My duo of dogged road builders
They burst out of the back door, our mutts, like corks out of a couple of mischievously shaken bottles of fizz. You might assume they are after squirrels, magpies, window-cleaners intruders of whatever persuasion.
I know better. They are simply doing their job as road builders. It is a kind of pioneering. It is not done by tiptoeing through the tulips. It is done by charging frequently and frantically through the daffodils.
I am proud of the daffodil patch, or at least I was. But now it is two patches decisively divided by a path. The condition of this canine highway (it runs directly from back door to boundary hedge) might best be described as scorched earth. I have carefully provided official pathways in the garden, but do they notice these? Of course not. Paths are a matter of choice, aren't they? The persistent passage of speeding claw and paw is what keeps their chosen path free of all botanical interference. Fine feelings for plant life are not a noticeable canine virtue.
It is not necessarily a noticeable human virtue, either. Official parking lots, for instance. Have you noticed how the planners of such places want us to proceed from car to supermarket or cinema by geometrically prescribed, nicely surfaced routes? How they design and delineate such routes by means of scrupulously fenced and edged beds of flowers and shrubs? And how we resolutely cut corners and take shortcuts, trampling roses and petunias as we go? Who do these landscape architects think they are, trying to force us to take 100 paces to our destination when we could take 96!
This minor protest may well be obliquely prompted by the boring fact that most modern road systems all of them, probably tend to give us little choice. To go from A to B we take the highway along with everybody else. We move as the main roads dictate. And we are grateful, I'm sure. But how many of our traffic-crowded highways could be said to have charm? How many have been constructed as a graceful complement to the fall and lie of the land?
But there is in us (in me, anyway) a hankering for roads and pathways that seem to have evolved rather than being forced into existence by ruthless engineering.
In prehistory, tracks came into being along paths first made by wild animals. In fact, the origins of some roads that still exist in various forms in Britain today are 4,000 or 5,000 years old. Iron-tired wheels have been around since the Iron Age. Roads in Britain, as Oliver Rackham puts it in "The History of the Countryside" (1986), have been "shaped by 2,000 years of wheels," resulting in entirely different "landscapes and townscapes" from parts of the world where "mules and camels" were predominant means of transport. But before wheels, there were packhorses and foot travelers, and they must have worn tracks without any more pre-planning than taking the route with the fewest obstacles. Roads were made by following footsteps.
"Roads are highly artificial and survive only through continuous use," Rackham says. "A gravel road neglected for five years gets overgrown with bushes; after 10 years, it becomes a thicket more impenetrable than if it had never been a road."
So the survival of many roads must be due to use. Anglo-Saxons must have often used Roman roads, and the Romans (despite the fact that, in Britain, any particularly long straight road is said to be "Roman") also made use of prehistoric tracks. Many Roman roads were probably not dead-straight military routes at all, but twisted and turned in a hand-me-down fashion.
But the truly extraordinary survivors among roads today are the "green lanes." These are, in essence, ignored or forgotten roads, short or long, private or public. How they survived is something of a mystery. Today they are valued (and likely to be protected) by walkers, natural history buffs, and conservationists.
At least one green lane has been officially designated "An Ancient Monument." I like this. It sees the road, or way, as a place, not just a direction. Green lanes are no longer used for travel or transport. Although called "green," they are not necessarily grassed over (though some, delightfully, are). They are often havens for wildlife. Some were never more than footpaths, never achieved the status of real roads. Others were, or are, fragments of main routes.
In function, they run the gamut from local routes to fields and farms, to "herepaths" paths used by invading armies. They might have been used for transporting salt or driving farm stock to market. They range from "perambulations" and "strolls" to "ridgeways" and "holloways."
Holloways are the most appealing of all. They are sunken roads between high banks, possibly canopied by trees and turned virtually into tunnels. Rackham reckons that "well-developed holloways take at least 300 years to develop." Unpaved, they result basically from natural processes of erosion. Enchanted places, indeed.
Perhaps that's what our dogs have in mind: a holloway for future generations to enjoy. Maybe a few wild daffodils will survive and multiply along its steep banks.