Macfarlane, an acclaimed close reader of landscapes (Underland), leads this collaborative effort to capture two "eerie" places. This volume collects the books Ness and Holloway, the latter cowritten with Dan Richards (Climbing Days); tying it all together are artist and writer Donwood's sombre woodcuts. Ness tells of Orford Ness, an isolated shingle spit off England's Suffolk coast that was used through much of the 20th century for secret military purposes. Left to nature under a government program termed controlled ruination, the island is home now to derelict buildings, tidal drift, and wildness. Less formally challenging is Holloway, an account of two journeys Macfarlane and friends took to the sunken lanes of south Dorset—paths worn into the ground by "centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run." It's a shade world populated with memories of his late friend (and fellow walker) Roger Deakin and the ghosts of some others who walked, hid, and experienced violence there. The authors' voices meld wonderfully, and readers may come to feel that "paths run through people as surely as they run through places." VERDICT Complete with instructions for reading, this book showcases some of Macfarlane's most genre-defying work.—Robert Eagan, Windsor P.L., Ont.
Travels in spectral places whose names are barely on the map of England—and so much the better.
Writing with Donwood and Richards, Macfarlane, perhaps the foremost British nature writer at work today, extends his fascination with little-known geographies—see his last book, the outstanding Underland (2019)—by visiting two beyond-the-ken English districts. The first is the “untrue island” of Orford Ness off East Anglia, both wild and bearing a heavy human footprint. Half a century ago, it was used by the government for nuclear tests; now, “brown hares big as deer lope across expanses of shingle cratered by explosions, and the wind sings in the wires of abandoned perimeter fences.” Macfarlane walks the sandy, grassy landscape, delivering a portrait that blends poetry, prose poem, dialogue, and essay, peppered with sightings of the ghostly and uncanny. As is his wont, the author sprinkles long-forgotten landscape terms throughout his pages (“drongs, sarns, snickets, bostles”). One of them is the subject of the second part of the book, the “holloway”—the hollow way, an ancient avenue of humans and animals worn in the soft rock of Exeter, some thousands of years old. “A sunken path, a deep & shady lane,” writes Macfarlane. “A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run have harrowed into the land,” kin to a hedgerow but wilder still, since few holloways are used by modern travelers: “They have thrown up their own defences and disguises: nettles & briars guard their entrances, trees to either side bend over them & lace their topmost branches to form a tunnel or roof.” The writing is idiosyncratic and elegant, the story inviting enough that, for all its eldritch elements, one might wish to wake up covered in dew and join Macfarlane, Richards, and Donwood (perhaps best known for his Radiohead album covers) in a meal of damson gin and tea-bread—and maybe see a few ghosts along the way.
A lovely evocation of some “spectral and unreal” elements of the British landscape.