THE Old Ways is a travelogue par excellence, awarded a
place on my bookshelf with other journeying heroes. These include
Gerald of Wales, who traversed this principality in the 12th
century, recording stories tied to particular places, as well as
unrooted stories that were too bizarre to ignore; or Kilvert, who
diarised his 19th-century Welsh wanderings, seasoning bizarre
stories with wry observations, and tenderly capturing the distinct
voice of those he encountered; or Alfred Wainwright, and others,
their names long forgotten, their travels often frustrated by surly
ferrymen refusing passage over insignificant rivers.
Robert Macfarlane's travels are interspersed with philosophical
snippets ("I walk therefore I am"), reflecting on how particular
ways form us. They enable the tingle of connection, the grace of
accuracy, and the places that we inhabit to shape the people we
are, turning voyages out into voyages in.
"Biking like a dizzy vicar" down the Icknield Way causes a
crash, which makes Macfarlane abandon his bike, preferring to walk
(on land and water), sail, climb, and cross-country ski. Ever the
Buchanite adventurer, he sleeps under the stars, drinks deeply from
springs, bathes in pools, and walks barefoot: "Walking barefoot has
gone out of fashion, but sensible people are reviving the
In the introduction to his bibliography (which is included in
the book alongside a glossary, copious footnotes, 23 themed
indexjes, and summaries for each chapter), Macfarlane lists
archaeology, cartography, grief, joy, landscape, metaphor,
navigation, orientation, pilgrimage, touch, tracking, and toponymy
(the study of place names), among other preoccupations.
One other is geology: haunting walks with his friend Raja along
the wadis in Palestine (risky forbidden routes "policed" by Israeli
settlers and Palestinian militia) lead him to reflect that a mere
raindrop from thousands of years ago initiated the preferential
limestone pathway on which they now fearfully tread.
Macfarlane also fearfully treadsin the Cairngorms. The incline
becomes steeper and steeper, until, faced by a sheer precipice,
Macfarlane turns back, realising that the devilish path can lead
only to destruction.
The book even contains strange resurrections: a daughter
recovering the body of her father, killed 19 years before as he
attempted to climb the fierce peaks of Minya Konka, his body
preserved, uncorrupted, in the Himalayan snowfields where he
In what can only be described as extreme art, Macfarlane's
friend, Steve, restrings a human skeleton, reforming it with the
organs and flesh of a calf. They walk to a nine-ton megalith on the
Isle of Harris, in which he plans to entomb the macabre hanging
figure, having painstakingly scooped out the rock to form a secret
sepulchre known only to the artist and a few others -but now
Macfarlane's myriad readers, too.
Macfarlane prompted this reader to revisit particular ways that
had fashioned me. During my childhood, I walked the same paths as
Robert Aske, leader of the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace; ever
since, he has goaded me to take on any Henry Tudors who cross my
horizon. Also, a survivor from Shackleton's Antarctic expedition,
who hobbled into our primary school one midsummer morning,
continually dares me to be unfazed by cold, impossible places.
Macfarlane's genius is to use his travels and strange meetings
to form a lens that transforms ordinary walks of life into the
"Remember that, whatever happens, all is well between us for
ever and ever," the poet Edward Thomas tells Helen, the love of his
life, as he walks away from her to die on the Western Front.
Thomas embodies the struggle between homing and roaming, walking
into poetry after befriending Robert Frost in 1913. Frost wants him
to roam to safety in the United States; Helen wants him to stay at
home; but Thomas takes the King's shilling, and in Flanders
pensively walks hills belonging to the same chalk outcrop he had
celebrated on the Sussex Downs.
Thomas permeates The Old Ways, and Macfarlane
beautifully unfolds his biography in the penultimate chapter, which
harks back to a poignant comment earlier in the book: that every
walk is conversation between "ghost and ghost-to-be", proving that,
ultimately, all roads lead to Emmaus.
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin at
£9.99 (CT Bookshop £9 - Use code CT706 );
The Old Ways- SOME QUESTIONS
Which part of this book did you find most inspiring?
Are you a walker, climber or sailor? How do your experiences
compare with those of Robert Macfarlane?
How does Macfarlane convey the spiritual aspects of his
Which of Macfarlane's travelling companions do you warm to the
Some of the walks were quite dangerous. What did that teach
Macfarlane about trust?
What do the creating of and walking of the Old Ways teach us
about human nature and history?
Why is Macfarlane so interested in Edward Thomas and his
How well do the section headings - tracking, following, roaming,
homing - describe the material in each?
How important is it that routes are mapped so that others can
follow the paths? How much is discovering something new part of
what inspires Macfarlane?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 May, we will
print extra information about the next book. This is The Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan. It is published by Virago at £7.99 (CT Bookshop
A novel set in the summer of 1914, The
Lifeboat tells the story of the aftermath of the sinking of a
liner in the Atlantic Ocean. The survivors in one lifeboat are so
crowded together that they are at risk of sinking. They are forced
to choose sides between forceful characters, and to plot against
and to console one another. They find themselves questioning their
assumptions about goodness, humanity, and God.
The Lifeboat was praised by Hilary Mantel as
"a splendid book. It rivets the reader's attention, and, at the
same time, it seethes with layered ambiguity."
Charlotte Rogan comes from a family of sailors, who
provided her with the inspiration forThe Lifeboat, which is her
first novel. A graduate of Princeton University, she now lives
with her husband in Westport, Connecticut; they are the parents of
Books for the next two months:
June: Learning to Dream Again by Samuel
July: Paradise by A. L. Kennedy