33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 3 August 2013
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!)
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2013
I heard Robert Macfarlane interviewed on Australain national radio and thought him an interesting man - I love walking and I love the paths and byways of Britain, so I ordered the book. This is a book I will read over and over again. He writes so well and his relationship to places and the psychology and mystery of walking are well expressed.
I enjoyed almost every bit of it - though I guess I didn't expect the walks outside of the UK to be included and, though I found them interesting and the chapters well written, I wished really for more "local" stuff.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2012
I liked The Old Ways a lot but, unlike his previous book, The Wild Places, I didn't love it. It has a deliberateness of purpose which seems at odds with the activity of pensive perambulation that I had expected. Unlike the quiet, poetic introspection of Edward Thomas, whom Macfarlane so admires, the unselfconscious, literary eccentricity of his (and my) friend, the late Roger Deakin, or the urbane erudition of H V Morton, here we have adrenalin junkie thrill-seeking and a robustly Borrowvian, Boys' Own machismo and athleticism that seem to owe more to John Buchan than John Stewart Collis. We are told at the beginning, for instance, of how he continued his exploration of the Icknield Way despite breaking two ribs after falling off his bike; time and again there is an emphasis of the fact that the Broomway is the most dangerous pathway in England; he relishes the hazards of sailing in an open boat on the Atlantic; bullet holes and spent cartridges pepper his walk in Palestine; ghosts lurk at Chanctonbury Ring.
It seems that, for his third book, Macfarlane has felt a need to inject more excitement and tension in order to reach out to a wider audience, and has sought to introduce the concept of Extreme Rambling. Even the writing style changes abruptly from the lyrical to the staccato - "The harbour: turquoise water over sand, the smell of diesel, sun hot on concrete, rusted ladder rungs, Kelp popping, the squeak of buoys and fenders, old Ness men fishing off the pier." If this is designed to jar the senses out of poetic complacency, it certainly works.
That is not to say, however, that Macfarlane does not delight with his lyrical, evocative prose and finely-tuned sense of place. The description of his "ritual" walk across the Cairngorms to his grandfather's funeral is particularly moving, and his love of landscape and all the anomalies with which it is soaked but which, far too often, are missed by even experienced long-distance walkers, let alone those who never venture along the "road less travelled", is intense. So, despite my own, personal, reservations, I would recommend The Old Ways to anyone with an interest in topography and its widest evocations. But beware! This is a book that will have you lacing on your sturdiest boots (or, if you follow Macfarlane's example, dispensing with footwear altogether), reaching for your favourite stick, and heading off on a magical journey along footways and tracks that exist only dimly in folk-memory - or, perhaps, only in the imagination. Who knows when (or if) you will return.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Currently on BBC1 we can enjoy former-comedian-turned-serious-person Griff Rhys Jones "exploring historic pathways". Using skilled camera people, an army of researchers and evocative music, our Griff is able to conjure up the essence of some long-standing routes across the U.K. But before Griff, there was Robert - Robert Macfarlane, that is - whose book "The Old Ways" visits a series of paths, tracks, ill-defined ancient routes, within the UK and, to a lesser extent, abroad.
Given the limitations - or perhaps possibilities - of the printed page, Macfarlane needs to be a pretty good writer to hold our attention and transport us, virtually, along a variety of long-established routes. Thankfully he is a supremely gifted reporter, with a sensory - almost film-like - grasp of evocative language. Books like this have their narrative presented ready-made (we want to know where he started, where he's going and what happened en route), but Macfarlane notices not just sights, but sounds, smells, thoughts, impressions - and describes them admirably. "A green woodpecker yapped in the distance. Planes flew past every few minutes, dragging their cones of noise. Lichen glimmered on the trees." he notes at some evening spot along the Icknield Way.
Macfarlane also heads off to sea, on both a bizarre "right of way" just off the Essex coast, across mud flats, and also more conventionally, by boat. In all cases - whether on land or sea - he is conscious of the historical backdrop to each of his routes, and the ghosts peering over his shoulder. These he describes with impressionistic zeal, like a Simon Schama with walking boots.
