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.

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