No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, October 09, 2014

2014/35: Silt -- Robert Macfarlane

I subdued the alarm my brain was raising at the idea of walking out to sea fully clothed, as only suicides do.

Silt, sold as a 'Penguin Special' for under a pound, is a single chapter from Macfarlane's The Old Ways, illustrated with photographs taken on the Broomway by David Quentin. I bought this on a whim whilst sitting on a beach about three miles from where the Broomway (an ancient track that leads across estuarial mudflats from Wakering to Foulness Island) begins: I read it while savouring the light and space of that corner of coast. Unlike many of the Broomway's victims over the years -- it can only be traversed when low tide and daylight align -- I grew up knowing that the tide comes in over those sands faster than a man can run, and that the weird light and silence can disorient even an experienced mud-walker.

Quentin is also a lawyer and in his afterword, he discusses the legal quagmires that surround ancient pathways such as the Broomway. "Just as Rob is fascinated by the historic and topographic characteristics of ways in the real world and in the world of the human soul, I am fascinated by the jurisprudential characteristics of ways as they subsist only in the legal overlay; the characteristics of your ongoing status as non-trespasser as you pass and repass lawfully over what would otherwise be private land." I hadn't known that there is no public right-of-way on the foreshore (the bit between high tide and low tide) … except where there is a public highway, such as the Broomway. Over the years, there have been various attempts to modify this law: does a 'public highway' have to lead somewhere, or can it be (as the Broomway effectively is, public access to Foulness Island being restricted by the Ministry of Defence) a dead end?

A quick, evocative read: now I must dig out and read The Old Ways in full.

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