The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, Pp 433, £20
This book, a third in a loose triology, about landscape and the human heart, shows the relationship that exists between paths, walking and the imagination. It tells the story of walking a thousand miles or more along old ways in search of a route to the past, only to find oneself back to the contemporary. It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales and tracks that keep and tell of pilgrimage and trespass, of song-lines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries.
One day while watching the snow out of the window, the author gets up and walks out and returns to look back at his trail. On seeing other print-trails, he chooses to follow these tracks to find out where they might lead. He thinks, “Humans are animals and like all animals, we love tracks as we walk; signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss.” He finds the landscape webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern road network or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular.” He also finds that many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes to church or chapel, river or sea but not all of their histories are happy. In Ireland hundreds of miles of famine roads built by the starving during the 1840s connected nothing with nothing in return for a little. In the Netherlands, “doodwegen and spookwegen – death roads and ghost roads” – converge on medieval cemeteries. Spain has a vast and operational network of Canada, or drove roads; in Scotland there are clachan and rathad – cairned paths and shieling paths. In winter, the only route in and out of the remote valley of Zanskar in the Indian Himalayas is along the ice-path formed by a frozen river.
He describes the rather eccentric yet the most charismatic of modern walk-writers called George Borrow who spent more than 40 years exploring England, Wales and Europe on foot. He also has a special word of praise for Edward Thomas, an essayist, soldier, singer among the most significant of modern English poets and who suffered from perpetual depression and incited the author of the book under review to pen down his experiences.
(Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England; www.penguin.com)