26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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!
57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on 15 June 2012
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.
157 of 167 people found the following review helpful
on 29 April 2012
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 5 December 2013
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.
176 of 195 people found the following review helpful
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
... as with campsites, there are so many roads still left to be taken, and so little time. Richard Macfarland has written a rich, evocative paean to the pleasures of travel at the optimum speed for savoring the world around us; the sub-title proclaims the method - on foot (though a slow boat does also make its appearances). For me, the book "worked" on many different levels. There is the plain "goad" to get out on the trail, and there are so many that he describes. There was the sheer enjoyment of experiencing Macfarland's remarkable erudition. To read can be to learn, and in this book there was so much that is new, exciting and unknown to me... another "goad," an intellectual one. And even for a native English speaker... or more properly, as my British "cousins" would remind me, American speaker, an Oxford Dictionary is an appropriate accompaniment so that the reader can look up the meaning of so many of the technical terms of geology, botany, nautical, et al., that Macfarland uses with confidence. History, literature and philosophy are also woven into the author's musing while walking. He quotes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (Oxford World's Classics): "I can only meditate when I am walking, when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs." And then there are those essential but unlikely connections humans make among themselves, and are the wiser for it.
Macfarland groups his walks into four major sections, located in England, Scotland, "Abroad" and finishing with England again. He commences with a walk in the snow, near the time of the winter solstice, from his home in Cambridge. The reader is soon introduced to Edward Thomas, who wrote The Icknield Way in 1913. Macfarland takes part of the Icknield, which extends from Norfolk to Wiltshire, on the south coast. It is an area of chalk, and the path is one of England's oldest roads. He then takes what is billed as "deadliest" path in Britain: the Broomway, which crosses a tidal estuary in East Anglia. The author says that the trail is a "halfway house" between the land and the sea, a fitting introduction to his boat trips in Scotland, mainly near the Outer Hebrides. There are "paths" in the ocean that have been used for millennium, and he encourages the reader to conceptualize looking at a "negative" of the normal map of Europe; it is the edge(s) from northern Scotland all the way to Spain that had more in common with each other than they did with the inhabitants only 30 km inland. The Atlantic "country." He "illuminated" for me the rituals and traditions involved with the hunting of gannets on a "speck" of an island to the north of the Hebrides, Sula Sgeir.
Macfarland's three "abroad" trips are varied, and impressive. Concerning the unlikely connections in life, he knows Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape, a book I read (and reviewed) four years ago. Macfarland visits Shehadeh, who is an excellent guide to walking those ancient hills, and the trials and tribulations that hikers in many countries do not experience. The second hike is in Spain, a portion of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, coming from Madrid over the Guadarrama mountains into Segovia. And the third hike is in Western Tibet, near the mountain sacred to the Buddhists, the triangular Minya Konka.
Back in England, Macfarland discusses the life of the painter Ravilious, as well as his walking habits. Then he returns for a deeper look at Edward Thomas: "Thomas sensed early 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- with the former becoming ubiquitous and the latter becoming lost (if ever it had been possible) and reconfigured as nostalgia... It is hard to make anything like a truce between these two incompatible desires." I was fascinated by the author's descriptions of a friendship between Thomas and Robert Frost, with the latter visiting him on occasions. Frost sent him a draft of "The Road Not Taken" which may have been inspired by Thomas' actions. At the age of 36, with a family, Thomas enlisted, and was killed in the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917. I couldn't help think of the line from the movie Doctor Zhivago  [DVD], uttered at the commencement of World War I, by his half-brother, Yevgraf: "Happy men don't enlist."
Macfarlane peppers his work with numerous bon-mots. Consider, as a symbol of hospitality and friendship: "A self-replenishing tumbler of gin." There is also a wonderful bibliography worth exploring. Neither Frost nor Macfarland raised the issue that, if the mortar round doesn't get you, you might live long enough to double back, and take the road that you missed the first time around. For Macfarlane's wonderful account and inspiration, 6-stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
We spend so much time in the twenty first century travelling by car, train or plane that we miss so much of the countryside. Walking makes you realise how much you are missing. In this book Robert Macfarlane takes us on several journeys both in the UK and abroad and shows us the countryside we take for granted and ignore. He talks about flora and fauna, geology and prehistoric humans about history and religions both ancient and modern as well as landmarks both natural and manmade.
The book has chapters on such relatively well known paths and tracks as the Icknield Way and the Ridgeway and the positively dangerous path on the coast of Essex called the Broomway. The author takes to the sea off the West coast of Scotland and follows sea routes between islands which have been known and followed for centuries. He walks in Tibet and follows pilgrim routes in Spain and he walks - taking risks with life and limb - in Palestine and Israel.
