Review: Holloway, By Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards and Stanley Donwood

On the track of a rural adventure

"The deep sandstone cutting, its hedges grown together across the top, is still there; anyone who wishes can dive under the sentinel thorns at the entrance and push his way through." So wrote Geoffrey Household about a Dorset hideaway in his classic 1939 thriller Rogue Male. Household's novel is a masterpiece of suspense, in which a clubbable but tormented English gent falls foul of Nazi agents and goes to ground in a West Country copse.

Although a great spy story Rogue Male is also a wonderful piece of rural writing, so perhaps it's unsurprising that in 2005 the naturalists Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin went in search of Household's holloway, that sunken sanctuary engraved into the soft terrain. Deakin died the following year, a perpetually young, ever-seeking sixty-something, and then in 2011 Macfarlane returned to the Chideock Valley, that pocket of land bookended by Hardy's Wessex and the cliffs of John Fowles' Lyme Regis, with the artist Stanley Donwood and the writer Dan Richards.

Holloway grafts these journeys on to a narrative branch in which nests a portrait of a shared adventure and a form of topographical poetry. The result is unique and special and flecked with brilliant images, both through striking illustrations and visually arresting prose.

Donwood's drawings of these rifled paths and tangled hoods are sublime examples of graphic minimalism, echoing the atmospheric book engravings of Victorian and Edwardian fiction while retaining a contemporary sensibility. Like the melding of Tim Burton's animation and Arthur Rackham's artwork, these plates are wintry, inviting, sinister and spectral.

We are not told the exact location of this subterranean haven, nor do we learn who has worded each stretch of text. What is illuminating is each participant's love of an environment autonomous to human conceit. Holloway is a striking reminder that a book can be what its author wants it to be, rather than what market research dictates. In this slim volume Macfarlane, Donwood and Richards have crafted a thing of beauty: part paean to a great 20th-century novel, part eulogy to a lost friend, and part rally to explore the mysteries of the English landscape.