In The Old Ways Robert MacFarlane argues that it is only during the stolen fragments of peace found when walking that we are truly ourselves
Last Friday, I decided – following an evening shouting in an overcrowded bar, drinking expensive, micro-brewed I.P.A. – to walk from Camden towards my home, up Haverstock Hill to Hampstead, and then along the edge of the Heath. I estimated that it would take me an hour or so.
Starting off on Camden High Street, the night was just getting started: the pubs were closing but the street was just starting to come alive in all its leery, chaotic exuberance. As I continued northwards, the crowds thinned and the sounds became muted; soon I was by myself, my breath spiralling in the beam of the occasional headlight that piled down the road ahead of me. Then, I was by myself, cutting a corner across the southern edge of the Heath. For a moment I found myself in the near silent, near dark.
In The Old Ways one of our leading writers on the countryside, Robert MacFarlane argues that it is only at moments like these – these stolen fragments of peace, driven forward by the metronomic pulse of striding out from the boundaries of everyday life – that one can be true to oneself, and truly listen to the voice so often drowned out by the beery kerfuffle of the city. It is a convincing, beguiling argument: if we were only to find the old ways, we might find our way back to a better understanding of the world.
Thus MacFarlane sets out on a series of strolls, yomps, and hikes, sometimes alone, sometimes with planned company (or company by happenstance), often haunted by the presence of one of the many writers who have trodden the same paths at some time before him.
He follows the Icknield Way, wending from Buckingham to Norfolk, that claims to be the oldest road in Britain; he risks the Broomway, a waterlogged causeway on the Essex coast that has claimed numerous lives, caught by the fast moving tides rushing across the flats. The Isle of Lewis offers another landscape to be contested, a route that is not a pathway at all, across a terrain that rejects mapping.
There are walks to be conducted abroad, following the Pilgrims’ Way to Santiago de Compostelo; through the Himalayas, along Buddhist pilgrim routes and in search of the grave of another explorer, Jonathan Wright, who broke his neck in a climbing expedition in the 1980s and whose body was laid to rest by his fellows, lowered deep inside a crevasse near Minya Konka, the unconquered summit. The pace is never more than a looping stride, allowing the reader to take in the scenery as it passes.
“MacFarlane sees a philosophical summoning in the art of walking; the plodding step heralds a mental unshackling”
At the heart of the book MacFarlane follows in the footsteps of Edward Thomas, the World War One poet. For Thomas, walking was central to his person and the method through which his voice was hewn. This is where the old ways, ghosts and melancholy all combine as Thomas was fated to lose his life on the first day of fighting at the Battle of Arras, just as the poet was coming into his prime. MacFarlane finds his perfect balance between nature and literature in this uncomfortable, haunted figure.
Like many hikers before him, MacFarlane sees a philosophical summoning in the art of walking; the plodding step heralds a mental unshackling that has brought forth Thomas’s verse, Rousseau’s romanticism, Kierkagaard’s rueful expositions on human nature and even Wittgenstein’s baffling ‘symbolism for truth function’.
The art of walking loosens the synapses while the landscape itself also has a powerful impact on the thoughts formed. Yet, for MacFarlane, this moment of revelation can only be found in the wilderness, searching out the ‘old ways’. In short, truth can only be found in those dark moments on the Heath rather amongst the hubbub of the High Street.
I am not so convinced. However, the best part of the book is not when MacFarlane is waxing philosophical but when he takes the one walk in the collection that is political: through the contested landscape of the West Bank alongside his friend Raja Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer and rambler.
The walk through the rocks and gulleys of the broken and abandoned villages of Ramallah offers a genuine sense of threat and danger with each step. And, as a result, the book comes alive rather than chases ghosts.
While MacFarlane might argue that we are losing the old ways and that the figure of the philosopher/walker is a spectral one, this is a familiar lament. It is, in fact, one of the oldest around. The vision of the countryside as the womb of our selves has the occasional whiff of a conservativism that incubates one’s sense of what is past rather than a sense of what can be. There are more than one way to find one’s route, or even to get lost, in this world. Walking is also about striding confidently into the future, of breaking new ground, of making history rather than retracing it.
The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert MacFarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton
Leo Hollis is a writer, historian and Urbanist