Through a glass darkly – 70

Starting from home

It is two days short of the winter solstice. The temperature is five degrees below freezing. At dusk it snows steadily for five hours. When the snow stops the writer leaves his desk to go for a walk. He clears the suburbs, finds a hole in the hawthorn hedge, and follows the field path east-south-east, rising towards a long chalk hill-top, visible as a whale-back in the darkness. Dry snow squeaks underfoot. A fox crosses the adjacent field at a trot. The path is a grey snow alley flanked on one side by hawthorn, and on the other by a mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, and dogwood.  In the forty-acre field the snow is densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals. “I found a line of fox-pugs, which here and there had been swept across by the fox’s brush … … I discovered what I supposed were traces of a pheasant taking off: trenched foot prints where it had pushed up, then spaced feather-presses either side of the tracks, becoming progressively lighter and then vanishing altogether.”

The walker pauses for a drink of whisky. He steps onto the county’s most exclusive golf course, walking straight down fairway after fairway. On the fifth green he lies on his back and stares at the stars. Most of the tracks on the course had been made by rabbits. “If you’ve seen rabbit prints in the snow, you will know they resemble a Halloween ghost mask, or the face of Edward Munch’s Screamer: the two rear feet are placed laterally to make elongated eyes, and between them and behind them fall the forefeet in a slightly offset paired line, forming nose and oval mouth.” There are occasional headlights from the road to the west. He follows rabbit tracks through another blackthorn hedge and onto the Roman road that runs for miles over the low chalk hills. The Roman road passes the end of an avenue of beeches and skirts the earthworks of a large Iron Age fort. “At the down’s top, under the moon, near the outline of a Bronze Age burial barrow, I sat in the snow and drank whisky again”. The walker looks back at the line of his own tracks leading up to the hilltop. And then picks out one of a dozen other print-trails, following it downhill to see where it will lead.

This is a book about walking. And about a host of other things too. Robert Macfarlane follows the tracks, drove-roads, and sea paths that form part of an ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond. His conviction is that, while walking feet leave their mark on the landscape, so too does the landscape imprint itself on the mind of the walker. Walking the old ways opens up a word of pilgrimage and ritual, and stimulates our imagination and our senses.

The Outer Hebrides

In a later chapter Macfarlane quotes Richard Kearney: insisting that Irish scholars practised the habit of navigatio, of undertaking circular journeys by boat as an apprenticeship that would enable them better to  appreciate their own intellectual and spiritual context. In the same spirit he undertakes a journey in a small boat to the bare rock islet of Sula Sgeir. This is a jagged black peak of gneiss some forty miles north of the Butt of Lewis, the same distance from the Outer Hebrides as St Kilda. It is the topmost summit of an undersea mountain and is home to around 10,000 pairs of gannets. And for a few years to the only black-browed albatross in the northern hemisphere. In big storms the seas break right over the top of the island. This is the place to which men come from Lewis every year to hunt the guga , the gannet chicks. The first recorded mention of the guga hunt dates to 1549, when the men rowed out in an open boat to cull the gannets and brought the bodies back as ballast. This annual expedition is central to Peter May’s The Black House, the first book in his Hebridean trilogy [see Through a glass darkly – 52]. For centuries men reached Sula Sgeir in an open boat, by rowing or by sailing. Since the 1950s they have travelled in fishing trawlers, but it is still an arduous five-hour journey. Macfarlane sails from Port of Ness in the elderly Lewis boat Jubilee; gannets are feasting on a shoal of sand eels. They see a minke whale. And a single dolphin. 

Sula Sgeir

He recalls that Mark Twain trained as a river-pilot on the Mississippi, as an apprentice to Horace Bixby, the veteran steamboat captain. “The face of the water “, wrote Twain, “became in time a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve …

Back on land Macfarlane goes in s search of a path that was thought to run south-east from west Lewis down into Harris. It was a path that existed in folklore before it existed as terrain, and like a folk-song its route subtly altered its each retelling. The path was unknown to the Ordnance Survey. It was called the Clachan Mhànais, Manus’s Stones, and the cairns had been laid by a crofter called Manus MacLennan.  Finlay MacLeod, naturalist, novelist, and local historian, drives him down past the great sands of Uig to the road-end, the remains of the crofting settlement of Mealasta. He pitches his small tent on a peninsula overlooking the bay. Above him a golden eagle is roaming on a late-day hunt. As he drinks his tea a seal surfaces ten yards away. In the morning he follows the deer tracks that run beneath the north face of Griomabhal, searching for the elusive path.  At last he spies the cairn sequence running up from the Dubh Loch shore, and he follows the path east over the slopes of gneiss. As the day warms up he pulls off his boots and socks, and walks barefoot for an hour or two on the cool and slippery peat. He quotes Nan Shepherd approvingly. “Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion”, she wrote in 1945, “but sensible people are reviving the habit.” 

