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Getting back on track

Andrew Mead praises Robert Macfarlane’s new book The Old Ways that celebrates the humanised rural landscape

Writing about his love of nature in his autobiographical Præterita, John Ruskin said ‘it has always been exclusively confined to wild, that is to say, wholly natural places, and especially to scenery animated by streams or by the sea. The sense of the spontaneous, unpolluted power of nature was essential in it’.

In his book The Wild Places (2007), Robert Macfarlane explored remote parts of Britain and Ireland in search of just such ‘wholly natural’ landscapes but ended up relishing the fields and hedgerows near his Cambridge home which were ‘filled with a wildness I had not previously perceived or understood’.

Now, in The Old Ways, Macfarlane embraces human intervention in the landscape in the form of paths and tracks that may sometimes be Roman or even older. ‘The eye is enticed by a path − the mind’s eye also,’ he says. ‘The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land − onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers.’

Macfarlane structures the book around a series of walks that are shaped by the underlying geology (chalk, limestone, granite) or prevailing conditions (snow, ice). Old tracks seldom disappear entirely, he says, but their visibility varies. On chalk downland they can command attention from a distance as white inscriptions on the turf, but on the rocky Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, where at first all you see is a wilderness of gneiss, navigation is much more of a problem. There the route that Macfarlane wants to follow, which is unrecorded on Ordnance Survey maps but still known locally, exists only as marker stones, and it takes time for him to discern them amid the boulders.

Even more elusive is the Broomway off the coast of Essex: a three-mile long track that only appears when the tide is out and tends to vanish in an instant in the frequent mist or haze. Adding to the general eeriness is the proximity of a Ministry of Defence site, Foulness Island, from where the sound of gunfire or explosions may accompany your tentative steps. In this shifting and uncertain terrain, optical illusions abound. ‘It’s the unearthliest path I have walked,’ says Macfarlane.

One of his main concerns is the connection between paths, walking and the imagination, so as well as recording his own responses to these contrasting tracks and environments, he incorporates the work of other writers and artists. One is the contemporary Spanish artist Miguel Ángel Blanco, who has documented many of his walks by making reliquary-like boxes of fragments found on them − flints, resin, feathers, moss.

But the two presiding figures are both British and both dead: the poet Edward Thomas and the painter Eric Ravilious. Their favoured landscape was the chalk Downs of southern England (as seen in Thomas’s book The South Country), and Macfarlane writes with empathy and insight on the ways it nurtured their sense of self and their imaginative worlds.

This stress on subjectivity is balanced by Macfarlane’s determination to find exactly the right word for what he sees. He appreciates ‘the many poetically precise terms that Hebridean Gaelic possesses to designate the features of the moor landscape’ − for instance, its discrimination between boglach (general boggy areas) and breunlach (sucking bog camouflaged by bright green grass).

His own writing has a comparable precision − two gulls gaze at him ‘with lackadaisical, violent eyes’ − but he also enjoys a striking simile or metaphor, with rabbit prints in the snow resembling ‘the face of Edvard Munch’s screamer’ and a flock of puffins overhead sounding like ‘banknotes being whirred through a telling machine’.


Paths on chalk downland recur in Robert Macfarlane’s book, which includes walks along the Icknield Way, the Ridgeway, and the South Downs, pictured here

From an AR perspective, two aspects of this exhilarating book must be mentioned. One is Macfarlane’s insistence on the volatility of landscape, in contrast to the fixity of, say, the Claude Lorrain paintings that 18th-century designers sought to rep­­licate in their parks. Landscape in The Old Ways is invariably dynamic, as a particular place at a particular moment is inflected by atmosphere, weather or light.

Complementing this sense of flux is the concept of ‘deep topography’ that pervades the book. Macfarlane is drawn to people like the naturalist Finlay MacLeod and the teacher Nan Shepherd who immerse themselves in a place and explore it in all dimensions. They are equally alert to the slow time of geological epochs and the flight of a butterfly, to history and folklore, to toponyms and cartography.

Macfarlane refers in passing to today’s prime exponent of such ‘deep topography’, the writer and map-maker Tim Robinson, whose two books on the Aran Islands have been followed in the last decade by a trilogy on Connemara. The most recent of these, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, has just appeared in paperback (Penguin, £10.99), and Robinson explains his motivation in words that Macfarlane would no doubt echo, saying: ‘the flood of change threatens to bear away all constructs of meaning and it is the task of the topographer to shore them up. Without the occasional renewal of memory and regular rehearsal of meaning, place itself founders into shapelessness, and time, the great amnesiac, forgets all.’

These books by Macfarlane and Robinson offer so much more than just armchair travel. In contrast to Ruskin’s pursuit of the ‘wholly natural’, they celebrate a humanised landscape and make their readers more inquisitive, attentive and precise in their dealings with it. That should only benefit design.


Author: Robert Macfarlane

Publishers: Hamish Hamilton

Price: £20

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