Monday, 7 May 2012

Pathways by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart

I was on holiday in New Zealand earlier this year, and although the country is justly famous for the quality of its walking (or "tramping" as the Kiwis call it), it was also very noticeable how few paths there were in most places. The other thing we noticed was that the bigger and better-known trails typically have only one start and finish and so once you were on it, you had to carry on. To put it another way, these trails were not part of a network of paths. It certainly makes navigation easier however. A small example was the Coromandel Walkway, an 11km coast path round a headland between two bays.

All of this set us thinking about a very basic question: how did paths originate? In the case of the Coromandel Walkway the answer turned out to be quite prosaic: it was a built as a bridleway between two farms established by early settlers. A quick brainstorm suggested to us that other origins of modern paths must include animal trails, trade and social links between villages and routes connected with work - and paths created solely for leisure purposes.

I was delighted therefore, on my return, to discover Pathways which effectively sets out to provide a general account of the origins of paths.

Each chapter describes a single type of path, offering a general account of its role and then describing a specimen walk done by one or other of the authors. There are examples of other paths to follow and suggestions for further reading.

The paths are presented in a loose historical order, starting with Ridgeways and proceeding via pilgrimage routes, drove roads and miners' tracks to modern pedestrian zones. This is a very comprehensive schema and it identifies a number of categories I hadn't previously thought of: processional routes, corpse roads and stalkers tracks for example.

The descriptions of each path type are full of interest. The section on village walks for example is particularly good, containing a very interesting account of the impact of the Enclosure movement on country paths.

Most of the historical sections are quite short and in some cases general material is presented in the walk descriptions, in information panels or in the captions to photographs. I can see that this helps to make the book less dense but at the cost of it feeling rather fragmented. I would have liked a bit more concentrated substance in many of the chapters, perhaps at the expense of personal reflections in the walk descriptions.

The suggestions for further reading are excellent and I look forward to pursuing them. However, I did just find the reference at the end of every chapter to more walks and ideas being available on the Walkingworld website (run by David Stewart) to be a bit grating. We get the picture, but once would have been enough.

I don't want to end on  sour note though. This is an excellent and thought-provoking addition to the literature on walking. It could have been even better.

Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart - Pathways (Guardian Books, 2011)

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