Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards (Faber & Faber)

In July 2005 (or 2004, depending on if you take the date from the flyleaf or the text, but what does it matter…this is a book filled with timelessness anyway) Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin traveled to explore the holloways of South Dorset’s sandstone. This journey – based itself on a journey in Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household – is described in the first part of this book. In a few pages we are taken tfrom a hot July day to a cool country church, and a history of the county’s recusant past. The holloway is a place to go to ground, to hide yourself (or your rucksack) away.


The holloway is near Pilsdon Pen, but the book contains no map. It is, I feel, an invitation to explore for yourself – not necessarily to find this particular holloway, but to find others. Or to find paths which are not holloways, but are just as ancient “here-paths, coffin paths, whiteways”. These ancient ways cover the lanscape – they interesect with each other, always interrelated. Old ways (I’m veering off into another Macfarlane book now!) can be obvious but still feel mysterious, magnetic. Perhaps it’s because of all the feet that have tramped along them; I live very near The Ridgeway – you can still walk considerable lengths of this track and be completely alone to feel the sense of walking the way of many other travellers, ancient and modern.


Roger Deakin died, too young, in 2006. Macfarlane and his new companions return in 2011. On a misty day they park up at Pilsden Pen, and explore the Hillforts ramparts, “moving lost in our own luminous sockets of mist” which is exactly what it’s like to walk in high up misty conditions – much of this book reads as beautiful poetry. The travellers cycle down the valley to the holloway, Macfarlane not expecting to find Rogers shade but there it was . Macfarlane writes “…stretches of a path might carry memories of a person, just as a person might of a path” and I nod in agreement, surely this must be true.

Halfway through, the voice changes. Dan Richards writes about the same misty wanderings on Pilsdon Pen, the same night in the hollway, the same crash of bike as he hurtles down the hill. It feels – to me the reader – like it could be an entirely different journey, though I know it isn’t (Stan and Rob are there with him, and mentioned) because of course, everyone has their own narrative – different experiences in the same place and time. In the dark nighttime rain they become seperated again, and each have the experiece of being chased by someone with a bright light – was it “…a shared night terror dreamt up in the wake of old ale dregs”?


This is a beautiful little book, only 36 pages, many of them featuring no words, or seven words, or a beautiful illustration by Stanley Donwood of reaching trees forming the holloway tunnels. The illustrations become darker, more branches, less light – as you read the book you walk along the holloway until you come out of the other end to a distant view through the tree-tunnel.

Despite its brevity there is a whole world within this book. Travelling from the great ramparts of Pilsdon Pen down to ground level watching bees tunnel in the roots of the holloway, I had to conciously slow down my reading to take it all in. I am preoccupied now with the urge to go and sleep in a holloway myself, with finding out how to build “an almost smokeless fire” and to wake up to the pattern of twigs, stems and light above me – it sounds magical.

Holloway was published by Faber & Faber in May 2014.

Some music: Pilsdon Pen, by Simon Emmerson/ The Imagined Village

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