Set off on a good Sunday afternoon walk through the downland around here, along the old byways and bridleways, and you may well find part of your route follows a “hola weg” or sunken lane. These are well named from the Anglo-Saxon word which suggests a hole, hollow, cavern or den. They can be sunk some 12ft below field level and tend to be in southern England where the stone is soft. As part of an essential rural network whether for people, animals or vehicles, and even though some may now have been adapted to become tarmacked roads, they record repeated steps and journeys often over many centuries.
Trees grow out of the high banks curving up either side, bending to form a gently moving lattice overhead, branches touching side to side, like a moving green tunnel. Looking up at the bank on some hollow ways the trunks are huge, with wide roots running thickly down banks. Other paler lighter trees have tangled, twisted root structures, curling round on themselves with moss and damp deep green ferns occupying corners. The water run off can force different courses through the bank, creating secret, small tunnels.
These old paths have a lot of appeal in nastier winter weather given they offer a modicum shelter to those walking today just as they did thousands before whether they be agricultural workers, pilgrims or other travellers. Yet the obscure green light filtering through can impart very different moods and feelings. They can also be quite wet and their antiquity suggests a wildness and a perfect place for spirits and ghosts to lurk. It can be a twilight scary world full of imagination or of robbers or highway men about to leap out.
Landscapes thus become an archive without words. The much admired and discussed poet TS Eliot often drew inspiration from the UK’s ancient landscape and literary heritage. One of his most quoted poems is “The Hollow Men” first published ninety-five years ago in 1925. As with many of his poems, it is about a journey and different perspectives and it was written post World War 1. Perhaps the title and theme was a reference to making our own hollow ways in the snaking trenches of the Somme: less mysterious, even wetter but even more full of ghosts.
The Hollow men are in some kind of limbo, trapped with no identity, struggling to maintain hope. Not an entirely happy poem but it was not an entirely happy time. When you hollow out something, you can lose or risk its strength, whether scooping it out physically or through continually undermining its positivity.
Recent history seems to show us the consequences of “hollowing” out nature and our environment throughout much of the world whilst, certainly in this country, it seems we may have hollowed out many of our best institutions as well. It has been a torrid year with all we hold dear broken apart and countries, families and communities isolated as we try to find our principals and the way to travel.
The news of a vaccine is so heartening and will, for sure, contribute a large part of the medium-term answer. Part of the answer that has helped us, short term and will helps us long term, is to be outside and taking the time to look, to find the harmony; not to hollow out but to follow the hollow ways from time to time.