Thursday, March 21, 2013

Macfarlane's The Old Ways celebrates the joy, the romance of walking

Book 37: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

The word “ways” in the title of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot carries two meanings with it.

There is the obvious meaning of “ways” as “the course traveled,” a path, route or road.

There is also “ways” as in the “method, style, or manner of doing something.” A meaning clearly intended by Macfarlane whose book is a joyous, romantic ode to walking past and present.

Macfarlane writes about his travels on foot in England and Europe in The Old Ways. He also evokes the writings and perambulations of walkers long past.

For me, he is particularly compelling when he writes of two paths; one I hope to travel and one that I have travelled.

The track I hope to travel is on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. This remote outpost first came to my attention, only a few months ago, through the mysteries of Peter May.

It is clear from the writings of both men that Lewis is bleak, yet beautiful.

A thatched cottage in Amberley.
The second path Macfarlane travels that resonates with me is the South Downs Way, an ancient trade route that stretches 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne on the English Channel. I walked the Downs a few years ago during a span of nine days. It was an incredible experience, challenging and rewarding.

It is thrilling when a passage in The Old Ways refers to the village of Amberley in West Sussex because I have been there too. The bed and breakfast where I lodged was a beautiful home owned by a generous, Corgi-loving couple. I ate dinner in the local pub, The Black Horse, which is the center of village life.

To me, Amberley remains the very image of an English village.

America has nothing like the footpaths that crisscross England. There you may find yourself walking through a farmstead, only yards from the landowner’s home; crossing the edge of a field of oilseed rape or barley; or rambling through a pasture, softer than most carpets, to the curious gaze of grazing sheep.

The Old Ways is a dangerous book for its romantic portrayal of the joys of walking tempts the reader to set aside his book, lace up his shoes and head outdoors in search of a path, old or new.

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