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Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards – review

A slim, but poetic and beautifully illustrated book about travels on sunken paths makes a powerful impression

A holloway is, for the uninitiated, a sunken, shady path sometimes 18ft beneath the level of fields, “worn down by the traffic of ages and the fretting of water”. Macfarlane says the vista down its curved walls is like “the view down a rifled barrel; an eye to the keyhole; a glimpse into the shade world”.

Anyone who has grown increasingly impressed by Macfarlane’s nature writing over the past decade will feel instantly at home in this slight collaboration with writer Dan Richards and illustrator Stanley Donwood. In fact, possibly a little too at home; Macfarlane’s visits to the holloways of south Dorset are essentially a rehash of the trip he made for his 2007 book, The Wild Places, with Roger Deakin. The brilliant writer and environmentalist died in 2006, and Holloway is dedicated to him. Macfarlane’s return in 2011 with Richards and Donwood has the heady feel of a timeless Boy’s Own adventure: Richards falls off his bike, trees are climbed, hedgerows are full of the “eye-glow of unknown animals”. They sleep in the depths of the holloway during a storm.

And then it’s Richards’s turn to chronicle the experience. At first, the only signal the author has changed is the use of “and” rather than the ampersand. Richards, too, has a lovely descriptive voice: silent cattle caught in the “milk” of fog, the bike accident “a slow crash into Dorset’s plough-turned flint-tipped ruts”.

With Donwood’s ghostly, Hansel and Gretel-esque illustrations peppering the prose, Holloway is undeniably a gorgeous package. Even though it takes less than half an hour to read, the subtle call to revel in the wonder of the natural world lasts much longer.

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