The world before our feet
There is something surreal about the remains of the rose garden on the wind-cuffed headland of Tintagel Castle: this small stone-traced rectangle is where the medieval ladies took the air, walking round and round just yards from what is now one of the finest long-distance coastal paths anywhere. If Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A journey on foot reminds us that walking in a landscape for pleasure is a recent phenomenon – not much more than two centuries old, if we exclude strolls around public gardens and country estates – it is also true to say that it has clocked up a surprisingly fine and dedicated literature.
The Old Ways is a distinguished addition. Macfarlane is a writer-naturalist whose reputation rests on a remarkable ability to conjure nature in full quintaphonic sensual detail, with a beguiling pulse of the spiritual (or perhaps animist) that places him firmly in the Romantic line. If Keats were alive today, he would be lamenting the loss of nightingales, and it is clear where Macfarlane’s sympathies lie. But he also has something writers are thought to lack: physical endurance and courage, inherited from his diplomat grandfather, Edward Peck, who “covered vast distances … his six-foot wooden skis taking him to summits in the Himalayas, the Alps, up Kilimanjaro and Kinabulu”. The grandson, while not speaking twelve languages, is equally hearty. He scales peaks, hikes in dangerous places, camps out in polar weather, dives into freezing waters. One of the sixteen “journeys on foot” recorded in The Old Ways takes him out on the Broomway, a faint causeway curving out over the silt of the Essex coast, a precarious path which the tide can swallow in minutes. Despite all the warnings about finishing in quicksand or in the sea, he and his friend set out in a white mist with only a brief demur: “We walked on …”.
Walking on into danger is an atavistic urge; although other animals are cautious and calculating, balancing hunger against predators, human curiosity can be as powerful an impulse as searching for food. Danger is as much a part of the walking tradition as discomfort, most obviously so when the land turns vertical and we enter the parallel genre (or is it a sub-set?) of climbing literature. In his first book, the excellent Mountains of the Mind (2003), Macfarlane admitted to being only a middling climber: to many people such as myself, for whom fairground big wheels are terrifying enough, crawling up the planet’s high bits is mad, and the book went some way to explaining this madness.
His subsequent The Wild Places (2007) separated wildness from wilderness, distinguishing the small-scale British examples of this terrain from “the nineteenth century North American idea of ‘wilderness’ on a grand scale”. Macfarlane set off around the British Isles in search of its unkempt patches. Tramping and sleeping rough, he came to the same conclusion as John Clare or Richard Jefferies before him: that wildness can exist in miniature, in the human margins, in the closed spaces as much as in the vast openness of the Highlands.
The Old Ways turns to the mechanics of it all – not just to the way in which our pedestrian traces deepen into “pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets”, but to the print-trails they make in our minds. Macfarlane sets out on the Icknield Way, and is soon limping with blisters “which needed draining by artesian well”. His choice of routes varies from that deadly path on the Essex coast to a deadlier ramble near Ramallah in the West Bank; from a glacier-gouged valley in the Cairngorms to the powdery snow of Western Tibet; from a sweaty hike along part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail to the bouldered, peaty interior of Harris. The book’s chief inspiration, however, is Edward Thomas, who mostly confined himself to walking the southern downland: not with a Macfarlanesque spring in his step, but to relieve depression.