Macfarlane likes to walk. In The Wild Places, he visits mountains, woods, water. In The Old Ways, he follows the ancient paths that cross the British isles, that go through wood, by the sea shore, and over the downs. His England (and Scotland) however, is multilayered; he is aware not only of the physical landscape surrounding him but of the history of the land through which he walks. A walk take him from point A to point B in physical space, as well as through centuries of time. In his author's note, Macafarlane observes:
"It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales that tracks keep and tell, of pilgrimage and trespass, of songlines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries" (p.xi).
While Americans are criticized for being such a highly mobile society, humans have always traveled. Early hunter-gatherers did not stay in one place, but roamed within a fairly wide territory. The early sea-farers such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans (marine archaeology has shown that they sailed more than we have associated with them) and the Vikings all traveled the roads of the sea. The medieval Crusades were holy wars, but they were also the mass movement of men, women, and children walking across Europe, then by boat from southern Italian ports to the Holy Land. Within Europe itself, bands of pilgrims walked from their homes along the tracks to Canterbury or St. James de Campostela. Merchants in ancient and medieval times traveled in caravans along the land and sea routes of the Silk Roads.
The difference between the modern traveler of today and that of the past is that travelers today are less exposed to the world around them. When you are encased in a plane or enclosed in a fast car, you lose awareness of the physical world outside of you. The electronic devices that we use to distract ourselves during our journeys - our DVD players, Ipods, tablets and ebook readers, all cut us off from the landscape and fellow travelers around us. Macfarlane deliberately chooses to travel on foot (and by small boat) to connect with the physical world around him during his modern secular pilgrimage.