Posted by: billpurdue | August 18, 2013

A fine example of travel writing

There are many books about ancient tracks and pathways, but none quite like The Old Ways  by Robert Macfarlane. This is a book in which the author tells of his experiences as he followed some ancient tracks and routes, mainly in the UK. As the author says in the short ‘Author’s Note’ on page xi, it’s a book about the relationship between paths, walking and the imagination. The subtitle is “a journey on foot”, but in fact it is several journeys and at least two of them are on a boat where he follows the old sailing routes in the seas around the Outer Hebrides.


It’s a very rewarding book, if you can get past the first chapter, which is by way of an introduction, rather than a journey. (I think I really should re-read the first chapter to understand more about what he’s getting at)  There are no maps of the routes (unless you count the endpapers of the hardback which have sections of the geological map of Great Britain) and very few photographs. Somehow this doesn’t seem to matter: you can look up the route on a map if you like, but it’s the account of how he followed these old ways, the research he did and the characters he meets that matter, not where he turned left or right for example. Perhaps one of the most unusual walks is his trek along the Broomway. This is a walk across the mudflats at low tide off the coast of Essex, similar to the path across the wide estuary of Morecambe Bay. Macfarlane describes this as one of the ‘unearthliest paths’ he has ever walked.


Another absorbing chapter describes his walk from Lewis to Harris along a barely discernible path in the Outer Hebrides. He spends one night in a “beehive” shieling, a corbelled stone shelter in the middle of a vast moorland. Funnily enough I also came across his description of this experience in a short piece written as part of an article in the Independent for 17th August Travel section which marks the 40th anniversary of the guide book publisher Lonely Planet.


The book has been described as a ‘tour de force’ by William Dalrymple in the Observer. He writes “there is one in particular who has shown how utterly beautiful a brilliantly written travel book can still be. That writer is Robert Macfarlane.” Quickly scanning through the reviews on, there are very mixed opinions, though most are favourable. I think if you are not put off by the first chapter, you will find this read an unexpected pleasure. The paperback was issued at the end of May.


Look out for…



Christian Wolmar’s new book, “To the Edge of the World” ,due out in November, about the Trans-Siberian Railway. On his website you can find an article originally written for the Daily Mail which will probably give you a sort of taster of what to expect in his book. Meanwhile a large number of his earlier books are still available including the excellent “Fire and Steam”, published in 2008, described as the “first comprehensive general history of Britain’s railways for over 30 years”.


Mr Wolmar has also been involved in the compilation of the new book “Boris’s Bus” all about the new bus for London and its troubled entry into service. This is due out in October.



Finally I’m looking forward to Bill Bryson’s new book “One Summer: America 1927”. In the summer of 1927 America changed the world: Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, television and talking pictures were invented and it was the height of Al Capone’s reign of terror. Told in the style of Bill Bryson, this will surely be an ‘essential read’.



  1. Dear Bill, having enjoyed your recent travel book reviews you might be interested to know that ‘Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad’ is now available in e-format.

    Written by myself, a Kirkby resident, the book combines ‘travel’ with an element of ‘work’, emphasis very much on cultural anomalies, humour and irony; ideal for those contemplating a similar venture, not to mention students, gap year travellers, or those simply due a relaxing holiday spent lounging by the hotel pool, sun-soaked travel yarn for company. Definitely not a technical book, this one can be enjoyed by the whole family.

    Thank you for your attention.

    Best wishes, Ben Zabulis

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