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Like Lambs to the Slaughter - Old Roads and New Ways
published in Country Life, August 2nd 2017 as 'The roads much travelled'


Our old roads are gifts leading straight into history: a drove road that once witnessed the movement of vast herds of black cattle and white sheep; a straight pathway first surveyed, cut and banked up by one of the four Roman legions sent to conquer Britain or with a bit of imagination those oak-planked walkways that threaded their way through the Somerset levels and Thames-side tidal marshes six thousand years ago.

As a boy I discovered these old ways amongst the Hampshire downs, following the Meon Valley Beagles or walking our hounds with my parents. One old neighbour told me to keep 'a sharp eye' on the white chalk footpath above our cottage. It had served as a coach road connecting Admiralty House in London to the fleet in Portsmouth: a nine-hour journey, with time for a quick meal during the change of horses at the Red Lion at Petersfield. The old postman told me a secretive hill route used by sailors walking home, which passed through Betty Munday's Bottom. A 'bottom' is a dry valley, but Betty Munday made good use of hers, first bedding then fleecing her naval guests before selling them back to the press gang. In the same period, French prisoners of war were trusted to live on parole in the nearby market town of Alresford. It lay at the epicentre of old drove roads (wide enough to provide grazing for the passing herds) which brought livestock to one of the great sheep markets of England.

Many of our best loved paths owe their existence to more recent history, when trade dried up our 18th century canals and 19th century railways. The towpath of the Itchen canal – built to transport wool to Southampton was in my childhood a forgotten and moody where kingfishers darted over somnolent pike. An abandoned railway line ran down the spine of the Meon Valley. One summer I helped excavate a Saxon burial ground which had originally been discovered when this track had been cut through the chalk hills by hard drinking teams of Irish navies. We unearthed a Jutish warrior of the Meonware tribe whose skull had been crushed by a giant flint. If you walked the line north, it disappeared into a tunnel dug through the Downs which had been used as a bomb shelter for General Eisenhower during the run-up to D-day. I tackled my first long distance path, the South Downs Way, aged fourteen. It was a family expedition which involved my naval father in advance staff work: dropping trailers packed with kit, so that we could walk light, camp in tents, feed our four basset hounds in the evening and have fodder for my younger brother's pony.

As a young historian I turned against the network of national pathways - the Pennine, the South Downs, the West Highland, the Southern Upland and the Ulster Way. Creations of post-war urban planners, most of them unveiled in the 60s, so not even as old as myself. I strove for something indigenous and resonant, like the Four Highways of Medieval England kept open by the King's Peace. Fosse Street strode from Exeter to Lincoln and marked the 1st century line of Roman conquest. Ermine Street began at one of the seven gatehouses of the City of London and marched to York. Under the name of Dere Street it continued north to intersect Hadrian's and then the Antonine Walls. Watling Street supplied the Roman forts of Wroxeter and Chester but was previously a track used by Celtic pilgrims travelling from the white cliffs of Dover to the Isle of Angelesy, sacred to the Druids. Similarly the Ridgeway marched west to Avebury Ring and the Icknield Way linked the Dorset and Norfolk coast with Stonehenge.

However by pounding hard tarmac and inhaling exhaust fumes, I discovered that the Four Highways have lost their charm for walkers. They have never been abandoned by trade and so matured from Toll roads to A roads and motorways. I also learned that even such an undeniably ancient route as the Ridegway has never existed as a definitive path. It was composed of dozens of different trackways, some suitable for winter, some for summer, some for cattle, some for wheeled vehicles, some for loan, stout walkers.

When I was 27, I fell into the company of a group of friends who showed me the joy of a signposted footpath. Lindy Guinness, artist, dairy farmer and the party-going Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, started things off. She had allowed the coast-hugging Ulster Way to lay a branch through her Clandeboye estate so that walkers could reach Helen's tower, the inspiration for the Irish war memorial at the Somme. It was a brave gesture at the time, for The Troubles had shattered the trail into dozens of different pieces. (It had been conceived in 1946 by a visionary forestry worker who charmed farmers into permitting a 665-mile path studded by 15 youth hostels - to cross their land). Led by such determinedly free spirits as Patrick Trevor-Roper and Sean Rafferty, we walked and stripped off to swim in lakes and in the sea. Lindy Guinness had been taught by Duncan Grant and her husband had championed David Hockney – so between them they connected Bloomsbury with the 60s. I drew up a plan for a sacred wood based on the tree-calendar suggested by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.

A year later George Clive (the squire of a handsome brick manor house hidden in Herefordshire woods) organised the same group to walk Offa's Dyke. George had practiced the route before our arrival. So we needed no maps but were led by this well-read but taciturn man along the ancient frontier between the Britonic Welsh and the Saxons. He arranged for his local taxi firm to take us all back to his house from the end of each days walking (which always ended at a pub) and then put us back on the footpath after breakfast the next day - with diversions to take in such vital churches as Kilpeck which were not on any route. He had made his own swimming pool, where you swam towards a Romano-British head which chuckled out spring water.

