Have you noticed how fashionable our ancient tracks have become?
Those lovely old paths which may have been used by drovers and pilgrims, marching armies or industrial workers. Or even the local footpaths which people used to get to church or market.
Our ancient tracks are as important to our history as the stone circles, the henges and hill-forts beloved by antiquaries. They should be cherished and protected. Lose them and we lose much of our history.
But, they have certainly become fashionable: the current issue of Country Walking magazine devotes much of its pages to walking ancient trackways: Tony Robinson has a Channel 4 television series where he walks ancient tracks: Robert Macfarlane has a best-selling book, The Old Ways, on the subject. I commend them all to you.
How the world has changed over the past few years…
Not so long ago, those of us campaigning to have our ancient tracks and their original lines preserved felt like voices crying in the wilderness.
Landowners sought to have these important tracks diverted or closed, aided by dreadful local councils and even national park authorities. Some of them are still at it. “Why does it matter?”, these people said to me. “Who’s bothered about the paths people used to get to church or wherever?”
Even some footpath officers in Ramblers Association groups happily waved through dreadful diversions and closures, terrified of being branded ‘militant’ if they didn’t. Many of these diversions agreed were awful on the ground, even if you took away any historical links.
But I scent the winds of change. The more people write or broadcast about the historical gems these paths are, then the better.
Footpath officers, whether they be Ramblers or council, should work on the presumption that all closures and diversions should be opposed.
We should no more contemplate wiping out the line of an ancient trackway than we would contemplate knocking down the old stones of Avebury or Stonehenge.
Every twist of a path tells us much about the people who created it with sometimes centuries of long use.
Let’s save at least some of our much-battered heritage for the generations to come.
I’ve written a lot about my own feelings about ancient tracks in my books The Compleat Trespasser and Wayfarer’s Dole. Here are the links if you’d care to have a look…