Thursday 7 June 2012

On paths and trackways

Offa's Dyke footpath, Black Mountains
"There's something rich and joyful to the mind to view through close and field those crooked shreds of footpaths." (John Clare)
The publication of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways will no doubt inspire a well-spring of eulogies on the footpath and track, so here is my own homily to these benign but sometimes arduous routeways through the landscape. And, without wishing to sound reactionary, I will leave the delights of the motorway, dual-carriageway, roundabout and traffic clogged A and B roads to the dogged flâneur. Here I am wandering the field path, the green road, the holloway, the packhorse road, the monks trods, the country by-way and the ridgeway that bind the landscapes of the British Isles together in their familiar, omnipresent yet still mysterious grip. 
Like many people, footpaths were my entry point into the landscape, whether in search of Last of the Mohican's style adventures through the woods, moorland tramps to the endless horizon of the uplands or roaming local meadows and fields. And walking will always be the best way to experience the topography and morphology of the landscape. There is spiritual, aesthetic and practical pleasure in following a well-trodden route, taking in the varied scenery and memories that the physical track gives access to. Strip away the sometimes impenetrable psychological language of the archaeological concept of phenomenology (experiencing the landscape) and what you have is the yearning to follow not only paths that "the footsteps of a dozen generations have given...the force and sanctity of a popular right" (Elihu Burritt), but also "single tracks, a road untrodden" (from Beowulf, Anon).

Pathway through urban pastoral, Bristol
In England and Wales these ways beyond the car dominated metalled roads amount to a network of 140,000 miles of rights of way. Glorious part-compensation for the (involuntary) dislocation from the land of the majority of the population following over two centuries of enclosure, agricultural and industrial revolutions and post-war consumerism. This figure seems to have been around for a long time: is it really static? Has the Right to Roam legislation not increased the mileage? Areas designated as Access Land are riddled with paths on the ground, and sometimes on the map, that are not legally defined rights of way.
Look at any Ordnance Survey map and the green lines of the network radiate from settlement to settlement; linking farms, churches, quarries, lime kilns, woods, fields and mills. Sometimes coming to a tantalising and abrupt end in a lonely spot, their original destination now abandoned or vanished back into the landscape. Edward Thomas captures this pattern with, as ever, lyrical precision in The Village:
"From the churchyard run twelve footpaths; some ending at farmhouses close by; some losing themselves in the nearest road; one leading nowhere, nor of any use today, since the house that drew it thither across the wheat is under the cow-parsley and grass; one going on without end, touching here and there a farmhouse, crossing a road, passing in at the door of an inn and out through the garden, as if some friendly man had made the path by following his heart's desire."
Coast path, North Devon
As demonstrated above, when not physically walking a path at first hand, the written word can provide an able and evocative substitute.
Thomas Hardy is a master of evoking the feeling of being on an open road, at a time when most rural routes were little more than dusty or muddy tracks, on the cusp of surrendering to the motor car. There are any number of vivid descriptions of lonely, timeless tracks snaking across the wide Dorset heath-lands in his novels and poems, such as this one from The Return of the Native:
"Before him stretched the long, laborious road, dry, empty, and white. It was quite open to the heath on each side, and bisected that vast dark surface like the parting-line on a head of black hair, diminishing and bending away on the furthest horizon".
The loneliness and melancholia that walking a path can engender (and, no doubt, their utility as corpse roads, the location of gibbets and the setting for activities outside of societal norms - whoops, I'm sounding like a cultural geographer!) has also inspired many a ghost story (for example On the Brighton Road by Richard Middleton and A.N.L. Mumby's An Encounter in the Mist); and also songs at the more fruitier and gruesome end of the folk spectrum (eg Salisbury Plain and The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime).
Whilst celebrated in literature, poetry and song, the reality of the history and archaeology of paths and tracks has often been somewhat neglected, excepting the star turn known to school children everywhere as 'Roman roads'. Perhaps this is because, in Kim Taplin's words:
"The paths were too slight, too humble and too local to attract the historian: they did not require to be planned, laboured upon, paid for and legislated about nationally...; nor have the people who chiefly used them been considered suitable subjects for history - until recently".
A Rhiw traversing the hillside in the Black Mountains
However, honourable mention goes to those who have studied the drove roads, packhorse trails and other high-level routeways through the western and northern uplands, from Arthur Raistrick's Green Roads in the Mid-Pennines to Andrew Fleming's more recent work on The Monks Trod and long-distance horse riding routes in Mid Wales. And landscape historians and archaeologists such as Christopher Taylor, Mick Aston and Paul Hindle have helped to emphasise the historical centrality of communications routes in the landscape. As an etymological indication of their importance, Richard Muir has listed the numerous names for tracks across Britain: badger way, harepath, holgate, holloway, jagger way, kirkgate, lane, saltersgate, street... the list goes on.
Holloway, Black Mountains
In my own area of landscape study, the Black Mountains of the Welsh Marches, stone tracks, known as rhiw, traverse the steep hillsides diagonally all along the valleys that disect the upland plateau.  Many of these tracks link with the ridge-top routeways, now used mainly as recreational walking paths, but for most of their history forming the most direct and safest communication and trade routes prior to the development of the modern road system. A favourite example, Rhiw Arw or Cwrw (‘beer track’ in Old Welsh), is traceable along extant tracks and lanes as the main route over the ridge from Llanthony Priory to the nearby settlement of Longtown (my preferred theory: this was the Black Canons of the Priory's regular route back home after a beery night at a local tavern).
And I have a soft-spot for Alfred Watkins controversial The Old Straight Track; not because of his crack-pot theory of ley lines but because of the detailed descriptions and images of tracks around the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. R. Hippisley Cox's  The Green Roads of England, written in the same early twentieth century era, is also an important work in identifying the links between the prehistoric ridgeways and hillforts of Southern England.
Finally, a word for Alfred Wainwright, poetic misanthrope and doyen of English walking writing, who's exquisitely hand drawn and written Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells describe all the paths of the Lake District in minute detail through maps, drawings and the no-nonsense prose of someone who spent a lifetime tramping the hills.
Anyway, enough of words, and to misquote John Clare: "And I will put my books (and laptop) away and wander in the fields".
Select bibliography
Ridgeway, the Black Mountains
Aston, M, 1985 Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology and Local History London: Routledge
Besley, V, 2001 Discovering Green Lanes Totnes: Green Books
Clare, J, 1990 Selected Poems London: Penguin
Cox, M and Gilbert, RA (Eds), 1986 The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories Oxford: Oxford University Press
Fleming, A, 2009 The making of a medieval road: The Monk's Trod routeway, Mid Wales in Landscapes 10 (1) 77-100
Fleming, A, 2010 Horses, Elites ... and Long-distance Roads in Landscapes 11 (2) 1-20

