Saturday, 22 September 2012

Baulk And Grind

A Stroll On Village Footpaths (part the first)

When we were boys we roamed all over. Our unofficial map of Grantchester was criss-crossed by dozens of possible routes. For we knew every gap in the hedge, every ditch that could be jumped over, every garden that could be cut across without the owner's knowledge. We wandered by headlands and hedgerows, climbed the churchyard walls and knew every faint track through the trees.

Gradually as we became older our travels close to home became less adventurous and we stuck to the recognised paths. Some of my contemporaries seldom venture from the village roads nowadays, confined as they are to travelling by car. But there is a network of footpaths to explore, quite legally and without fear of trespass, so lets take a wander and discover how this came to be.

Before the landscape settled into its current form there existed a different reality. A reality which had evolved from medieval times. Beyond the tight knot of dwellings and small paddocks which formed the hub of the village there stretched wide, unfenced, hedgeless fields on all sides. These were the medieval open fields which were divided into countless strips of cultivation. A farmer would have strips of land scattered throughout the parish. All very medieval and very inefficient.

All this was swept away and the land reorganised into the present pattern by Acts Of Enclosure (this happened in 1799 in Grantchester) which parcelled up the land into farms with rectangular fields. These same Acts regularised the roads and footpaths in each parish in much the same way as our boyish sorties became whittled down by time and respectability!

The Acts were supposed to preserve the rights of villagers to wander where they had wandered "since time immemorial". They didn't. That would have been impossible; there were just too many possible routes. Occasionally something like the old pattern of paths still exists over small areas of Cambridgeshire and if you ever walk through one of these places, as I have, you'll soon get lost in the intricate maze of paths (as I did!) Elsewhere powerful landowners have exerted their influence so that their estates are without any footpaths at all. But over much of the county a good old British compromise exists.

Did I say "all this was swept away" a couple of paragraphs ago? If it had happened recently it would have been. Bulldozers would have been brought in and memories the medieval would have been erased from the map. But instead subtle nuances of landscape still remain to intrigue and inform the observant wanderer. Come back tomorrow and we'll continue our stroll on these same footpaths - there's much of interest to see on the photographs I've used here. If you're good I'll even explain "Baulk And Grind", the odd title of this piece!

Take care.


  1. Fascinating, John. I'll return tomorrow :)

  2. I envy your walking paths! In the US unless we live in a city with designated areas, there are very few available to the public. Of course, there are the national and state parks, but that usually means a trip first.
    I have some family owned land that I can wander through, but anything else is highways and roads--dodging traffic and inhaling car fumes.

    Our childhoods were filled with so much more freedom and fantasy.

  3. We, too, wandered as children in much the same way and I suspect the owners really did know when we cut across their gardens. I think most were simply too kind to say anything to us. But I do envy the British their system of footpaths and I look forward to the rest of the story.

  4. My sisters and I also had lots of space to wander around as children because we lived in the Laurentians mountains where very little farming took place. We didn't have footpaths, but we just wandered around cross-country. I live in farm country now so it's very different. It's not acceptable to go marching across some farmer's cornfield. I have to say, I am very jealous of all the walking paths in England, but I'm glad you take advantage of them and we can, at least, visit them through your photos. Got my walking shoes on and waiting for the next installment.

  5. You are so fortunate to have access to wonderful walking paths .... on my walking trips with HF Holidays it amazed me that little lanes and walkways took us across private property. A wonderful way to see rural England.

  6. What a pity that I suspect most children today don't have the freedom to roam that we did, paths or no paths.

  7. You know that I will be back tomorrow. This "lesson" is the kind that I enjoy most on your blog. I feel that I am sitting at the feet of a wise professor.

  8. I would love to have footpaths like these to travel. But here so much is private, no trespassing. And to get anywhere safely, you have to drive your car. Alas, I love seeing your part of the world :^)

  9. How lucky you are to have all this to wander through. Although rural England may have changed rapidly in a short time, so many beautiful places are still lurking around every corner.

  10. I have very little sense of direction, so I daresay with an array of footpaths to explore I could get quickly muddled. Seems it would be a good idea to carry bottled water and plenty of chocolate for nourishment on these meanders.


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