Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways

Last updated: 10 March 2018

Finally completed Robert Macfarlane‘s The old ways, started last summer. A reading in the garden book.

Reviews: Amazon | GoodreadsLibraryThing | three and a half pages of quotes in the book itself

Nature writing fans for whom Robert’s fame precedes him love it, others find the writing tending to the flowery. Falling somewhere in between, the less nature tinged sections, in particular the account of his grandfather’s final walks and funeral (p202-205 in the Penguin edition) and the chapter on Edward Thomas (Ghost) are what made me linger, as did walks in the strange but familiar landscapes of the Hebrides, Palestine and the Himalayas, “improvised pilgrimages of varying levels of seriousness and sanctity” (p235). See Rites of way: behind the pilgrimage revival for more on this particular type of walking challenge.

The book as an artefact has received some care and attention. With a Keep Calm era style cover, the text is divided into four evocatively named parts. Tracking covers England, with one word elemental chapters (track, path, chalk, silt). Following ventures to Scotland (water – south and north, peat, gneiss, granite), Roaming takes Bob abroad (limestone, roots, ice). Finally, Homing brings us back to England (snow, flint, ghost, print).

The final 70 pages or so consist of a glossary, notes, bibliography, acknowledgements and index. This last is interesting. Fairly conventional in conception, it includes the following categories:

  • animals, fish and insects
  • artefacts and artworks
  • birds
  • books, writings, stories and film – includes “books that choose the reader”
  • buildings and stuctures
  • countries
  • flowers and plants
  • ideas and practices
  • illusions and mirages
  • institutions
  • islands
  • maps and map making (but no maps)
  • mountains and hills
  • paths and tracks
  • people
  • places
  • rivers and streams
  • rocks, minerals and earth
  • seafaring, sea roads and vessels
  • songs and music
  • towns, villages and cities
  • trees, woods and forests
  • weather

As an indexing experiment, I’d like to have seen the entries mirroring the poetical tone of the text, perhaps tying in with the synopses at the beginning of each chapter.

From the chapter on Granite/Scotland (p198):

We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess…these, perhaps, are the landscapes in which we live the longest, warped though they are by time and abraded though they are by distance. The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those – exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly – who can no longer reach the places that sustain them.

Update, 2 March 2015; Macfarlane’s new one, Landmarks (Amazon | Spectator | Gdn), is about to go large. Intriguingly, if wearingly, this is described as a “field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used to describe land, nature and weather”. See Macfarlane’s word-hoard, doubtless the first of many pieces (and an exhibition):

I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands…Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places.

It seems that there are several other word hoards doing the rounds – see this review of Uncommon ground, with accompanying glossary. As Macfarlane writes: “Smeuse is a dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word ‘smeuse’, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.”

As John Burnside points out, “Landmarks goes further by enriching, not only our vocabulary of land terms, but also our ways of seeing.” Having recently bought a tree book I’m in with the naming things meme, but re this book I think I’ll stick with this entry from The Digested Read:

Mon-biot: the early morning tweet of the excitable green finch that would have been better off deleted.


Lake Lucerne and the Alps

Here’s a second post from our recent trip to Switzerland. It’s taking rather longer than intended to turn these round, but fine polishing my notes has meant revisiting Switzerland on a grey February day in Denmark, so maybe not such a bad idea after all. Although our trip was mainly centred around cities, it was hard to avoid the constant presence of mountains. Not necessarily in a hearty “let’s get up there and do some sport” way, but integrated into Swiss culture rather more subtly. How does a country’s topography affect the people who live there? It may be one of those things you don’t notice until you don’t have it any more. Growing up in Edinburgh, one of many cities built on seven hills, views of the Pentlands from our house or driving down Kaimes Road, walks with the dogs up Costorphine and Blackford Hills and the occasional foray up Arthur’s Seat were the norm. It took quite a while for me to realise just how flat Denmark is – but we’ll leave that for another post. Having missed the opportunity to visit Chalet School favourite Interlaken while we were in Bern, we decided to take a day trip to Luzern, partly inspired by the mural in Basel station:

Photo 03-01-14 19.13.10

Luzern itself tended to the pretty pretty and was a bit Zurich without the grit (of which more later), but the views of the Alps were just what we were looking for. We took a boat trip on the ink blot shaped Vierwaldstättersee, one arm of which offers the 35km Weg der Schweiz, a national path opened in 1991 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Confederation in the meadow of the Rütli:

The route recognises each of the cantons making up Switzerland, with markers announcing each canton along the route. The length of route for each canton is proportional to the population at the time of building, and the order is determined by the order in which the cantons joined the Swiss federation.

Mount Pilatus, a destination in itself, reared up behind us on a 40 minute voyage to Weggis, at the foot of Mount Rigi, with its own cable car to Rigi Kaltbad. How delighted was I to discover that the area had been visited not only by Mark Twain but also by Goethe – both of whom have their own trail. For more see Rigi: Koningin der Berge, with a timeline of the area’s development, cogwheel railways, aerial cable cars and all.

