Caught by the River


22nd June 2012

Robert Macfarlane gives us the background to, Holloway, his collaboration with the artist Stanley Donwood and the writer Dan Richards:

Eight years ago this July, I drove down to Dorset with my friend Roger Deakin, to explore the holloways of the area around Chideock. Holloways – the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon hol weg, hollow way – are paths that, over centuries of use, have sunk down into the landscape through which they run, worn into the earth by footfall, wheel-roll and rain-rush. Some of them are twenty feet deep and steep-sided: more ravine than road. Many have been overgrown by the trees that border them, so that they’ve become green-roofed tunnels. They’re too deep to fill in and farm, and often too narrow to take vehicles, so holloways are often wild places: filled with brambles, nettles, ferns, bees, badgers, ivy and history.

Roger and I spent hot summer days exploring the holloways, tracing out their routes and their histories, camping in the flower meadows that bordered them, lighting fires after dusk, keeping an eye out for farmers. We became fascinated by how strangely time seemed to behave in those ancient routes; the strange pleatings and repeatings of history they seemed to inspire, the ghosts they kept. We both ended up writing about those days and those holloways: me in a book called The Wild Places, and Roger in his wonderful Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, which was only published posthumously – for within two years of our trip Roger had died of a brain tumour, long before his time.

In the autumn of 2011, I returned to the south Dorset holloways, this time in the company of two artist-writers, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. You’ll know Stanley’s extraordinary work, even if you think you don’t: he’s famous for many things, but is probably most renowned as the artist and designer of Radiohead’s albums and artwork. Dan Richards is a young artist, craftsman and writer of real and varied talents, whose recently finished first book is called The Beechwood Airship Interviews.

Dan had introduced Stanley and me to each other a couple of years previously. He knew that Stanley had read my books and Roger’s books, and that his imagination had been seized by the idea of the holloways. A collaboration was proposed, slowly took form: we would make a small, strange, beautiful book about the holloways. A book about those old ways, printed in the old ways: with lead type, set by hand, written by me and Dan, designed and illustrated by Stanley.

Our journey to Dorset at last came to pass. It featured bicycles, mist, fierce wind, monsoon rain, cider, flying leaves, martyrs, will o’ the wisps, ghosts glimpsed and not-glimpsed, and a friend who remained just beyond reach.

By the time we returned from Dorset, the holloway had lodged itself deeply in Stanley’s mind. He spent months drawing, etching and engraving versions of it. A 24-carat gold, with a figure seen indistinctly at its end. An ink drawing with three thousand or more pen-strokes.

Meanwhile Dan and I wrote. And now at last the book has also come to pass. Working with the amazing printer, Richard Lawrence, and a 1955 Monotype caster, Stanley bought fresh lead, melted it to make and cast the type.

Then Stanley took photographs of his line illustrations, which were turned into etched magnesium plates.

Then he and Richard set the type.

Then Richard used a 1965 Heidelberg platen press and a 1970 Vandercook proofing press, and printed the book on Somerset book wove paper.
Then we founded an imprint under which to publish it: The Quive Smith Press (read Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male, if you haven’t already, to discover the identity of Quive Smith).

And lo, there was a book.

Holloway has no ISBN, and as such is commercially almost invisible. Its print-run is limited to 277 copies, for the height of Pilsdon Pen – the high ground on which our journey began – is 277 metres above sea-level. Each copy costs £27.70, except for 27 ultra-limited-edition copies, bound in embossed leather, in a slipcase, signed and numbered and with a signed Donwood print; these are £277 each.

100 or so copies have already gone; if you’d like to reserve one of the remaining copies, please e-mail an expression of interest, plus postal address and contact details, to Or send a postcard saying much the same to Richard Lawrence at 50 Hurst St, Oxford, OX4 1HD.

There will be a London launch of the book at Rough Trade East on the night of 11 July, from 7pm onwards. Come along: it’s open to all. There’ll be copies of the book, a few words spoken, more than a few drinks drunk, and maybe some live music.

Hol weg.

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