“The sunken green sand paths of Hampshire on whose banks curled ferns emerge in spring”
Following the tracks that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of pilgrimage and ritual, of places and journeys that inspire and illuminate our imaginations.
Humans are like animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track. We easily forget we are track makers, though, as most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are substances not easily impressed.
It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern day road network, meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarms, snickets – say the names of the paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shuts, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.
Different paths have different characteristics, depending on geology and purpose. Certain coffin paths in Cumbria have flat ‘resting stones’ on the uphill side, on which bearers could place their load, shake out tired arms and roll stiff shoulders; certain coffin paths in the West of Ireland have recessed resting stones, in the alcoves of which each mourner would place a pebble. The pre-historic track ways of the English Downs can still be traced because on their close chalky soil, hard-packed by centuries of tramping, daisies flourish. Thousands of work paths crease the moorland of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, so that when seen from the air, the moor has the appearance of chamois leather. I think also of the zigzag flexure of the mountain paths in the Scottish Highlands, the flagged and bridged packhorse routes of Yorkshire and Mid Wales, and the sunken green sand paths of Hampshire on whose shady banks ferns emerge in spring, curled like crosiers.
Paths are habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own. The artist Richard Long did it once, treading a dead-straight mark into desert sand by turning and turning about dozens of times. But this was a footmark not a foot path: it lead to nowhere except its own end, and by walking it Long became a tiger pacing its cage
or a swimmer doing lengths. With no promise of extension, his line was to a path what a snapped twig is to a tree. Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.
Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear; overgrown by vegetation, ploughed up or built over (though they may persist in the memorious substance of land law). Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths need walking.
From The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)