The roads much trav­elled

Bri­tish his­tory has been shaped by our an­cient drove roads, says Barn­aby Roger­son

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Our old roads are gifts lead­ing straight into his­tory: a drove road that once wit­nessed the move­ment of vast herds of black cat­tle and white sheep; a straight path­way first sur­veyed, cut and banked up by one of the four ro­man le­gions sent to con­quer Bri­tain; or, with a bit of imag­i­na­tion, those oak-planked walk­ways that threaded their way through the Som­er­set lev­els and Thames-side tidal marshes 6,000 years ago.

As a boy, I dis­cov­ered these old ways among the Hamp­shire downs, fol­low­ing the Meon Val­ley Bea­gles or walk­ing our hounds with my par­ents. One old neigh­bour told me to keep ‘a sharp eye’ on the white-chalk foot­path above our cot­tage. It had served as a coach road con­nect­ing Ad­mi­ralty House in London to the fleet in Portsmouth: a nine­hour jour­ney, with time for a quick meal dur­ing the change of horses at the red Lion at Peters­field in Hamp­shire.

The old postman told me of a se­cret hill route used by sailors walk­ing home, which passed through Betty Mun­day’s Bot­tom. A ‘bot­tom’ is a dry val­ley, but Mun­day made good use of hers, first bed­ding, then fleec­ing her naval guests be­fore sell­ing them back to the press gang.

In the same pe­riod, French pris­on­ers of war were trusted to live on pa­role in the nearby mar­ket town of Al­res­ford. It lay at the epi­cen­tre of old drove roads (wide enough to pro­vide graz­ing for the passing herds), which brought live­stock to one of the great sheep mar­kets of Eng­land.

Many of our best-loved paths owe their ex­is­tence to more re­cent his­tory, when trade dried up our 18th-cen­tury canals and 19th­cen­tury rail­ways. The tow­path of the Itchen canal, built to trans­port wool to Southamp­ton, was, in my child­hood, a for­got­ten and moody place, in which king­fish­ers darted over som­no­lent pike. An aban­doned rail­way line ran down the spine of the Meon val­ley.

One sum­mer, I helped ex­ca­vate a Saxon burial ground, which had orig­i­nally been dis­cov­ered when this track had been cut through the chalk hills by teams of Ir­ish navvies. We un­earthed a war­rior of the Meon­ware tribe whose skull had been crushed by a gi­ant flint. If you walked the line north, it dis­ap­peared into a tun­nel dug through the Downs, which had been used as a bomb shel­ter for Gen Eisen­hower dur­ing the run-up to D-day.

I tack­led my first long-dis­tance path, the South Downs Way, when I was 12. It was a fam­ily ex­pe­di­tion, which in­volved my naval father in ad­vance staff work: drop­ping trail­ers packed with kit so that we could walk light, camp in tents, feed our four bas­set hounds in the evening and have fod­der for my younger brother’s pony.

‘The old postman told me of a se­cret hill route used by sailors walk­ing home

As a young his­to­rian, I turned against the network of na­tional path­ways—the Pen­nines, the South Downs, the West High­land, the South­ern up­land and the ul­ster Way. These were cre­ations of post-sec­ond World War ur­ban plan­ners, most of them un­veiled in the 1960s, so not even as old as my­self. I strove for some­thing indige­nous and res­o­nant, such as the Four High­ways of Me­dieval Eng­land kept open by the King’s Peace.

Fosse Street strode from Ex­eter to Lin­coln and marked the 1st-cen­tury line of ro­man con­quest. Er­mine Street be­gan at one of the seven gate­houses of the City of London and marched to York. un­der the name of Dere Street, it con­tin­ued north to in­ter­sect Hadrian’s Wall and then the An­to­nine Wall. Watling Street supplied the ro­man forts of Wrox­eter and Ch­ester, but was pre­vi­ously a track used by Celtic pil­grims trav­el­ling from the white cliffs of Dover to the Isle of An­ge­lesy, sa­cred to the Druids.

Sim­i­larly, the ridge­way marched west to Ave­bury ring and the Ick­nield Way linked the Dorset and Nor­folk coast with Stone­henge.

How­ever, by pound­ing hard tar­mac and in­hal­ing ex­haust fumes, I dis­cov­ered that the Four High­ways have lost their charm➢

for walk­ers. They have never been aban­doned by trade and so ma­tured from toll roads to A roads and mo­tor­ways. I also learned that even such an un­de­ni­ably an­cient route as the Ridge­way has never ex­isted as a de­fin­i­tive path. It was com­posed of dozens of dif­fer­ent track­ways, some suit­able for win­ter, some for sum­mer, some for cat­tle, some for wheeled ve­hi­cles and some for lone, stout walk­ers.

