea roads of the Hebrides. It's just a shame the rest lost its way a little.
Profile Image for Laura Leaney.
468 reviews106 followers
August 31, 2013
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 sometimes I don’t even see it through the cloudy cataracts of work and worry that I can’t peel off.

Reading Robert MacFarlane’s book was like learning how to walk again – walking like the most present-minded Buddhist on the earth after you’ve been awarded a university education and read thousands of books. MacFarlane is the most erudite lover of topography I’ve ever read. More knowledgeable than Thoreau's Walden, more interesting than Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, and more inspiring than a High Sierra trail guide, this book shows the reader a way to see while you're on the journey.

It took me a long time to read this book, not because I got bored, but because it’s beautiful and slow and I didn’t want to rush. The book is divided by place (England, Scotland, Abroad, and back to England) and then again by landscape (Limestone, Roots, and Ice for instance). So I paused between places and let it sink in. Wherever MacFarlane is, he “follows the ancient footprints” and weaves in a remarkable knowledge of poetry, painting, music, and history. I learned more words in this one book than in the last five years of reading.

One less than beautiful section was still quite compelling; it’s the one called Limestone, where MacFarlane travels to Palestine to see his friend Raja Shehadeh. After the beauty of England and Scotland – a beauty so primal and mythic that it takes the breath – the paths they walk in Palestine are unnaturally frightening. Instead of being menaced by tides or animals, the danger is human: “A hundred yards further on, the road ran out, dribbling to a stop next to a part-completed villa. We moved onto rough ground and picked up a path that descended the terracing, towards the wadi bed. The heat of the day was building but a big westerly wind was also blowing. At the base of an olive tree was a scatter of big bullet-casings. They looked like the spoor of a creature: AK-47 droppings.” I’m sorry, but I would not have enough boldness to take this path.

MacFarlane quotes Nietzsche as saying “only those thoughts which come from walking have any value” and Wallace Stevens, “Perhaps / The truth depends on a walk around a lake.” Most people will feel the sense of both lines. There is a marvelous mind-clearing simplicity in just walking.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
428 reviews412 followers
July 30, 2020
73rd book for 2018.

I loved Macfarlane's use of language.

Each journey is a story, a pilgrimage, that builds together to something quite beautiful. He is somehow able to imbue magic to the simple action of walking along a well worn path.

I will definitely read more of Macfarlane.

Profile Image for Sienna.
363 reviews76 followers
August 7, 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 perfection of lines like "The snow was overwhelmingly legible. Each print-trail seemed like a plot that could be read backwards in time; a series of allusions to events since ended" (7). I had anticipated certain elements: the meandering travelogue, meditation on self, love of the outdoors and the part of us that responds only to(/in) nature, historical references to lost and found alike, the trail of humanity in footprints. But it was the poetry that leapt out at me time and again. I refer both to Macfarlane's writing ("coastlines have become ghost-lines") and the poets whose words accompanied him on his travels, made them richer and more resonant not only for this itinerant writer but for his audience as well. After all, "The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature — a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells" (18). Both recount, and both connect (105).

How do I reach into my grab-bag of dozens of highlighted passages and do justice to this telling without boring you? I can't — but I can't resist sharing anyway, and hoping that I choose wisely enough to convince you to read more:

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in'.

As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places — but we are far less good at saying what places make of us. For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, 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?

We follow Macfarlane around Britain, to Spain and Palestine and Tibet; we track the wanderings of his erudite mind as tides erase coastal prints and frigid temperatures transform snowy footprints into foot-plinths. He helpfully begins each chapter with a linguistic snapshot of its contents that looks and reads a lot like freeform poetry (Dream islands — Boulder ballast — Sea stores & aster mara — A Stornoway crow's nest — 'The way one phrase talks to another'). He takes us to Doggerland and defines wayfaring terminology in any number of languages — the Hebridean Gaelic term rionnach maoim means "the shadows cast on the moorland by cumulus clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day" (164); the etymology of the word saunter goes back to the notion of sacred pilgrimage — on land and sea, in our past and future:

The act of chart-reading, even more than the act of map-reading, is part data-collection and part occultism. Sailors, like mountaineers, practise their map clairvoyance based on intuition and superstition as well as on yielded information.


Wind-histories as well as wind-futures need to be taken into account, for the sea can have a long memory for past agitations.

Scattered with myriad snake's hands, this book is many books hidden in remarkably few pages: a literary doorway into countless worlds, all of them strange and beautiful and true. The one inhabited by turn-of-the-last-century travel-writer, poet and soldier Edward Thomas, who walked to out-stride his sadness, for whom "map-reading approached mysticism" (48), recurs throughout The Old Ways. John Berger ("landswept"), Charles Darwin, William Fox, William Hogarth, W.H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies, the doubly named Martin Martin, Nan Shepherd, Thoreau (of course) and everyone's favorite eccentric philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, all make appearances. Macfarlane also introduces us to contemporary English, Scottish and Irish poets like Pauline Stainer (wow!) and Ian Stephen whose words I look forward to reading at greater length. I can't remember the last time I pored over the selected bibliography of a non-academic text and promptly downloaded out-of-copyright works from Internet Archive and earmarked in-print books to order as my bank account permits.

