Yep, I’ve officially hit middle age and I’ve a new love for footpaths.
Having spent my formative years in the Sea Scouts I’d forgotten how satisfying it is to open a paper Ordnance Survey map and trundle across the countryside. It offers up a whole new world to anyone wishing to dive right in.
It brings to mind all the weekend and holiday walks we would go on as a family – mum and dad eagerly leading us into new and unexplored locations while my brother and I, often showing a lack of enthusiasm, really didn’t appreciate what a beautiful upbringing we were having.
A few years ago, keen to familiarise myself with south Norfolk, I bought an OS map centered on our house.
Ever since it has been religiously left for house guests to explore the local area but apart from that it has sat on the shelf hiding its secrets.
But as winter set in the routine dog walk became just that – routine.
I tramped along the same roads and footpaths day in and day out without paying any attention to the myriad of new footpath signs that Norfolk County Council erected earlier in the year.
I dug out my map and set it out on the kitchen table, vowing to explore new footpaths that could be reached from my front door.
And there were many that could be reached within minutes.
The first one took us across fields that only months earlier had been growing towering crops of corn. We saw our normal route from different angles and explored areas I’d assume had been private land.
Over the coming weeks we walked along miles and miles of public footpaths and every time I voiced my amazement that this network of paths was open, and on the whole – maintained, for anyone to explore.
The paths wound their way along field margins, across fields, through woodland, up driveways and everywhere in between.
Not once did we see another person.
But we did see a myriad of wildlife – barn owls swooping along hedgelines, partridges picking through fields, deer clambering across ditches and hares in numbers unseen for many years.
I also got a better understanding of the current state of the farming calendar – abandoned fields of sugar-beet where the field was too water-logged to continue the harvest, fields of radish that had been sprayed off to tackle the devil that is black grass and set aside bustling with pheasants still wild from the previous season.
Most of all, I gained a new appreciation of the area I live in, I got a better understanding of the geography of the area, of the beauty of it and the variance of it.
Footpaths are one of these things we must continue to use otherwise we risk losing them.
For me, they are a mainstay of day-to-day life and I’ll continue to clock them up, collecting new ones as eagerly as I used to collect my Sea Scout badges.
If, like me you, wonder who owns them and how they came into being – here are some footpath facts – enjoy!
Footpaths – the facts…
Public footpaths are rights of way which were originally created by people walking across the land to work, market, the next village, church or school.
One of the most common was a Mass path – used by rural communities to attend Sunday Mass before the advent of the motor car.
These paths would typically include sections which crossed the fields of neighboring farmers – using stiles to climb over fences and footbridges to pass ditches.
Other common paths include pilgrimage paths and corpse roads.
I used to live in Grasmere in the Lake District and our four-mile footpath to Ambleside was along the ‘coffin path’, used historically to carry coffins from one village to the next for burial. Along the way there were a series of huge flat rocks which were used as resting points for the coffin bearers.
Today footpaths are largely recreational with many having been linked together – along with bridle paths and new footpaths – to create long distance trails.
Many organisations have been formed in various countries to protect the right to use public footpaths, including the Ramblers Association in England.
Norfolk County Council manages all Public Rights of Way – and there are about 2,400 miles of them!
These are made up of footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic.
The land over which a Public Right of Way runs is usually private but the surface of the path is maintained by the County Council as the highway authority, but the subsoil remains the property of the landowner.
I think I’ve probably walked less than 50 miles across the footpaths in Norfolk – but it gives me great joy to know there are many more out there…