Eugene Suggett: Oldest inscriptions upon the land
I once heard it said by someone from a tourist-authority that if there had never been any such things as public rights of way, and you were a planner charged with the task of devising from scratch a recreational network of paths for trippers to walk and cycle on, the result would not much resemble the historically-evolved layout depicted on the Ordnance Survey. If there were no paths to start with, he declared, and you had the enabling powers, you’d create a right of way which joined up all the places people like to go to. So, said he, there’d be circular paths on easy-going terrain connecting some of these things: view-points, tea-shops, quaint pubs, craft-shops, the odd nature reserve, and, perhaps, the occasional ‘place of interest’, like a church or earthwork. And, you bet, there’d be a car-park in there somewhere, to help make people abandon any thought of public transport (even though, for all its speed and flexibility, the car is unable to provide a day’s walk from one point to another). Ah, so that’s what we all want, then, is it? – a painting-by-numbers signposted stroll in twee landscape; a self-contained sanitized linear walk, beginning and ending at a car-park.
I might have guessed I must be getting it wrong somewhere, but for me one of the pleasurable perceptions in walking is knowing that the paths you tread in are of antiquity in the first place, which is why I’m wary of any proposal to ‘rationalise’ (as it is sometimes called) the entire network wholesale. Much of the attraction of long-established footpaths lies in their waywardness and their historic interest. Hilaire Belloc, quoted in Edward Thomas’s ‘A Literary Pilgrim in England’ (Methuen, 1917) said this of walking the Pilgrims’ Way: ‘I believed that, as I followed their hesitations at the river-crossings, as I climbed where they had climbed, whence they also had seen a wide plain … something of their much keener life would wake again in the blood I drew from them.’ Heady stuff, that, and a bit beyond this blogger; but it points up that ancient features like footpaths, and packhorse-trails, and driftways and halterways, and holloways and coffin-ways and pilgrim-ways are as much a part of our heritage as things on which we’d never now dream of setting a bulldozer – stonehenges, iron-age hill-forts, monastic ruins, castles, ‘stately’ homes, and the like.
But somehow old paths are easier to take for granted, or to dismiss as commonplace. And perhaps curiously enough, henges, the ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ of dissolved priories, ancient earthworks, redundant churches, and ‘stately’ homes (for all the hideousness of some of them, and all the tat in many of them) are mostly protected: either by statute, and preservation orders, or by English Heritage or the National Trust or bodies like them. Meanwhile, old tracks are protected by nothing, save for the small bit of recognition which the definitive map affords; criteria for diverting them take little notice of antiquity. ‘Roads, lanes, paths,’ wrote another twentieth-century poet, Geoffrey Grigson, ‘we use them without reflecting how they are some of man’s oldest inscriptions upon the landscape’. It’s time we reflected.
Eugene Suggett is the Senior Policy Officer for The Ramblers.