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148 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly great work of nature writing (and more)
This book completes Robert Macfarlane's trilogy of exploratory works of nature writing. If you are familiar with his previous work, it's worth my saying that in tone and content this is somewhere between The Wild Places and Mountains of the Mind. It is a personal exploration, but also contains a great deal of history and research.

In The Old Ways Macfarlane...
Published on 29 April 2012 by The Fisher Price King

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169 of 188 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Patchwork Path?
I was very pleased to get this proof copy to review, as walking is probably my favourite exercise (mind as well as body!). I've also enjoyed reading Roger Deakin, and had just finished Kathleen Jamie's haunting new collection Sightlines. As if I wasn't ready enough to love this book in advance, Macfarlane's vast canvas embraces East Anglia, where I now live, the...
Published on 28 April 2012 by Sentinel


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148 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly great work of nature writing (and more), 29 April 2012
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This book completes Robert Macfarlane's trilogy of exploratory works of nature writing. If you are familiar with his previous work, it's worth my saying that in tone and content this is somewhere between The Wild Places and Mountains of the Mind. It is a personal exploration, but also contains a great deal of history and research.

In The Old Ways Macfarlane examines the routes that mark - and in many cases lie submerged within or beneath - the British landscape. And not just the British landscape, but Spain and Palestine too. He draws out the connections between pathways and stories, reflecting on the different kinds of thinking and writing there have been inspired by travelling on foot.

Macfarlane is a lyrical, eloquent writer, whose portfolio of interests encompasses art, geology, map-making, poetry, environmentalism and adventure. As he goes about this he is guided by the spirits of many who have gone before him; perhaps the most significant of these is the poet Edward Thomas, with the artist Eric Ravilious another.

This is both a book about journeys and a journey in its own right - into the past, but also into the self. It is scholarly, informative, moving and thought-provoking. Highly recommended to existing fans, and it will probably create a new fanbase, especially among those who admire really finely crafted writing.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Walk to Connect with Ancient History, 10 May 2013
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The Old Ways is a poetic book - whatever that means: lyrical, elegiac, figurative; the writer walks, and the reader follows, but the images conjured up by our footfall on ancient paths, slow us down, as we try to make sense of their meaning.

Macfarlane doesn't walk to get from point A to B, nor is he a "pilgrim" concerned with himself. He's not "testing his limits" - yet his walks can be very demanding. His first journey on foot takes him up the ancient Icknield Way. He cracks a rib or two even before starting his trip, but this only seems to him a minor impediment to walking - a entrance fee for admission onto a mythical path: He considers this to be his "entry fee" to the old way, "charged at one of the usual tollbooths".

The fact that he covers a hefty thirty miles a day and sleeps rough, Macfarlane only mentions in passing. And while other foot travel writers can go on for pages describing the slog of finding a place to sleep, Macfarlane simply notes: "I slept that night in a Neolithic dormitory on a seabed of chalk".

Neolithic - the New Stone Age. For Macfarlane, who estimates to have walked 6000 to 7000 miles on foot paths in his life so far, walking the old ways is about connecting with a landscape and its history - crossing over into a forgotten world.

If footpaths and walking them is not just an ordinary activity for you, but a profound, and, at times, even a mystic experience, this book is for you.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and evocative, but dense reading, 29 April 2013
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This book has taken me a good long while to read my way through, mainly because it is so beautifully written but can be quite hard going at times as well! Part travelogue, part history book, part anecdotes, all fascinating, this is a really great book to add to the shelf of anyone with a love for travel and local history, especially where the travelling is done on foot!

Beginning and ending in the UK, the book covers the author's travels through places as diverse as the Icknield Way, the Broomway and Scottish and Hebridean sea travels, all the way over to Israel, Spain and the mountains of Sichuan to name but a few, and is full of musings on the nature of man and mankind and where we intersect with the land, and what walking on the land means to us. A wonderful, moving and lyrical book that really changes your perspective on the world and where you fit into it, and makes you itch to put on your walking boots and reconnect with the land around you.

Highly recommended, but not easy reading - I read a chapter, then mulled it over for a few days, then read another chapter and so on and so forth. Keep a dictionary to hand when you read, and a notebook, because you will almost certainly find references to other authors, historians and poets that you will want to go away and read after this book!
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It worked for me .... in the end, 15 Jun 2012
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To begin with I found this a disapointing 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 materpiece 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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are you a walker?, 5 Dec 2013
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This review is from: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Paperback)
If you are a walker you will 'know' this book .If you walk for pleasure rather than for exercise and companionship mostly, if a path wandering up a hillside has you hankering to follow it to---wherever, if a OS map sets you dreaming ---, if you feel the 'ghosts' of former travellers on old tracks --- you will love this book. And if you are none of these things -- you may be tempted ---Happy walking, and exploring.
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169 of 188 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Patchwork Path?, 28 April 2012
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Sentinel (Essex) - See all my reviews
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I was very pleased to get this proof copy to review, as walking is probably my favourite exercise (mind as well as body!). I've also enjoyed reading Roger Deakin, and had just finished Kathleen Jamie's haunting new collection Sightlines. As if I wasn't ready enough to love this book in advance, Macfarlane's vast canvas embraces East Anglia, where I now live, the Hebrides, the Cairngorms, the South Downs, Himalaya,and many other locations, plus a large dollop of Edward Thomas, as 'guiding spirit', all important touchstones for me. Yet I write this review with a sad heart. How can this be possible?

