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Left Socialist Blog

The Old Ways Robert Macfarlane. A Journey on Foot. A Socialist Review.

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The Old Ways Robert MacFarlane. A Journey on Foot. Penguin 2012.

“If I don’t take this walk now, I shall never take it.” Within the “cramped little mind” Leonard Bast “dwelt something” of the world of Borrow, Thoreau and Robert Louis Stevenson. When, he got “off the road” in Surrey, the insurance clerk “re-entered ancient night”. His “dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.”

The Schlegels, and the author of Howard’s End, would gently mock Bast’s journey into “this ‘ere wood”. But the man “who tried to walk by the Pole star” had spoken with “a flow, an exultation, that he had seldom known”.

The Old Ways would have had a deep resonance for Leonard. Macfarlane describes how the “cult of leisured vagabondage” touched the 19th century imagination. Like Bast, working class and lower middle-class readers in the hard built-up districts of the swelling conurbations, took to books like The Open Road. A Little Book for Wayfarers (E.V.Lucas 1899 – still reprinted up to the Second World War). They would descend on the British and Irish countryside, filled with its “wander-thirst, to discover the joys of being “afoot”.” Some were socialists. They were amongst those who fought, and fight, for the right to roam. They owed a debt to Borrow’s feeling for, “The breeze on the face, the stars for a ceiling, the fire by the wayside, hedgerow philosophising, open journeyings.”

To Macfarlane paths are physically outside us, but also dwell within us. “Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk.” They are “consensual too, because without common and common practice they disappear: overgrown by vegetation or built over (though they may persist in the memorious substance of land law.” They exist on water as well as land, in urban surrounding as “desire lines”, and in the intricate network of footpaths that criss-cross England. Names come up, “”Leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets … bostles, shuts, driftways, lichways, ridings …”

Landscapes and Paths.

Deeply etched in the landscape the origins of paths are prehistoric, Roman or Anglo-Saxon, medieval. Old landscapes can “be read in the then but felt in the now.” He speaks of the “beguiling idea: that walking such paths might lead you – in Hudson’s phrase – to ‘slip out of this modern world” and bring forth this past into the present. For the poet of the Great War, Edward Thomas, who brought the memory of the plough and the woods to the trenches, walking brought us “backwards to history and inwards to the self” and a source of “personal myth-making”

From the threads of paths and tracks in art and literature The Old Ways travels with philosophers. Rousseau in Les Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire, considered the nature of truth and lying and had declared, that “my mind only works with my legs”. And Nietzsche, for whom “Only those thoughts which come from walking have any value.” MacFarlane says that for these writers, “walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing.” He speculates, “Footfall as a way of seeing the landscape; touch as sight – these are motions to which I hold.”

Macfarlane is enchanted to find that the verb “to learn” has an etymological root in proto-Germanic liznojan, meaning “to follow or to find a track”. Not everybody will, at this point, fall in behind this line of thinking. It is not clear, for  example  how the origin of Book in Old English Boc bōk- cognate to beech, the bark used for engraving runes –  should make us recall this tree whenever we read.


Eager to follow Macfarlane’s journeys we travel with him from his Cambridge home, on the causeway to Foulness in Essex, with a Marxist City finance worker, across East Anglia and its crumbling coastline, to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and beyond, fifteen in all, including to Spain, Palestine and Tibet. They are accounts of voyages that, in the Michelin Guide’s words, “mérit le détour”.

From Ipswich, as the streets lead to the countryside, the ancient green-ways open up before us. Some have become sunken roads. Many remain are paths. A few are blocked by landowners. To the South, just outside the town, at Jimmy’s Farm, an entrepreneur has seized the spirit of the time – the freedom of the market. You pay £4.50 for the right to wander around his spinney,or ‘nature trail’,  and a pound more for a packet of maize to feed his fowl in the petting area’.

To the North East, in the Finn Valley, un-tolled tracks by the river lead towards the Deben Estuary. By the banks orchids flower in spring, iris blooms in summer, and the route passes through dense thickets of Alder and Sycamore, marshy pools and grazing land. On a hill by the single-track railway to Woodbridge you can look over to Playford where the great anti-Slavery campaigner and supporter of the French Revolution, Thomas Clarkson is buried.

With Borrow’s ‘wind on the heath’ breezing, a reader of MacFarlane’s Old Ways could remember the freedom of the open road. The dreams of the Basts of this world become glorious as they mingle in our present.


Written by Andrew Coates

January 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm

One Response

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  1. Nice article, Andrew. By the way, I don’t think MacFarlane thinks that it is essential to know that ‘learn’ comes from the root of ‘seeking a way’ to knowd what ‘to learn’ means. It is interesting though that the word for book came from the name for ‘beech’. Beech bark is amazingly versitile, it was used since neolithic times for all sorts of things, the preserved corpse of the man found in the Alps about ten years ago was wearing beech bark shoes. The South Sea Islanders used it as paper until the arrival fo the Europeans, and it still used ceremonially (rather like parchment in our own culture,). So, no, one doesn’t need to know that it is related to beech, but it does open up a glimpse of the past.

    Sue R

    January 28, 2013 at 7:07 pm

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