In the early pages of the book there is one challenging chapter - a test of faith, if you will - which we must pass before getting to the truly evocative stuff describing Macfarlane's many journeys. The chapter "path" takes a lordly overview of historical routes and those who have written about them in the past, which I found a little dry and heavy-going. However, once the book got up from its metaphorical desk and opened the door to the outside world, I was walking beside Macfarlane all the way.
Having had an informed guide, but not a stuffy one, this journey is one I will come back to again and again.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
"It's hard to create a footpath on your own," states the author. The very fact that paths become overgrown if not used mean they need to be walked. This then is the story of various walks the author undertakes, beginning with him setting out on a late-May morning to walk the Icknield Way, the entry to old routes criss crossing the British landscapes and waters and connecting them to countries beyong these shores. The author also diverges, not only in his walking, but also in his subjects - discussing other authors who have walked the same paths, the history of the places he visits and almost every subject under the sun.
The second part of the book takes him to Scotland, where he travels the sea roads - optimal routes to sail across the open sea in the same way there are optimal routes on the land. I enjoyed this section the most - his visits to remote islands such as the Isle of Lewis with the most ancient surface rock in Europe (3.1 billion years old), barefoot walking on the Hebridean moors and the silence and emptiness of sailing on the open sea.
In the third part, Macfarlane travels outside of the country on various walks with friends: the West Bank, Spain, Nepal and Tibet. There are politics, meanders through libraries, pine forests and pilgrim trails through the mountains. Lastly, he returns to the English Downs. This book makes us long for the liberation of walking, the enjoyment and peace of solitude and his various discourses on many topics entertain and enlighten us. I think the book was a little disjointed, but overall I enjoyed it immensely and I would certainly read more by this author.
63 of 73 people found the following review helpful
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.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
I wanted to like this book - I am a walker (every day, in fact) and I sympathise with the idea that there is more to walking than the simple act of physical exercise. I often reflect on the meaning of old sunken tracks, salters' roads, military roads, corpse roads etc. etc. as I'm on them in different parts of this country, and elsewhere in the world. The idea that I'm walking on paths previously trodden by others, with different lives in different times is truly a link with the past for me and adds to both my enjoyment of walking and my feeling of connectedness with other walkers in the past. I think Macfarlane broadly shares these interests and feelings..so why do I find this book a disappointment? I think its because it tries to do too much and the book becomes too overblown in its structure, style and, ultimately, its message. Clearly Macfarlane has a pedigree for such writing, but I take as I find and I found this just too much: too much background and contextual information much of it distracting from the central 'tale'; too much like an academic treatise with references to sources almost as prolific as one of the student pieces and articles I assess myself as an academic; too much about the author rather than the subject, in the end. I must admit to not having read either Mountains of the Mind or The Wild Places by the same author, which were both very well-received, so maybe it's just a matter of my preferred structure and style of writing over his. I found this book somewhat dry and disappointing whereas I found Deakin's writing on woods, walking and swimming, for example, excited my interest and enthusiasm. Others will take as they find also, but for me The Old Ways was less an enjoyable journey and more of a plod.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 31 July 2012
This is the other best read I have had in my 93 years. Its delightful flow of language produced a constant flow of beautiful pictures in my mind. The other of my two best reads? The Wild Places. Thank you, Robert MacFarlane.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 14 September 2013
This is a bestseller and has great reviews. It was OK, just. Lots of unnecessary flowery language, which I suspect is there for padding. If you were to take away the verbiage and some other unnecessary descriptive matter, this would be a rather short book. I'm a member of the Icknield Way Society, and even that was not covered that well. Buy, read, take to charity shop.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 2013
Robert Macfarlane has woven together a wonderful bright tapestry of experiences and information which Robin Sachs narrates beautifully. It combines diverse aspects of subjects and actions which can only be experienced by reading or listening to the CD. He meets, or is helped by, some very interesting characters. There are threads of connection between related subjects and, by separating the Audio book into 10 minute tracks, it's easy to read and re-read different sections easily and refer to similar subjects for comparison. I'm pleased i have the MP3 CD as it is all on one disc. The 10 minute tracks help navigate and I found it useful to make notes for reference and comparison. Reading this only once is insufficient, it only skims the surface. The true depth and breadth of this CD's content has enriched my life and taken me 'walking' where I would never have been able to travel. Great for those who used to go walking but can no longer do so.