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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  4,389 ratings  ·  639 reviews
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 exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt old paths, of the stories our tracks keep ...more
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published October 11th 2012 by Viking (first published June 7th 2012)
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4.15  · 
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 ·  4,389 ratings  ·  639 reviews


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Better Eggs
I didn't enjoy this book at all. I thought it was as boring as it was well-written. Walking isn't a subject that interests me much, but the location and history of the walks does. There was too much about the minutae of the walks - long lists of every kind of plant and a thesaurusful of synonyms. The author is in love with words for words sake. I'm not, I like the words to go somewhere, and these didn't for me.

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

I have long be
...more
Kelly
"'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
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
Zanna
Dec 05, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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 gues ...more
Miriam
Dec 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: travel
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
...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
Joanna
Nov 08, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
As a walker I wanted to like this but gave up after the first few chapters.

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

Sorry, but I'd rather go for a walk.
Marc
Jun 21, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
‘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 W
...more
Lyn Elliott
This is a wonderful book. Superbly written, reflective, illuminating on connections between people, places, journeys and times. A treasure.
As Macfarlane himself wrote in the Author's note: 'It tells the story of walking a thousand miles or more along the old ways in search of a route to the past, only to find myself delivered again and again to the contemporary' (p364).

It is not just about walking, journeys on foot. One surprising journey was sailing, on ancient sea roads which, he writes, 'are
...more
Ken
Dec 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
MacFarlane has some poetry to his credit and it shows. Of course this is not surprising, as he is a travel writer, and travel writers are all about description... imagery, in other words. They are our planes, trains, and automobiles, bound to get us there. And, in this case, once there, McFarlane asks that we walk by his side and listen as he identifies the rocks, trees, birds, cloud types, and historical back stories. These are the "old ways," the foot paths -- the link, if you will, to our anc ...more
Graychin
Nov 26, 2012 rated it liked it
My hopes for this book were dampened by the heavy-handed opening section, but when MacFarlane got to talking about his excursion on the “Broomway,” a tidal public right-of-way between the Essex coast and Foulness (wonderful name), he had me. He had me, that is, but then lost me again after fudging what seemed two promising but poorly accomplished sailing expeditions and unadvisedly taking seriously an “artist” friend who believes his masterpiece will involve implanting a human skeleton packed in ...more
Will Ansbacher
Dec 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel, biography, history
This is pure magic. The old ways are foot-paths and sea-lanes, mostly around Britain, but in Spain, Palestine and China too for good measure. Macfarlane has a wonderful descriptive style; his similes and metaphors are breathtaking yet never go over the top into the purple prose of Creative Writing. Reading them (and I read a few selections aloud to R for the sheer pleasure of hearing the word-plays and allusions) is almost like reading poetry. Within each chapter, there are digressions into the ...more
Nikki
Oct 18, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The Old Ways was, for me, a bit like reading Richard Fortey's work. Non-fiction that I'm not necessarily very interested in, but which is beautifully written, lyrical, literate. It wasn't boring at all -- meditative, perhaps. Sometimes Macfarlane's a little too airy and mystical for me, too caught up in his imagination, but sometimes he comes round to something like Fortey, like the book I read recently on meditation, like Francis Pryor's book about Seahenge and the ritual landscape.

I'm not part
...more
Sienna
Jun 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012, kindle, favorites
(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
Laura Leaney
Dec 02, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Occasionally, while hiking or walking , I’ll have some kind of contemplative moment, or I’ll hug a tree in order to feel the cool greenness of lichen against my cheek, but usually when I look at an oak tree or a shale slope I see an oak tree and a shale slope. My mind, as Hedley Lamarr says in Blazing Saddles is “aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.” The “seething cauldron” of non-peacefulness.

I walk a lot. I live near the ocean – and so
...more
Overbylass
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
Gill
Dec 31, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

I had a library copy, which I had to read straight through quickly and return. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I had been able to dip into it over a longer period, and enjoy it a section at a time.

I enjoy Macfarlane's writing style, and the way that he mixes personal experiences, historical information, descriptive writing etc in each section. I was especially interested in all the parts about Edward Thomas and about Eric Ravilious.