Best of all are the descriptions of the people who accompany Macfarlane, or whom he meets along the way(s), as though he effortlessly, lovingly distills the essence of each person into a few sentences. There's the artist Steve Dilworth, who reminds Macfarlane that "a shaman who took himself seriously would be insufferable" (171). Of David Quentin, with whom he traversed the Broomway, he writes:

David is a former scholar of Renaissance literature, turned antiquarian-book dealer, turned barrister, turned tax lawyer. He is probably the only Marxist tax lawyer in London, possibly in the world. He likes wearing britches, likes walking barefoot, and hopes daily for the downfall of capitalism. He is 6'7" tall, very thin, very clever, and has little interest in people who take it upon themselves to comment without invitation on his height and spindliness. We have covered a lot of miles together. (66)

Then there's Finlay MacLeod, "a fierce opponent of those he considers his fierce opponents", who rightly views geography and history as consubstantial (147):

Short, nimble and bright-eyed, there is more than a hint of faery to Finlay. He has a crinkled smile and his shoulders shake when he laughs, which is often. He is constantly impious, though that doesn't stop him from taking things seriously. The only Christianity of which he approves was that which flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the island, a pre-Reformation worship in which pagan habits were mixed with Christian rites. (145)

I loved all of this and more, but Miguel Angel Blanco's Biblioteca del Bosque in Madrid found a path to my heart and will remain there until planes, trains and my own two feet carry me to it:

It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books — though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains the natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beach, elm. (239)

When he arrives, Macfarlane is instructed by Blanco to choose three books from the library: these will correspond to his past, present and future. "You don't need to take much care," Blanco's wife Elena tells him with a smile, "because the books will choose you, not the other way around."

An extraordinary library and an extraordinary story in a book full of them: magic.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,889 reviews1,416 followers
September 9, 2022
The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature -- a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.

The opening and closing sections of the book were riveting: a first person account of a walk along the chalk deposits, one echoing the poet Edward Thomas. A few hundred pages later there’s a dazzling yet moving depiction of Thomas as walker. naturalist, family man, poet and finally one of the honored dead of the Great War. If Macfarlane had confined himself to a walking biography of the man this would’ve been a powerful work. Instead we have ocean voyage, religious pilgrimage and meditations on altitude sickness. Much of this book is a mess.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews79 followers
March 2, 2022
I previously read Macfarlane’s Underland, and though I liked it, I found it more lyrical than science-based, and sometimes he got so deeply, personally involved in his subject that I was rolling my eyes in disbelief. He is a man deeply imbued with the spirit of high Romanticism. This book was better, more thoughtful and without so many flights of prose fantasy, and I was sometimes impressed by his ability to come up with evocative little gems, such as “Planes flew past every few minutes, dragging cones of noise,” (p. 55) or “Lift is created by the onwards rush of life over the curved wing of the soul.” (p. 303) On the other hand, sometimes he gets carried away by his words, writing phrases that would embarrass a Hallmark greeting card writer, as with “the sun loosed its summer light, as it had done for uncountable years, across the sea, the island and my body, a liquid so rich that I wanted to eat it, store it, make honey of it for when winter came.” (p. 112) Umm, sure….

This book is a meditation on how journeys are never just about getting from one place to another. Every land or seascape poses vistas to observe, problems to overcome, and reminders of deep time. Although most of the trips he describes take place in the British Isles, he goes as far afield as Palestine and Tibet. For me, in fact, those distant walks were the most interesting part of the book. In Palestine you have to break the law just to live, and in Tibet the sheer struggle for survival seems to highlight the majesty of limitless mountains and endless time.

For many people walking is part of how they make sense of their lives, of the world and their place in it. For these people the walk, as a friend of mine once said, “is not about the getting there, but the going there.” For Macfarlane destinations were always nominal ending points, and some of his trips were quite interesting. He walked the ancient Icknield Way, at least as old as Roman Britain, and possibly stretching back deep into the Iron Age. He also walked the Broomway, a seapath off the coast of Essex which is only passable at low tide; much of it is poorly marked and confusing, and being caught on it when the tide returns has been fatal to a number of people. Several of his other hikes also involved questionable choices, and he sometimes found himself in difficult situations which a bit of foresight would have prevented.

He has a talent for describing beautiful, memorable landscapes, and the ability to summon interesting facts, as when writing of the chalk of the White Cliffs of England’s southeast, which were “laid down on the bed of epicontinental seas at the rate of about 1mm per century over a period of about 35 million years.” (p. 39) For people who are always looking for a reason to lace up their hiking books and head out, this book can provide inspiration and enjoyment, and based on some of the other reviews I have read, some people really love Macfarlane’s writing style, so to each his own.
Profile Image for Sher.
536 reviews3 followers
March 4, 2013
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, setting down its own path on the water. The sea full of luminescent plankton, so behind us purled our wake, a phosphorescent line of green and yellow bees, as if the hull were setting a hive swarm beneath us. We were at the convergence of many paths of light, which flexed and moved with us as we are headed north" (134).

Macfarlane introduced me to the idea that the path - the walk -- the hike-- the way --changes how we think -- he well argues how the landscape has an impact on the way we think and who we are. By walking the path we create meaning and also can look back into the past by considering those who have walked before us. As I daily hike on our 160 acres, this book has given me much to consider as I make my field notes.

Highly erudite - the book could be easier to read, and I think it did not help that all the places in the book are known to Brits and possibly to folks from Scotland, but not to me having never visited the moors and the downs and the isles. :)

Still, it's a unique book, and a wonderful example of creative nonfiction, and highly recommended for people that spend much of their time hiking and observing in the outdoors.
Profile Image for Dylan Horrocks.
Author 124 books415 followers
August 11, 2015
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 Tolkien would have *loved* this book. And also to say that I wish more fantasy novels were like this...
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