For the first in this series of articles about the walking world around us, let’s start by looking down...a very good place to start. At the very least, looking down at the earth on which you are walking is the best way to prevent any nasty trips and slips and avoid those deceptively deep puddles ( a lesson that would have been helpful for the Vicar of Dibley!). But what other information does the ground in front of you have to impart?
The make-up of the ground itself is surprisingly diverse depending on where you are. Are you walking on chalk (such as the North and South Downs), with its distinctive grey colour that becomes sticky (and very slippery!) when wet, or on a sandy beach, the tiny particles being washed smaller and smaller with every tide, or on the enchanting hard granite hill tops (known as Tors) on Dartmoor surrounded by its deep peat deposits with their notorious bogs?
Woodlands, especially in autumn, are rich with leaf and seed litter, giving clues to the surrounding environment. The two most commonly recognised tree seeds are the pine cone and the acorn. Pine forests are some of the largest areas of woodland in the country and make an ideal destination for those wanting to explore for hours away from roads (try Thetford Forest), whilst oak trees make up some of our oldest forests (try Sherwood Forest which is home to more than 1,000 ancient oaks).
It’s worth becoming familiar with some of the other common tree seeds in Britain too. In many of our woodlands you’re likely to see beech nuts, horse chestnut seeds (familiar to most of us as the childhood conker!), sweet chestnuts in their prickly skins (which are edible and so popular with foragers) and the winged sycamore seed pods (often used by children as spiralling helicopters).
Beech trees were a late entrant to Great Britain and some suggest it was the Neolithic tribes who planted the trees for their edible nuts. The beech is classified as native in the south of England, but non-native in the north. Large sections of the Chilterns are covered with beech woods and if you’re wanting to visit one, try Burnham Beeches, a 540 acre National Nature Reserve in Buckinghamshire with many of the trees several hundred years old.
As well as plant life, the ground can also give great clues as to the animal life in the area. Tracking animals is a skill learnt by professionals over many years but when it snows, whilst not ideal for taking long walks, there is a short window of opportunity for even novices to easily find animal tracks. When there has been fresh snow fall overnight, get up early for a trip to your local woodland or fields and you’ll be amazed at the tracks you find.
Some of the most common tracks that are relatively easy to identify are squirrels, deer, foxes and rabbits. Squirrels have four front toes and five back toes, whilst the deer print is very distinct with its two slits appearing side-by-side. Foxes have prints similar to dogs, with four front toes and four back toes.
Rabbits have a very distinct pattern of tracks due to the way they use their front and rear paws. The back paws are larger/longer and they overlap with the front paws as the rabbit hops, so the pattern left behind is similar to the face of a ghost.
Of equal interest to the traces of nature, are the traces of man’s impact on the landscape. For thousands of years, people have been travelling across the land and you can see evidence of this on many countryside walks. People travel for many different reasons from migration to hunting, to reach places of worship or places of trade.
The paths can be traced from characteristics that the constant traffic has left behind. On the English downs, the pre-historic tracks have been hard-packed by centuries of trampling, making the perfect environment for daisies to flourish. This same trampling of feet leads to many routes being worn down to become sunken paths or holloways, with tall banks curving up each side. When these paths also feature arched trees overhead, the effect can be like walking through a circular tunnel. Paths with a particular purpose have their own characteristics. Some ‘coffin paths’ have large flat stones at the side, resting stones which allow the bearers to rest down the coffin and recover their tired arms before continuing the journey. There’s a good example of one on the Wye Valley walk from Penallt.
One of the most famous ancient paths, The Ridgeway, is often referred to as Britain’s oldest road as it has been in use since at least 3,000 BC. The original route stretched for 250 miles between the Dorset coast and The Wash. Today it is an 87 mile long National Trail which stretches from a Wiltshire chalk ridge all the way to Buckinghamshire. Try the walks from East Ilsley or Wendover or, if you would like to explore even more pre-history, try the Avebury walk which also takes in the ancient stone circle and long barrows.
Humans don’t need thousands of years to make their mark on the earth. You need only visit any town to see where the planners have misjudged the routes which communities will want to take. Otherwise pristine grass verges have single muddy lines across where people have taken short-cuts away from the paved designated routes. So common are these self-made paths, that town planners have a term for them – desire lines.
I’ll finish this article with some information about my favourite type of ancient path – the ancient trods in the North York Moors. Whitby has been an important commercial centre and port for many hundreds of years. The movement of wool, fish, salt and iron across the high moors to their final destination was facilitated by heavily laden packhorses. Regular use of the same routes would quickly lead to deterioration of the surface. Tracks would become impassable, particularly across the high boggy moorland. The deterioration of the routes was compounded by the religious travellers who journeyed between the various abbeys in the region.
The solution was to construct paved causeways, sandstone blocks laid end to end snaking across the moors. Known as trods, monk trods or pannierways, these paved causeways created a sound surface to ease the journeys of the pilgrims and the packhorses. The earliest trods date from medieval times and they were still being constructed in the 1700s. Although many stretches of these trods have been lost over time, there are still more than 150 miles of them within the North York Moors, the stones being beautifully hollowed in the centre by continual use. If you wish to visit you could try the Esk Valley walk, which follows several stretches of ancient trod, today still giving a welcome hard surface within the boggy moorland.
So next time you’re out walking, remember to look down from time to time and discover some more about the world beneath our feet.
Claire Sharp Co-founder iFootpath