Paths of mystery? by Dr D A C McNeil
What is a public footpath? Is it a meandering muddy track, with the occasional large puddle, fenced by hedge, barbed wire or imagination, running to the side of (or occasionally through the middle of) farm fields, sometimes giving grand vistas of the countryside, sometimes back gardens, sometimes close-ups of bramble and junk, which is so beloved of ramblers and hikers? Is it a back-alley between houses, perhaps the remains of a muddy track, where popular legend has drug barons selling their wares to addicts, murderers making their escapes from dastardly crimes, and small boys riding bicycles in defiance of bye-laws and with a degree of recklessness not warranted? Could it be the pavement by a residential street which has been commandeered by drivers as a car park? What about the one-time tow-path by a disused canal?
When is it not a public footpath? When it is a bridleway dedicated to horse riders? Or covered in asphalt for cyclists? The one thing that can be stated with confidence is that, be it public footpath or bridleway, its access must always be open by law and a landowner has no powers over it or who uses it, provided of course that they stay within the law. To deviate from it is trespass and the land owner has every right to prevent users from doing this. What he cannot do is put a barbed wire blockade across the path because he is tired of dealing with trespassers. But can you bird-watch from one? Carry five tons of explosives in a wheelbarrow along one? Or exercise your dog? Is it permissible to take a pram with an infant along a path? (This may not be practical in some places – styles are permissible when farm animals are in a field.)
When was the first public footpath created? What was it before it was a public footpath? For, despite the Flintstones (of glorious memory) stone-age man did not have stone-age cars nor stone-age motorways to drive them on. All he had was his feet; so, over time, he must have created footpaths by continual use. The early hunters would have paths through jungles and over marshes in places where it was both safer and easier to walk. The first farmers needed tracks to and from their fields. It may be that in time these tracks were abandoned in favour of others; it may be that some stayed open for perhaps religious reasons. Again, such paths may be abandoned if a religious site were changed. But, by accident or design, some of these paths may still be with us.
In the middle ages under the serfdom culture the three-field system was the common method of agriculture. Each serf farmed strips of land in each of the three fields which surrounded the village in which he lived. In addition to work on his ‘farm’ he had to work on that of the lord of the manor as rent, as well as pay a tithe to the local priest. How was he to access these strips without crossing all the neighbours’ ones and disrupting their work? Easy – all the strips had to be ploughed, and at the top of each field the plough had to be turned in a strip of field known as a headland. At other times this headland could be used to access farmed strips – i.e. became a footpath. Perhaps this is a little idealised – history does not record the numbers of duels at dawn (spades at twenty paces) which may have taken place.
Following the three-field system come the acts of enclosure, in which the land was consolidated and parcelled out to each farmer depending on the number of strips he had worked under the old system. Of course strips had changed hands over the centuries, potential entrepreneurs having learnt that the more you controlled the greater your status. So what did this mean? The farmer could now live on his land and not in a village; he could provide accommodation for farm-hands, often those whose allocation after the enclosures would not have been viable economically and would have been sold, perhaps to said farmer. A system of annual contracts evolved, which enabled a farmer to evict anyone not pulling his weight. Again, this system had drawbacks – particularly good labourers would be in demand from other farmers. So, not only did the field layout change as each plot was consolidated, but the access changed and with it the footpath layout. In some instances road layouts changed as well and old roads could then become footpaths.
Come the nineteenth century and it is all change again. Slowly but surely steam power spread its influence across the landscape. Until steam arrived the motive power had been the horse, which pulled the carts, the ploughs and anything else for which man-power alone was insufficient. Steam began to take over. At first it replaced horses, though the much heavier engines had difficulties of access in certain places as they damaged both the roads and the bridges they had to use. Indeed some canal bridges are still guarded by notices banning steam engines from using them (or they were till very recently). A new occupation – engine driver – came into existence. Such people were in demand, and often engines and drivers were hired out to farmers and had to be mobile. Certain farm labourers began to be replaced as time wore on. However, it was a slow process and only gathered momentum in the twentieth century as petrol and diesel replaced steam.
But now another factor comes into play – leisure time for non-farm workers increases, and with it the interest in rambling, hiking, natural history and horse riding, all of which begin to make demands on footpaths, which in turn gain a new lease of life. In fact some paths were created precisely for these people – who else, since Roman times, would have need of the Pennine Way? Arise a conflict – to farm or not to farm? To walk and ride, or no? Paths that had once led from A to B for farm workers and then become redundant were suddenly in demand again. Their use may have been tolerated by farmers when it was in their interests, but when it is used by hordes of ‘townies’ apparently bent on their destruction, what then? What is more, some paths occupied valuable plough-land and affected profits.
In the 1970’s I had cause to walk over part of a farm several times a year (with the owner’s permission). There was a field on this farm where this conflict was high-lighted, and after the passage of years I feel that I can now mention it. There was a bridleway beside one hedge; parallel to it ran a footpath through the centre of the field, according to the Ordinance Survey map of the area. Only the bridleway was sign-posted. The owner had ploughed the old footpath out. I was asked not to mention it. Forty years later I hope that the location is so obscure that I have kept my promise, though perhaps not entirely.
What, then of the modern footpath? To be official they have to be recorded in a ‘big black book’ kept, among other places, at County Hall, before they are ‘public’. If they are, the full weight of the law is behind the user. If they are not they could be blocked off and users would be trespassing, though of course there are exceptions. The right to roam does not empower people to create paths across farmland by personal whim – ideally they have to be registered in the big black book. To get a ‘new’ path registered it has to be a proven route, in other words have a history. It takes time, effort and expense. A word of warning to anyone thinking about this; tow-paths beside canals are owned by canal companies (i.e. British Waterways) and are, on paper, private. Old railways are owned by either the successors to British Rail or have been sold. The natures of these tracks may suggest that they are open ground, but this is not the case. Finally, old roads often go nowhere.