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Book Review

Holloway by Macfarlane, Donwood & Richards

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Publisher: Faber & Faber, paperback

1 of 1 Holloways were used as routes to pilgrim places, to the sea and to market.
Holloways were used as routes to pilgrim places, to the sea and to market.

A `holloway’ is an ancient sunken path, examples of which are found in the sandstone of South Dorset in the UK. None is younger than 300 years old, and they were once used as ways to market, to the sea and as routes to holy places.

In July 2004, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin explored the particular holloway that lay below Pilsdon Pen, a chalk summit of 277 metres, ringed by an Iron Age fort.

Carrying their hip-flasks, tents, matches, candles a map and two curiously blunt pen-knives (why would you bring blunt pen-knives?) they used as their guide a novel called Rough Male. That novel was written by one Geoffrey Household and published in 1939 and tells of a man who hides out in the hills near the particular holloway in question, in the area of Chideock.

The two walkers found a small Catholic chapel in the locality. Priests had hid in the densely-wooded area  following the passing of the Act of Supremacy of 1588 which banned Catholic priests from Britain. Priests and lay missionaries who were caught were hung, drawn and quartered. On July 1642, Hugh Green was beheaded in the locality and his head used as a football by the mob.

That violent past is just part of the weave of this absorbing 36-page essay, which otherwise is a peaceful exploration of nature, rather than nature in tooth and claw. The short book represents Macfarlane and Richards’ joint attempt to get down in words  - and some of them at this stage barely-used, arcane words, like ‘fosse’ and ‘quern’ -  the gnarled, knotty, dense-leafed reality of the holloways.

Deakin, a naturalist and writer to whom the book is dedicated, died two years after that initial visit, aged 63. In September 2011, Macfarlane revisited the holloway, with two friends, the writer Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards, an artist who has designed album covers for Radiohead.

They walked and cycled along the neglected route, wrecking one of the bicycles due to the rough surface. They slept at night in the holloway, got lost in fog on the nearby hills and found each other again.

They endured the look of ‘vexed mistrust’ of the woman walking her dog who came across them in their sleeping bags one morning.They repaired for pints to a nearby inn. Ultimately you envy them their willingness to put up with discomfort, such as trying to sleep on a stormy, wet summer's night. All so that they could somehow connect with the past, sense its ghosts and hear its echoes.

Dan Richard’s sinewy line drawings of the shadowy holloway are interspersed throughout this new paperback version. In its original hard-back incarnation (277 copies printed) Holloway must be particularly beautiful.

Paddy Kehoe

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