Factoid corner has a wealth of information on the mountains plus an interactve map. Webcams galore – Bergfex.comSwiss Panorama, plus My has 32 walks on an app. Switzerland has a total of 62,500km of marked trails which would stretch around the world 1.5 times, in the following designations:

  • yellow: easy
  • white-red-white: mountain trails, some experience required
  • white-blue-white: high Alpine trails, some climbing or glaciers involved
  • pink: prepared winter walking trails

Updates: nice post from Kulturflaneur on Die Erfindung des Gruppentourismus…the area is also one of A literary atlas of Europe‘s model regions – see the literary hiking guide (publisher’s info)…lovely piece on walking in the footsteps of Jemima Morrell, who went on  one of Thomas Cook’s earliest tours to Switzerland in 1863…Inspiration in the Alps, reviewing The gilded chalet: off-piste in literary Switzerland, ooh!

Bern: walking city

Update, 2016: In praise of the tram – it’s time to follow the Swiss model, which has led to Zurich having “the lowest modal share of car transport of almost any global city of comparable size”.

We recently spent eight days in Switzerland. Being fans of the whistle stop tour the original plan was to visit a city in each of the three major language regions, but our itinerary kept shrinking and in the end we only visited the German speaking part of the country, spending time in Bern, Basel, Zürich and Luzern.

Our journey started on New Year’s Eve with the overnight train from Copenhagen to Basel. The fireworks were already starting in Hvidovre as we left, having delivered the beagles to the safer haven of Roskilde. After sustenance of a sort at CPH station we boarded our two person sleeper – more private than a couchette, but a little claustrophobic. My partner chooses to retire early, which left me perched on the lower bunk looking out at the fireworks at midnight in Hamburg and beyond.

As a German graduate there’s something magical for me in travelling the length of Germany through the night. I was awake at Frankfurt, where I studied, and we had breakfast in Freiburg, travelling through the Schwarzwald and over the border to Basel. We then hopped on a train to Bern, arriving there around an hour later.

In common with Scotland both 1st and 2nd January (Berchtoldstag) are public holidays in the German speaking part of Switzerland. This meant limited shopping opportunities, however the slick modern station, like many in Germany, had a wealth of shops and supermarkets of the everyday variety so this was not really an issue. With a branch of ace vegan buffet restaurant Tibits just outside the station we were well set. Our hotel was a little way out of town but it was easy to take a tram outside the station. On the second evening we walked back, getting more of the feel of the suburbs. All in all, despite it being a holiday period, the impression we got was of a lively well functioning city.

Bern’s centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes 6km of arcades, the largest in Europe. The weather was clement, but I can imagine that it wouldn’t really be an issue to get around when cold or snowing. There were plenty of reasons to be out and about – for example the small park behind the cathedral was historic, not an artificial construction, and included a mini-library. All over the city there were people simply sitting and reading, no longer warding off TB, but probably old habits die hard. As it stays lighter longer there’s more of an impetus to sit out, plus glimpses of the Berner Oberland, the Eiger and the Jungfrau, don’t really hurt.

All around town were yellow Walk your city style signs with the walking time to particular locations. Turns out that these are standard Swiss hiking signs – perhaps Walk your city got some inspiration from Switzerland. There were also cycling signs and a city bike depot, but these did not seem over-used.

Bern is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, of taking a line for a walk fame, and the city fathers haven’t shirked on building on this connection (see article auf deutsch | video). 54 Wege zu Klee signs connect streets and landmarks to Klee and his works, leading you onward:

(pics from the Wege zu Klee Facebook page)

Three routes around the city and beyond (see trail maps for Zentrum Paul Klee circular walk | station to ZPK), plus street names further underline aspects of walking:

With many Klees currently on show at Tate Modern the main exhibition at the ZPK was on Klee’s life and work, making the man himself come alive. Of particular note was the letter signed by the Bauhaus professorial team after Paul went AWOL – it was easy to picture Walter Gropius going round getting everyone to sign it. A second exhibition with paintings from the collection of Frankfurter Hanne Becker included lots of highlights for Expressionism fans.

Klee update, July: clearly a fan, three sections in Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz, are set in the Bauhaus, and he wrote a lengthy piece around the Tate exhibition as well as a nice entry in the Guardian’s my hero series: “Somewhere in the afterlife, I am going to accompany [Klee’s] violin in the Brahms G major sonata.” 2017 update: Sara Baume’s A line made by walking named for the quote?

More Bernese walks and related:

Update: several holidays later I’m forced to concede that planned photo essays on Basel and Zurich aren’t going to happen. Both cities were great sources of inspiration – Basel for its border town position in a triangle between France and Germany and multiple railway stations, the Rhine, its stress on walking the city and trams creating life even on a Sunday…we went on two guided walks, at the Vitra Design Museum across the border in Germany and at Rudolf Steiner’s unique Goetheanum in the nearby village of Dornach.

Zurich, jockeying with Copenhagen in the liveable city lists, was more elusive. Stand-outs were our first James Joyce Museum, Umsicht, an urban development exhibition we found by chance in the university, and Zurich West, with the house which refuses to give way to shiny new things. Need to go back!