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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot Hardcover – October 11, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 97 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A literature professor and prodigious perambulator, Macfarlane has walked in England, Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, and elsewhere and describes his experiences here. While descriptive observations of trails and vistas inform his presentation, Macfarlane’s animating idea is the construction of a meditative sensibility that involves imagining history, exulting in nature, and interpreting literature. Macfarlane confides that his inspiration for walking-writing is Edward Thomas, author of The Icknield Way (1913), a foot travelogue that Macfarlane’s loosely replicates, routewise; England’s southern hills, the chalk downs, are where Thomas ambled. Macfarlane’s contemporary peregrinations partake of a fine-grained feeling for the pathway, encounters with fellow itinerants, and the occasional ghost-haunted campsite. With a penchant for neologism and literary allusion, Macfarlane seeks out ancient footpaths across an Essex mudflat, on a section of the pilgrim’s way to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, within a circumambulation of a Chinese mountain sacred to Buddhism, and sea routes around Lewis. Concluding with Thomas’ biography––he was killed in WWI––Macfarlane renders his feelings toward landscapes in ruminative, mysterious hues. --Gilbert Taylor


Praise for The Old Ways

“A gorgeous book about physical movement and the movement of memory…To describe Macfarlane as a philosopher of walking is to undersell the achievement of The Old Ways; his prose feels so firmly grounded, resistant to abstraction.  He wears his polymath intelligence lightly as his mind roams across geology, archeology, fauna, flora, architecture, art, literature and urban design, retrieving small surprises everywhere he walks.” The New York Times Book Review

“With a steady command of the literature and history of each place he visits, [Macfarlane] tries ‘to read landscapes back into being.’ His sentences bristle with the argot of cartographers, geologists, zoologists, and botanists.” The New Yorker

“A quiet, serious book, purposeful and carefully made, and, as always with Macfarlane, written in a prose at once so thick and rich you want to sink into it bodily and so fresh it threatens to bear you aloft.” —slate.com

"Macfarlane seems to know and have read everything, he steadily walks and climbs through places that most of us would shy away from and his every sentence rewrites the landscape in language crunchy and freshly minted and deeply textured. Surely the most accomplished (and erudite) writer on place to have come along in years." —Pico Iyer

"Luminous, possessing a seemingly paradoxical combination of the dream-like and the hyper-vigilant, The Old Ways is, as with all of Macfarlane's work, a magnificent read. Each sentence can carry astonishing discovery." —Rick Bass

“In Macfarlane, British travel writing has a formidable new champion… Macfarlane is read above all for the beauty of his prose and his wonderfully innovative and inventive way with language…he can write exquisitely about anywhere.”—William Dalrymple, The Observer

“[An] extraordinary book…it has made me feel that I myself am always walking some eternal track, sharing its pleasures and hardships with unaccountable others, treading its immemorial footprints, linking me with all the generations of man and beast, and connecting in particular the visionary author of the book, as he unrolls his sleeping bag beneath the stars, with this bemused reviewer beside the fire.”—Jan Morris, The Telegraph

“Every Robert MacFarlane book offers beautiful writing, bold journeys, and an introduction to places and authors you have never heard of before but wish you had always known about. But The Old Ways is different: somehow larger, more subtle, lingering in the mind and body just a bit stronger. With its global reach and mysterious Sebaldian structure, this is MacFarlane’s most important book yet.” —David Rothenberg


“In this intricate, sensuous, haunted book, each journey is part of other journeys and there are no clear divisions to be made…the walking of paths is, to [Macfarlane], an education, and symbolic, too, of the very process by which we learn things:  testing, wandering about a bit, hitting our stride, looking ahead and behind.” —Alexandra Harris, The Guardian

“[Macfarlane] is gripped by a vision of the earth as a network of paths, dating from far back in prehistory…from the very first page…you know that the most valuable thing about The Old Ways is going to be the writing…it is like reading a prose Odyssey sprinkled with imagist poems.” —John Carey, The Sunday Times

“A book about what we put into landscape, and what it puts into us. If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out:  a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed.” —Sam Leith, The Spectator



Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Printing edition (October 11, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780670025114
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025114
  • ASIN: 0670025119
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (97 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #503,610 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He lives in Cambridge with his family.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
This is a stunning book. The author walks, talks to people, but most of all sees deeply the natural history and human history of the places he walks. I was captivated by the intensity of his observations, the beauty of his writing, and the astonishing range of his knowledge (and vocabulary!). He sees and writes like a poet and a naturalist. He also makes friends with people who know the terrain and the history; people he meets along the way, but even more, people of knowledge and creativity themselves who are deeply tied to the landscapes he walks.

