Paths Through History
I have always felt enticed by paths that twist and turn, working their way through the land, disappearing suddenly, only to emerge again having wound round a knoll or field. My favourite paths are those Holloways that surround and envelop you as you walk. The name of these tunnels through nature stems from the Anglo-Saxon Hol weg meaning sunken path, carved from persistent passage of feet, animals, wheels and weather. Framed and darkened by overhanging branches and twisting vines, save bright streaks of sun illuminating swaying patches of ground, these natural corridors line the sides of hills and fields and invite you into another world, sometimes so dense as to feel underground.
Part of the appeal of paths is that they concede to the land. They do not bulldoze through hills, cutting slopes in half with concrete strips on which to whizz along. Paths obey the laws of gravity. By walking, cycling or running them, if your muscles are burning you are acutely aware of the actual shape of the land - its relief.
From the beginning of the Cotswold Way - out of Chipping Camden - the path morphs from the main road into a hedge-lined track, signs lead onward as houses diminish behind you - gone already as you wind corners framed by branches; muscles working with each step forward and up, and up. Round again and immersed in green, a forest of trunks, glimpses of sky, with carpets of wild garlic. Unlike their concrete counterparts that carry the weight of mountains, fighting gravity, these tunnels are lived in, living. Valerie Belsey writes with at the ability to ‘reach out and touch the trees and hedgerows' while walking along green lanes; to 'feel the life that surrounds them and feel invited to be a part of it’.
Invited to be a part of history too, for paths are the visible etchings of communities, formed by the cumulative actions of individual travelers, disparate and spread out across generations. They are indentations of the past, marking out a timeline of movement; of animals, merchants, traders, farmers, tramps, and leisure seekers, all inhabiting, briefly but often, the same space across the decades. Some paths fade into history by underuse, reclaimed by an encroaching overgrowth and absorbed back into nature; others have etched themselves deeper into the earth by continual use over centuries. Each walker, though dislocated, takes an active if unknowing part in a collective movement by traversing the same tracts of land. Each footfall becomes a snapshot of an individual history, each bend in the path, any change in direction or widening of the track traces an evolving and meandering communal history of the lands inhabitants. The writer and avid walker Robert Macfarlane describes how this process turns the land legible. Paths entice us, just as lines drawn on paper might lead our eyes through a painting, ‘the imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land- onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers’.
We sense that our isolation from nature is wrong. Jonathan Bate's The Song of the Earth, explores this feeling of concern at our ‘perpetual mediation of nature through the instruments of culture’. He argues that through eco-poetry we might diminish our distance from nature. Perhaps by following paths - in tracing the journeys of others, we might revive our connection not only with nature but with those who have walked before us. Thomas Clarke wrote that ‘always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible’. If paths are one of the major arteries of prehistoric Britain, then the people who walked them form the lifeblood that flows through, keeping them alive. As Christopher Tilley argues in The Phenomenology of Landscape, it is only by looking at the veins linking Neolithic Britain, that we can understand the people that used them; glimpsing their lives by stepping into their footprints.
‘Modern’ history too can be traced along paths. The last few miles of the Cotswold Way followed a winding path down into the spa town of Bath. We began our descent from an unassuming dry-stone wall and field. Both would have remained unremarkable if not for a small plaque set off to one side quietly noting that this had been the site of an important battle during the English Civil War. It described the final stages of the Battle of Lansdown - fought here on this very spot in the summer of 1643, between the Royalists, who looked to capture the city of Bath before moving onward to the coveted prize of Bristol, and the Parliamentarians, who aimed to defend the city. The Parliamentarians - on the retreat after a fierce and bloody battle, had headed down the slopes towards us, and used the dry stone wall as a defensive position. As we walked alongside its repairs became visible; holes in the wall where cannons had fired and through which horses had charged, men racing forward only to duck back again behind the stone's meager defenses. Hour after hour and late into the evening the armies continued their bombardment across the field.
Many men died that day, right where we stood. Under the cover of darkness the battle-weary Parliamentarian army withdrew into Bath, leaving decoy matches of musketeers slung over wall, glowing in the darkness and disguising their retreat. We walked along the same axis down into the valley, getting lost several times and failing - in broad daylight - to follow a clearly signposted trail. How a 6800 tired men moving in the dark managed not go unnoticed and not get lost is incredible. Perhaps their map-reading skills were a cut above ours.
All the way down, plaques signposted the route recounting the sad stories of the two opposing leaders. They had been old friends, volunteering and fighting on the same side during the thirty years war, who now found themselves on the opposite side of the field. A note written by Parliamentarian commander Waller to the Royalist leader Sir Ralph Hopton, only a few days before the battle read:
There is so much history embedded in the paths we tread, that others too have taken. That we can only glimpse the lives of others through them matters little, these tracks are constantly evolving, and with every new person who walks them, a little bit of history is added too.