Afterthought from reading this book: I do
...more
Jo Bennie
Jun 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: m
MacFarlane completes his trilogy of nature writing with a meditation on walking. It can be read seperately but dovetails beautifully with its companions. MacFarlane's first book, Mountains of the Mind, was an exploration of how the cultural concept of mountains has changed over time. The second, The Wild Places, of the concept of wilderness and our need to reach for it. This third book, The Old Ways, speaks of the lost pathways that were used by our ancestors and are almost, but not quite, forgo ...more
Sher
Jan 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The finest essay writing about ways -- paths both terra firma, water, sand, snow, and ice. Each chapter is a separate work, and Macfarlane interweaves his story of experiencing the path and introduces the reader to past travelers and present masters of the path. Moments of the most brilliant prose (naturalist perspective) I have ever read. Sentences I would read again and again for their freshness and astounding organization. "The moon, low, a waxing half, richly coloured -- a red-butter moon, s ...more
Nimue Brown
Dec 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite what the title may suggest to a Pagan reader, this is not, exactly, a book about old religion. It’s about walking. Much of that walking however, happens on ancient trackways, and pilgrim routes, so the old ways in the sense of roads connect with the old ways in the sense of our ancestor’s beliefs.

I’m a walking Druid. For me, walking has become an act of communion and ritual. Author Robert MacFarlane expresses how and why that should be so, in beautiful, lyrical depictions of journeys. Wa
...more
Laura
Jun 15, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bettie, Wanda
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the week:
"Humans are like animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets, holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

Author Robert Macfarlane follows some ancient routes in the UK and overseas. As well as having adventures on the way - as you do on foot - he ponders the creation of old paths, t
...more
Dylan Horrocks
Someone asked what this book was like and I found myself describing it as the most satisfying fantasy novel I'd read in a long time, only it's not fantasy and it's not a novel.

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

Of course, there's much more to it than that, but it's all been said elsewhere; so I just want to add that I'm pretty sure
...more
John
Mar 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really 3.5 stars, but I'm rounding up as the audio narration fit the storyline so well.

The U. K. travels I found far stronger material than the treks in Spain, Palestine, and Asia. Others have found fault with the prose as "too purple," which I can understand; however, the theme here is quite nature-specific, which ordinarily would be difficult to hold my interest, but Macfarlane was fairly successful in that regard. If I had to use a single word to describe the book, "evocative" comes to mind.
...more
Carol Bakker
As I read the first hundred pages, I was pretty sure this would be a 5-star book. But it started to drag, and I had to push to finish it. I love travel memoirs, especially foot-travel memoirs. Colin Thubron, Rob Gifford, and George Borrow are a few walker-writers that occupy my shelves.

Like a journey hither and yon, this book wandered here and there, camping on a character's story before taking to the sea, to Spain, to Palestine, to Scotland or back to England. Some characters (the shaman who o
...more
Pamela
May 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I didn’t really get into this travelogue until the closing chapters in which Macfarlane explores a landscape I know well (the South Downs) and muses on the life of the poet, and fellow Downs wayfarer, Edward Thomas (1878-1917), of whom I knew absolutely nothing. The penultimate chapter, titled Ghost, is a beautifully written valediction of a writer who didn’t have any idea that he was a poet until Robert Frost rearranged some of his prose and showed him the way.

Why did Macfarlane wait to the end
...more
Phil James
Nov 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Walkers and contemplatives, armchair travellers and earth-mystics.
Shelves: audio-books
A book unlike any modern genre but also deeply rooted in the tradition of travellers that use their travel in the exterior world as a way to talk about the interior life.
To be taken at a slow walking pace. When you have plenty of time for contemplation. The audio version is read in an agreeable, deep richly rolling voice. Good before bedtime, I suppose.
Phil
Apr 20, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although I preferred the UK and Irish sections of the book, it's an inspiring read and beautifully written account of how to connect with both the landscape and one's self while walking.
Camelia Rose
I’ve found a new favourite nature writer! So many beautiful, powerful paragraphs that I want to read and re-read. I especially love the part about China and Scottish islands.

Some examples:

"'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.'"

"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
...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Robert Macfarlane takes off on foot, and, as he walks along, he thinks, he explores, he ties ideas together, he contemplates. He travels to England, to Scotland, to Palestine, to Spain, to the Himalayas, and everywhere he goes, he shares what he knows, and what he knows is a huge web of information and a vast complexity of linked thought. You'd never guess a walk-and-talk could be so incredibly rewarding.
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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.
“Single trees are extraordinary; trees in number more extraordinary still. To walk in a wood is to find fault with Socrates's declaration that 'Trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do.' Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile. It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind.

"Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed -- incidentally, deliberately -- imagination and memory go with them. W.H. Auden knew this. 'A culture,' he wrote warningly in 1953, 'is no better than its woods.' ”
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“Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines. They perhaps most closely resemble the patterns of ridge and swirl revealed when a tide has ebbed over flat sand” 12 likes
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