The RidgeWay walk was organised by Mary North-Clow, a Hellenophile film-producer. It began at the worn doorstep of her family's old Buckinghamshire farm house from where a path climbed through a carpet of bluebells shaded by beech trees to join this ancient path. Our three-day walk took us to picnics at Waylands Smithy and the Uffington White Horse before culminating in Avebury Stone Circle, which the evening that we arrived was illuminated by the tragic burning of a medieval tithe barn. I was walking with the Irish painter Hector McDonnell that evening, who set a competitive pace both on the ground and in conversation but we were both silenced. It was an awesome night, but soon afterwards death winnowed away at this group of hospitable aristocratic walkers. I admired their style, which was not about speed and self-sufficiency and distance covered, but about local pubs and beautiful picnics. A celebration of friendship in landscape.

I try to continue this tradition, but now salute the work of those earnest post-war planners, patiently piecing together new pathways from a tattered tapestry of parish footpaths, old Roman roads, drove tracks, pilgrim ways and disused railways.

Every spring I meet up with Mary Miers, a scholarly friend from university to make our own English pilgrimage far from her beloved Scottish Highlands. So far we have passed through the doors of Wells, Salisbury and Winchester cathedrals on our slow progress to Canterbury. In May I walk in the Lake District with a pair of successful publishers ( Mark Ellingham who set up Rough Guides and John Hatt who set up both Eland and cheap flights.com).

Like my father I plan these routes in advance, but I have also inherited his manner and like to affect 'an amateur air of shabby gentility' when on the ground. Last month I explained to a group of well-equipped and fit hikers coming down from the Fells that after we had finished our lunch we intended to head 'up the waterfall and then cross the tops for ten miles, heading west into the sunset.' I heard one of them mutter, 'like lambs to the slaughter.'

DROVE ROAD - Fact box
In their heyday a drove road was 90 feet wide, to make a long acre for the animals to graze as they moved, with dogs, not fences keeping the herds on the line of march. A drove road was not not just for driving rural meat to the urban market-place, but for thousands of years was part of the seasonal rythm of the British Isles, as the black cattle moved to the summer pastures in the Highlands, be they of Wales, Scotland or the Pennines, and moved back down to the lowlands in the winter. Such as Scotland's Black Isle, which only became black in the winter when this fertile peninsular was filled with cattle.

Drove roads had a long steady decline over the 19th century, that began with competition from the canals, and continued with the arrival of the trains over the 1840's and was completed with the import of Argentinian beef, and Australian and New Zealand lamb through our ports. So the tracks were empty before the First World War, though they were briefly revived by the national railway strike of 1911. By some curious symmetry, after this war their revival began, as our returning war-heroes, enforced their right to walk the land, with the first instances of mass trespass in the 20s and 30s (such as Kinder Scout) reopening these ancient trackways.

The United States of America led the world in the legal protection of beautiful landscape, with the creation of the first National Park by Abe Lincoln in 1864 . It was not until the post-war victory of the Labour party, that Britain finally had the political muscle to follow in these American footsteps. John Dowers, a civil servant passionate about walking in Yorkshire and Arthur Hobhouse (a Somerset county councillor and gentleman farmer) created the first proposals for twelve National Parks between 1944 and 1949. It would take twenty years for the first of these to be activated and sixty years for the last of these to emerge.

Sweet Track, dated to 3807 BC was only discovered in 1970 by a peat-cutter, Mr Ray Sweet. Wooden posts of ash, oak and lime were sunk and tied together to make a cross which supported a 7,000 foot long oak plankway, connecting a series of villages perched over the Lakeland-marsh. It would be superseded in age by a similar trackway (dated to 4,000 BC) discovered beside the high security prison of Belmarsh in South-East London.

The Devil's Highway was a twenty-five foot wide Roman road that long survived and took the condemned from Newgate prison, over the Fleet tidal estuary, and along the department stores of Oxford street towards the triple gallows of the Tyburn tree. This place of execution was always a place of ill-omen, a natural crossroads (now marked by Marble Arch) for the Arab cafes of London's Edgeware Road stand directly on Watling Street.

Muddling up ancient road names is easy: for Ermine Way (from Gloucester to Silchester) is seperate from Ermine Street, which connects London to York, while Icknield Street ( from Winchester to York) is completely separate to the ancient Icknield Way between the Dorset and Norfolk coasts. To add variety a 46 mile section of Roman road along the Icknield Way is known as Peddar's Way. The Cumbrians have their own Watling street, which connects Manchester to Ribchester, unlike the more famous one which we think means “the way of the foreigner” between Dover and the isle of Anglesey.

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