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Wonders as he wanders

04 April 2014

David Wilbourne on The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

On the way: the author Robert Macfarlane

On the way: the author Robert Macfarlane

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 habit."

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 fell.

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 truly extraordinary.

"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 Llandaff.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9 - Use code CT706 ); 978-0-141-03058-6.


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 walking?

Which of Macfarlane's travelling companions do you warm to the most? 

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 work?

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 £7.20); 978-1-84408-754-9.

Book notes

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."

Author notes

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 triplets.


Books for the next two months:

June: Learning to Dream Again by Samuel Wells

July: Paradise by A. L. Kennedy

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