Another reviewer asked for maps. I read this book, in retrospect, in the best way possible. Reading it in the Kindle app on my iPad, I could easily look up the flowers and birds he sees, and the geological and local terms he uses. When he writes a lengthy meditation on the art of a painter of the British Downs, I could Google the artist and see examples of his art.

Best of all, by far, I used Google Earth to not only track his path but to see what he saw. When he describes a mountain in Tibet as having three intersecting ridges, I could move around a three dimensional image of the mountain, and also of the valley from which MacFarlane was looking. When he walked across a Scottish Isle, I could track his path around a lake, past a mountain, and across the heath. When he talked about the terraced hillsides outside Ramallah and the Israeli settlements, I could see those, too: the hills circled by ancient terracing, and the subdivision-like streets lined with identical houses and lots under construction.

I'm now going to buy the hardcover version, because this is a book to keep and to re-read. But I highly recommend reading it with the Internet, especially Google Earth, at hand.
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By Bibi on November 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just got back from walking the Camino de Santiago and found this book from a review in The New Yorker. I read the sample chapter and was hooked! I just wish that I'd read it before embarking on my 500 mile/35 day walk! It isn't even about the Camino - instead it is about every walk or trail... for anyone that enjoys walking... whether you are an armchair adventurer or a global wanderer, this is a magical book about the philosophy, magic, myths, geology, and history of walking your Way.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I came across a review of this book and thought it sounded interesting.. It turned out to be fascinating. The language is beautiful, and the author convincingly draws the reader into his premise that a landscape's (and seascape's) past and present can be felt by a thoughtful and aware traveler who takes the time beforehand to learn about the territory to be covered, and is physically in touch with the land paths and sea lanes being travelled. This book truly exemplifies Oliver Wendell Holmes' quote that one's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
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Format: Hardcover
My criteria for giving a book five stars is that during the day I think on what I've read, and look forward to continuing my adventure with the author at the end of day; and the writing must be good. MacFarlane's writing is lyrical and masculine, too. Maps? You don't need maps; he's not writing a guide book for you, but inviting you to come along with him over old and ancient paths. Why would he recommend you walk the treacherous Broomway, where incoming tides over foggy quicksand have drowned hundreds? Simply walk beside him as he attempts it. My favorite treks with him were through England and Scotland, as he relates history, anecdotes and the natural beauty surrounding him. But Palestine and Tibet would have had me at the edge of my seat, if I hadn't been lying back in bed. Sail with him along the ancient water roads through the Hebrides. Meet his adventuresome friends, including Isle of Harris sculptor, Steve Dilworth, whom I did look up on the Internet so I could admire his work. The best writing for me was MacFarlane's description of his ritual walk across the Cairngorm massif in Scotland, south to north, to attend the funeral of his grandfather, a mountaineer. I will be reading his earlier book, Mountains of the Mind, in which his grandfather is featured. He follows the Icknield Way and other paths of England in the footsteps of Edward Thomas,a writer and poet, who was killed during World War I in France. As an American, I was not familiar with Thomas' writings, but found MacFarlane's delving into his life and jaunts interesting, and that he was a friend of Robert Frost, who inspired him to become a poet. This book is full of little surprises. A joyful read.

Author: The Wolf's Sun
A Devil Singins Small
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is the third book in his trilogy about landscape; it also stands alone as an extended musing about walking old paths. The author recounts walks in England, Scotland, the Middle East, Spain, and Tibet - as well as two accounts of sailing in the Outer Hebrides, which seem a bit out of place in a book about journeying by foot. There are also two chapters devoted to Edward Thomas, an English walker, writer, and poet who died in WWI and who is clearly the author's muse.

These chapters describe how walking is a way to explore both the walker's outer landscape and inner landscape. You can learn about yourself by walking the old paths and the old ways. The author, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is obviously both an accomplished walker and a scholar.

This academic background shows itself in the author's erudition. The book is full of interesting words, references to interesting books, and meetings with interesting people. It comes with the usual academic additions that I like in a book - glossary, bibliography, notes, and a really wonderful subject index organized by categories such as birds, maps and map-making, and weather. The only thing I didn't like about this hardcover book is its very odd dust jacket. It is attractive but manufactured in some material that feels very odd in the hands. I finally just took it off the book and then settled down to enjoy my reading.
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