The network of paths and tracks which we can walk today has developed over thousands of years, as successive generations have made their way about the land, for hunting, fishing and farming, trade, military venture and pilgrimage, and for pleasure and recreation.
The following section gives a brief historical summary of the development of paths and tracks.
It is likely that the first routes were established by herds of animals, moving between salt marshes, lowland grazing and upland moors in the years following the end of the last glaciation (Taylor, 1979). These migratory herds would probably have chosen the easiest routes, along ridges, through sparse vegetation, crossing rivers where fordable, and taking the lowest passes through the mountains. Grazing and trampling along the route would have spread over a wide zone where the land allowed, but would have been confined to narrow tracks through difficult country. The people who lived at that time were also constantly on the move, being hunters, fishermen and gatherers. They followed the herds for meat and hides, and had similar needs for water and shelter, and so shared the same routes. These routes thus became established as trackways, the chalk ridgeways being amongst the earliest.
About 6000 BC, fire was first used to clear forest for agriculture. Permanent settlements were established and trade developed. After 4000 BC, large areas were cleared, and recent archaeological evidence is showing that settlement was not just confined to the dry uplands, but extended over much of the country, and that the Neolithic peoples were far more organised and sophisticated than had been previously thought.
There is every likelihood that these people knew their way around their hinterland intimately, for they had to, in order to survive. Evidence of trackways is hard to establish, as their use in successive generations makes them difficult to date. However, recent excavations for peat in the Somerset levels have revealed causeways of brushwood and timber made in a similar way to that recommended today. The earliest tracks of piles of brushwood date from 3000 bc Later causeways of split timber have been dated to around
2000 BC. It is calculated that one mile (1.6km) of trackway would have needed 20 miles (32km) of split logs, and already 14 miles (22.4km) of causeway have been found.
After 1400 BC, the population began to increase rapidly, and in north Bedfordshire and south Northamptonshire for example, it has been shown that there was at least one settlement in every square mile of countryside. Heavy wheeled carts were in use by 800 BC, and Mediterranean wine jars found in East Anglia indicate the extent of trade. It is likely that in the centuries immediately BC, the broad pattern of roads, tracks and paths in use at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution was already in existence.
The Roman Occupation
Britain has only seen two major and organised attempts at road building, these being during the 1st and 20th Centuries AD Between 43 and 47 ad the Romans occupied an area southeast of a line from Exeter to Lincoln, and later spread north and west. During the Roman occupation, about 16,000 km of road were built, mostly within the first hundred years. All these roads were carefully surveyed, engineered and constructed. It is an awe-inspiring achievement, not least of which is the accuracy with which the direction of each route was established. The Fosse Way, which runs for 320 km along the Exeter Lincoln frontier line, only deviates 13 km from the direct line. The network was not only efficient, but extensive. In southeast Cambridgeshire for example, no settlement was further than 11 km from a surfaced road, and communication by road did not surpass this standard until the 20th Century.
Apart from their straightness, the main characteristic of Roman roads is that they were built on an embankment. This was called an ‘agger’, and could be from 0.3 to 2.0 metres high, and 3 to 20 metres wide. It was made of the strongest material conveniently available, which could be gravel, flint, rammed chalk or simply earth. Material was taken either from a ditch alongside the agger, or from borrow pits. Both methods are still recommended for paths (see Chapter 8 – Surfacing). The agger raised the road to keep it well drained, and helped to even out irregularities in the ground. The agger was then surfaced to make the road, usually for only part of its width. The surface was made of a base layer of large stones topped with gravel or small stones. In the Weald, slag from iron workings was sometimes used. Fords were made by tipping blocks of stone into the river bed. In other places, timber or stone bridges were built.
After the last Roman troops left in 407, the system of trade, communication and administration disintegrated, and many of the major routes fell into disuse.
The Mediaeval Period
Little is known about the early part of the Mediaeval period called the Dark Ages, which lasted from the departure of the Romans until the Norman Conquest. Some parts of the Roman roads were probably used for local traffic, but most communication would have been along the local tracks that linked settlements. Saxon settlements were small and dispersed, with few villages or towns. The Dark Ages in myth and legend evokes a picture of primitive people struggling to survive in a wooded and hostile land. The reality was probably quite different, as shown by the records of cultivated land in the Domesday Book of 1086, which are only slightly below the acreage in cultivation in 1914. The landscape of tiny farms and fields with numerous interconnecting tracks can still be seen, mainly unchanged, in parts of Devon and Anglesey.
In other areas, particularly in the Midlands, the system of communal strip fields with outlying commons developed. Here there would have been unenclosed paths running between the strips, some giving access to the common land beyond. In the uplands and moorlands of the north and west where most land was not cultivated, tracks were used for driving animals, for access to cut peat and bracken, for mining, and for trade. Many of these tracks still exist today, some with names that indicate their past use such as Drovers’ Ways, Miners’ Ways, and Saltways.
