The original lines of our ancient pathways should be preserved, not only that we might find access to the heart of our countryside, but so that we might do so in the footsteps of our ancestors. Britain’s network of public footpaths and bridleways might be eccentric to the bureaucratic eye, but it does serve a good purpose as a way of accessing the land.
We are fortunate that there are so many footpaths and bridleways – the first the domain of walkers only, the latter that of walkers, cyclists and horse riders. These are now marked on the Ordnance Survey maps and on the Definitive Maps of rights of way kept by local authorities. They are, in law, part of the Queen’s Highway, just the same as a country lane, urban road or motorway. But our rights of way network is probably the most undervalued, certainly the most underfunded, recreational resource in Britain, given that it is open to all. These paths offer excitement and adventure, often hidden behind a stile or shooting gate.
In a delightful little essay on footpaths, the Victorian country writer Richard Jefferies entices us in the exploration of these old paths “ ‘always get over a stile’ is the one rule that should be borne in mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is – that is to say, never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.”
How did such a delightful and often quirky network of paths come about? Fortunately these old routes were not designed by bureaucrats, emerging with, at best, the tacit approval of landowners. Paths were forged around our landscape by people, which is why we have ancient ridgeways across the landscape’s highest ground, mostly in use for thousands of years. Routes were defined by the need to avoid marsh and dense woodland. Here are the ways taken by our prehistoric ancestors as they journeyed for trade with neighbouring tribes or to the sea in search of salt. In the centuries that followed the ridgeways facilitated the movement of armies. In Saxon times Alfred the Great defeated the Danish invaders by his knowledge of paths that were aged even in his time. Drovers moved their animals to market along these wild and lonely drove routes, their fires burning like beacons in the night as they rested at traditional stopping places. To follow a ridgeway, as many walkers and riders do today, is to walk in the very footsteps of British history.
We have paths that follow the sections of Roman roads bypassed by modern roadmenders, green lanes wind through our forests and pastoral landscapes, some sunk deep into hollow ways with the tread of generations of passers-by. In the vicinity of towns and villages might be found the paths along which our rural ancestors travelled to church or local markets. Here are the wider ways that once echoed to the horns of stage coaches in those heady days before motor traffic demanded straighter routes. Such paths are an important part of our social heritage and should never be taken for granted. They are as much a part of Britain’s story as our village churches and prehistoric monuments.
Yet there are those who want this quaint and important network sanitised, revised and destroyed. Some landowners remain hostile to these outlets for recreation and access. Landowning organisations persist in seeking to have the rights of way network “rationalised”. Council bureaucrats seek to stamp their unimaginative control over the idea of any paths that do not fit into their brief of easily-controlled and inexpensive “recreational routes”. Why, they argue, would anyone really want to walk the way that local people went to church, or in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims or cattle drovers? Why not straighten the paths, divert them round the edges of the fields they pass through and steer them away from farming hamlets? Why not close some paths altogether?
These arguments should always be resisted. We should no more tolerate the destruction of our historic rights of way network than we would the crashing down of Stonehenge or the Tower of London. Do we really want to be the last generation capable of walking in the footsteps of our ancestors? It is the duty of all of us to preserve Britain’s rights of way network for future generations.
And I find it very sad that Ramblers Footpath Officers agree so many diversions without looking into the historical importance of the paths concerned.