Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways

February 18, 2015

51lcCRMsz6L._AA160_Ultimately, I found this book frustrating. Macfarlane walks a great deal, loves walking, for the sake of it and for the feel and exhilaration of it. He write about some of his favourite walks, the people he meets on his way and perhaps shares some of the way with, and the people he stays with.

Some of the walks are fascinating – Ramallah in Palestine, and the difficulties encountered in following footpaths there, tracks in the Himalayas, the trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the South Downs. England and Scotland seem to be his real ones. The detailed exploration of the haunts of the poet Edward Thomas and the story of his troubled life, and death in the First World War are very moving. Some of the walks were, quite frankly, tedious, especially some of the ones in Scotland, and the digression to sailing across wild waters off the Scottish coast left me cold.

I longed for some maps to help me relate more closely to the journeys, but there were none. The books called out for images to accompany his wonderful writing, so descriptive and atmospheric. Macfarlane is inspirational, urging us to our feel to get out and tramp through hill and dale, here and abroad; I’m certainly looking forward to my walking trip to the Ardennes even more than I was before. There is a spirituality to his idea of walking, a retreat from the world in one way, and yet a sharpening of the senses and a closer engagement with it in another…

The book did remind me quite a lot of the late W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, through Sebald is more philosophical, more engaging, and pursues a rather more coherent thread, whereas Macfarlane’s approach was often rather too disparate, too diffuse for me.

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