Book Review: ‘The Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane

There is an area of south Essex that I have always dreamed of visiting, a place so remote and with such transitory terrain that it seems impossible that the edges of London are just 30 miles away. Nonetheless, between the Rivers Crouch and Thames is situated a mysterious footpath, in my mind one of the great ‘dreampaths’ of Britain, where the imagination of place is as important as its physical geography. It is known as the Broomway and it has a reputation for being the ‘deadliest path in Britain’, with over 100 people having died there in their attempt to cross to Foulness. It is less well-known than the sinking sands of Morecambe Bay, but those who walk it face similar risks. Vast sand and mud flats cover the area, with the path often difficult to make out, as water always covers a percentage of the whole. When the tide comes in, it runs at a pace that is faster than many can run; hence the danger. It has always held an air of mystery for me, and at some point I will fulfil my ambition to cross it.

The Broomway was just one of many ancient paths walked and lyrically described by Robert Macfarlane in his 2012 book The Old Ways, first published by Hamish Hamilton. The book is part of a trilogy dedicated to landscape and the human heart and in it Macfarlane explores themes ranging from the supernatural, to personal association with landscapes and dealing with mental health through walking and searching for meaning out of chaos.

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The Broomway. Britain’s deadliest path? Credit: Roger Jones.

Reviewer after reviewer has only had good things to say about this book, and indeed Macfarlane’s writing generally. I must say that he is one of my writing heroes and I aspire to capture the delicacy and intricacy of how he sees the world and those around him, and greatly admire how he captures it through the written word. This said, I did not enjoy The Old Ways in the same way that I thought his second book, The Wild Places, was impossible to put down. It is not significantly longer (360 pages in the penguin edition as opposed to 321 pages in the 2008 Granta version of The Wild Places) but it took me more time to read. This is not intended as a criticism but an observation of time. I found myself reflecting more on the individual journeys within The Old Ways. Macfarlane drew me back to the past in the way that Oliver Rackham for example did so well. He encourages us to see places through different minds, perspectives, time frames and philosophies. His heavy drawing on the life and work of Edward Thomas is also significant, and presents his stories in a manner that becomes historical as well as natural and geo-philosophical. The Old Ways is a book that I will inevitably have to read again, not for a while, indeed probably not for a few years (there are many more books to read beforehand!), but I will certainly refer to it now and then and will return to its pages.

Macfarlane takes us, as readers, on trails all over the world, although predominately in England and a few in Scotland, across land and sea, up mountain (although not to the peak), across ancient chalk paths and facing potential adversity and risk in the militarised, volatile political and natural landscapes of Israel and Palestine.

The human heart is central to his stories, as people are placed intimately within the landscape, connecting it to culture. This is something that Macfarlane does incredibly well, and it is something that I think is vital if people are going to rewild their hearts and minds, and reconnect with the idea that the natural world is infinite, mysterious and vital to the survival of human civilisation. We need nature writers (and broadly landscape and environmental writers) to connect us through cultural practice to our surroundings and encourage exploration and revalidation of our childhood curiosities. The best psychogeographies, place essays or pieces of nature writing transport us away from the page and encourage action and a wish to go out and experience a place first hand; to care for it; and to act for its longevity.

This is not a book only about walking, but of journeys and trailing. Macfarlane even distracts our minds towards the sea, writing about the Pentland sea routes which stretch from the Orkney Isles to the Bay of Biscay, historically vibrant places. In one particularly beautiful and memorable part of the book he describes his experience of navigating a small boat by the light of the north star, sailing north from the Hebrides.

However, it is in Essex, my home county, where his literary genius comes forth most strongly.  Without a doubt, for me at least, his description of the Broomway is his most successful chapter in the book. The air of mystery of this liminal landscape is brought to life in a way that is respectful of place, whilst also staying true to his experience and his genius in putting words on the page that are effective without being linguistically pompous.

I would recommend this book and I am not surprised at all why it heralded such success in terms of sales, ultimately becoming a top ten bestseller.  Macfarlane is part of the antidote to our everyday lives, and The Old Ways provides a route for exploration into his unique homage to landscape.

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