Our own history is everywhere on a country ramble

Path

We all use paths to access the countryside, whether we consider ourselves ramblers or just use them as somewhere to walk the dog. Or sometimes as a short-cut, the easiest way to get from one place to another. We may well notice our surroundings, the places we walk through, but how many of us consider just why the path is there, why it even exists?

People in this country are fortunate to have a splendid network of public footpaths and bridleways to enjoy. To many walkers and riders they’re something we take for granted. They’ve always been there and we assume they always will be. Just a convenience really.

But every step we take along a path is a stride into our own history. The ridge paths of England were in use even before the Iron Age, already centuries old when Alfred the Great marched his armies along them. That footpath you walk across a field might be the remnants of a Roman road or a medieval drovers’ track. Wayside shrines by old tracks show us the way pilgrims travelled. Paths on our coastline were used by coastguards and smugglers. A path to a country church may well have been walked by worshippers for a thousand years…

Our own history is everywhere on a country ramble.

Our paths are as vitally important for telling us about the social history of Britain as archaeological sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge. Walk a path and you are walking in the steps of countless generations, who walked the same way either for work or, like us, for pleasure. These paths are the happy accidents of history.

But unlike stone circles and prehistoric burial grounds, their historical reasons for being tends to be neglected. For they are the ways of the common folk, the routes many of our own ancestors used for all sorts of purposes.

I’ve been a campaigner for paths for over fifty years. I’ve been a volunteer in the ramblers for almost as long, serving in many posts including being an area footpath secretary and a group footpath officer. Paths are my passion. I’ve written about them in my own walking books and even mentioned them in my novels. But like many walkers I took them for granted in the early days. They were just the ways into the places I wanted to walk.

At public footpath inquiries, where I represented the Ramblers, the opposition would often say, as they tried to shut or badly divert a path “Oh, it’s only the way people used to walk to church, or to the next village” and so on.

But, as a social historian, that to me is very important. We should know about the way our forebears moved around their own land. Knowing that is every bit as crucial to our understanding of the past as interpreting the reasons why Stonehenge was built.

Losing a path, either through a closure or a poor diversion, or not recognising that it is a right of way, is interfering with our island story. That is why I believe the original routes of our path should be preserved as much as possible. It’s our heritage and like any other archaeology we have a duty to save our paths for future generations.

Fortunately, many of our footpaths and bridleways are recorded on definitive and Ordnance Survey maps. But we know that many were omitted, some deliberately and others because people – although they’d always used them –never thought that they were rights of way at all. Claiming these lost paths, before the deadline of 2026, is a fight against time. It is vital that we seek out these lost paths and claim them while we can.

Back in the 1930s, the writer and author AJ Brown – a great campaigner for access – tried to define what were historical routes. He came up with a short list:

  • Ancient British ridgeways (followed by hillside ways).
  • Romanised roads (i.e. ancient British ways. metalled and straightened by the Romans).
  • Pure Roman roads.
  • Drovers’ roads, drift ways and pannier-mule tracks.
  • Local green ways.
  • Monks’ Trods leading from monastery to monastery or chantry.
  • Saltways, flintways and other local ‘tradeways’.

    I would add the following to Brown’s list:

  • Coffin Paths or Corpse Roads (Lich or Lyke Ways) – the way the dead were taken for burial.
  • Parish Paths – used to get to local churches, or from farm to farm and village to village.
  • Industrial Paths, the ways miners and quarrymen got to their work or transported minerals. 
  • Paths between industrial sites and the way workers walked to work.
  • Paths constructed for the defence of our country in time of war.

To this long list we can now add paths that came about just for the sheer pleasure of walking. In my time, I’ve seen paths created where none had previously existed, to cater for the needs of ramblers and horse riders, often to fill in gaps on long-distance trails or to get walkers away from busy roads.

Paths are not just a luxury in out busy age, but a necessity now for our leisure. Over the past two hundred years, rambling has become a path-creating and preserving industry in its own right. Thanks to the Ramblers, we still have so many historical paths crossing the land. But there is a lot of work to do to recognise the importance of paths and to discover those ways that go unrecorded. Our politicians and planners still don’t really recognise our rights of way network as a vital national resource.

There’s still a lot of hard work but it is so worthwhile. For I’m always mindful of the wise words of the Victorian country chronicler Richard Jefferies, who said:

“Always get over a stile is the one rule that should be borne in mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is – that is to say, never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest”.

John Bainbridge