The book is well written and the author brings his surroundings and his experiences to life so that I felt I had been on the journeys with him while I was reading. I enjoyed reading about the people he met while he was walking and the people who accompanied him as his walking was not always solitary.
There are copious notes and a bibliography and index in this book. I found it a pleasure to read and I know it will lead me on to read other books in similar vein.
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2013
Robert Macfarlane has produced a marvelous and haunting book. Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanual College, Cambridge, and he is well known for his scholarly introductions to a wide range of works. He is, however, also a keen (obsessive?) walker and climber, and has walked literally thousands of miles all around the world.
In this book he is particularly interested in exploring ancient ways, old paths that have existed for centuries. He starts with the Icknield Way, apparently Britain's oldest surviving route which extends from West Norfolk down to Dorset, running for part of its way along the Ridgeway (and there are many who believe that they are both parts of the same ancient route). Macfarlane likes to start early, often sleeping out in the open and starting to walk as soon as he wakes (in the summer often around 4.00 a.m. once the skylarks start their raucous early chorus), and will often walk more than thirty miles in a day. He clearly loves the country, and his descriptions of the flora and fauna are detailed and affectionate. However, his greatest interest seems to be in the geology of his routes about which he is immensely informative without ever losing the reader's interest of seeming to proselytise.
One of the joys of this book is the light he sheds on old routes, some of which remain in use while others have been all but lost. One of the routes he follows is described as the deadliest path in England and actually involves walking across Maplin Sands off the Essex coast, across sea to the island of Foulness, and this can only be done when the tide is out. As with Morecambe Bay, scene of a tragedy several years ago when a troop of bonded labour cockle pickers were drowned, the tide at Foulness comes in with terrific pace, faster than a man can run, so constant attention to times, tide maps and conditions is essential. The walk is known as "The Broomway" because of a series of high brooms planted along the course to show where the safe land is. Macfarlane and a friend completed the path and he gives a beautiful description of the interplay between the land, the sea and the indeterminate margin where one morphs into the other.
He doesn't just consider walking, though. Some of the most ancient routes were across the sea, and before the advent of decent roads (What did the Romans ever do for us ....) the quickest way to travel was generally by sea, using the network of tides and currents that surround the country. Two chapters are devoted to voyages from Stornoway following ancient trade routes throughout the Hebrides.
He also recounts a walk from Blair Atholl to Tomintoul en route to attend the funeral of his grandfather, also an ardent walker and about whom Macfarlane offers a moving memoir. I know the area he depicts in this walk, but will look at it in a wholly different way from now on.
Other walks include a wander through disputed areas in Palestine, the Camino in Spain and around the sacred peak of Mount Kailash in Tibet . The final chapter is a brief but poignant biography of Edward Thomas, the Welsh poet who died in World War One, and who had devoted much of his life to walking, and writing about it.
All in all a very striking book - in fact it seemed like several books in one.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book has attracted such golden opinions from the critics that it is quite hard to be objective about it, but if you are new to Macfarlane's work (as I was), then these observations may be useful to a potential purchaser. On one level, this is quite a conventional travel book in the sense that it recounts the author's treks across some memorable long established paths both in the UK and abroad from The South Downs to the Northern Isles of Scotland, Spain and the Himalayas. However, the appeal of this book is not so much in the journeys themselves as in Macfarlane's use of language and his emotional engagement with the landscape. He takes as his spiritual guide the poet Edward Thomas famous for his verse composed in the trenches of the First World War in which he died, a man who saw walking not simply as a physical exploration, but also a way of reaching the interior depths of the soul. This is also the approach taken in this book where the walks become an opportunity for the author to meditate on the activity of walking and how each individual adds to the path he is following with each step, subtly changing the trail as he goes. Therefore, your pleasure in reading this book will be, in considerable measure, determined by your response to this reflective approach. It will also depend on your reaction to the writing itself-there is no doubt that Macfarlane is a wonderful picture painter using language as poetic and rich as Thomas himself. Nonetheless some readers may find this complex, adjective-ridden prose rather dense although by the same token it is wonderfully evocative and a single passage could, and perhaps should, be read several times just to fully appreciate its imaginative power. Technical terms relating to Geography, Geology and Sailing also pepper the account leading me to suspect that the people who will derive the most pleasure from this book are those with some practical experience of walking themselves. Yet this remains an interesting volume for all, not least in the chapter devoted to a walk in the occupied territories on the West Bank where Macfarlane demonstrates very convincingly how old paths can have a very contemporary political relevance which people will die to preserve. In short, this is a beautifully written and challenging book which rewards the reader who is prepared to work at its prose rather than the one who is looking for a page turner.