Huisinish, North Harris

In the evening he crawls into a dome-roofed rock shieling, constructed of overlapping gneiss slabs turfed over to act as windbreak and insulation; and cooks the trout he caught earlier. No midges. An enormous sky.  And a sensation of huge emptiness. During the night he is woken only once, by the hoarse coughing of a deer. The next day he walks south-east all day, following shieling path, croft path, drover’s road, and green way. He spends the night in the youth hostel at Rhenigdale. The next day he continues towards Tarbert on what has been described as ‘the most beautiful path in Britain’. “The track contoured above sea coves … … after a mile the path dropped down into a sheltered coastal glen called Trollamaraig, and here, protected from the sea wind, I found a flourishing dwarf forest of willow and aspen, `honeysuckle, foxglove, and woodrush. Then it was up, zigzagging the east face of a hill called  the Scriob until the path eased and led due west between two pap-like peaks with Norse names, Trolamal and Beinn Tharsuinn. “ Macfarlane descends under rainbows to Tarbert, and makes his way to the house of Steve Dilworth, artist and path-maker; “in whose house I stayed for several days. days which have in my memory taken on the texture of a fairy tale: the traveller on foot welcomed in off the path for a pause in his travels, to a house of dark wonders, the strangest energies, and an apparently  self-replenishing tumbler of gin”.

Rhenigdale Hostel

Chanctonbury Ring

Many pages later Macfarlane sets out in the footsteps of Edward Thomas.He plans to follow the ridge line of the South Downs east from Winchester until the chalk dips into the sea near Eastbourne. He spends the first night in a forestry plantation called War Down, tucked into his cocoon-like tent. The next night he [mistakenly] decides to spend in Chanctonbury Ring; a prominent circle of beech trees planted in 1760 by a local aristocrat on the site of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and a Roman temple. When I was at school in Sussex in the 1950s-60s Chanctonbury Ring was a prominent landmark on the South Downs. Up to which we once climbed on what must have been a school whole holiday.

It turns out to have been a mistake. “I heard the first scream at about two o’clock in the morning. A high-pitched and human cry … … It came from the opposite side of the ring to where I was sleeping. My thoughts were sleep-muddled: A child in distress ? A rabbit being taken by a weasel or a fox ? … … an owl surely. But it was like no owl I had ever heard … … I lay there for two or three minutes listening to the. screams. Then  I realised, with a prickling in my shoulders and fingers, that the voices had split and were now coming towards me … … “

Chanctonbury Ring

When he gets home he researches the folklore of Chanctonbury Ring. And discovers it has a reputation of being one of the most haunted places of the Downs. If you ran round the Ring on a moonless night, the Devil would come out of the wood and offer you a bowl of soup.  “The ghosts that had been summoned in this way, apart from the Devil, included a Druid, a lady on a white horse, a white-bearded treasure seeker, a girl child, and Julius Caesar and his army. It clearly got crowded up there on busy nights.”

Edward Thomas

One of Macfarlane’s inspirations was the poet Edward Thomas. From an early age he had been a compulsive walker, He kept a diary of natural events, and collected wild flowers and birds’ eggs. In 1906 Thomas moved with his wife and young children into Steep, a village in Hampshire; into a house called Wick Green, at the end of an ancient track. The house was high up on the plateau and looked across to Chanctonbury Ring and the ridge-line of the South Downs. Suffering from recurrent depression Thomas responded by walking, long distances in all weathers, Paths and tracks are prominent in his writing. And weather is integral to his thinking. “Other people talk about the weather”, noted Eleanor Farjeon, “Edward lived it.”  In the course of 1913 Thomas becomes friends with Robert Frost, and they walk together in the woods near Dymock in Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas

In July 1915 Thomas draws up his will and enlists as a private in the Artists’ Rifles. He trains in Essex, and then volunteers to go out to the batteries in France. He is posted near Doullens, where the wooded chalk hills remind him of the South Downs. He looks up from his observation post to see kestrels hovering in pairs. And above them wheel five planes. Easter Monday, April 9th, is the beginning of the Battle of Arras. It begins with a massive artillery barrage from the British. As the first wave of British troops moves forwards towards the German lines, a stray shell drops near to Thomas’s dug-out. His body is untouched. But he is killed instantly by pneumatic concussion. A photo of his wife and a slip of paper are found in his pocket:

“  Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell,

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.” 

The Old Ways

The Old Ways is a magnificent book. Which was chosen as Book of the Year by more than a dozen critics and periodicals when it was first published in 2012. Macfarlane is a polymath, who discourses knowledgeably on geography, geology, ecology, flora and fauna, landscape and literature.  And he also writes beautifully. “An extraordinary book …”, wrote Jan Morris in the Daily Telegraph, “… it made me feel that I myself am always walking some external track, sharing its pleasure and hardships with uncountable 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 …”

The Old Ways

The smudgy black-and-white photos do little for me. My only caution is that the book is dense, a rich read. I tried to read it in Ibiza in the sunshine in 2015. And failed. It is best taken in small doses. Like the Collin Street bakery Corsicana Cake that my brother generously sends us every Christmas. I am very glad to have at last come back to it. And/but, when I can find the time, Macfarlane has written half a dozen books since this one. Including Landmarks and Underland.

April 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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