“A walk marks time with an accumulation of footsteps. It defines the form of the land. Walking the roads and paths is to trace a portrait of the country…”
– Richard Long, Selected Statements and Interviews, Haunch of Venison Press, 2007
There is a rich history underfoot, and the very act of walking is amongst our oldest practices. The British landscape was to a large extent etched by footfall, the division of the land by means of a mesh of paths and routes, desire lines that defined and crystallised the foundations of our settlements, sacred locations, and sites of trade. Paths have to connect, they have to lead somewhere; it is their primary objective. Paths are the parchment upon which we scribe the history of our land and our lives. They are stories being endlessly written and re-written, a repository of memory, simultaneously scripted and erased by foot, beast, and wheel. The ancient proto-Germanic, and Norse word, writan (writing), meaning to mark, carve, score or scratch indicate a tenuous connection – to walk and carve pathways into the landscape might also conceptually be conceived as an oblique form of literature.
The parcelling off of the British countryside resulted from the Parliamentary Enclosures Acts of 1750-1850, a set of acts which aggressively consumed what was once common land. The acts were intended to define the rights of landowners, the extent of their ownership, and the delineation of boundaries by placement of hedges, ditches, fences, walls, and most importantly, pathways and tracks. In a paradoxical move, many old, commonly used, permitted pathways became defunct whilst simultaneously, new pathways and rights of way were opened and made available. Freedom to discursively roam the landscape had become something of an archaism, and many of the ancient trackways and trails were lost to history within a very brief span of time.
The landscape, however, does not yield so easily, and many of these ancient routes, although having been subsumed by encroaching development and agriculture, have not entirely been erased from their physical locations, despite their apparent omission from the maps. The summer heatwave of 2018 revealed the traces of previously undiscovered ancient paths and structures across the country, like invisible ink, suddenly appearing on a page. The most ancient trails possibly existed well before (but certainly around) the Bronze Age. In the last 50 years or so, archaeologists have uncovered several wooden “causeways’ embedded mostly in bog or peatland areas. The Sweet Track in Somerset is perhaps one of the most renowned, as are the causeways at the Abbotts Way, Star Carr in Yorkshire, Corlea in Ireland, and Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire. The latter, I have written about before*, and their usage (as with all other causeways) is uncertain. These contentious structures may originally have been used as droveways – solid roadways that made the movement of cattle, horses, sheep etc, easier and more efficient. There are, however, other clues as to their utility, perhaps as processional routes, secreted in the landscape. Nearby can be found numerous barrows and burial mounds, and most of the causeway sites mentioned above reveal clear evidence of spiritual utility as significant offerings and oblations have been recovered from the bogs and waterways nearby. There is perhaps more to these ancient trails than the merely prosaic.
Typically, the causeway at Flag Fen was adopted and adapted by the Romans, such was its strength and accuracy of alignment across difficult wetland terrain, and in fact this is the case in many instances. It would appear that the ancients had more than a cursory knowledge of path making, and many of the ancient trackways were relatively straight, and supremely accurate, given that much of the landscape at the time was either densely wooded or treacherous bogland.
The Harroway is an example of a track that had many lives, and multiple uses. It is notably one of the oldest pathways in Britain.
In the early 1920s, amateur archaeologist and author Alfred Watkins famously posited a theory of what he called “ley lines”, after recording numerous instances of man-made and naturally occurring features in perfect alignment for many tens of miles. Watkins was a peripheral figure to professional archaeologists, and his theories have been revised and challenged over the years, and in many cases, (particularly at the height of the New Ageism of the late 1970s) hugely misinterpreted. Yet the underlying logic of ley lines was there for all to see. It could reasonably be argued that ancient men had knowledge of basic survey techniques, and formed rudimentary sightlines across the landscape. The usage of naturally occurring and man-made way markers would have made navigation to places of importance more efficient and less treacherous. These leys, named from an ancient English toponymic suffix, ‘-lay’, ‘-ley’, ‘-leigh’, ‘-lee‘ or ’-lea”, were what Watkins believed to be the ancient names for paths, preserved in the toponymic records. The efficiency of these aligned pathways cannot be underestimated, and to divert one’s route from a pathway or track, was to be ‘de-leyed’.
Conversely, far from being precisely aligned, many ancient pathways, tracks and green lanes skirted the contours of the landscape mostly on higher ground, navigating the walker around natural hazards and obstacles, and these ‘ridgeways’ and ‘droveways’ are still amongst the most enduring in our current landscape. Many of the ancient paths and lanes that fell into disuse had specific utility as ‘corpse roads’, ‘tinners’ walks’, ‘droveways’, ‘salt ways’, and as those industries fell into decline, so too did the accompanying paths that led to them, and they lay forgotten, unused, overgrown.
