A path to inspiration

Public footpaths have often existed for thousands of years
The familiar fat yellow arrows show which way to go after crossing the stile

As a follow-up to my last column about the tragic case of William Winter who lost his wife and three young children to Scarlet Fever in May 1889, I was planning this week to discuss the havoc the disease wreaked on England in the nineteenth century. But as I wrote, it dawned on me that the subject matter was thoroughly miserable. I questioned whether I, as a columnist for this esteemed paper, was serving you readers by showering you in melancholy and thus making you as miserable as I felt. Let’s face it, over recent weeks I’ve bombarded you with tales of disease, death and graveyards.

So I did what I always do when I’m faced with such a quandary; I stopped writing. As a writer, you have to trust that inspiration will come, and you learn not to struggle on when your ideas don’t work. By the next morning, I still had very little notion as to what misery-free topic I would write about and once I had exhausted all the usual procrastination-induced tasks (like hanging out washing, making pots of tea, watching Netflix), I did the next best thing. I went for a walk.

I’m lucky to have instant access to the beautiful North Yorkshire countryside outside my front door and, thanks to the kindness of a local farmer, am allowed to wander across his land up to the top of a hill where I can take in the glorious views over my home valley. It helps me clear my mind just a little bit.

The route through his field joins a public footpath across the top of the hills and I soon came to a stile where the way ahead was signposted by familiar fat yellow arrows put in place by the North York Moors National Park Authority. I didn’t need them though as the direction was clearly visible thanks to the many thousands of feet that had trodden it before me.

And that, dear people, is when the inspiration for this particular column finally arrived. How did this footpath get here, and how old was it?

A path across land can become an official right of way if it has been used continuously by the public for at least 20 years and, once approved, it is a classification bound by law. In many cases, these routes have existed for generations, and in the days before instant communication and motorised transport many were packhorse trails, used for delivering messages and shifting goods between settlements.

Different paths would be forged for different reasons, and there are clues as to their age and purpose. For example, if a path runs directly between two villages (and especially if those villages appear in the Doomsday Book), it is likely to have existed for thousands of years, originally linking tribal settlements to one another. Later on, from the first century AD until the fifth, we were occupied by the Romans who took highways and byways to a whole new level, being the first civilisation to construct formal paved roads, forging their way for many miles right across the landscape. It made it easier to move armies, weapons and supplies from one part of the country to another. Many Roman roads form the basis of our transport network today, while others have become public footpaths and bridleways, and the rest have been swallowed up by agricultural land or development, although their imprint can sometimes still be seen from the air.

Other public footpaths trace their roots back to specific purposes. A ‘monk’s trod’ ran between monasteries and religious sites, a ‘corpse trail’ was a path to church along which coffins would be borne, ‘miners’ tracks’ were formed in remote parts of the Dales and Moors when the land was exploited for tin and lead, and ‘drove roads’ were created to drive livestock to markets, sometimes stretching for hundreds of miles (much of the Cleveland Way is an old drove road).

These networks of paths provide insight into how our forbears went about their everyday lives. The one I was using led to a local historical monument, thought to be a late Bronze Age animal enclosure, which means I was following a route that was created around 3,000 years ago.

So next time you walk one of your local public footpaths, I wonder if you can work out its age, and how it came to be?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 7th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 5th April 2023