Ghost Roads

I love old roads that have fallen into disuse, or been relegated to the role of footpath.

There is one a few miles away on the edge of the next town. It used to be part of the road running from London to Hastings, but when the ‘A’ road that now serves that purpose was built, it not only rendered it redundant for the purposes of long distance travel, but the new cutting actually sliced through it, so it now ends at the top of a hill. From that point, there are only a couple of footpaths leading away in different directions.

Almost fifty years ago (really? Ye Gods!) I cycled along there on my way to the coast from the London suburb in which I lived as a teenager. Many of the roads I used that day are now very much wider, and all are much busier, save the one on the edge of that town. When I walk there from my house, it feels that for that part of the walk I am on a ghost road. I can still think myself onto my cycle, into that year, and the absence of traffic feels weird. If I think hard, I can almost feel spectral traffic going past. What adds to that effect, is that I often walk that way in the evening and the light – or lack of it – only encourages those feelings.

I think of it as a Ghost Road, but that definition really refers to a road that is haunted. Such a road is the B3212 that crosses Dartmoor, and on the stretch between Postbridge and Two Bridges it passes the cluster of buildings known as Powdermills. Powdermills is so-called because most of it was built for the manufacture of gunpowder. The buildings are spaced far apart in case of accidents (translation: the gunpowder blowing them to Kingdom Come), and for the same reason the roof of each building was of tarred paper. This allowed the blast of an accident to disperse upwards, hopefully giving the occupants of the building a slight chance of survival.

Anyway, there were many such accidents and many deaths. The B3212 is supposedly haunted at the bend nearest Powder Mills, just where it passes over the Cherry Brook, by a pair of hairy hands that try to wrench the steering wheel of unwary drivers that pass that way, causing them to crash. I admit to occasionally slowing down at that point and taking my hands off the wheel to see if anything happened.

It didn’t.

But I still like to think a Ghost Road is one that has fallen into partial or complete disuse. Perhaps old Roman roads that survive as footpaths are ghost roads; there are certainly stories around the country of spectral Roman legions marching along them at the dead of night.

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I think there is something magical about any road falling into disuse and gradually becoming overgrown. A road constructed for wheeled traffic used only by foot traffic. It has a special feel when you walk it, different to the feel of other footpaths.

A country lane at night can feel like a Ghost Road, especially in the light of a full moon.

Another type of Ghost Road is the ancient trackway. These paths criss-cross the British countryside and are often of great antiquity. Formed originally by the passage of feet, both human and animal, but used later by carts and other four-wheeled vehicles. These also seem to have that magical feel, although in this case I feel I’m sharing the passage with the ghosts of countless other travellers over thousands of years.

And in the midst of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic we seemed to acquire a few more of these Ghost Roads – an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, in my opinion. It seems a real shame they have become busy again.

Flint Flakes and Very Big Snails

We are now allowed to go out to exercise for an unlimited amount of time each day.

This may not have been top of everyone’s Relaxing-the-Lockdown-Rules-Wish-List, but other than the opportunity to finally begin to see some family and friends, I think it was top of mine. On this first day of slightly increased freedom, I take camera and notebook and go off for a longer walk than I’ve been used to this last couple of months. Nothing particularly long, but it feels good to know there is no reason at all for me to limit my walk or have to justify it to anyone.

Naturally, there are other walks I want to do even more, but I’m still reluctant to use public transport to get to somewhere I want to walk and, to be quite frank, the government has not made it clear whether I’m allowed to (although they’ve given the police a major headache if they want to try to control it). So for the moment, the South Downs will have to wait.

But now I am thinking of a walk I did almost exactly a year ago, to reacquaint myself with an area of the North Downs I lived close to a long time ago. I planned to walk along an ancient trackway running along part of the ridge of the Downs, and marked as such on the Ordinance Survey map. This is an area where many Roman remains have been found over the years, mainly in the wide river valley nearby, but I had no idea how old the trackway was thought to be, whether it pre-dated the Romans or was more recent.

