Monday, May 28, 2012

Robert Macfarlane: 'Paths are human; they are the traces of our relationships'

With his new book about Britain's ancient pathways, author Robert Macfarlane completes a trilogy of his acclaimed meditations on landscape. Rachel Cooke meets him for a walk…

Author Robert Macfarlane walking along an ancient path at Ivinghoe Beacon, in the Chilterns. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Examine a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the river Crouch and the river Thames, and you'll see a footpath which departs the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and heads east, straight into – or so it appears – the North Sea. A few hundred yards on, it veers north, heading out across Maplin Sands until, three miles later, it turns back in the direction whence it came, finally making landfall at Fisherman's Head, on the edge of Foulness Island.
Can this carefully traced line be for real? Certainly. You are not hallucinating. This is the Broomway, a path that is said to date from Roman times, and when Robert Macfarlane agrees to go walking with me, it's his first idea. Am I excited about this? Yes, and no. I'm thrilled at the idea of heading out with Macfarlane; I feel like a marathon runner who's been invited to train with Paula Radcliffe. But then I read his book, The Old Ways, and anxiety rolls in, like Essex mist. The Broomway, which can only be crossed when the tide is out, is the deadliest path in Britain; Edwardian newspapers, relishing its rapacious reputation – 66 of its dead lie in Foulness churchyard – rechristened it "the Doomway". As he notes, even the Ordnance Survey map registers the "gothic" atmosphere of the path: "WARNING," it reads. "Public rights of way across Maplin Sands can be dangerous. Seek local advice." I admire Macfarlane hugely; I would love to watch him "walking on silver water" in the "mirror-world" that is the Broomway. On the other hand, I would probably prefer not to drown in the service of trying to tell you what a good writer he is.
In the end, I'm saved by our diaries, which match neither the tide tables, nor the schedule of a nearby military firing range. Instead, we meet at Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns – a much less intimidating point that conveniently connects two of the other "old ways" in his book: the Icknield Way, which rises somewhere in south Norfolk, and the Ridgeway, which continues on through Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire. Both paths compete for the title of "oldest road in Britain", and both provide, for those who walk them, what Macfarlane calls "communion with the prehistoric". They are spectral places, ghostly with the leathery feet of the ancient past – though admittedly such eeriness may seem elusive when first you pull up at a crowded National Trust car park on a fine Sunday morning. If all is Gore-Tex, it's hard to get in touch with woad.
Macfarlane, I can't help but notice, is currently the male literary critic's favourite action man; they adore his sentences, but they also, one senses, live vicariously through him. By rights, then, he should live up to their fantasies by looking a little different from all of them. He should be gnarled. He should have huge hands, and shoulders like boulders. In fact, he is aspen-slight, with a grave, elfin face, and a warm, earnest manner. He greets me in the aforementioned car park with a wave, and a grin, and then we get going. The walk he has chosen – it takes us a sauntering three hours – is clever: a boutique yomp that provides a perfect microcosm of the southern British landscape. First there are fields, preternaturally green, and then a good Chiltern wood, with beech trees and yellow birdsnest, bluebells, celandines and a few plucky primroses. After this, there is a canal, where we see a heron take flight, and both of us say, at almost the same moment, how much it resembles a pterodactyl. A scramble up a railway embankment takes us to a road, and then into another wood, only now we are suddenly high up – or at least, high up for this part of the world – with a view into a valley, where we can see a reservoir, duck egg blue and perilously low. Finally, we walk along the line of a chalk hill, where a strange and lonely bonsai elder – "elders are bushes that long to be trees," says Macfarlane – cowers in the soft wind.
Full story at The Observer

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