As far as we know, little attempt was made to maintain or improve roads during the Mediaeval period, and sea and river travel was used as much as possible. In some parts of the country it was compulsory for serfs to do six days labour a year on the roads, but this was probably little more than removing obstructions and filling the worst holes. Movement during winter was very limited, with stock being moved only when the land was reasonably dry.
Enclosure of common land and open fields occurred throughout the latter part of the Mediaeval period, but reached its peak between 1750 and 1850, when over 4, 000 Acts of Parliament were passed. Each parish was done separately, with Commissioners allotting land according to ‘traditional rights’.
The paths which gave access to the strips of the open field were lost, and many tracks linking settlements and villages were realigned. As neighbouring parishes were not necessarily enclosed at the same time, the enclosure surveyors laid the track in as straight a line as possible to the boundary where the old route crossed it. When the same process occurred later in the neighbouring parish, a corner resulted. These corners and dog-legs can still be seen, marking the parish boundaries. Sometimes the surveyors set aside land for quarrying road material. Not all roads and tracks were realigned, as often there were not the funds available to build new roads on top of the cost of surveying, valuing and fencing.
New local paths were set out or developed by custom across the enclosed fields, linking village with church, farm and outlying settlement.
At the same time as the Enclosures, other legal processes were happening which affected the system of paths. These were the Turnpike Trusts, the first founded by Act of Parliament in 1663, with many following between 1700 and 1850. The Acts permitted the setting up of a Trust to construct and maintain a section of road in return for a levy from travellers. These Turnpike roads were a great improvement for travellers by horse and carriage, and so traffic was concentrated along them and other routes were little used. Thus the Turnpike Trusts helped turn the previous network of unimproved tracks into the hierarchical system of major and minor roads, tracks and paths seen today.
Drove roads from Wales to England had been in use since the 13th Century, but the trade from Scotland did not develop until after the Act of Union in 1707, when around 30, 000 cattle a year were brought south over the border. The drove roads kept to high and unenclosed land, where there was space for the huge herds to graze and be kept together at night. Some of the drove roads were carefully constructed and surfaced, and examples remain with zigzags, revetments, and even steps on steep ground. The roads stayed in use throughout the era of the Turnpikes, the drovers preferring to keep to open ground and avoid paying tolls. However, the droving trade declined rapidly with the growth of the railway system in the 19th Century.
Wade’s Military roads
Following the uprising in Scotland in 1715, military roads were built throughout the Highlands, after the recommendations of General Wade. These took over 70 years to complete, but were mostly not as well surveyed or built as the Roman roads in northern England. The Roman roads in the uplands make slow and easy ascents, with zigzags where necessary, whereas General Wade’s roads built by the British army tend to stay in the valleys as long as possible, with consequently very steep inclines at the heads of valleys and mountain passes. Some have become modern roads, others remain as tracks.
Although the canals, and later the railways, took most of the long distance trade, many roads and tracks had increased traffic, generated by the railways. A few efforts were made to improve the road system, but it was not until 1894 that the responsibility for local roads was given to the Rural District Councils and work slowly began to meet the needs of the new motor transport. The decisions made in the 1920s and 1930s, as to which roads would be properly surfaced and which left as tracks, had far-reaching consequences for the development of rural communities. As shown throughout the history of communication, once a route is improved, it generates its own traffic and building development. Contact declined between neighbouring villages not joined by a surfaced road, making the pattern of social and economic movement that exists today. The tracks left unsurfaced are the byways and bridlepaths which are so important now for recreation.
Meantime, throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries, the local paths crossing fields and woods were kept in use wherever people walked daily to work, to school, to shop, church and inn. Many of course were lost by urban and industrial development, and to the more efficient use of arable land.
Against the mainly economic use of paths, the need was increasing from the early 19th Century for people from urban areas to find peace and relaxation in the countryside, and these desires came to be voiced by pressure groups where disputes arose between landowners and walkers.
Rights of way
In 1826, the Manchester Society for the Preservation of Ancient Footpaths was formed to fight a legal battle against a landowner who tried to close the paths on his land at Flixton, near Manchester. Their success was followed by the founding of many similar groups, including the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society in 1845, whose actions slowly built up the body of case law on public rights of way. However, there was no written law preventing a landowner closing a path, and such closures were only opposed if groups took legal action. The pressure for a legal status for public paths, combined with pressure for access to mountains, moorlands and Commons (see below) eventually led to the legislation of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (England and Wales), passed in the mood of social reform which followed World War II. The Ramblers’ Association, founded earlier in 1935, was very active in this movement.
One of the requirements of this Act was for local authorities in England and Wales to survey the course and status of all known public paths in their area, and publish the information in the Definitive map. In Scotland the rule of common law remained at that time unchanged.