On this second and more measured walk through Robert Macfarlane's book I am taking my bearings from the subtle little compass points which are different for each chapter, and which I had missed first time round, whilst the series of words which follow seem to be offering me a route, the latitude and longitude of the book, some waymarkers to guide me through what is to come.
Perhaps these are the wordish equivalent of the markers that guided Robert as he took to the treacherous footpath known as the Broomway, vast sand and mud-flats off the Essex coast with a tidal race that will catch the innocent walker unawares. The cockle shells dropped every hundred yards or so to steer him back because the victims buried in the nearby churchyard at Foulness are testament to the risk. If it hadn't been there Wilkie Collins would have had to invent it says Robert, and I immediately got the drift (sorry wrong word) and that sense of gothic eeriness.
The dangers are legendary and well-documented. The mist will descend, the coastal lights will disorientate the mind, the scale and distance will distort the eye and beguile the walker into heading out to sea when they believe they are returning inland, whilst all about the mud waits to suck in another panicky victim.
Well of course Robert negotiates it successfully or no book, but it felt a bit touch and go as he set off with his equally nervous friend David. and with the final words of advice from their absent guide ringing in their ears..
'The Broomway will be there another day, but if you try walking in the mist, you may not be. So if it's misty when you arrive at Wakering Stairs, turn around and go home.'
'It was misty when I arrived at Wakering Stairs...'
and as the pair walked out..
'I'm worried that if I don't make it back in time, the tide will float off with my shoes,' I said to David.
'If we don't make it back in time, the tide will float off with your body, ' he replied unconsolingly.
It all made me think how risk averse and fear-filled we have necessarily become, because in these days of multi-media we know every single thing that can and does go wrong. Who in their right mind would head out across Morecambe Bay unguided in the wake of the Chinese cockle-pickers tragedy...
It is very easy for me to wax lyrical about a book like this, I'll buy into any amount of psycho-geography, but as Kathleen Jamie says of nature in her book Sightlines,
'It's not all primroses and otters...'
and I was mindful that Robert Macfarlane's muse and guiding spirit for this book was Edward Thomas, whose true subjects 'are disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness', so this is not all pretty, and it is not all cosy and comfortable.
The chapter entitled Limestone seemed almost incongruous, truth be told I was a bit disconcerted to be uprooted from the Highlands of Scotland, where I was having a lovely time in the Gneiss and the Granite and really enjoying the scenery, only to be deposited in Ramallah in Palestine with Robert and his good friend, former human-rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh. But on second reading that location is assuming far greater significance and has become a pivotal moment in the book for me now...a sort of crossroads on the journey, a path it would very easy not to take, but one which necessarily must be, by someone.
All reminding me of The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost's poem that seemed to urge Edward Thomas on the road to France and perhaps, though this is a different century and a different country, this might be about creating a version of the world that Edward Thomas also faced as he headed into a war zone.
Perhaps this is also about the very different experience of walking whilst exposed to conflict and threat, with the potential for harm, injury and death at the hands of A.N.Other always uppermost in the mind... as several of the word-waymarkers suggest..
'Walking as resistance.... Bullet holes & bullet-casings... Walk, Don't Walk..'
Not everyone has the luxury of walking around green fields with lovely views, so with that walk, which is laden with genuine fear and anxiety, comes a much deeper connection with lives, with history and with the landscape... and Robert Macfarlane may well be in the line-up for the 100m final in a few weeks time, because having felt the fear and done it anyway, I doubt his lightning-speed scramble up that buttress, when he thought he may have been about to be ambushed, could be beaten.
But as Robert Macfarlane says,
'Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It's hard to create a footpath on your own...paths need walking'
so The Old Ways is a book about challenge too, and with multi-dimensional challenges to the reader to engage with the landscape in every direction, not just across and following the signposts, but to think about what lies beneath the feet and what may be over there beyond the horizons of our own vision and experience, and to think about what may have gone before, and to think about what transitory imprint we each leave on those paths too as we add to the sum of millions of years.
And it all feels like a slightly subversive endorsement of my right to roam, of which I am a skilled but slightly lily-livered exponent, living as we do slap-bang in the middle of the very clearly way-marked Tamar Valley Trail. I ignore the signs and wander all over the place here. I shut gates carefully and walk around the edges of fields. I risk-assess for raging bulls, I attempt to coax stray sheep back into the fold and I try not to frighten the horses. If stopped (I never have been) I would probably take the coward's way out and express surprise whilst apologising profusely for having my map upsidedown, rather than expounding my human rights. Don't get me wrong, Robert is not instigating such action, though he does acknowledge the constraints when writing about footpaths..
'...a labyrinth of liberty, a slender network of common land that still threads through our aggressively privatized world of barbed wire and gates, CCTV cameras and 'No Trespassing' signs.'
When we first moved here eighteen years ago we used to pass a very menacing sign painted in dripping red on a gate a few miles away saying 'Keep out...I am watching you...'
It just used to make me feel cross and slightly rebellious rather than fearful and law-abiding, a mood I may have unwittingly passed onto my children thinking back to the Kayaker's dare-devil bandit runs on out-of-bounds rivers years later. And all making me want to access my inner-trespasser, because somehow a book like this makes me feel that these Old Ways should and do belong to all of us.