Authors: Robert Macfarlane
Borrow was a walker of awesome stamina and a linguist of almost inconceivable talent, who is said to have been able to speak twelve languages by the time he was eighteen and to have been competently acquainted with more than forty – including Nahuatl, Tibetan, Armenian and Malo-Russian – over the course of his life. In the winter of 1832–3 the British and Foreign Bible Society invited him at short notice to an interview in London, wanting to see if he could translate the Bible into a number of difficult languages. He walked to the interview from Norwich, covering 112 miles in 27 hours, sustained by a pint of ale, half a pint of milk, a bread roll and two apples. The society liked what they saw and commissioned Borrow to translate the New Testament into Manchu. What Borrow hadn’t told them was that he did not have any Manchu. No problem. Once the job was landed, he acquired ‘
several books in the Manchu-Tartar dialect
’, and Amyot’s Manchu–French (French!) dictionary. Then he travelled home (by coach, understandably) and shut himself up with the books. Three weeks later he could ‘translate Manchu with no great difficulty’, and fulfilled the society’s commission.
Borrow spent more than forty years exploring England, Wales and Europe on foot. His temperament was steep-cambered, and like many long-distance walkers he was a depressive, pursued from a young age by what he referred to as ‘
’. Walking became a means of out-striding his sadness. He was legendary for formulating – in his elaborate work of para-autobiography,
(1851) – the wayfarer’s creed:
There’s night and day, brother
, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?
Borrow knew the road’s asperity as well as its sweetness. He was sensitive to the ethical difficulties involved in celebrating the life of the road when there were many who had no choice but to live abjectly upon it: the jobless and homeless, the tramps, hobos and bindle-skiffs, the dispossessed and the overworked.
But the Borrovian example – as reported in his tendrilled prose – proved wildly influential. The breeze on the face, the stars for a ceiling, the fire by the wayside, hedgerow philosophizing, open journeyings: Borrow set such images loose in the nineteenth-century imagination. Most of his emulators gained blisters rather than enlightenment as a result, but the cult of leisured vagabondage grew. By the end of the 1800s, walking clubs were being founded in number and a profuse literature of old-wayfaring had emerged. Pocket-sized books with titles like
, bound in green buckram or red suede, became best-sellers. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his dark and mystical
Songs of Travel
(1896) – which take their tempo from the rolling tread of the long-distance walker. The ornithologist W. H. Hudson pioneered a pastoral psychogeography, tramping for months along England’s footpaths, waiting for what he called the ‘
charm of the unknown
’ to set his rods quivering (his journeys shaped in part by Borrow but also by earlier English mystics like Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan and Thomas Browne). At the turn of the century Hilaire Belloc strode from France to Italy, and wrote his bombastic pilgrim’s tale
The Path to Rome
(1902). John Muir walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Florida Keys in 1867, veering as he went between extremes of hunger and of ecstasy; seventeen years later a young man called Charles Lummis tramped across America from Ohio to California and claimed that he had made ‘
the longest walk
for pure pleasure that is on record’. The
Club was founded in 1892, inspired by Muir’s convictions that the walker’s bodily contact with the wild world benefited both walker and world, and that ‘
… was really going in’.
The shock of the Great War provoked intense British interest in the old ways. Some of the returning soldiers, wounded in body and mind, retreated to the English countryside, hoping that by recovering a sense of belonging rooted in nature and place they might dignify their damaged lives (the wish that it had all been
something). Henry Williamson was one such casualty. Invalided home from France with gas injuries, he went to ground in rural Devon, where he paced out the paths of Dartmoor and tracked what he called its ‘
’. Out of those years he wrested his masterpiece
Tarka the Otter
(1927) – every word of which was, as he put it, ‘
chipped from the breastbone
Other people, traumatized into superstition by the war, took to the paths in search of ghosts – setting out on the tracks of the lost and the left-behind. Old paths became mediums in two senses: means of communion as well as means of motion. Interest built in the ghostliness of these ghost-lines. The convivial pilgrimages described by Chaucer became tinged with a morbid historicism: spectres stepped from the verge or hedge, offering brief address. The landscape was, John Masefield wrote, ‘
thronged by souls unseen
, / Who knew the interest in me, and were keen / That man alive should understand man dead’.
I’ve read them all, these old-way wanderers, and often I’ve encountered versions of the same beguiling idea: that walking such paths might lead you – in Hudson’s phrase – to ‘
slip back out of this modern world
’. Repeatedly, these wanderers spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way. Bashoˉ is said to have told a student that while wandering north he often spoke with long-dead poets of the past, including his twelfth-century forebear Saigyo: he therefore came to imagine his travels as conversations between a ‘
ghost and a ghost-to-be
’. In Thomas Hardy’s novels, stretches of path can carry memories of a person, just as a person might of a path. Richard Jefferies, in a notebook entry from 1887, described reaching a Bronze Age
in Gloucestershire and feeling ‘
[a]s if I could look back
; the sunshine of
, and their life’. Paths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morphologies, uncanny origami.
It is true that one need not be a mystic to accept that certain old paths are linear only in a simple sense. Like trees they have branches, and like rivers they have tributaries. Seven years ago I travelled to Dorset, to explore the holloways of that green dairy county with a close friend of mine, Roger Deakin. ‘Holloway’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon
, and refers to a sunken path that has been grooved into the earth over centuries by the passage of feet, wheels and weather. Dorset – like many of the soft-stone counties of England – is webbed with such paths, some of them twenty feet deep and most of them now overgrown by brambles and nettles. Roger and I spent days down in the gritty caramel sandstone around the little town of Chideock, following the holloways and discovering the stories associated with them: of sixteenth-century recusants taking refuge from persecution, of seventeenth-century priests holding Masses in the woods, of fugitive aristocrats seeking shelter from twentieth-century pursuers. In the dusk of the holloways, these pasts felt excitingly alive and coexistent – as if time had somehow pleated back on itself, bringing discontinuous moments into contact, and creating historical correspondences that survived as a territorial imperative to concealment and escape.