There has recently been a resurgence of archaeological activity in the area circumnavigating Stonehenge around Durrington Walls, where, with the use of aerial photography, an ancient trackway has been discovered. This track, known as The Avenue, is thought to have been a processional route, skirting its way alongside the River Avon directly to the henge itself. Upon looking at the maps, it strikes me that that the Avenue may have been linked with an ancient network of tracks and paths connecting to, and converging with the Harroway, which may have had some ancient spiritual or religious relevance. The Harroway in particular is an example of a track that had many lives, and multiple uses. It is notably one of the oldest pathways in Britain, scribing a vast, shallow arc across the country that stretches from Seaton in Devon, to Dover in Kent. The Harroway has speculatively been in use since the Stone Age, and has its origins as a cattle path which pre-dates any known human intervention. Its name, however, has Anglo-Saxon origins derived from the Saxon word herewag – a military road. The eastern section of the track became known as the Pilgrims’ Way, (suggesting some religious significance) offshoots of which assisted the growth and development of old Winchester. The Harroway exemplifies a path which has a catalogue of historical utility superimposed upon its surfaces. It has a rich story to tell.
So if the landscape were to be conceived of as the parchment upon which paths, roads, tracks are inscribed , then footfall and its imprints are a form of discourse. In many cultures, stories are linked to paths and walks. Names are assigned, recalled or invoked during the course of a journey on foot. At all stages of a journey, names are assigned to natural features as waymarkers, and each name is then recounted as part of a narrative. Therefore on a walk along a certain river, every bend, every pool and rapids has a name in this narrative context. Walking becomes a form of index, inventory, a list of parts. To the indigenous people residing there, to list these names is to recall the entire journey.
To walk along any relict path is to unlock and reconstruct their hidden narratives – collecting, sense-mapping and decoding recondite sensory information.
Under governance of the open field system in Anglo-Saxon Britain, before maps were in common use, a practice known as ‘beating the bounds’ began, whereby the limits and parameters of a village or parish were verbally and physically marked by groups of people, generally led by the clergy. This territorial marking was thought to have been derived from the Roman Terminalia, a festival celebrated on February 22 in honour of Terminus, the god of landmarks, which took place at the boundaries. Similar practices of pagan origin were brought by the Norsemen, and in many instances offerings were made to the gods. In later times, groups of parishioners would make a “perambulation” around the village boundaries, and birch or willow sticks would be beaten upon key land-markers. Very often, young boys were taken and their heads would be struck or beaten, and prayers were uttered, thus ensuring that key landmarks were imprinted on the memory, ensuring that crucial territorial information be transmitted down to the next generations.
Cartographic records have shown that early mediaeval maps were in fact more like richly illustrated travel stories which told tales of memorable journeys and adventurous encounters. Over time, these were gradually supplanted with more scientific, spatial representations of the earth’s surface, and the illustrative elements were consigned to the margins – they became decorative embellishments, and the narrative context was lost. I cannot help but mention here contemporary artist Richard Long, whose works appear to carry with them echoes of those ancient boundary-marking practices. Many of his walking pieces, sometimes covering great distances, involve placing stones to track the course of a journey. Early works such as A Line Made by Walking (1967) are made by repeatedly treading a path through grass. The gradual erasure of the land by foot not only takes on a meditative quality, but also recalls the actions of ancient path-makers. Similarly, Long’s ‘text works’ are notably reminiscent of aboriginal songlines: each small statement resonates with the idiosyncratic narrative for a specific journey, which is then fixed and recorded.
For me, to walk along any relict path is to unlock and reconstruct their hidden narratives – collecting, sense-mapping and decoding recondite sensory information, connecting, assembling disparate threads, a subtle synthesis of locomotion, intuition, and cognition. Very often, these walks would take me off-track into wilder, more remote territories. Here began the practice of making small ‘offerings’, or ‘placements’ constructed from natural detritus generally found in-situ. In one of my text-based ‘incantation’ pieces I write:
…wick-hoods, willow strakes, hare skin, tallow – elements benign until summoned to task..
These apparently ‘benign elements’, when ‘summoned to task’ resonate individually and collectively, and are ‘activated’ as sensory cues, sparks, a form of physical mnemonic – locating specific places in the memory and ensuring they are permanently imprinted. Eventually of course, they will deteriorate and decompose, only to be returned to the land once more, but their function has already been fulfilled. Not only do these objects summon the essence or spirit of a specific location, they also resemble elements of a private ritual or spell, and locate themselves firmly in my imagination – they invoke a sense of transition, impermanence, transformation. On many occasions I have transferred a placement from one site to another, far removed from its origins. This for me creates an invisible path, a line that connects not only one place to another, but a more tenuous, numinous connection between places and their past. In this way, no two journeys can, or will ever be the same.
A Line / Align will be published in altered form as the introduction to a long-form, prose poem inspired by The Harroway, and a small selection of text works relating to ancient paths and tracks in the British Isles. This will be published as a limited edition on Place Editions.
Photo credit: Dale Nichols