The Timeless Paths: a review of the book Holloway

by frankbeswick

Holloway, by Macfarlane, Donwood and Richards is a small, but interesting book well worth reading.

England has holloways in places, where the ground is soft and the rock easily erodable. They are ancient paths, the youngest being but three hundred years old and the oldest going to Neolithic times or before. Sometimes eighteen feet below the level of the surrounding fields, they achieved their depth by the constant erosion of ground over hundreds, maybe thousands of years by footfall. Too narrow for modern traffic they are forgotten paths, oft-overgrown with merciless bramble and its defensive thorns. But for those who can walk or explore them there is a sense of being able to walk a path in which the ages before ours leave their traces.

Image courtesy of sanderstock

The Holloway

The worth of a gem is not measured by its size, and this book is a little gem. Perhaps Robert Macfarlane's shortest work, it is well-written, using powerful language to share with readers his experiences of exploring ancient an track in its geographical and historical setting.  

Holloway is a work whose small size belies its being the product of several years and people. Macfarlane first walked the holloway in the Chideock Valley of Dorset, a quiet rural county of South West England, with his friend Roger Deakin, so part of the book looks back on their time together, poignant, as we know that Roger, also a well-known writer, died at 63 some years ago. Part of the book looks back to the time that these great friends shared together, and as you know that it is a reflection on a lost friend, the book gains some impact. Those of us familiar with the works of Deakin, who was a fine and able author whose works I have enjoyed, will be able to  participate in the book with empathy the stronger because of their reading. 

The second part of Holloway is a record of a trip taken by Macfarlane, the artist Stanley Dornwood, whose line drawings are in the text, and the writer Dan Richards, who co-authored the work. They camped in the now untrodden pathway, and walked where the sprawling bramble and blackthorn, a bush common in South West Britain, would let them, hiding once from hunters shooting rabbits at night, an illegal activity which has caused several fatalities because of their shooting in the dark.We can pick up on the essentially friendly character of the three men, as they sit drinking damson gin by their night fire. 


Macfarlane returns to one of his interests, the Chideock Martyrs. He has spoken of these Catholics executed in the Reformation period in other books, and it is heartening to see that to this scholarly writer their bravery is neither forgotten nor dismissed, and he recounts something of their story, which is worth remembering.  He tells again of his visit to the Catholic chapel in Chideock and how he spent some time there. We can feel his sympathy for forgotten heroes of a cruel age. 

The sense of walking through time is powerful in Macfarlane's works. He speaks of holloways being places where you can slip back out of this world, and their being places within which ghosts softly flock. The supernatural is a constant background in this book. He speaks of walkers on ancient ways sensing the sounds and voices of an earlier age, and he tells how he sometimes thought he saw Roger Deakin at places on the path. He is convinced that places retain memories of the people who walk along them, even from distant times. This author is one who is open to the sense or presence of what Celtic folk call The Other, and this liberates him and the reader from the rigid constraints of materialism and its denial of anything other than the merely material. 

Macfarlane's command of literature shines through in his writings. He regularly speaks of the poet, Edward Thomas, on whom he is a specialist, and whose thoughts and experiences he values. Holloway also was inspired by the book Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, who sets the adventures of his hero, who is escaping from killers by hiding out in the holloway that Macfarlane is exploring. He draws comparisons with Kipling's The Road Through the Woods, and the comparison with this slightly spectral poem fits well with Macfarlane's thinking and sensitivity to The Other. 

You get the sense of living in an anomaly. These holloways are sometimes impassable, because they are overgrown, too narrow for modern vehicles and yet at eighteen feet deep in some cases, too deep to be economically filled in by farmers. Thus they remain, the lingering echoes of an ancient past. Macfarlane allows us to peek into one. 


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This is a small, easily affordable work which you can tuck into a pocket for reading on bus, tram or train. After purchasing I sat in a cafe drinking tea and savouring the first section, re-reading to absorb fully the rich language in which  this Cambridge English scholar is so adept. This is a book whose language invites you to return to it.Holloway is a book written by a deeply literate and spiritually sensitive person.  It is worth purchasing.

Updated: 01/21/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/22/2015

I loved Macfarlane's book, The Old Ways, which explore's ancient tracks through Britain. It is not widely appreciated by those who think that civilisation was brought to Britain by the Romans, but the ancient Britons were a culturally sophisticated group of people who could produce great works, such as henges and hillforts. People think that the Romans brought roads, but archaeologists have found that the Romans sometimes built on old British tracks. The main road near my house runs straight as a ruler between Manchester and Chester, Roman sites, so it is on the route of a Roman road, but I bet that an old British track lies deep below it.

WriterArtist on 01/21/2015

Holloway reminds me in some way of Tom Sawyer's adventures. A way to escape from the daily routine and the worries of our life is to take shelter in the lap of Nature exploring the holloway as the writer suggests. And if you are not fit to take the adventure, just take this book and read it in the shade of a tree or in your home garden sipping a cup of coffee. Loved the review.

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