Eugene Suggett: On the Road
The persevering follower of this blog may have gleaned something of its author’s fascination with links between the rural environment and English literature. Many a work contains a path identifiable on the ground to this day. On Christmas-eve in Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, the Mellstock carollers (well-sustained by cider and other things) go their rounds by a route you can still follow: the quire, Hardy tells us, “now crossed Mellstock Bridge, and went along an embowered path beside the Froom towards the church and vicarage. . . .” Farmer Shiner’s house still faces the river; he was the one who, when at midnight they struck up with Behold the Morning Star, opened a bedroom window and discharged “enough invectives to consign the whole parish to perdition.”
Later in the novel (this is one of Hardy’s which actually ends with everybody more or less happy, and even a nightingale trilling), following the wedding of Fancy Day and Dick Dewy, the wedding-party makes the traditional walk around the parish, “the circuitous return walk through the lanes and fields amid much chattering and laughter, especially when they came to the stiles.” Meanwhile, less auspiciously and with their dalliance’s doom already sealed in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Angel Clare and Tess Durbeyfield are roving “along the means by creeping paths which followed the brinks of little tributary brooks, hopping across by little wooden bridges to the other side, and back again.” At Stinsford, and Lower Bockhampton, Mellstock in “real-life”, you can tread in their footsteps. And should you find yourself in Cornwall’s Boscastle (“Castle Boterel”), perhaps overnighting on the South West Coast Path, you can get in a short and stunning evening walk from the harbour and along the banks of the river Valency through Minster Wood and up to the little church at St Juliot (“West Endelstow”; Hardy the young architect drew the plans for the restoration of the tower and interior), a path described in A Pair of Blue Eyes. (You could do worse than return via the Napoleon Inn, in Boscastle’s Top Town; the ales are recommendable.)
Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler conducts us on a seventeenth-century journey from Derby through Brailsford and Ashbourne and to Beresford Dale on the river Dove in the Peak District. The mounted journeyers are “Piscator” and “Viator”. The Peak of Derbyshire heaves into view as they ascend the hill out of Ashbourne: “What mountains are here!” exclaims Viator, “are we not in Wales?” On they go, crossing Bentley Brook on the Buxton road, and somewhere after Tissington-gate they turn left and blunder down that rocky steep called Hanson Toot, “the strangest place,” thinks Viator, “that ever, sure, men and horses went down; and that (if there be any safety at all) the safest way is to alight.” The little footbridge in Milldale (called Viator’s Bridge ever since) takes them across the placid Dove, “and now you are welcome into Staffordshire,” Piscator tells us.
From Milldale, where there is now a popular little tea-hatch, there ascends a back-lane, not well-suited to motor vehicles, called Millway Lane. “I hope we have no more of these Alps to pass over,” complains Viator, before remarking at the top, “As I’m an honest man, a very pretty church.” They are by now at Alstonefield, where today the excellent and walker-welcoming George inn, with its well-remembered radiant fire, is worth a visit. I well recall this Millway Lane, too. When I first knew it, it was a track of grass and stone, with an ancient non-conformist chapel at the bottom, a venerable greying farmhouse to one side, and that pretty square-towered church at the top; and it was a pleasing thing to think you trod the same surface as Walton and Cotton. You cannot think it so well now, because when I last looked somebody had buried it alive under tarmac.
This tarmacing of green lanes can be a curse, and is not uncommon. Many a grass track serving an old stone barn is also a bridleway or footpath or byway. But there can be money in old barns, if they are done-up as holiday-lets. And it seems that some who holiday in barn-conversions cannot cope without getting their car right up to the door of the barn. Of that delightful barn I camped in for the Kinder anniversary, one previous reviewer had whinged that the proprietors “wouldn’t allow us to drive our car to the barn, meaning we had to pack up our belongings and walk.” Come to that, they had wailed that “the fields were covered with animal droppings.” I have reached the view that there are in this country some people who would quite happily drive upstairs to bed in their cars if they could, and some who would be happier staying out of the countryside’s working environment if they cannot be doing with cow-muck; but they are a proper subject of a separate blog.
Not long ago this blogger mentioned the Pilgrims’ Way, the Winchester–Canterbury route that partly runs through the North Downs. Charted by Hilaire Belloc (The Old Road, Constable, 1910, illustrated by William Hyde) and others, this is another way that takes you back through history. “On the Road and the Fascination of Antiquity,” is the first chapter-heading, under which we read: “The Road is silent: it is the humblest and the most subtle, but the greatest and most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race.” But right where that way runs, a section has lately had the tarmac-treatment. Above the Mole Valley with stunning views over the Kent and Sussex Weald and the Greensand ridge, a section of ancient chalk has been tarmaced.
A concerned resident raised it with the highway authority. They showed little interest. “While it is visually intrusive we would not be able to argue that the surface makes it more difficult for walkers. In fact,” they told her, “it could be argued that it has improved it for less abled [sic] users.” Since the tarmaced section goes up the scarp-slope at a steep gradient and has a gate fitted with limiters which exclude wheelchairs, it is hard to understand the claim about access for less able people. Would the planning authority be concerned? From a planning officer at Mole Valley District Council, she got this reply. “I appreciate that you do not like the replies that you have received…. However, we spent many hours on this very subject in 2011 and I am not about to spend more hours just to inform you that no further [sic] will be taken and the matter is closed. In view of this I will not be responding to any further communications regarding this matter.” So that taught her to be concerned about the environment, and in tones perhaps not quite as poetical as Belloc’s.
Eugene Suggett is the Senior Policy Officer for Ramblers.