Off the Beaten Path

06.25.13

The Unfindable Place: Robert Macfarlane’s Holloway

The hiding place of a beloved thriller’s fictional hero inspired two of Britain’s greatest travel and nature writers on an unlikely journey. Edward Platt on Robert Macfarlane’s new bestseller—and old fashioned way of making books.

The series of journeys, both real and literary, that are the subject of Hollowaya book part-written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Stanley Donwood—began eight years ago, in the spring of 2005, when Macfarlane’s friend, Roger Deakin, rang him up to “relate a mystery and propose an adventure.”

Deakin, who lived in a moated Elizabethan manor-house in the Suffolk countryside until he died from cancer, aged 63 in 2006, was an environmentalist and writer, best-known for a wonderful book called Waterlog, in which he described his attempt to swim across Britain. He told Macfarlane that he had received a package in the post containing a handwritten letter, a “marked-up section” of a map of the county of Dorset, in southern England, and a few photocopied pages from Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller, which Macfarlane describes as “one of the classics of the ‘hunted man genre’—a novel to rank with John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.”

Household’s novel is narrated by an unnamed character who enters a European country “that resembles Germany,” as Macfarlane puts it in a new introduction to Rogue Male, and stalks an unnamed dictator “who resembles Hitler.” He is captured, tortured, and thrown off a cliff, but survives and escapes to England, where he takes refuge, in Dorset, in a sunken lane known as a holloway—a “route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run have harrowed into the land.” Holloways are a feature of southern England, where the stone is soft. Most were originally drove roads, paths to market, or pilgrim paths. Some date back to the early Iron Age, and some lie fifteen or twenty feet beneath the surrounding fields—“more ravines than road.”

The map Deakin had been sent purported to identify the location of the holloway where Household’s hero hid. Deakin and Macfarlane set out to find it, and six years later, after Deakin’s death, Macfarlane went to look for it again. This time, he was accompanied by another writer, Dan Richards, and the artist Stanley Donwood, who is best known for producing Radiohead’s artwork. In one sense, neither expedition succeeded: “Roger and I couldn’t find it—the holloway we found wasn’t the one we had imagined, and when I took Dan and Stanley to the same place, I saw a slight sag in their shoulders when they realised it wasn’t the one they had dreamed of, either,” Macfarlane said, when I met him in a café in central London last month. “But that’s the point: it’s an unfindable place. There is a quite a tradition of Household spotting in Dorset, and the recurrent feature of these pursuits is failure.  It lives by not being found.”

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‘Holloway’ by Robert Macfarlane (Author), Dan Richards (Author), Stanley Donwood (Illustrator). 48 p. Faber and Faber. £8.39 ()
It’s an extremely specific landform, but it also floats free of geography, and becomes a powerful metaphor: it’s a tunnel, a portal to the underworld, a rabbit burrow, a rifle barrel.

Holloway is a slim book, but its 36 lavishly illustrated pages contain a great deal: it recounts the expeditions to locate the holloway, celebrates Deakin’s life, and explores the enduringly mysterious nature of the ancient paths. The three contributors (Macfarlane wrote the first half of the book, Richards the second, and Donwood illustrated it) set up an imprint to publish the first edition. The Quive Smith Press was named after the secret agent who pursues Household’s hero to his Dorset hide-out, and it was custom-made, in more than one way: Donwood and the printer Richard Lawrence built a brand-new press by melting down a block of lead and casting type. They produced 277 hand-printed copies, because Pilsdon Pen, the Iron Age hill-fort in Dorset, where the book was begun, is 277 metres above sea level: 27 “ultra-limited-edition copies,” which included a signed Donwood print, were sold for £277, and the rest for £27.70. “Something happened around that,” Macfarlane says. “All the copies disappeared, almost before we made them.” Faber and Faber’s mass market has proved equally popular: it reprinted three times before publication and has become a surprise bestseller.

Macfarlane believes that the “extreme mobility of the metaphor” is the reason for the book’s success: “It’s an extremely specific landform, but it also floats free of geography, and becomes a powerful metaphor: it’s a tunnel, a portal to the underworld, a rabbit burrow, a rifle barrel.  It isn’t about one place.” People keep writing to him and sending him photographs of their own Holloways—paths that have particular meaning for them: “Some are just canalside paths. Some are very old. Some are American, some are French.”

Yet the Dorset holloway is of particular significance to Macfarlane: it was the “generative space” of his most recent book, The Old Ways, in which he explored ancient tracks on sea and land, and the starting-point for the one is writing now. It wasn’t until he began work on Underland, which is about the unseen world beneath our feet, that he realised the “portal” or entry point was the pin-point of bright white light at the end of the holloway as Donwood has drawn it on the cover of the book. Going underground marks a logical progression for Macfarlane: having started on the peaks with his first book, Mountains of the Mind, he came down to sea-level in The Wild Places, and explored the traces we leave on the terrain in The Old Ways. Now, he intends to go beneath the surface. “After that, I will have run out of earth, so I will have to shut up,” he says.  His many admirers will hope he does nothing of the sort.