Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Old Ways

I have just finished reading Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways and it is a book that will long remain with me. The human relationship with the creation and maintenance of pathways is explored, looking through the ages and across the types of land (or sea) affected.

The link between walking and thinking is explored. We meet a colourful cast of characters whose lives are woven into the natural world via an intimate understanding of it through the medium of travelling and embracing the landscape around them.

The book is also an homage to Edward Thomas, writer and poet who died at the Battle of Arras during the First World War. He lived and wrote about his beloved 'South Country', centred on Hampshire and Kent. Bouts of depression were walked off in the chalky hills and these journeys led to an outpouring of writing prior to, and during, his fateful journey to France.

We are also introduced to Eric Ravilious, English water-colourist who, like Thomas, died while on active service, but during World War Two. I was ignorant of his work, but have now obtained a book of his glorious paintings of the downland that he knew. These southern downlands seem to have captured an ideal of what these men were fighting for - gentle rolling hills, white-chalk pathways, discrete copses, singing skylarks.

There are passages of this book that will haunt you - Macfarlane's walk on the sands of the Broomway, a world of neither land nor water off the Essex coast; warm nights sleeping out in the open on the top of chalk downland, being woken by Skylarks singing as the light starts to break; a terrifying experience on Chanctonbury Hill that defies explanation; a walk across mountaintops to reach his grandfather's funeral; furtive excursions into Palestine where a friend keeps open the 'old ways' of travelling in a no-man's land; devotional pilgrimages around the lower elevations of asian mountains.

It is a book of many facets. If you appreciate the natural wonders of our world and like to think that our link to it goes beyond just walking on top of it, then this book will not speak to you, it will shout. After reading this, a walk will never be the same again.

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