A Walk on the Wild Side
July 29, 2014 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Will Self and Robert Macfarlane Walk Wild Britain
We met on the sea wall beneath the lowering weirdness of Bawdsey Manor and bonded over the bizarre extent of its rock garden: how had it come to be there? Xenoliths – Robert said – that was the technical term for rocks brought from another place. He was indeed handsome, fit and disarmingly charming; and as we loped on along the shingle crunching and chatting it became abundantly clear that our problem that day was not going to be an awkward silence. There are two main types of walk so far as I’m concerned – and I expect Robert would agree: the determining factor is not a walk’s length, whether up hill or down dale, if it is sleeting or shining, but only accompanied/unaccompanied.
Will and I are both walkers. We leg it. In fact, we long-leg it (I’m 6’ 2” and Will is taller still). We walk a lot, we walk to talk, we walk to write and we walk for thought, but we walk very differently. We were both brought up in walking families. Will made epic traverses of Dartmoor with his father. I spent my childhood holidays in the wilder parts of Britain, stomping up mountains, learning how to navigate by map and compass, how to scramble, how to eat Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells in a freezing gale at 3,000ft.

What started for both of us as frogmarches or forced pastimes became, later, not just a pleasure but a necessity. A need to walk: a longing for lactic, for the burning leg. Walking as a way of making sense of the landscape, and of ourselves.
Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways chronicles, among other things, the ancient tracks and walkways, those dark moments on the heath, his inspirations Edward Thomas and John Muir, the footsteps of Laurie Lee, the pilgrimage or sacred act, the most dangerous path in Britain, the Cairngorns, and has 'made him an unlikely star,' as he travels The World Beneath Our Feet
Macfarlane is a writer-naturalist whose reputation rests on a remarkable ability to conjure nature in full quintaphonic sensual detail, with a beguiling pulse of the spiritual (or perhaps animist) that places him firmly in the Romantic line. If Keats were alive today, he would be lamenting the loss of nightingales, and it is clear where Macfarlane’s sympathies lie. But he also has something writers are thought to lack: physical endurance and courage, inherited from his diplomat grandfather, Edward Peck, who “covered vast distances . . . his six-foot wooden skis taking him to summits in the Himalayas, the Alps, up Kilimanjaro and Kinabulu”. The grandson, while not speaking twelve languages, is equally hearty. He scales peaks, hikes in dangerous places, camps out in polar weather, dives into freezing waters. One of the sixteen “journeys on foot” recorded in The Old Ways takes him out on the Broomway, a faint causeway curving out over the silt of the Essex coast, a precarious path which the tide can swallow in minutes. Despite all the warnings about finishing in quicksand or in the sea, he and his friend set out in a white mist with only a brief demur: “We walked on . . .”.
Macfarlane also writes about the woods and wild places, peregrine falcons, and heading underground
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this. I like walking.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:50 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have never walked so much for pleasure as I have since I moved to Britain. Paths criss-cross the country. As you're driving anywhere you see those 'public footpath' signs around every turn, and walkers emerging from fields and diving into woods. It makes you question what you're doing in a car and why you're not out taking a long country walk yourself across fields and meadows, through forests, by rivers and streams. The unexpected castle ruin or cute village pub or neolithic barrow is just adornment.

Big shoutout to the Ramblers, who have helped preserve the right to roam.
posted by vacapinta at 10:52 PM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've always wanted to like Will Self because he writes about rambling and psychogeography and experiencing the world at a steady walk, but I can't actually stand his self-regarding prose (which the first half of this article is a good example of). Thanks to the second half of the article I have discovered Robert Macfarlane, who is exactly the observational raconteur I've been looking for all along!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:22 AM on July 30, 2014

Thank you thank you thank you! I love Robert MacFarlane's writing, and the way he experiences the world, and I cannot wait to properly sit down and read this.

(Harvey Kilobit - and others who like this style and topic - I highly recommend Roger Deakins' books as well.)
posted by kalimac at 2:48 AM on July 30, 2014

I read one of Macfarlane's earlier books, about the "Wild" places in Britain (note: said places will not appear particularly wild to anybody in the colonies/outside of Britain I suspect). He has a nice turn of phrase - not overly flashy, but enough lyricism to convey a sense of place. And he really likes nature, and being in nature, preferably alone - something I can really connect with. I wonder where that book is.
posted by smoke at 3:47 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hudson: Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another rock-hunt?
Gorman: All we know is that there is still is no contact with the colony, and that a xenolith may be involved.
Frost: Excuse me, a what?
Gorman: A xenolith.
Hicks: It's a rock-hunt.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:27 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

In America, we go hiking in wild areas and go for tours in historic areas, but I don't think we have anything really equivalent to the English walking holiday. Certainly we don't have an entire section of a major newspaper dedicated to the subject, we don't have a classic piece of horror fiction inspired by it, we don't have a walkers' rights association, and our poets don't compose epic poems about their experiences walking, and we don't have the BBC document our legal fight to walk nakedly.

A pity. I love a good walk. Clad or unclad.
posted by maxsparber at 5:29 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

In America, we go hiking in wild areas and go for tours in historic areas, but I don't think we have anything really equivalent to the English walking holiday.

That's because while we have large wilderness areas and the ability to have incredibly long and beautiful through-hikes (e.g. Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail), we can't do what you can do almost anywhere in the UK which is a) walk almost anywhere on established trails that criss-cross private land and that b) pass pubs and other amenities frequently because of the population density and lack of wilderness. Hiking here means carrying food and water and equipment; when I've hiked there it has meant carrying a raincoat and having the hardest decision be where to stop for lunch.

Ideally we'd have both -- keep our big wilderness areas and open spaces, but add networks of trails connecting small towns and suburbs. There are times when it's fun to head into the mountains, but other times when something a bit more civilized would be more fun.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:23 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love Robert MacFarlane. The BBC Book of the Week last year was about The Old Ways and wow, did I ever rush to order it.
posted by Kitteh at 6:25 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

At first I read this as "Seth McFarlane walks Wild Britain" and that seemed far less interesting.
posted by mightygodking at 7:10 AM on July 30, 2014

What I get out of this is that Robert Macfarlane is a far better writer than Will Self.

Trying to read that first section by Self is like wading through molasses: rich but impenetrable, and full of smug self-satisfaction that he knows all these sixty-four dollar words, and all these literary-historical allusions. Bleah.

By comparison, the Macfarlane section is clean and clear, but not simple or unpoetic.
posted by suelac at 10:44 AM on July 30, 2014

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