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From The Reader Bookshelf… The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Written by Maisie Jeynes, 14th October 2021

As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.

This week our Heritage Coordinator Holly Gilson tells us about her recommended read, The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.


Words by Holly Gilson

"The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature – a walk is only a step away from a story and every path tells."

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane follows the routes of old and ancient paths, telling the story of his journey, intertwined with the historic stories and folk tales associated with the path. He views walking and storytelling as two sides of the same coin: "In non-western cultures, the ideas of footfall as knowledge and walking as a mode of thinking are widespread, often operating in particular as a metaphor for recollection – history as a region on walk back into."

The link between landscape and memory is something I see a lot in my work as the Heritage Coordinator. It's rare to lead a heritage walk around the park without something sparking a story from somebody's past.

I'm only half way through The Old Ways, but so far each chapter has focused on a different path. My favourite has been about the Broomway, "allegedly the deadliest path in Britain", crossing the Essex mud flats at low tide, allowing you to avoid the sinking sand and walk to Foulness Island - as long as you don't get lost or mistime the tides! The path is close to where my Grandparents live, and my family has been saying for years that one day we will walk it- now, having read Macfarlane's description, I am even more keen.

I'd recommend this book to anyone with a sense of adventure, curiosity about stories of the past, or a love of poetic descriptions of the natural world. I'll end with this beautiful description of a cliff:​​​

"Below me were wave-smashed theatres of rock: echoey sea caves, and bird filled zawns. Here and there I flopped onto my belly and peered over the brink, looking down to where the sea shampooed the rocks, and listening to the yabber of the seabirds […] I felt a sensation of candour and amplitude, of the body and mind opened up, of thought diffusing at the body's edges rather than ending at the skin."

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