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Going to Ground: Britain’s Holloways

The hidden, wild world of the holloway

by Robert Macfarlane

Published in the May/June 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: John Beatty

HOLLOWAYS: from the Anglo-Saxon hola weg, meaning a “harrowed path,” a “sunken road.” A route that centuries of use have eroded down into the bedrock, so that it is recessed beneath the level of the surrounding landscape. Most holloways will have started out as drove roads, paths to market. Some as Saxon or pre-Saxon boundary ditches. And some, like the one near Bury St. Edmunds, as pilgrim paths.

The oldest holloways date back to the early Iron Age. None is younger than three hundred years old. Over the course of centuries, the passage of cart wheels, hooves, and feet wore away at the floor of these roads, grooving ruts into the exposed stone. As the roads deepened, they became natural waterways. Rain drained into and down them; storms turned them into temporary rivers, sluicing away the loose rock debris and cutting the roads still further below the meadows and the fields.

Holloways do not exist in the unyielding rock regions of the British archipelago, where the roads and paths stay high, riding the hard surface of the ground. But in the soft stone counties of southern England—in the chalk of Kent, Wiltshire, and East Anglia, in the yellow sandstone of Dorset and Somerset, in the greensand of Surrey, and in the malmstone of Hampshire and Sussex—many holloways are to be found, some of them twenty feet deep: more ravine than road. They go by different names in different regions—bostels, grundles, shutes—but they are most usually known as holloways.

Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are the records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the consequence of tradition, of repeated action. Like old trees—the details of whose spiraling and kinked branches indicate the wind history of a region, and whose growth rings record each year’s richness or poverty of sun—they archive the past customs of a place.

Gilbert White, in his Natural History of Selborne (1788), made a typically attentive study of the holloways in his Hampshire parish. “Two rocky hollow lanes,” he recorded, ran through the parish, “the one to Alton, and the other to the forest.”

In many places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields; and after floods, and in frosts, exhibit very grotesque and wild appearances, from the tangled roots that are twisted among the strata, and from the torrents rushing down their broken sides . . . These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder while they ride along them.

To enter these holloways, White said, was to access a world of deep history, an unexpectedly wild world, buried amid the familiar and close-at-hand. He visited his holloways in different weathers, to see how their moods altered with the changing climate. During the fiercely cold January of 1768, when the temperature in Selborne dropped to -34 degrees Celsius, and the leaves of laurel bushes were scorched brown by the cold, and when the snow fell thickly enough to fill the holloways, White observed how it there became sculpted by the wind into shapes “so striking to the imagination, as not to be seen without wonder and pleasure.” When the sun shone that winter, reflected sunlight from the snow was bright enough to dazzle animals and birds. Poultry sat in their roosts all day long, stupefied into inaction by the land’s luster.

Few holloways are in use now: they are too narrow and too slow to suit modern travel. But they are also too deep to be filled in and farmed over. So it is that, set about by some of the most intensively farmed countryside in the world, the holloways have come to constitute a sunken labyrinth of wildness in the heart of arable England. Most have thrown up their own defenses, becoming so overgrown by nettles and briars that they are unwalkable, and have gone unexplored for decades. On their steep damp sides ferns and trailing plants flourish—bright bursts of cranesbill or hart’s tongue, spilling out of and over the exposed network of tree roots that supports the walls.

Dorset is rich in holloways: they seam the landscape cardinally, leaving the coast and moving northward, uphill and inland, cutting into the Jurassic Lias, the Permian sandstones and mudstones, the oolites and the chalks of the region. Along these routes dray horses, carts, and carriages would have moved to and from the harbors and bays, supplying and evacuating the incoming ships.

My friend Roger Deakin had been tipped off by a friend of a friend about an especially deep and forgotten holloway near the village of North Chideock, which lies in a small lush valley, cupped by a half-moon of low green rabbit-cropped hills, the horns of which rest upon the sea. There could have been no one better with whom to discuss wildness. An original member of Friends of the Earth UK, he had been fascinated by nature and landscape all his life, a fascination that had culminated in the late 1990s, when he set out on a journey to swim through Britain. Over several months, Roger swam in dozens of the rivers, lakes, llyns, locks, streams, and seas of England, Wales, and Scotland. His aim was to acquire a “frog’s-eye view” of the country. The book he wrote describing his journey, Waterlog, is a funny, lyrical travelogue that was at once a defense of the wild water that was left and an elegy for that which had gone.