Two years after that visit, Roger died young and unexpectedly. Four years after his death I returned to Dorset to re-walk the same holloways, and found myself tracking our own earlier traces – the holly bush from which we’d cut sticks, the field
where we’d camped for a night – and experiencing startlingly clear memory-glimpses of Roger himself, seen at the turn of a corner or ahead of me on the path.
Not all the early old-way walkers were savoury characters, nor were all their ideas appealing. The use of old paths to navigate terrains both real and imagined has attracted a rabble of delusionists, bigots and other unlovely maniacs. I’ve read with distaste the work of multi-purpose misanthropes, of nationalists peddling wrong-headed theories of race, and of nostalgists who demonstrate a preference for the biddable dead over the awkward living. I’ve read with bafflement the back-to-the-soilers for whom path-walking was (along with energetic morris dancing and long-term sandal-wearing) a means of cleansing the besmirched male soul.
But I’ve also met many walker-writers who avoided these thought traps and idiocies. Borrow danced gleefully around them all, weaving his cosmi-comic visions as he went. John Clare was fond of footpaths because they were ‘
rich & joyful to the mind
’: ways of walking that were also ways of thinking. To William Wordsworth, long-used paths were routes to adventure, leading into ‘
the recesses of the country
’. William Hazlitt walked radically, making marches from chapel to chapel to hear Unitarian ministers preach, and acclaiming footpaths as ‘
lines of communication
… by which the flame of civil and religious liberty is kept alive’.
The more I have looked, the more paths and tracks seem to thread their ways through the prose, poetry and art of Europe, America and – in particular – Britain over the past two centuries. They are there in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, in Paul Nash’s war-scapes, with their zigzagging duckboard walkways, in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 film
A Canterbury Tale
, in which the ancient Pilgrim’s Way is blithely churned up by tank brigades on manoeuvre, and in Bill Brandt’s 1950 photograph of a narrow stretch of the same path, where the Way appears as a foot-worn crevasse into the underlying snow of the chalk – a gap down which one might slip not just to another time, but to another realm and climate. I have come to love Eric Ravilious’s dreamy watercolours of the prehistoric tracks of the English Downs, and I have read and reread the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd’s accounts of how she came to know the Cairngorm
on foot, following its ridge lines and deer tracks for years until she found herself walking not ‘up’ but ‘into’ the mountains. These are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.
Above all, I have been affected by the life and work of Edward Thomas: essayist, soldier, singer, among the most significant of modern English poets – and the guiding spirit of this book. Thomas was born in London in 1878 to Welsh parents, and from a young age he was both a walker and a writer. After making his reputation with a series of travelogues, natural histories and biographies, he at last began writing poetry in the winter of 1914, at the age of thirty-six. In an astonishing late outpouring of art, he wrote 142 poems in just over two years: poems that changed the course of poetry and whose branch-lines are being followed still. On Easter Monday 1917, aged thirty-nine, he was killed on the opening dawn of the Battle of Arras.
I first read Thomas’s poetry at school, in an anthology that included his best-known poems, ‘Adlestrop’ and ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’. He seemed to me then an engagingly simple author, verging on the naïve: an elegist for a rural England of ploughmen, hayricks and meadowsweet that was vanishing even as he wrote. It would take me nearly twenty years to understand how drastically limited this account of Thomas was. He is still often thought of as a pastoral poet, celebrating place and belonging, but I now see that his true subjects are disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness. His poems are thronged with ghosts, dark doubles, and deep forests in which paths peter out; his landscapes are often brittle surfaces, prone to sudden collapse. While he was drawn to the romantic figure of the self-confident solitary walker, he was more interestingly alert to how we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move.
Thomas possessed a pair of what Keats once called ‘
patient sublunary legs
’, and those legs carried him over thousands of miles of old paths, from the famous (Sarn Helen in Wales, the Icknield Way and the Ridgeway in southern England) to the local (Old Litton Lane and Harepath Lane, near his east Hampshire home). ‘
The earliest roads wandered
like rivers through the land,’ he wrote, ‘having, like rivers, one necessity, to keep in motion.’ Thomas used the old ways to keep himself in motion, for like Borrow – whose biography he wrote and with whom he closely identified – he was depressive. Like Borrow, too, walking was one of the few activities that could lift him from his depressions. He would cut a stick – holly was his favourite staff-wood – and set off along ‘
indelible old roads
’, ‘worn by hoofs and the naked feet and the trailing staves of long-dead generations’. Ancient ways were ‘
potent, magic things
’, on which he could ‘make time as nothing’ while ‘meandering over many centuries’. Hansel and Gretel being led into the wood, but dropping a trail of white stones behind them and finding their way back, came to his mind to be ‘
one of the great stories of the world
To Thomas, paths connected real places
but they also led outwards to metaphysics, backwards to history and inwards to the self. These traverses – between the conceptual, the spectral and the personal – occur often without signage in his writing, and are among its most characteristic events. He imagined himself in topographical terms. Corners, junctions, stiles, fingerposts, forks, crossroads, trivia, beckoning over-the-hill paths, tracks that led to danger, death or bliss: he internalized the features of path-filled landscapes such that they gave form to his melancholy and his hopes. Walking was a means of personal myth-making, but it also shaped his everyday longings: he not only thought on paths and of them, but also