Hardy, T, 1978 The Return of the Native London: Penguin
Hindle, P, 2002 Medieval Roads and Tracks Princes Risborough: Shire
Hippisley Cox, R, 1973 The Green Roads of England London: Garnstone Press
Muir, R, 2000 The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History Exeter: Exeter University Press
Taplin, K, 1979 The English Path Woodbridge: Boydell Press
Thomas, E, 2009 One Green Field London: Penguin
Taylor, C, 1979 Roads and Tracks of Britain London: Dent
Vaughan Williams, R and Lloyd AL, 2009 English Folk Songs London: Penguin
Wainwright, A, 1955-1966 A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: Books 1-7 Kendal: Westmoreland Gazette
Watkins, A, 1974 The Old Straight Track London: Abacus


  1. This is a great eulogy! Your wide ranging interests and knowledge come through here especially on the geographical/archaeological side. I have just started reading The Old Ways in conjunction with looking again at my 1974 copy of The Old Straight Track. I had forgotten about Chris Taylor's work though - I knew him in my previous life when I worked at the National Monuments Record!

  2. Thanks Diana. Chris Taylor certainly is an unsung hero, outside of his own field, of landscape study.

  3. Your exuberance bounces out of the computer, lovely post. Just reading Macfarlane - The Old Ways, it is so non put downable that I limit my self to a hundred pages a day. He even mentions Adam Nicholson's 'Sea Room' about the Shiant Islands which I had just read. Books are like pathways as well......

    1. Thanks Thelma. Yes, I am also halfway through The Old Ways and it has my mind racing in lots of directions and pathways!

  4. You have inspired me to dust off my old 1970s copy of The Old Straight Track, which takes me back to a time when I used to deface all my OS maps with pencil lines connecting churchs, barrows and suchlike. These days I am more fascinated with the notion of 'paths of purpose' - holloways worn into the earth by repeated footfall.
    Seems that there's so many of us currently reading Macfarlane's The Old Ways - a very timely publication!

  5. You have inspired me to dust off my old 1970s copy of The Old Straight Track, which takes me back to a time when I used to deface all my OS maps with pencil lines connecting churchs, barrows and suchlike. These days I am more fascinated with the notion of 'paths of purpose' - holloways worn into the earth by repeated footfall.
    Seems that there's so many of us currently reading Macfarlane's The Old Ways - a very timely publication!

    Comment e-mailed on 22/06/12


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