So on a hot July day, Roger and I set off for Dorset to see if we could find wildness amid the dairy farms. We got lost several times on the way. When he was unsure of the correct exit to take on a roundabout, which was nearly always, Roger tended to slow almost to a halt and squint up at the exit signs, while I assumed the crash position in the passenger seat.

We reached Chideock—a one-song drive west of Bridport—in the early afternoon, left the car, and began walking up along the village’s main road, keeping where we could to the shade cast by the big green-gold laurel bushes that lapped at the road. The sun roared soundlessly in a blue sky. Hot light glared off every leaf and surface. Dust puffed up from the road wherever we stepped. There was the smell of charred stone.

The path that Roger and I followed up into the hills was itself the beginnings of a holloway, cut down ten feet or more into the caramel sandstone of the area. Though no traffic other than walkers now passed this way, the road was still being deepened by water. Heavy rain had fallen the previous week, and the holloway floor bore evidence of the water rush that must have flooded it. Leaf and branch jetsam was tangled around tree roots, and here and there patches of smooth surface stone had been rinsed clean and exposed to the air, so that they lay glowing in their first sunlight in nearly 200 million years.

At some point in the history of the road, hedging trees had been planted to either side of it, partly to make wayfinding easier in poor weather, and partly to provide shelter from the winds and sea storms that beat in off the English Channel. Over centuries, these hedges had grown, died, reseeded, and grown again, and now, unchecked, they had thrust up and out and over the holloway.

One thinks of hedges as nothing more than bristly partitions—field Mohicans. But these hedges had become linear forests, leaning into one another and meshing above the old sunken road to form an interlocking canopy or roof, turning road into tunnel.

Near the summit of the western horn of the half-moon of hills, the road became so overgrown that we had to leave it. We scrambled up its steep eastern side and into the pollinous air of the flower meadow that bordered it. I looked back over my shoulder to where the sea lay blue. The heat bred mirages out over the water—false promises of islands and mountain ranges. A few hundred yards farther along, in a gap in the hedge by a towering ash tree, we found a way back into the holloway, and descended into its shadowy depth, abseiling down the sandstone sides using ivy as a rappel rope. It felt as though we were dropping into a lost world.

TIME AND AGAIN, wildness has been declared dead in Britain and Ireland. “Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation,” wrote E. M. Forster in 1964, “science lent her aid, and the wildness of these islands, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley.” For Jonathan Raban the extinction of the wild happened far earlier: by the 1860s Britain was “so thickly peopled, so intensively farmed, so industrialized, so citified, that there was nowhere to go to be truly alone, or to have . . . adventures, except to sea.” John Fowles, writing in 1985, was grimly adamant: “We are now, in hard fact, on the bleak threshold of losing much of the old landscape. We have done unimaginably terrible things to our countrysides. It is only here and there along our coasts and on the really high hills and mountains that the ancient richness of natural life is not yet in danger.” Five years later, the American author William Least Heat-Moon described Britain as “a tidy garden of a toy realm where there’s almost no real wilderness left and absolutely no memory of it.” Repeatedly, the same lament, or the same contempt.

An abundance of hard evidence exists to support these obituaries for the wild. Over the last century in particular, disaster has fallen upon the land and the seas of Britain and Ireland. The statistics of damage are familiar and often repeated, more as elegy now than as protest. In England, between 1930 and 1990, over half of the ancient woodland was cleared or replaced with conifer plantation. Half of the hedgerow mileage was grubbed up. Nearly all lowland pasture was plowed out, built on, or tarmacked over. Three-quarters of heathland was converted into farmland or developed. Across Britain and Ireland, rare limestone pavements were cracked up and sold as rockery stones, peat bogs millennia in the making were drained or excavated. Dozens of species vanished, with hundreds more being brought to the point of crisis.

In Britain, over 61 million people now live on 150,000 square miles of land. Remoteness has been almost abolished, and the main agents of that abolition have been the car and the road. Only a small and diminishing proportion of terrain is now more than five miles from a motorable surface. There are nearly 30 million cars in use in Britain, and 210,000 miles of road on the mainland alone. If those roads were to be stretched out and joined into a single continuous carriageway, you could drive on it almost to the moon. The roads have become new mobile civilizations in themselves: during rush hours, the car-borne population across Britain and Ireland is estimated to exceed the resident population of Central London.

