Public Footpaths: one of many discoveries my family made on our trip to the UK. Sounds simple, right? A simple green sign points the way to a walking trail through a pasture, along a hedgerow, or down by a stream. The rural areas we visited were fairly threaded through with footpaths. But I have to say, using these trails made me feel a little transgressive, like I was getting away with something. Of course, the US has trails for the public as well. But they are usually on publicly- owned lands, whether a national monument, state natural area, or city park. You don’t cross into private land uninvited without risking a call to the police or a bullet zinging overhead. But in England, if it’s marked, you can walk, take photos, even have a picnic in a stranger’s pasture. In America, walking through someone’s property – field, woods, even transmission line – without permission is trespassing; in England, if there is a marked public footpath, it is illegal to block it! And by one source, there are something like 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales (Scotland has a similar concept, but the rules are different).
I visited a handful of footpaths during our visit to the south of England. The first one was near the village of Wellow in Somerset, as we quested for a Neolithic barrow said to be in the area. Crossing a wooden stepladder that bridged a fence, we found ourselves among sheep who were apparently used to ramblers. I felt a bit wary because, as I said, I half expected to be yelled at by an irate farmer. But we were accosted as we followed a faint fence line path up a hill, then across the hill alongside a hawthorn hedge, until reaching our goal (which no doubt I will discuss in a later post). As we left, we passed two or three folks who drove here to walk their dogs. This trail I thought was back-of-beyond was getting a fair bit of use this afternoon.
The next excursion began in the village of St. Tudy in Cornwall. A footpath sign pointed down the alley between our cottage and the next, so we followed. The first bit of trail was fenced on either side, railroading us straight through two yards to the pasture, where a sign on the gate warned “Beware of Bull”. The path wasn’t so well-worn, so we had to follow along walls and hedges to see what was a proper crossing and what was merely damage from the escape attempts of livestock.
Eventually, we gave up on the path and wove through pastures until we reached a paved road. Returning to the village, we were almost in sight of home when the daughter saw another Public Footpath sign, which drew her like faery song down a narrow dark track, close-mantled by hedge and tree. Again, we steered by steps in the walls rather than a visible path, until drizzle and fading light coaxed us into turning heads for home.
I loved the concept of the public footpaths. It is a concept embedded in British custom and is likely too alien to gain traction in our land where property rights are so jealously guarded.