Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Quiet Footsteps

On Monday we had one of those perfect Autumn days so I headed down to Suffolk to visit a little visited bit of country. There's a cluster of interesting country churches in the area which I'll share with you by and by. But first lets enjoy the autumn footpaths, by-ways and quiet roads that I walked along, all of which were resplendent in their autumnal finery. And, as we go, I'll tell you a bit about these paths which are one of Britain's often overlooked glories.


Someone, with a lot more time on their hands than I've ever had, once calculated that there are 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales. I have no idea how they worked it out but you get the impression - plenty of scope for those of us with permanently itchy feet.


Through woodland, alongside fields, across meadows, up mountains, beside the sea, over  moors......even through gardens and underneath people's washing lines! And every mile mapped with fanatical accuracy by the Ordnance Survey, which was only set up because Britain feared an invasion - which never came!


I'm not talking here about national trails leading for miles, but little tracks pottering from one village to the next. Though of course there's such a dense network of these paths that anyone with a good map and a little imagination can link them together to make a walk of whatever length is desired.


But how did we come by this marvellous network? 

From medieval times up until the mid eighteenth century Britain was mostly farming country. In southern England each village had two or three huge "open fields" which were subdivided into small strips. Each farmer would have many strips dotted around in various parts of the parish. This meant that there had to be paths from the village, where the farms stood, to the outlying fields. 


There would also be tracks to neighbouring villages and market towns. Nobody ever did much to maintain any of these tracks and, as most folk travelled on foot, it didn't really matter too much. And, anyway, if one track became impassable you simply used another.


Of course a few people did travel longer distances either on horseback or by stagecoach and those who left an account of their journeys had a great deal to say about the state of the roads.


But things were about to change. The Enclosure Acts consolidated the old strips of land into farms as we know them today. Farmhouses were built outside the villages, if that's where the landholdings happened to be. The multiplicity of old trackways was simplified to create a more modern efficient system of roads. Turnpike trusts were set up to create toll roads; the tolls paying for the upkeep of the roads.


However, England being England, the law upheld the rights of citizens to wander where they had wandered since time immemorial, even if it be over the newly created farmlands. Thus "rights of way" came into being.


And that's all a public footpath is today - a right to pass along a line on the map. There doesn't need to be any actual line on the ground to follow. But no one can block or obstruct a right of way. Stiles and gates mark where the route crosses field boundaries but in between there is often just a faint trod to follow or, if the route is rarely walked, nothing at all on the ground.


Of course sometimes the way will be blocked no matter what the law says. Broken stiles, impassable bramble thickets and bulls in fields can all add to the adventure. But things are improving, at least in this part of the country, as more and more people don their boots of a weekend.


It was this web of ancient trails then that I was making use of to traverse the Suffolk countryside on this fine autumn day. To link it all together you will see that I sometimes had to take to the narrow winding lanes that count as roads in this rural setting. In the next post I'll share with you some of the delightful little churches that lie hidden in the depths of this bucolic maze.


Take care.






23 comments:

  1. John, these wonderful photographs and the interesting commentary which accompanies them have made such super reading. I can't wait for your church pictures.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Such beautiful countryside! Someday I'd like to visit and explore. Great photos.

    ReplyDelete
  3. No better way to explore our land than all the little pathways.

    ReplyDelete
  4. So envious--not many legal places to walk near my home--
    It's interesting to learn the history of the trails and imagine all the feet that have trod there.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That is pretty neat. I can see being a vagabond walking these trails and pathways all of one's life.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Love the English footpaths and try to use them each time we go to England.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a great post! I really enjoyed both the photos and the history of this beautiful area. And I applaud England for their right-of-way laws. We need more of that here in the states. Too often beautiful parcels of land are bought up, built upon and fenced off.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Very interesting- I imagine it must be absolutely lovely country, and the best way to see it, of course, is by foot. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Such beautiful Autumn photos. I never thought about the history of footpaths but your post was incredibly interesting. Makes me wonder how it all developed over here.

    ReplyDelete
  10. You are so lucky to have such a history of public footpaths, fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
  11. what gorgeous countryside to walk in John. I love image # 4 & 8

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'd like to be walking along those country paths right now ... delightful captures John. Thanks for taking your camera along so that we could enjoy a day out in the country.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi John - gorgeous photos and I too love the reminders of our way of life, and how it's developed over the years .. thank you - beautiful shots ... Hilary

    ReplyDelete
  14. Lots of lovely Autumn colors over there. Fabulous photos John!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Super explanation and photographs, John. Paths come in many forms and some footways (and roads, for that matter) are very ancient indeed. It often gives me a kick to think that I am walking in the footsteps of generations, sometimes going back to prehistoric times. Thanks for the thoughts!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I have wondered about all the public footpaths in Britain and enjoyed this history of how they came about. It's impossible to wander the countryside here in the US because everything is posted with No Tresspassing signs. (Shhh, don't tell, but sometimes I pretend not to see them!)

    ReplyDelete
  17. It's easy to see why English people love walking so much. They have access to so many wonderful paths and roads. It was an enjoyable outing, even if I can only walk it in my head.

    ReplyDelete
  18. What a wonderful history of walking trails in your beautiful bucolic countryside.

    ReplyDelete
  19. It must be wonderful to wander along the paths. I love the fall leaves. Beautiful photos John.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Oh how I wish that we had the foot pathway system that you have. I know of a few but don't think they connect like those that you describe. Lovely photos. -- barbara

    ReplyDelete
  21. We have lots of these pathways and old hollow ways round here as well (Peak District) but Suffolk is one of my favourite areas and I'm really looking forward to seeing where you went and whether it was somewhere that I know.

    ReplyDelete
  22. We are so lucky to be able to walk these paths, lovely photos.

    ReplyDelete
  23. It looks like a paradise this time of year!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).