Robert Macfarlane

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.06, Summer 2014
by Stanley Donwood

Jonny Gordon Farleigh: In The Old Ways you look enviously at Scandinavia’s allemansrätten as historically distinct from our feudal-inflected experience of access in Britain. How powerful is this particular experience of enclosure on our sense of what’s possible in terms of opening up our countryside?

Robert Macfarlane: There is a paradox at the heart of the footpath system of England and Wales, which is that this ‘labyrinth of liberty’ is largely a function of the privatisation of land. So even as we correctly celebrate the freedom we have to walk more than 130,000 miles of legally protected footpath in the two countries, we should also be conscious of the places we can’t go, because the footpath-network doesn’t penetrate them. If we look westwards to America (or, indeed, Ireland), we see how lucky we are in England and Wales: there, land is largely either block-private or block-public, in vast swathes, and woe betide you if you decide to wander as a pedestrian onto private land. But if we look northwards to Scotland, we see how unlucky we are in England and Wales: there, thanks to brilliantly enlightened recent access-law revisions, they operate something close to allemansrätten, founded on the principle of trust towards both landowner and walker. 

The Countryside and Rights of Way act of 2000 took us some way towards the Scottish/Scandinavian model, but we’re still far short of it. I’d like to see, as a first revision, access granted to all broadleaf woodlands above a certain acreage, for instance, and to all riverbank (as it was granted to certain types of ‘open country’ in the CrOW act). But I suspect I’ll die hoping (and trying). Marion Shoard’s This Land Is Our Land is the go-to book here, as many of your readers will already know.

JG: The history of access battles in Britain are closely associated with the working class rambling associations, such as Sheffield’s Clarion Ramblers and their mass trespasses. Is walking, as it was then, still a political statement?

RM: There are a thousand ways of walking, and a thousand reasons to walk. Walking remains a political statement in the protest-sense: I’m thinking now of the Slut Walk movement on the feminist left, or — very differently, very conservatively — the Orange Order marches that still cause such problems in Northern Ireland. But recreational walking is, I would say, also subtly political — in its (temporary) repudiation of the combustion engine as a means of transport, in its slowing-down of experience, in its attempt to clear space for decapitalised time, in the openness to encounter that walking — especially on footpaths — can bring. It is a ‘convivial’ activity, in the sense that Ivan Illich intended that word, meaning something like enriching relations between people and people, people and places, and people and nature.

JG: In The Magna Carta Manifesto, historian Peter Linebaugh reminds us that in its medieval and early modern usage, “to common” is a verb -— an action. This repeats itself in your retelling from nineteenth-century Suffolk where small sickles were used to “collectively maintain” pathways for general use. Is walking a modern example of an ancient commons? 

RM: I say early on in The Old Ways that paths are “the habits of a landscape,” and I comment on the difficulty of “making a path on your own.” So footpaths — communally and chronically inscribed into the landscape by repeated acts of footfall; communally maintained (or lost) by the repetition of those actions — are, yes, I guess, skinny lines of shared land, which we ‘common’ into the earth. As to the detail of the sickles; thereby hangs a tale. I was told that detail by the great countryman and champion of the commons, Ronald Blythe, who lives not too far from me in Wormingford. It stuck in my mind as a brilliant example of collective generosity to unknown others; tiny collaborative acts that benefited both the do-ers and others who would also use the path. So I included it briefly in the first main chapter of The Old Ways. That was then read by a member of a footpath association out on the Isle of Anglesey, and he was inspired by the idea to try a contemporary version of it. So pairs of secateurs were hung on poles at either end of an especially overgrown section of coastal path, with a laminated sign explaining that passing walkers should pick up the secateurs, clip any twigs or tendrils they encountered, and re-hang the secateurs on the pole at the other end. There was some scepticism about the plan among the association; people thought the secateurs would quickly get pinched. But — as I found out when I received a letter from them telling me all this — they didn’t; the scheme worked; the path stayed clear; the secateurs remained unstolen; and they plan to roll out the plan to other sections of the path in future. I was so delighted to see how a nineteenth-century practice could pass, via a conversation in Suffolk, then via a book, back into contemporary practice — and still work!

JG: In The Old Ways you refer to the fortuitous “word-shadows” wander and wonder but also warn us to be skeptical about the connection between walking and thought. How much or little connection is there? 

RM: Well, the connection between walking well and thinking well is grained deep into philosophy as well as everyday presumption: Aristotle’s peripatetic school, Rousseau on how his mind could not work independently of his moving legs; Kierkegaard on how the mind works best at three miles an hour, etc., etc. There is an extremely well-trodden path to be picked through the history of Western philosophy and literature asserting the wander-wonder relationship. And of course it does exist. Just not reliably, or absolutely. I’ve had good thoughts while waiting in a shopping queue, or stuck in a traffic jam on the M6. And I’ve been on walks where all I’ve been able to think of is the porosity of my waterproof, or the blisters on my heels, or the clicking of my hips. I’ve been on walks where pop-song ear-worms have got stuck on loop in my brain. I’ve been on walks where I have — to quote the explorer-walker Sebastian Snow — ‘mentally munched nothingness’. That said, I have also been on walks — on a tidal footpath off the Essex coast; walking by the recently revealed footprints of a Mesolithic gatherer from 5000 summers ago, which changed forever how I think, and how I see. So! I guess the rule is there is no rule, but walking can, sometimes, if you cover enough miles, bring staggering and unforeseen yields of grace, wonder and illumination. As the Spanish saying goes: “Caminar es atesorar” — “To walk is to gather treasure”!

Robert Macfarlane is the author of the award-winning Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways. He is currently working on two new books: Landmarks, about language and landscape; and Underland, an exploration of the hidden worlds beneath our feet. He is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

I guess the rule is there is no rule, but walking can, sometimes, if you cover enough miles, bring staggering and unforeseen yields of grace, wonder and illumination.

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Published in STIR magazine no.06, Summer 2014