Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

The jury is still out on Mr Macfarlane. Despite being lauded as one of the best nature writers of his generation, then I find it hard to fall in love with his style of writing.

I feel I should rate him, after, all Roger Deakin thought so highly of him he made him his literary executor and I applaud the way in which he has raised the profile of my much maligned home county of Essex, praising the desolate beauty of its coastline and the iconic Englishness of it’s seaside resorts, but, unlike Roger Deakin, Macfarlane’s writing just seems to lack the human touch or possibly a sense of humour, it is all so very, very clever and earnest.

Walking the Old Ways with him, while reading his book, felt, at times, a hard slog. Wading through a treacle of endless metaphor’s, scrabbling through geological terms. The fact that the book needs a 9 page glossary to help you understand it, says it all. It seems that, at times, Robert Macfarlane looses his way. Is he an academic or a literary writer? and , if he is a such a great writer, why does it feel as if he is trying so very hard to impress us with his knowledge? At times it just seems as if he is trying too hard, when he loosens up towards the end of the book he gets so much better.

I loved his stories of seeing a panther on the road at night after a long days walking in the snow or his experiences of ghostly presences at Chanctonbury Ring. He retold these events with admirably little fanfare and a dryness of style which made them believable and left you wanting more. Where this book really seemed to excel was when Macfarlane forgot himself and told the stories of others, particularly his account of the war experiences of Edward Thomas, then I became lost in the story and the writing, no longer fighting through cleverness but immersed in the landscape and the life of another.

The Old Ways has been praised to the hilt by many and was a surprise top ten bestseller. If you are at all interested in nature writing then it is a book to read just make sure you are prepared for some heavy walking.


Book Review – Waterlog ( a swimmer’s journey through Britain) Roger Deakin


In Waterlog Roger Deakin sets out to swim his way across Britain taking us on a summer’s journey through leafy backwaters, plunge pools in the hills, across the mouth of estuaries and through a series of outdoor swimming pools. On the way he argues with officious river ‘owners’ and challenges the Environment Agencies insistence that our rivers are nowadays dangerous, polluted waterways likely to drag you into there depths or poison you with all manner of chemicals and mysterious sounding diseases.

Roger is seemingly oblivious to social conventions which, in Britain at least, dictate that, nowadays, stripping down to your trunks or beyond and going for a swim in the local river is simply not on. He reminds us that it was not that many years ago when most people learnt to swim outdoors. With every stroke you want to cheer this man on. He liberates us from the chlorine filled crowded halls of our local swimming baths, he invites us to reclaim our rivers, lakes and forbidden waters, he encourages us to ignore what others might think of us.

This has been the perfect read for a winter in which rivers have been rarely out of the news. Usually because they have burst their bank,s like a convict escaping from jail. Waterlog reminds us that our rivers are also a national treasure which should be kept as wild as possible and not trained into concrete sewers.

Reading this beautifully written book I wanted  to head out and take back my local river by plummeting into it, but it is winter and the river’s are flooded and spreading across the land. Instead I am going to head to my local baths and learn to swim with the same elegance and economy as Roger so I will be able to sample their delights come summer.

Roger Deakin died before he ever had a chance to publish another book (although two further books were posthumously published) but Waterlog is a beautiful testimony to a fine writer and I like to think that, as the final line of the book tells us, at the moment of death he simply ‘turned and swam on into the quiet waves.’

Water on the brain

Fancy a wild swim?

Fancy a wild swim?

Have been thoroughly immersed in reading Waterlog by Roger Deakin for the last few weeks. A book dedicated to the many joys to be had by wild swimming. Roger set out to swim his way through the British Isles, venturing into moats, rivers, lidos and sea with a reckless abandon which you want to stand up and applaud. He argues with officious river ‘owners’ and challenges the Environment Agencies insistence that our rivers are nowadays dangerous, polluted waterways likely to drag you into there depths or poison you with all manner of chemicals and mysterious sounding diseases.

Feeling keen to follow Roger’s example I poured over the map for village names which sounded like they might have once been the place for some waterbourne fun, but can find nothing so exciting as the fabulous Water-Cum-Jolly which Roger discovered near the Peak District. Undeterred I turn to the internet and swiftly find some wonderful maps detailing all the outdoor swimming locations in my area. Some are well known to me but others show swims in rivers and gravel pits. I am tempted but then I remember that wild swimming and I have not exactly worked that well in the past.

Following a hot day last summer surveying out on the marshes, I had flopped down beside a wide weedy pool where rudd and sticklebacks swam lazily in the black depths, it was too inviting. I stripped off and sunk to my waist, balancing on a shelf. I knew all the reasons not to jump in, the danger, the isolation, the mobile phone left on the bank but what is a life in which you never dare to take a risk. I belly flopped in, scaring the fishes, thrashing around on top of the Canadian pondweed, giving myself a scare, whaling back to the bank and clinging breathless to the grass before hauling myself out with life protecting super strength.

At this moment wild swimming did not seem the blissful, ‘one with nature’ tranquil experience that Roger Deakin would have me believe but at least I had tried.

I lay on the bank, duckweed sticking to places it never wanted to be, the sun warming my body revealing its newly earthy watery fragrance. A naughty 21st century forbidden delight of being naked outdoors. A bi-plane buzzed overhead, I vaguely hoped it was not Google Earth photographing the land. Would my white form be forever immortalised on world maps? Puzzling generations of viewers over what it might be.

A cormorant swam underwater, easily, nimbly, hunting for fish, it surfaced beneath me, nothing I could do to prevent it getting the fright of it’s life, it dived again and I watched the silver sheen of air washing over it’s feathers.

Maybe I should learn my lesson, leave the pools and rivers to the fish and the cormorants and to those more naturally adapted to there delights. At this time of year, when it is wet and windy and frankly horrid outside then it is easy to think sensible thoughts, but, as I plummet back into the delights of Waterlog, I know that, come summer, it will all be too too tempting once again.