The commonest map of Britain is the road atlas. Pick one up, and you see the meshwork of motorways and roads that covers the surface of the country. From such a map, it can appear that the landscape has become so thickly webbed by roads that asphalt and petrol are its new primary elements. An absence also becomes visible: the wild places are no longer marked. The fells, the caves, the tors, the woods, the moors, the river valleys, and the marshes have all but disappeared. If they are shown at all, they appear as background shadings or generic symbols. More often, they have faded out altogether like old ink, become the suppressed memories of a more ancient archipelago.

Certainly, these islands possess wild places on massive scales—the Cairngorm massif is greater in area than Luxembourg, and its weather systems can be polar in their severity. But the idea that a wild place has to be somehow outside history seems improper in an English context. English wildness is there, if carefully looked for, in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a riverbank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools. And it is there in the margins, interzones, and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory, and motorway verge. I had not expected to find this.

That margins should be a redoubt of wildness, I know, is proof of the devastation of the land: the extent to which nature has been squeezed to the territory’s edges, repressed almost to extinction. But it seems like proof, as well, of the resilience of the wild—of its instinct for resurgence, its irrepressibility. And a recognition that wildness weaves with the human world, rather than existing only in cleaved-off areas, in national parks, and on distant peninsulas and peaks; maybe such a recognition is what is needed “to help us end the opposition between culture and nature, the garden and the wilderness, and to come to recognize ourselves at last as at home in both,” as American philosopher Val Plumwood has put it.

An artistic tradition has long existed in England concerning the idea of the “unseen landscape,” the small-scale wild place. Artists who have hallowed the detail of landscape and found it hallowing in return, who have found the boundless in the bounded, and seen visions in ditches.

William Blake perceived the world in a grain of sand. John Ruskin was captivated by the growth of lichens and mosses on trunks and rocks. Dorothy Wordsworth kept a series of elegantly attentive journals—the Alfoxden Journal, written when the Wordsworths were living in Somerset in 1797–1798, and the Grasmere Journal, kept at Dove Cottage from 1800 to 1803, whose precision of observation supports William Wordsworth’s allusion in “Tintern Abbey” to his sister’s “wild eyes.”

The late-Victorian writer Richard Jefferies spent much of his life studying and describing the rural southern counties of Wiltshire, Sussex, Gloucestershire, and Somerset: counties that were, to Jefferies, teeming with wildness. Jefferies had no interest in the nineteenth-century North American idea of wilderness on a grand scale—a phenomenon to be experienced only amid the red-rock citadels of the desert or the glacier-ground peaks. For Jefferies, wildness of an equal intensity existed in the spinneys and hills of England, and he wrote about those places with the same wonder that his contemporaries were expressing in their reports on the Amazon, the Pacific, the Rockies, and the Rub‘ al-Khali. He found wildness joyful, but also minatory; the vigor of natural wildness was to him a reminder of the fragility of human tenure on the Earth.

Then there was Stephen Graham. Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice, and Britain several times, and his 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping was a hymn to the wildness of the British Isles. “One is inclined,” wrote Graham, “to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.” What he tried to prove in The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called “the curbed ways and the tarred roads,” and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and “vagabonding”—his verb—around the world. He came at landscapes diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move in or through them. “Tramping is a straying from the obvious,” he wrote. “Even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.”

That July day, as Roger and I dropped into the hazy light of our Chideock holloway, one of Graham’s remarks came back to me. “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.”

DOWN IN THE HOLLOWAY, the bright hot surface world was forgotten. So close was the latticework of leaves and branches, and so tall the sides of the holloway, that light penetrated its depths only in thin lances. Roger and I moved slowly up the bed of the roadway, forcing a way through the undergrowth, through clumps of chest-high nettles, past big strongholds of bramble, and over hawthorns that had grown together, enmeshing across the roadbed. Occasionally we came to small clearings in the holloway, where light fell and grass grew. From thorn thickets, there was the scuttle of unseen creatures. Any noise we made thudded into the banks and was lost. A person might hide out undetected in such a place for weeks or months, I thought.

Lines of spider’s silk crisscrossed the air in their scores, and light ran like drops of bright liquid down them when we moved. In the windless warm air, groups of black flies bobbed and weaved, each dancing around a fixed point, like vibrating atoms held in a matrix. I had the sense of being in the nave of a church: the joined vaulting of the trees above, the stone sides of the cutting that were cold when I laid a hand against them, the spindles of sunlight, the incantations of the flies.

