Notes on Robert MacFarlane’s book, ‘The Old Ways’. Best book I’ve read in years.

Robert Macfarlane seems to have written many brilliant books, I was introduced to his work through “The Old Ways” a book amongst many other things, about ancient pathways that he has taken, I thought it was brilliant. He does not write like A. Wainwright’s books of the Lake District, with maps diagrams and wonderful drawings so that you can follow any path with confidence that you will find every landmark. With Robert Macfarlane’s book it is often unclear exactly which route he took and this is the case with his walk along the South Downs Way. He starts at Chanctonbury Ring where he spent the night and suffered a weird experience hearing human sounding screaming at tree top level. He then walks the South Downs Way from Chanctonbury Ring past Brighton and Lewes to Cuckmere Haven. I have walked most of that path many times with Freyja’s German Shepherd dog, Calvin.

We would usually only walk 4 miles at a time and on the day that I am reminded of by Robert Macfarlane’s story, we walked from the studio to Black Cap halfway between Ditchling Beacon and Lewes. We started very early, whilst it was still dark and there was a thick mist. The mist was even thicker when we were on top of the Downs and in addition, there was a powdering of snow and a deep frost.

The Frost had a curious effect on Calvin he built up ice on his pads. this did not seem to trouble him, but he sounded like a pair of girls walking in high heels on a hard floor, a sort of clickety syncopation.  The mist and predawn dark made it hard to see, I could follow the path but could not see whether there were sheep or cattle in the fields so on the way to Black Cap I followed fenced paths wherever I could. It was getting light by the time we arrived but there seemed to be very little let up in the mist.

My plan was to walk back along the North slope, it has fantastic views all the way to the Weald and I hoped to be able to see them especially on a strange day like this. By now Calvin had finished his exploring and was content to keep pace with me. So as I headed East into the invisible sunrise, I had a fantastic, but invisible view to my left and to my right, a fence, keeping dog and any sheep, separated. So I walked enjoying the amazing and strange light, half listening to the clickerty click of Calvin. He now walked a few dog lengths behind me and kept pace, only stopping when I stopped. My mind pretty much elsewhere as we came to some woods and I did think that most of this is new. Pictures of the Downs from a century ago have much less woodland. The path was on the top edge of the woods, so the fence and the open Downs stayed on my right. And Calvin kept pace, until he didn’t.

Not an infrequent occurrence, but when I glanced at him, he did not have his nose buried in the hedgerow but was staring at me or appeared to be until I saw that he was looking above my head.  I turned, followed his gaze and saw on a branch about 9ft above the path at a pair of dolls sitting on a branch. They were not toys, they were homemade, simply but well made in dark cloth with hand painted faces, looking more than a little sinister. I was fascinated and wished not for the first time that strange day that I had brought a camera.

Having pondered them long enough I thought, because they had made him pause, Calvin would be reluctant to pass them. He was not, he did sort of hurry past, but I was soon back in my absent minded reverie listening to his syncopated clicking behind me and seeing his rump walking down the path in front of me. It was a clichéd moment, on a very cold day as I felt an entirely other sort of cold wash over me. If he was in front, what on earth was behind? I watched him disappear around a tree then I turned and looked behind. He was there of course and had slipped behind me without me noticing. A day of mystery and wonder.