“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)

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