I would like to see a map that represented the country only according to these old ways, and that was blind to the newer routes, to the roads that take so little notice of the shape of the land through which they pass. These old ways, these trade-worn cantons, tended to work around woodlands, to follow the curve of a valley or the surge of a hill. They existed in compromise with the land through which they passed. Many of them had evolved from footpaths that had, both for ease of movement and ease of orientation, attended to the twisting courses of streams and rivers, or the natural curves of rising and falling land. This relationship of accommodation between way and landform has now been largely abandoned: bypasses and motorways strike through old woodlands and hillsides.

After our first exploration of the main holloway, Roger and I set out on a wider reconnaissance of the area. Back at the old ash tree, using exposed roots for handholds and the ivy again for a rope, we climbed up out of the road and emerged into the lush meadow. After the greeny dusk of the roadbed, the meadow was startlingly bright. The grass blades flashed like steel in the sunshine. We stood blinking, wringing the light from our eyes.

That afternoon, we walked along the curved ridge of the hills that extended east and south of the holloway—Copper Hill, Denhay Hill, Jan’s Hill. Sunlight skidded white off every surface. Everywhere we saw evidence of creatures taking refuge in the soil: mason bees, wasps, and rabbits. Where the sandstone was exposed, it was riddled with burrows of different sizes, with piles of ochreous silt marking the tunneling work. There were networks of burrows through the gorsy undergrowth, too: miniature green holloways, no bigger in cross section than a croquet hoop, which had been made by badgers. Following one such tunnel down into a steep copse, we found a badger metropolis. The animals must have been there for many generations, for the earthworks they had thrown up were substantial and long-term: ramparts, tumuli, barrows. I counted ten separate setts.

Hours later, as the air was hazing up, we returned to our holloway hideout, dropping down by the old ash tree again into the near darkness. We cleared nettles and briars, moved loose trunks to make seats, and then Roger built a fire to cook supper on—a pyramid of small sticks with a hot center of tinder that produced an intense and almost smokeless fire. We ate a spicy tagine that Roger had made in advance and carried up with him. Firelight flickered off the walls of the holloway and on the hedge canopy above us, and set complicated shadows moving in the leaves. As we sat there in the thickening dark, talking, the day seemed to convene itself around the furnace-point of the flames.

Campfires prompt storytelling, and Roger, never slow to start a story, told me how he had once been shot at by a hunter in the Polish woods because the hunter had thought he was a bear. The conclusion of the story, it turned out, was not Roger’s outrage at having been fired on, but his delight at having been mistaken for an animal. Then we each read out bits from a copy of Geoffrey Household’s classic 1939 novel, Rogue Male, in which the hero, pursued by Nazi agents, goes to ground in a Dorset holloway almost identical to our own. “The deep sandstone cutting, its hedges grown together across the top, is still there,” Household had written. “Anyone who wishes can dive under the sentinel thorns at the entrance, and push his way through. . . . But who would wish? Where there is light, the nettles grow as high as a man’s shoulder; where there is not, the lane is choked by dead wood. The interior of the double hedge is of no conceivable use to the two farmers whose boundary fence it is, and nobody but an adventurous child would want to explore it.”

IN SO MANY OF THE LANDSCAPES I have explored, I have found testimonies to the affection they inspired. Poems tacked up on the walls of bothies; benches set on lakesides, cliff tops, or low hill passes, commemorating the favorite viewpoint of someone now dead; a graffito cut into the bark of an oak. Once, stooping to drink from a pool near a Cumbrian waterfall, I had seen a brass plaque set discreetly beneath a rock: IN MEMORY OF GEORGE WALKER, WHO SO LOVED THIS PLACE. I loved that “so.”

These are the markers, I realize, of a process that is continuously at work throughout these islands, and presumably throughout the world: the drawing of happiness from landscapes both large and small. Every day, millions of people find themselves deepened and dignified by their encounters with particular places.

Most of these places, however, are not marked as special on any map. They become special by personal acquaintance. A bend in a river, the junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow, or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along—these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, twirling in midair like a magic trick. Daily, people are brought to sudden states of awe by encounters such as these: encounters whose power to move us is beyond expression but also beyond denial.

It seems to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander wild lands that for so many years have gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless exists in the experience of countless people. I recall what Ishmael said in Moby-Dick about the island of Kokovoko: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” 

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Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His article in this issue is adapted from The Wild Places, published in June 2008 by Penguin Books and used by permission.

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