Pilgrimpace's Blog

a line made by walking
November 27, 2017, 10:42 am
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It’s 50 years since Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking.  Reflections on this mark making on the landscape by Robert Macfarlane here

pricking the balloon

It’s very important to be able to laugh at ourselves.

The inimitable John Crace gave me the chance to do this with his Digested Read of Robert MacFarlane’s new book Landmarks in The Guardian.  You can read it here.  It’s extremely funny.

I like Macfarlane.  He’s a fine writer, he helps me look at nature and my environment more deeply.  He inspires me.  But it’s good to critique, and if this can be done humorously, more the better.  What critical questions do we need to ask about any authors, especially the ones we admire?  What bits of criticism don’t we agree with? (for example, I don’t think ‘Macfarlish’ is quite fair – his introducing us to the authors who inspire us is for me a real service).  What hits home that we’d rather didn’t?

It is also good to read fine writers like Katherine Norbury, Helen Macdonald, Esther Woolfson and Kathleen Norris against the male canon of the New Nature Writing.

That said, I’m looking forward to reading Landmarks at some point soon.  I hope it’s as good as The Old Ways.

as I walked out … again

There is a superb essay by Robert MacFarlane on As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning here.  I appreciate his acknowledgement of those who walk and tramp due to poverty, and his engagement with this part of Lee’s book, rather then romanticisation or skipping over.  (Does anyone know what the memoir of the Tramp named Toby is?  I’d like to read it).

There is the noticing of the similarity of timing of Lee’s walk through Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s.  It is worth reading MacFarlane’s account of his own walk over the Guadarrama Mountains in The Old Ways (also the bit of that book where he gets to grips with pilgrimage).


This review by Ronald Blythe of Nick Groom’s The Seasons is wonderful.  It’s on my book token list.


I’ve been listening to the radio and looking out of the window a lot the last few days as I recover from a very heavy Christmas Cold.  Good things to listen to.  David Almond celebrated Clive King’s classic book Stig of the Dump, which was a firm favourite with me.  I was full of memory of what seemed to be the wild places where I grew up – the thickets on the edge of the Hill where the crude spirit drinkers slept; the bomb sites; the bank next to school where in spring there were sticky buds so strong that no boy could break them off.  Listen again here.

Robert Macfarlane celebrated Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain here, one of the great books about nature and landscape, not least because it gets us away from conquest and possession and being first to the top.  I’ll read it again this year, and most importantly, it will spur me to get outside more – as soon as this cold is over.

As well as these outdoor Radio 4 programmes, World Service’s World Book Club this coming Saturday is on Pat Barker’s Regeneration.  I’ll be listening to this keenly – this great novel, drawing on the carnage of the First World War has a vast amount to say to anyone who has anything to do with suffering, love and healing.

nature catch up

Robert MacFarlane writes on Environment: New Words in the Wild here.  It’s an interesting exploration of the new nature writing and the effect it can have.

Richard Mabey writes on learning to enjoy the weather here.

There’s an excellent ebook here by Mission:Explore and The John Muir Trust inspiring us to follow in the footsteps of John Muir.

the peregrine
January 26, 2013, 11:41 am
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One of the books which I dip into often is JA Baker’s The Peregrine which is certainly one of the best pieces of English nature writing.  The Peregrine is a diary of watching this bird in an incredibly deep way in the Essex countryside (country I am fortunate to be familiar with from when I was an undergraduate).  The edition I have includes Baker’s other writings, The Hill of Summer and The Diaries.  I would urge you to read it.  It gets remarkably close to this bird, and the spare poetic writing is like nothing else.


There is an essay about it by Robert Macfarlane here.  To give a flavour, here is the entry for January 18th:

Still, hazy, cloudless; the small sun pale and shrunken in a white sky.  The frozen river cracked and whanged out into diamond shapes of ice.  By dusk it had sealed into rigidity again.  Some ponds were solid ice.  They could be lifted up, leaving no water.