One of my fundamental problems was that I felt oddly distanced by the author's structure and language. I wanted to enjoy his company as guide, and to 'feel' the experience through his eyes, but was only occasionally successful. Partly this was because whenever his walk started to develop some momentum, he would detour into a name-checked digression about aspects of journey/pilgrimage which became increasingly repetitive over time, or would introduce one of a cast of characters/artists/eccentrics, who failed to illuminate/enrich the experience for me.

Nor does his language help the reader share his vision, as too often I felt it unnecessarily complex ("the boustrophedon motion of a path" or "everywhere..were pivot-points and fulcrums,symmetries and proliferations; the thorax points of a winged world"). This combination of excess and unnecessary complication also bedevils many of his metaphors and similies, with sunlight being a "thin magnesium burn-line". For me, these erected barriers causing me to scratch my head, distancing me from the setting, and my sense of companionship. Perhaps the best metaphor for this is Macfarlane's own tale of his "boyish excitement" as his bike freewheels down a Roman road, only to crash painfully on a hard rut. Too often I felt myself brought up short, just when I was settling into the rhythm of the 'old way' at my feet.

Yet there are also times where Macfarlane's prose does sing free and unfettered, particularly in his mountain walk in Spain, where you can almost smell the pinewoods, and the warmth of the sun on your back, as you reach a watershed to view Segovia "levitating from the baking plains" below. Similarly, his final focus on Edward Thomas, which seems to abandon the vehicle of 'old ways' completely, sees a completely different type of prose, beautifully stark, which is thoroughly captivating and engrossing (presumably influenced by Mathew Hollis magnificent biography of the poet Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas.)

Clearly an enormous amount of research has gone into this volume, given the amount of referencing and name-checking Macfarlane packs in. Unfortunately such an inclusive approach has the danger of a 'kitchen-sink job', and more ruthless editing may have helped the narrative 'flow'. As a consequence, the author's note which asserts "this could not have been written by sitting still" is undercut by the large amount of digressive and didactic material, some of it more suited to the study or lecture room. I appreciate others are likely to appreciate the dazzlingly broad scope of this book; but for this fellow walker, less is more.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A poetic and spiritual take on the rambler's guide, 17 May 2012
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Cartimand (Hampshire, UK.) - See all my reviews
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I won't bother discussing the detailed contents of this book, as that has been admirably covered by several other reviewers. So here goes with my brief musings on how I felt about The Old Ways.

My first impression was that The Old Ways was exceptionally well written. Robert Macfarlane's clever use of simile and metaphor certainly worked its magic on me and, within a few pages, I felt the urge to get out there, have a stroll through nature and feel the sun and wind on my skin again. The author's tip for alleviating insomnia certainly struck a ressonance with me, as I had been inadvertently using a similar mind-wandering technique. In fact, at the risk of labouring the sleepy motif, this is near-perfect bedtime reading.

My only criticisms are the slightly disappointing and somewhat baffling absence of any maps and the amount of time the author spends on sea lanes, which seem perhaps a tad out of place in a book subtitled "A Journey on Foot" (although the author does remind us of the "submarine and morbid" origins of chalk paths, thus providing a link and arguably justifying their inclusion).

No big deal though. Overall, this is a very enjoyable work that, through clever, evocative and occasionally startling use of language that jumps out at you from virtually every page, gets to the very essence of the journey.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not my cup of tea, 3 Oct 2014
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Aanel Victoria (USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Paperback)
I personally found this book too artificial, forced, arcane, strained, tedious, and disjointed. I would have rather had a story, a straight narrative, with a few asides about history or heritage, rather than a seemingly forced jam-packed conglomeration of disjointed facts and dredged-up tangents, trivia, and diversionary subject matter. Enough already; please use an editor. Eventually it became unpleasant to me and killed the joy of reading. That, plus the emphasis on depression. I'm not interested in reading about the English Malady (depression). I find it depressing. I gave the book my requisite 50 pages of reading time and found I had no desire to continue.

