During the Autumn two very different news items made me think about the paths we walk today and how they might have been made.
‘The Slow Ways Project’ hopes to get people walking between locations via existing off-road paths and bridleways to promote slower types of travel.
My favourite section of the M6 motorway, through the Lune Gorge in Cumbria and over Shap Fell (the highest section of motorway in the UK), was 50 years old on the 23rd October.
Early paths were travelled on foot. They took the easy, safe and quickest routes. Initially they connected settlements to hunting grounds, or other settlements, later they joined settlements to places of work or worship. Some of them became linked to provide long distance paths used by traders and pilgrims.
Those travelling with sledges or carts formed track ways. The Romans came and built straight roads for their conquering armies, then they left. British Military roads were built for the same purpose, then abandoned. As towns grew drove roads developed to drive animals along to provide fresh meat. The faster routes became carriageways. Some were purpose built and a toll was charged to travel along them. Some were paved or cobbled.
Some of these ways remained popular, others fell out of use and were reclaimed by nature or agriculture but they left their mark on our landscape. These greenways form the basis of the footpaths we walk today.
With the advent of cars some ways were given hard surfaces. The got wider and were straightened. Brand new roads were built and our road network developed culminating in the motorways and dual carriageways we all use today.
The two oldest known ways in the UK, are over 5000 years old. The Harrow Way passes close to Bruton on its way from Cornwall to Dover. Hardway is derived from ‘Harrow Way’. Much of the Harrow Way is now under tarmac, the A303 follows its route for a short way. The Ridgeway is also nearby and remains mostly ‘off road’ on its way from Lyme Regis to Hunstanton in Norfolk. The oldest crossroads in the country is where the two cross near Willoughby Hedge above Mere.
So if you find yourself on a little walked public footpath, pause for a moment and wonder, why is this path here and who walked it before me.