But many of these routes were in use long before the Romans arrived, since the early Britons found the lower lands were frequently too marshy and thickly wooded for either easy settlement or for travel. And so it is highly likely this route is several thousand years old. One of the Old Ways. And just walking along it gives me a sense of continuity with the past.

In a wooded area the footpath passed a wide, shallow pit, although there was nothing marked on my map. Mindful that it was always possible it had been dug out by early settlers mining flints, I stopped and poked around in a few areas of exposed earth until I found a couple of flint flakes that appear to have been worked.

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To my un-scholarly eye one flake appears to just be a waste flake struck off the flint being knapped (R), but the other could be the tip of perhaps a knife that was being worked but broke in the process, or even a stone chisel (L).

Having adjusted the focus of my eyesight, as it were, to looking for worked flints, I almost missed the fact that the obvious snail shell partially revealed nearby was larger than it should have been, measuring about 5 cm across.

The Romans brought all sorts of goodies to Britain, including a large edible snail (there’s no accounting for tastes) that we now call the Roman Snail. Although found over much of Europe, they have become rare in recent times. In the UK, too, they are now only found in a few areas, including parts of the North Downs, and are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it illegal to kill, handle or possess them without a licence.

The shell I found obviously belonged to one that had long ago gone to meet its maker (or maybe a few herbs and a thick gravy), although I had no way of telling how long ago.  Whether there is still a population of living snails in that area I don’t know either, since that is information that tends to be kept as secret as possible.

But both the finding of the flint flakes and the snail shell seemed to reinforce that feeling I had of continuity with the past.

The Joy of Unknowing (1)

We have just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me recently.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and spent the time walking and reading and mooching around towns and villages. And finding time for the occasional meal and cold beer, of course.

Yes, we did some lovely walks. And I find it a natural thing to be constantly identifying and photographing whatever I see when out for a walk. I have always been interested in all aspects of the environment, be it the plants and animals, the geography and geology, the weather, or the historical impact of people on the environment in forms such as old trackways, deserted buildings, or ancient boundaries.

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And we have spent several fantastic days surrounded by an environment rich in all these things, as we have walked through woods, fields, and open hillsides, seen ancient settlements, butterflies, birds, and many wildflowers, and all this in an area of some of the most complex geology in the UK.

But sometimes I feel myself tiring of the constant need to identify and record everything; it is really a way of trying to own them.

And when you post on social media too, it can feel at times a little like a competition to put up the best pictures of this or that wildflower or bird or mountain, which naturally need to be identified and named. Especially on Twatter, whose format seems to encourage this.

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So, on our first morning away, as we walk up a track heading into the hills above Church Stretton, under early morning blue skies with the air crystal clear and beautifully cool, I decide that for now I am just going to exist in the moment.

Because by doing this, I am relieved of the constant necessity of deciding whether this bird is a rook or a crow, or whether that flower is greater stitchwort or lesser stitchwort.

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Because it doesn’t really matter.

And for now, instead of having to always know whether it is this or that bird singing, I can allow myself to simply think there is singing. There is birdsong.

Or, even better, there is a sound I find melodic, and it pleases me.

By doing this, I can relax and centre myself, which is something I feel has been badly lacking in my life recently. I have struggled with social media in any case, feeling a huge pressure to post new material and to read the many I follow, even when I don’t feel up to it.

It feels like a return to a much simpler time in my life. I can enjoy the views of the hills, the sounds of the streams and birds, and just concentrate on being.

This must have been part of the pleasure I felt as a child on every occasion when I could roam outdoors. Certainly, I was curious about what I saw, but since I knew so little about them, there was always an openness to the experience and the excitement of discovery. I would see butterflies I had not seen before, and I would just get the thrill of seeing them without having to know anything more about them. I would see wildflowers I didn’t recognise and just enjoy the shapes and colours.

Naturally, you cannot really unknow things in that way, just as you cannot really return to that point in your childhood, but it is possible, even if for only a short while, to let go of the need to identify and quantify (and therefore own) everything, and simply exist in the here and now.