When I was 27, I fell into the com­pany of a group of friends who showed me the joy of a sign­posted foot­path. Lindy Guin­ness, artist, dairy farmer and the party-go­ing Mar­chioness of Duf­ferin and Ava, started things off. She had al­lowed the coast-hug­ging Ul­ster Way to lay a branch through her Clan­de­boye es­tate so that walk­ers could reach He­len’s Tower, the in­spi­ra­tion for the Ir­ish war me­mo­rial at Thiep­val, in the Somme.

It was a brave ges­ture at the time, as the Trou­bles had shat­tered the trail into dozens of dif­fer­ent pieces. (It had been con­ceived in 1946 by vi­sion­ary forestry worker Wil­frid Cap­per, who charmed farm­ers into per­mit­ting a 665-mile path stud­ded by 15 youth hos­tels to cross their land.) Led by such de­ter­minedly free spir­its as Pa­trick TrevorRoper and Sean Raf­ferty, we walked and stripped off to swim in lakes and in the sea.

Lindy had been taught by Dun­can Grant and her hus­band had cham­pi­oned David Hock­ney—be­tween them, they con­nected Blooms­bury with the 1960s. I drew up a plan for a sa­cred wood based on the tree cal­en­dar sug­gested by Robert Graves in The White God­dess.

A year later, Ge­orge Clive (the squire of a hand­some brick manor house hid­den in Here­ford­shire woods) or­gan­ised the same group to walk Offa’s Dyke. Ge­orge had prac­tised the route be­fore our ar­rival. We needed no maps, but were led by this well­read but tac­i­turn man along the an­cient fron­tier be­tween the Bri­tonic Welsh and the Sax­ons.

He ar­ranged for his lo­cal taxi firm to take us all back to his house from the end of each day’s walk­ing—which al­ways ended at a pub —and then put us back on the foot­path af­ter breakfast the next day, with di­ver­sions to take in such vi­tal churches as Kilpeck, which were not on any route. He had made his own swim­ming pool, where you swam to­wards a Ro­mano-bri­tish head that chuck­led out spring wa­ter.

The Ridge­way walk was or­gan­ised by Mary North-clow, a Hel­lenophile film pro­ducer. It be­gan at the worn doorstep of her fam­ily’s old Buck­ing­hamshire farm­house, from which a trail climbed through a car­pet of blue­bells shaded by beech trees to join this an­cient path.

Our three-day walk took us to pic­nics at Way­land’s Smithy and the Uff­in­g­ton White Horse in Ox­ford­shire, be­fore cul­mi­nat­ing in Ave­bury Stone Cir­cle, which was il­lu­mi­nated by the tragic burn­ing of a me­dieval tithe barn on the evening that we ar­rived. It was an awe­some night, but, soon af­ter­wards, death win­nowed away at this group of hos­pitable aris­to­cratic walk­ers.

I ad­mired their style, which was not about speed and self-suf­fi­ciency and dis­tance cov­ered, but about lo­cal pubs and beau­ti­ful pic­nics. A cel­e­bra­tion of friend­ship in land­scape.

I try to con­tinue this tra­di­tion, but now salute the work of those earnest post­war plan­ners pa­tiently piec­ing to­gether new path­ways from a tat­tered ta­pes­try of parish foot­paths, old Ro­man roads, drove tracks, pil­grim ways and dis­used rail­ways.

Ev­ery spring, I meet up with an old friend from univer­sity to make our own pil­grim­age. So far, we’ve passed through the doors of Wells, Sal­is­bury and Winch­ester Cathe­drals on our slow progress to Can­ter­bury. In May, I walk in the Lake District with a pair of highly suc­cess­ful pub­lish­ers.

Like my father, I plan these routes in ad­vance, but I’ve also in­her­ited his man­ner and like to af­fect ‘an am­a­teur air of shabby gen­til­ity’ when on the ground. Last month, I ex­plained to a group of well-equipped and fit hik­ers com­ing down from the Fells that, af­ter we’d fin­ished our lunch, we in­tended to head ‘up the wa­ter­fall and then cross the tops for 10 miles, head­ing west into the sun­set’. I heard one of them mut­ter: ‘Like lambs to the slaugh­ter.’

A time­less jour­ney: a shep­herd and his dog drive sheep along an old drove road

Walk­ing side by side with his­tory: Hadrian’s Wall at Wall­town Craggs in Northum­ber­land

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