A holloway is a sunken path, a deep and shady lane, a landmark that “speak[s] of habit rather than suddenness” explains this brief and poetic book by acclaimed nature writer Robert McFarlane (plus buddies). It is a book which is very much an exploration, a way of being in nature, a memorial to a man – Roger Deakin – with whom McFarlane began this journey. In the beginning the two men set out to find a holloway, to which there is no map, mentioned in a book called Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household – a book, as it happens, that I have also heard mentioned somewhere else very recently, the result of which is has found itself onto my to read list. It is the book that inspired them, their shared love of it, and so they set out with map and tent, penknife, matches and candles and a hipflask each to find this hidden place. Together they enter a church, crest the summit of a half-moon of hills; they enter the dusk of the holloway and camp out in a flower meadow with full and glorious views of the stars.
Then Roger Deakin died, suddenly and unexpectedly. A few years following Deakin’s death McFarlane returned to the holloway, this time in the company of Dan Richards and Stanley Donwood who contributed to this book. They slept in the holloway, pursued by rain and something mysterious they they couldn’t identify but all felt. It is fitting, perhaps, that in the course of this second journey McFarlane should encounter the ‘ghost’ of Deakin, though not in a literal sense as he explains:
“That long & happy day passed in exploration, tree-climbing, walking, talking, lounging. I had not gone in search of Roger’s shade, but I found him there nonetheless, glimpsed startlingly clearly at the turn of a corner or the edge of a tree-line. Actual memory traces existed in the stumps of the holly saplings we had cut as staffs, our blade-marks still visible in the wood. He knoweth hym by the traces & by his denne and by the soole.”
A further outing ensues, similar to the last in tone, in character and emotion. There is a sense of boys out at play, rediscovering the freedom of the countryside as described here:
“That car. That strap. My bike. This. The tactile reassurance of the close at hand. Sunlight falls and kestrels call to disavow what we’d just seen and been through and, indeed, the clouds seem to have lifted off and melted quite away when we turn and look back.
Stan and I plunge down the brink and speed. The rifled lanes spill past and we grin tight until, turn approaching, brakes applied – and now, and now; no, come on; now – I begin a slow crash into Dorset with its gleaming chalk and plough-turned flint-tipped ruts.”
So, in Holloway, McFarlane shows us both the experience of continuance and renewal: continuance in returning to the holloway, renewal in that each experience was unique whilst bearing the scars, or the ghost, of the previous visit. There is no ending. It is a book not so much about seeking as it is about discovering something about the self, a way of being, an honesty which comes from using your body out there in the world, surrounded by hills and hidden groves. The book is accompanied by strange, pencil-line drawn black and white pictures of the holloway itself, pictures which are at once unnerving and yet also bring to mind the birth canal, all ridged and furred, a place which may be frightening to enter but which brings you out into a new, and exciting world. And there’s a sense that this is what the book is inviting us to do – to enter the world. Before it is too late.
The language echoes the theme; a dense filigree of words that tangle and yet draw your eye down a path. It is beautifully written, and achieves a great deal in its brevity. Each sentence can be read and re-read repeatedly, the words spilling through the mind like water, un-claimable yet etching their way in. Through these words we learn of history, of ghosts, of nature wild and untameable, hidden places and what they reveal about ourselves and others. We touch on the question of loss, so delicately, and it is, perhaps, the absence of reflection of Roger’s death, the way it is so barely mentioned, that makes the loss seem more poignant. The return to the holloway allows McFarlane to discover that “stretches of a path might carry memories of a person just as a person might of a path” and this is a source of comfort: that a path carries the echo of a person means, somehow, that the person is never truly lost, and the holloway itself is the memory of many, the slow returners, the creatures of habit, a path formed by years and repetition, hidden but always discoverable.
Hol weg. Holwy. Holway. Holeway. Holewaye. Hollowy. Holloway.