The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane (2012) 432 p.

This is one of those books that has enough pages filled with glowing praise at the beginning to choke a hippo. It was shortlisted for a number of awards and praised by writers ranging from John Banville to Philip Pullman. I didn’t go out of my way to read it, but saw it at the library and figured, why not?

The Old Ways is not a travel book, per se, but rather a meditation on paths: footpaths, trade routes, seaways, all kinds of ways in which humans over the years have travelled from one place to another, or (more importantly) from one place to nobody in particular. It sees Macfarlane travelling not just through the well-established byways and old footpaths of England, but the stormy islands of Scotland, the dangerous wild places of the West Bank in Palestine, the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the high altitude mountain paths of Tibet.

Macfarlane is a wonderfully descriptive writer, and this is the sort of book where you can really feel the landscape around him: the salt spray of the Hebrides, the frost on his sleeping bag in the Himalayas, the scented pine resin of northern Spain. Much of the book is also taken up with philosophical speculation about the nature of walking and pathfinding, which I sometimes grew weary of, but you can’t really complain – it does what it says on the tin. Many of Macfarlane’s journeys, especially in Britain, are heavily imbued by the spirit of the English poet Edward Thomas; Macfarlane seems to consider him a great inspiration. I sometimes found this a little overbearing, but it culminates in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Ghost,” Macfarlane’s heavily fictionalised accounting of Thomas’ life and final days in World War I, up to his death in the Battle of Arras. I don’t know how much of this chapter is taken from Thomas’ journals and letters and how much (I suspect a lot of it) is purely fictionalised, but I hardly cared – it’s a brilliant piece of writing, one of the standout sections of the book. It’s actually so good that I found the final chapter itself, about Macfarlane walking alongside prehistoric footprints in Liverpool or something, utterly pointless. He should have ended it with Thomas’ death and the final words of that chapter:

What was Thomas seeing as he wrote those last verses in his Arras notebook? The old ways of the South Country, or the shell-swept support roads that wound to the front? Both, perhaps, folded together, the one kind of path having led its way to the other.

No matter. The Old Ways is, overall, a really lovely book: a collection of thoughtful back-to-nature journeys, bound together with a far stronger unifying theme than one usually finds in books of this type. It’s the sort of thing that makes you realise how much of your day you spend indoors, staring at various glowing rectangles; how much you should go outside and just be amongst some trees and dirt for a while.

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