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Published: The Scotsman (Books) 9 June 2012

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
By Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton, 433pp, GBP20,

WE EASILY forget that we are track-makers,” writes Robert Macfarlane in his introduction to The Old Ways, “because most of our journeys occur on asphalt and concrete.” He’s right, of course: it’s hard to feel much affinity with a lynx or a deer or a mountain hare when you’re slogging up the high street from Tesco’s to Starbucks, laden down with shopping bags, dodging wads of chewing gum and choking on exhaust fumes. But in common with other animals, in places where the ground is softer and more forgiving we also leave tracks behind us as we walk, and when others follow in our footsteps these tracks gradually evolve into paths, paths which can sometimes last for hundreds, even thousands of years.

These products of “consensual making” are Macfarlane’s subject in this, the third book in what he calls his “trilogy about landscape and the human heart,” and as the title suggests he is particularly intrigued by examples which have stood the test of time, from reputedly prehistoric trails like the Icknield Way, carved out of the chalk between Norfolk and Buckinghamshire by countless footfalls over the ages, to pilgrimage routes like the Camino de Santiago and its tributaries, all leading to the holy site of Santiago de Compostela. Occasionally he expands his definition, sailing the old sea roads of the Hebrides in an open boat with Stornoway skipper Ian Stephen, for example, or walking a decidedly non-consensual path on the Isle of Harris – a path which the artist Steve Dilworth has created all by himself and which only he knows about.

In a similar vein to his comments on the way in which urban sprawl cuts us off from our ancient routes through the landscape, Macfarlane might have added that even among recreational walkers, the act of following paths has started falling out of fashion in recent years. Just as skiers increasingly look for their thrills off-piste, so hikers seem increasingly determined to get “off the beaten track”. It’s almost as if, in our desperation to escape the claustrophobia of the cities, a footpath in the countryside represents yet another tentacle of the industrial-military complex; as if to find true peace, we have to locate sanctuaries completely free from signs of human intervention. For various reasons, then, we are in danger of forgetting the magic of the old ways, but Macfarlane does a compelling job of rescuing them from obscurity.

His muse and notional travelling companion is the poet, soldier and avid walker Edward Thomas, killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, but not before leaving behind a considerable body of work concerning the old highways and byways of southern England. One of these paths, the Icknield Way, inspired him to write a book of the same name – a work Macfarlane describes as “partly a guide to the history and geography of the Way, partly a meditation on its metaphysics” – so it’s perhaps inevitable that the younger writer should begin his odyssey here, following what Thomas called the “white snake” as it meanders through a lush, rolling and often completely deserted agricultural landscape.

Like Thomas and many before him, Macfarlane is fascinated by the links between thinking and walking. He is clearly delighted by the fact that the verb “to learn” has its root in the Old English “leornian,” meaning “to get knowledge” which is in turn derived from the Proto- Germanic “liznojan” meaning “to follow or to find a track”. He also notes that the distance from his heel to his toe is 29.7 centimetres – “a unit of progress and also a unit of thought”. His simple manifesto for the making of this book: “to set out on foot along the old ways, and discover what might be learnt by following them”.

On the Icknield Way, he learns that old paths never really die, even when property developers cover them with cheap, identikit houses; and while walking the Broomway, an offshore causeway on the Essex coast between the River Crouch and the River Thames, he discovers how walking barefoot can add subtle sensations of pressure and pattern to the more familiar ones of sight, sound and smell. Often, moments of illumination come not from time spent alone on the trail but from time spent with fellow travellers. Sailing to the Shiant Isles with Ian Stephen, he comes to realise the extent to which sailing terminology permeates his companion’s speech patterns – “the language of the sea and its ways was also the language of Ian’s self-understanding”. Similarly, while walking in Palestine with former human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh, he finds that, for his friend, returning over and over again to the same places serves as a way of keeping his own personal history fresh. Shehadeh’s map of the disputed territory outside Ramallah is annotated with captions like “where I found the dinosaur footprint” and “where I encountered the Israeli settler with the gun”.

Edward Thomas only decided to try his hand at poetry when the poet Robert Frost told him he was “a poet behind the disguise of prose” and you could say the much same about Macfarlane. His writing positively sparkles with evocative similes and clever wordplay: a group of strangers on a hilltop at dusk are “foreign as dark fish in ink”; elsewhere ravens mutter hexes, submerged coastlines become ghost-lines and flowers boil with bees.

That said, the book isn’t without one or two distracting errors. While describing a winter journey made along the Ridgeway in Wiltshire using cross-country skis, Macfarlane goes to great lengths to emphasise the contrast between his “decidedly unprehistoric” means of transport and the ancient landscape around him. Unfortunately, there’s well-documented evidence of the Norwegians using skis over 3,000 years ago. Occasionally, too, he’s guilty of making sweeping statements that don’t hold much water on closer inspection. He credits Thomas with sensing that “one of modernity’s most distinctive tensions would be between mobility and displacement on the one hand, and dwelling and belonging on the other … roaming and homing”, but surely that’s a tension at least as old as Homer’s Odyssey. These are minor irritations, though – mere molluscs on the hull of an otherwise perfectly streamlined word-vessel.

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