I saw the tiercel peregrine at three o’clock, on the far side of the river.  He was hovering and plunging and darting over the snow in a strange manner, leaping with a wonderfully soft dancing lightness, like a big nightjar.  Dark against the low sun, he flickered and danced in his own twilight, as erratic and darting as the green sandpiper I had seen by the river in the morning,

When I went closer, I saw the reason for his antics.  He was chasing the enfeebled sandpiper till it was too tired to fly any farther.  It jinked about below the hawk, flickering its wings stiffly back like the striding legs of a water beetle, like the prey it could not find.

Gradually its flight weakened, and it fluttered down into the snow, exhausted.  The hawk pounced, plucked and ate it in five minutes, and flew off.  The snow flamed redly in the last light of the sun, glowed orange, then faded to white again.  The red embers of the kill shone into the dusk, pitting the snow with orange blood.

peregrine falcon,wikemedia commons

peregrine falcon,
wikimedia commons

finding the way

Old paths rarely vanish, unless the sea eats them or Tarmac covers them.  They survive as subtle landmarks, evident to those who know how to look – as Edward Thomas did.  ‘Even when deserted,’ he wrote, ‘these old roads are kept in memory by many signs.’  He called such lapsed ways ‘ghostly roads’; Walter Scott referred to them as ‘blind roads’.  Such paths also expressed themselves in custom, law and place names.  ‘It is one of the adventurous pleasures of a good map,’ Thomas wrote, ‘to trace the possible course of a known old road, or to discover one that was lost.  A distinct chain of footpath, lane and road … leading across the country and corresponding in much of its course with boundaries is likely to be an ancient way.  For him, map-reading approached mysticism: he described it as an ‘old power’, of which only a few people had the glimmerings.

– Robert MacFarlane ‘The Old Ways’

This picture was taken by Meenakshi a year ago today as we walked out of heavy morning rain on the Camino Ingles.  We paused for a drink and I engaged in making sure that the instructions for the next few miles were clear in my mind.  Not a mystical activity, but an important one.  I am, though, indebted to my walking and reading of the past years which is leading me into a much deeper appreciation the land, the landscape, its history and its meaning.

border crossings
October 5, 2012, 1:40 pm
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We diverted from the marked route of the Two Saints Way climbing down from Cannock Chase to excellent bed and breakfast accommodation at Maevsyn Ridware in the Trent Valley.  Tiredness hit and we were faced with this large, muddy potato field.

We could not see the direction of the path from the top of the field, meaning a trudge round the field edge.  It was impossible not to become gloomy.  I was reminded of that dreadful Dorsetshire cabbage field in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  I was very glad to have Mark’s good and quiet company.  After the field we crossed a road, traversed more gentle fields, descended a path by the side of a caravan park – alternately overgrown and then encroached by washing lines – before reaching the bottom.  We walked for a short distance along a canal, before crossing the river in full spate and then walking across a very flooded flood plain.

A man coming towards us with his dog proved that it could be crossed, although we came to an agreement that when the person in front sank they were to be used as a stepping stone.

After strong tea and a hot bath I read this in MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, bringing strongly to mind that potato field …

We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape onto John’s ‘far side of the moon’, into WH Hudson’s ‘new country’, into Wendell Berry’s ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think significantly differently.  I have for some time been imagining such transitions as ‘border crossings’.  These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them.  Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable maps exist of their routes and outlines.  They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, snow or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone.  Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries.

– Robert MacFarlane The Old Ways

the old ways

I’ve started reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways.  Over the past few years, MacFarlane has been writing about landscape, nature and our part in it in Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places.  I’ve been anticipating The Old Ways and it really is very good, to my mind his best book.  It is about paths (and in a part I haven’t read yet, includes a walk along part of the Camino de Santiago.  People interested in walking, landscape and nature should read this book.

Paths run through people as surely as they run through places.  The American historian and geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson – a man constitutionally wary of romanticism – puts it well.  ‘For untold thousands of years we travelled on foot over rough paths,’ he notes, ‘not simply as peddlers or communters or tourists, but as men and women for whom the path stood for some intense experience: freedom, new human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape.  The road offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were’.”

This seems to me a good description of what can happen to us on long walking pilgrimages.  And I can feel – by the tickling of my feet – a short one coming up …

the old ways
July 3, 2012, 10:28 am
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Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways is being broadcast on Radio 4 this week. Listen here.  Excellent.