In praise of footpaths

by Emrys Westacott

As an expatriate Brit who has lived in North America for many years, I have sometimes been asked what I miss most about the old country. There's plenty to miss, of course: draught bitter; prime minister's question time; red phone boxes; racist tabloid newspapers; Henderson's Yorkshire Relish; gray rainy afternoons, especially at the seaside in July. But my answer is always the same: I miss the footpaths.

IMG_0515I was reminded of this once again this summer when I made my biennial trip back to Blighty. For one week of the trip a small family group rented a house in Derbyshire (my home county) and spent most days hiking around various parts of the Peak District, the marvelously varied and beautiful national park that sits inside a great horseshoe of urban sprawl running South from metropolitan Manchester in the West, through the Potteries in Staffordshire towards the Birmingham, East towards Derby and Nottingham, and then back up North towards Sheffield.

The weather wasn't always great–no surprise there: we are, after all, talking about England in July–but for hiking it was fine: not too hot, and with the occasional shower to freshen things up. But there are two things that make walking in the British countryside so enjoyable: the infinitely interesting landscape; and the great network of footpaths that allow you to walk from anywhere to anywhere by a dozen different routes. Plus the fact that if you plan things right you can end your walk at a tea shop where you can get a pot of tea with a scone, raspberry jam, and clotted cream. (OK, that's three things.) Or at a pub. (four)

Two thousand years ago most of Britain was covered with trees. Over time the land was deforested as people used wood for fuel and construction and opened up land for grazing cattle and sheep. As a result the rural landscape today in places like Derbyshire has an open character, a combination of fields, small woods, grassy hills, and heather-covered moorland. This means that the topography of the region is more revealed, and revealing, than in places where forest dominates the landscape: the rocks, cliffs, streams, gullies, and ground vegetation are not hidden behind or beneath a dense covering of trees.

Human beings have lived, loved, worked, prayed, fought, and died in these parts for a very long time, and the history of their doings is inscribed in the landscape. The dry stone walls that bound the fields represent millions of hours of back-breaking labour over many centuries. Derelict stone cottages and famous stately homes date back to medieval times. Village churches, some of them with Norman or even Saxon features, overlook graveyards where the oldest tombstones have had their inscriptions weathered into oblivion. There are paths that follow the course of Roman roads. And going even further back, there are Bronze Age stone circles and tumuli (burial mounds) created roughly 4000 years.

Enhancing the interest of walking through such historically rich and naturally beautiful countryside are the wonderful large scale Ordinance Survey maps. Two and half inches to the mile, these show every road, track, path, river, stream, pond, church, post office farmhouse, barn, and sheep pen,. They show you whether an area is wooded, open, or marshy, and also the contours of the land, so you know exactly how steep any ascent or descent will be. They even show you the layout of all the dry stone walls, information that proves invaluable when you've lost the footpath and are trying to work out exactly where you are.

And it is the footpaths, more than anything, that render the countryside so accessible and gives walking in Britain its unique flavor. Some of them are popular, clearly signposted, well-maintained trails that follow the course of old packhorse routes or disused railway lines. Others are almost invisible byways through fields or over hills, evidenced by little more than an easily overlooked mossy sign and a meandering line of trodden grass, barely discernible even to the experienced eye.

But the great thing about these footpaths, apart from their profusion, is that most of them are public rights of way. So while the land is for the most part privately owned, primarily by farmers, anyone and everyone enjoys access to it. You can't just go wherever you please. Walkers have to stay on the paths to avoid damaging crops, walls, or fences. But since the farmers have an obvious interest in not having hikers blundering around their farms causing accidental damage, they are generally pretty good at making sure the paths are clearly marked. IMG_0612

A more complete sort of access is granted to the high moorland areas found mainly to the North in the area known as the Dark Peak. A century ago there were regular confrontations between ramblers who wanted to enjoy walking across the moors and gamekeepers who were employed by the landowners to deny access. (The landowners used the moors mainly for grouse shooting.) In 1932 the Ramblers Association organized a mass trespass across Kinder Scout, a high moorland plateau between Manchester and Sheffield. It turned out to be a highly successful act of civil disobedience. Access to large areas of uncultivated land was negotiated, and the public's “right to roam” over these areas in England and Wales was extended and consolidated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

In Western New York, where I now live, the scenery is lovely and probably about as English-looking as anything you'll find in North America. The mixed forest is more extensive, and the Fall colours are more brilliant, but among the rolling hills there are plenty of small farms surrounded by cow pastures. The main obvious differences are the absence of sheep, the use of fences around fields rather than stone walls or hedges, and the character of the rural architecture, most buildings being made of wood rather than brick or stone.

But the biggest difference for me is one that is almost invisible yet makes all the difference. There are few footpaths. A few, yes, but not many. One can't walk from one village to another by six different off-road routes. For the most part, the only way to get from one place to another is along roads. So when locals go for constitutional walk, they typically stick to the roads. And going hiking typically consists of driving to a specific location such as a state park and following a designated trail. These walks are very pleasant, and many take in spectacular natural features such as gorges and waterfalls.. But they are limited in number.

Sadly, it ‘s not easy to imagine this changing any time soon. The footpaths of England, and the rights of way they enshrine, are ancient. In countries like Finland and Norway, what is known as “everyman's right,” the right to walk across privately owned land provided one does no harm, is similarly a right that people have enjoyed from time immemorial. But in a relatively young country like the United States, where the founding notion of freedom was intricately bound up with the notion of private property, establishing public access to private land is difficult. The prevalence of an individualistic ideology is also an obstacle. In many minds, one person's freedom to declare a piece of land they own off limits to everyone else takes precedence over the freedom of millions to enjoy access to that land and its beauties. Various organizations that seek to expand outdoor recreational opportunities work on expanding public access, but the process is complicated and arduous.

Of course, before the European settlers imported the notion of private land ownership, the problem of public access to land never arose. To restore that right of access would mean putting history into reverse. It's one of those instances where progress requires us to undo what passes for progress.