I think this book is going to appeal mainly to English persons and other Brits, or people who have been to the locations Macfarlane writes about. As for myself, it was too much of an overload, too arcane, and too tedious. I much prefer walking narratives like the wonderful A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over-hyped?, 3 Aug 2013
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J. S. Atherton "JSA" (Bedford, UK) - See all my reviews
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I picked this up (admittedly as the third item in a 3 for 2 deal at a physical bookshop--somehow this review will appear for the kindle edition, though) on the strength of the four pages of eulogistic review extracts at the front, many from writers I respect and have enjoyed.

And I can understand the appeal. One quoted review (from Metro--what difference does that make?) includes, "Read this and it will be impossible to take an unremarkable walk again". I am a sucker for books which aspire to change one's perspective on something. Macfarlane does so aspire, and he is erudite and generally engaging and refreshing. To begin with.

I found the book easy and relaxing to read, notwithstanding the occasionally esoteric vocabulary (there is an interesting glossary, though). But about half-way through, I realised why. It made no demands whatever. There is no argument to follow, there is no narrative to remember, apart perhaps from a few characters who pop up for a chapter early on and then get referred to by name only with no clue as to their role. It is a series of essays--no harm in that--and great to read for an hour, but easy to put down.

Edward Thomas pops up and recedes. (I was interested to learn about his relationship with Robert Frost, and possibly being the seed of "The Road less Traveled", and the impact of that on him in turn pp. 343-4) Interesting, but his role as a kind of "spirit guide" doesn't come off--Macfarlane is too opportunistic in his use of Thomas. He uses him to bolster points, but not to test them.

It washes over one, a warm bath of smug celebration of superior sensitivity.

(I overstate of course. It's just that all these sweet reviews need a little balancing sour!)
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63 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'It enlarges the imagined range for self to move in' (George Eliot), 6 Jun 2012
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Laura T (Bradford-on-Avon, UK) - See all my reviews
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I loved Robert Macfarlane's two previous books in this 'loose trilogy', 'Mountains of the Mind' and 'The Wild Places', and he is one of my favourite writers on landscape, place, and travel. So I have to confess to feeling some disappointment with 'The Old Ways'. There are some very fine passages in this book - Macfarlane's description of following 'the deadliest path in Britain', his journey to sacred mountain Minya Konka (which compares extremely favourably to Colin Thubron's account of a similar journey in 'To a Mountain in Tibet') and his brief sketch of the final days of Edward Thomas in the trenches spring to mind. For this reason, I have still given it four stars, but it ultimately lacks the coherence, restraint and power of its predecessors.

A major problem with this book is a lack of focus - Macfarlane seems to play with and then discard the idea of centring it around paths - and I thought it would have worked better as a collection of essays. But even then, several of the chapters are simply over-long and repetitive; Marfarlane makes the very interesting points that walking helps us unravel our thoughts, and that we are shaped by the landscapes in which we live, over and over again. His writing can also become slightly pretentious and pseudo-academic at times, which I didn't think ever happened in his earlier work - ironically, because 'Mountains of the Mind' is actually a far more academic work about man's fascination with mountains, and yet a much easier and more interesting read than this. In the same chapter, his descriptions range from the spot on - 'a slice-of-lemon daytime moon and a hot-coin sun' - to the laboured - 'landscape that was both real to the foot and mirageous to the mind' - and sometimes he simply says too much - 'moss as nightmare proofing-absorbent, a dabbing cloth for ill feelings.' After the very strong section on Thomas, the book simply trickles to an end with a meandering ramble about footprints.

On the other hand, Macfarlane's strengths are still showcased in this work, even if they are more diluted than normal. The mini-biography of Edward Thomas is simply beautiful. I've long been a fan of short biographies, which often seem to distil the essence of their subjects more effectively than long, comprehensive ones (Carol Shields on Jane Austen is a great example) and Macfarlane provides further evidence for this here, although I'm still keen to read the Matthew Hollis biography of Thomas that he uses extensively as a source. His description of the relationship between Thomas and his wife Helen is heartbreaking in its brevity: 'Their relationship is founded on her absolute love for him. But unconditional love is arduous to give, and even more arduous to receive... You cannot match my love; your love will always fall short of mine. Added to this is the realisation that the lover who loves you so much cannot be hurt by you; that their love is imperishable. Therefore you can try, almost guiltlessly, to hurt them'. While I have no way of knowing if this is factually true, the emotional truth of this description of such a relationship shines through, and this calibre of writing is evident in many isolated passages throughout the book.

I would recommend reading this, as some reviewers have done, by dipping in and out, and if not a success as a complete book, it's a wonderful quarry. I appreciated the glossary but would have to agree with the demand for maps - I'm suspicious that no pages have been left free for maps in my proof copy and so wonder if this is a problem in the final version as well. 'Paths need walking' says Macfarlane, and it would be a shame if the reader could not follow him.
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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (Paperback - 30 May 2013)
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