One is at risk of being overwhelmed by the forest of recommendations adorning the paperback version of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Thankfully the hype is justified. This is an extraordinarily piece of nature writing; one is warmed by the intensity. Like the writing of Iain Sinclair, Macfarlane sees all the nuances, history and beauty in landscapes we would normally pass by, as well as in some sublime places, such as the Himalayas.
The book starts with a closely observed stroll in the midnight snow, and from there, amongst other journeys, he takes a boat ride in the UK’s north, and takes an eerie walk on the treacherous mudflats of the coast of East Anglia, where sky blurs with water, and walkers can easily become disoriented. All the while he refers to writers who have travelled before him, such as the poet Edward Thomas, who made his name as a nature writer before becoming famous as a poet, and who was a chronicler of walks. Macfarlane’s emphasis on the paths of England give the book’s title its double meaning, both in the sense of the traditional, and, more literally, ‘ways’ being paths in the countryside. As Ronald Blythe points out in relation to the poetry of John Clare, country paths used to be sites full of traffic and stories.