Author Robert Mcfarlane on the pleasures of walking England's ancient pathways, the subject of his acclaimed new book, The Old Ways.
Walking back in time
‘Always , everywhere , people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,’ writes Thomas A Clark in his wonderful poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, meeting it at a slant or perpendicular.
England is especially rich in these old ways, which have many uses and go by many names: pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths… Different paths have different characteristics, depending on geology and purpose. Certain coffin paths in Cumbria have flat ‘resting stones’ on the uphill side, on which the bearers could place their load and shake out tired arms. The trackways of the South Downs can still be traced because on their close chalky soil, hard-packed by centuries of trampling, daisies flourish.
The lure of lines
There are the flagged and bridged packhorse routes of North Yorkshire and the deep-sided lanes around Hereford, sunk down into the Old Red Sandstone, on whose shady banks ferns emerge in spring, curled like crosiers. On boggy areas of Dartmoor, fragments of white china clay were sometimes scattered to show the safe path at twilight, like Hansel and Gretel’s pebble trail. Old paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over. The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also.
The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land – onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers. Like many people, as I walk old paths, often I wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation, the records they yield of customary journeys, and the secrets they keep of adventures, musters and departures. Among my favourite kinds of old routes are holloways. The word ‘holloway’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon hol weg, and refers to a sunken path grooved into the earth over centuries by the passage of feet, wheels and weather.
A very English obsession
Dorset – like many of the soft-stone counties of England – is webbed with such paths, some of them 20 feet deep and most overgrown by brambles and nettles. I have twice been to the Marshwood Vale area of Dorset, near the town of Chideock, to explore the sandstone holloways and discover some of the remarkable stories associated with them: 16th-century recusants taking refuge from persecution; Catholic priests holding Masses in the woods and copses; English aristocrats fleeing from Nazi pursuers (this last, I should say, is purely fictional, drawn from Geoffrey Household’s cult 1939 novel Rogue Male).
(Below: Dorset's ancient coastal paths are more popular than ever)
Wholly contrasting in character are the ‘tidal paths’ – the ancient right of way that runs over the sands of Morecambe Bay – and ‘The Broomway’, the offshore track that connects the Essex island of Foulness to the mainland at Wakering Stairs. I walked The Broomway one Sunday in a soft and luminous mist, and felt – walking over those expanses of shining silt – as if I had stepped into another country, possibly another world. The walking of old ways has been a very English obsession for centuries, and if you look closely, you will see that paths wind their way through a great deal of English literature and art: there in the dusty roads followed by the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales, in the poetry of John Clare, the paintings of John Constable, Stanley Spencer and Eric Ravilious, the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the photography of Fay Godwin and Bill Brandt.
Meandering over centuries
Many English writers were old-way walkers, including Hilaire Belloc, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Masefield and Virginia Woolf. One of the most fascinating was the Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Thomas walked thousands of miles along the old paths of England, from the famous (the Icknield Way and the Ridgeway) to the local (Old Litton Lane and Harepath Lane, near his east Hampshire home). ‘The earliest roads wandered like rivers through the land,’ he wrote, ‘having, like rivers, one necessity, to keep in motion.’ Thomas used the old ways to keep himself in motion, for he was a depressive. He would cut a stick – holly was his favourite staff-wood – and set off along what he called the ‘indelible old roads’, ‘worn by hoofs and the naked feet and the trailing staves of long-dead generations’. Ancient ways were to him ‘potent, magic things’, on which he could ‘make time as nothing’ while ‘meandering over many centuries’.
‘They give me joy as I proceed’, wrote John Clare of field paths. Me too. One of my favourite paths has no name, and runs for only half a mile or so, from the outskirts of Cambridge, where I live, to a beechwood on a hilltop. It’s a young way, maybe 50 years old, but it has had many walkers, and those feet have worn its route down into the pale chalky clay such that it shines after rain. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge is a younger mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. In late spring, its verges are crowded with cowslips. There’s a feeling of secrecy to the path, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road. (Below: the joys of field paths)
In summer I’ve seen small rolling clouds of goldfinches rising from teasel-heads and then curling ahead to settle again, retreating in the measure that I approach them. I’ve strolled, dawdled, run and tramped that path hundreds of times now. I associate it with thought – stretching my legs, getting away from the desk, setting ideas moving at foot-pace – and I also associate it with adventure. For that nameless little field path runs south until it connects with a long Roman road, that itself heads south-east to the village of Linton, where it in turn joins the Icknield Way, a possibly Neolithic trackway that heads south-west for 60 miles to Ivinghoe Beacon in Hertfordshire, where it joins with the Ridgeway, which runs all the way to the English Channel, and from which sprout innumerable side-tracks and byways.
In this manner, stepping from my own back door and following my tiny field-path, I am joined into the remarkable network of old paths that still criss-crosses England.