Sunday, June 17, 2012

Books - Robert Macfarlane - The Old Ways (A Journey on foot)

A book greatly anticipated, Macfarlane is a wonderful writer on the 'wild side' of Britain, and he doesn't falter in this book spread over several walks in the countryside.  It is definitely not your 20th century writing on the subject, the other book that also sits on my bedside table is his 'The Wild Places' so a firm reading companion....  He has that ability to sleep out in the frost, walk barefoot and undergo a whole series of adventures, not entirely pleasant for the rest of us!.
I have only got half way through the book so why bring him up, well in yesterday's Guardian he wrote an article in the review supplement about pilgrimage and walking. Then there was Richard Long's gallery exhibition  (You can see his work  on the link) featured and I had just read in the book about Macfarlane staying on the Isle of Lewis with Long, coincidence, coincidence.....
Long is a land artist, a sculptor who walks as well but leaves behind him stone circles, straight paths of stones and mazes.  He also kills birds for some of his sculptures which I do not approve of, a dozen sparrow hawks for goodness sake (shades of Damien Hirst) though he does eat the birds as well.
Macfarlane's prose is beautiful, read slowly and you appreciate the landscape he walks through, as I had just read Nicholson's Sea Room, I was astonished to find that Macfarlane had also sailed to the Shiant Isles, and walked through the Isle of Lewis following the 'Manus Stones' path, myths came rolling out as well.  Did you not know that when you cross the Minches in a boat you must look out for the Blue Men, who, if they climbed into your boat there was danger.  If the crew could not follow the Blue Men's one line verse with a similar one, then the ship would be pulled down to the bottom of the sea.  It has a Saxon taste this reciting of poetry, mixed up with Celtic folklore.

The Broomway
provided the main access to Foulness for centuries. It is an ancient track, which starts at Wakering Stairs, and runs for 6 miles (9.7 km) along the Maplin Sands, some 440 yards (400 m) from the present shoreline. The seaward side of the track is defined by bunches of twigs and sticks, shaped like upside-down besom brooms or fire-brooms, which are buried in the sands. Six headways run from the track to the shore, giving access to local farms. The track was extremely dangerous in misty weather, as the incoming tide floods across the sands at high speed, and the water forms whirlpools because of flows from the River Crouch and River Roach. Under such conditions, the direction of the shore cannot be determined, and the parish registers record the burials of many people who were drowned

The other chapter that held me enthralled was the one about his walk across the treacherous sands of the Broomway, an old causeway, covered by the sea when the tide was in, to Foulness Island.  An old trackway going back to prehistoric times and extremely dangerous as the above Wiki shows. This is in Essex, land of drowned villages such as Dunwich, and where England might end up one day a watery graveyard with the occasional spire sticking out of the sea.  Of course he mentions that other 'drowned land' of Doggerland, this stretch of sea we now know as the narrow English Channel, the land bridge which was once a country in its own right.
  When the seas finally closed this stretch of land between Europe and Britain 10,000 years ago, it left a whole of host of evidence of prehistoric mesolithic life now dredged up by fishing boats and written about in another book call Doggerland by Vince Gaffney.

The Manus Stones path
Books are like pathways themselves you enter a world of information moving between time and people, the paths are themselves historic events; the Manus's Stones (Clachan Mhanais), is really named after a person who marked it out more in the mind than on paper following waymarking stones, cairns, and standing stones but not marked on the ground on the stony Isle of Lewis, but following the high ground of stones and avoiding the greener, more dangerous areas, of the bright green boggy lower valleys.

The books

foxglove and bee

to be cont...


  1. What a fascinating post Thelma. Two more books I have to look out for. No - three, with Doggerland. I can remember having a lecture where our tutor mentioned artifacts dredged up from the Mesolithic past. I will read this again and again as there is so much of interest in it, on all sorts of different levels.

    Richard Long's work fascinating too, but the archaeologist in me can't help thinking - I hope he moved those stones again afterwards!

  2. Hi BB, the problem with books is the trail you blaze, it's expensive, just ordered another one about the stones of Wales. But to get back to Macfarlane, he is good and probably cheaper reading the book than visiting these out of way places.
    Yes I wondered about Richard Long will his works be seen as prehistoric 100 years hence if they are still around....