COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

An illogical path and a desire line to the right in Ripon Cathedral churchyard. (S)
An illogical path and a desire line to the right in Ripon Cathedral churchyard. (S)

David takes a look at desire lines – tracks forged by humans in their wish to get from A to B over the shortest distance, of which there are numerous examples in our area.

How should we treat desire lines?

Perhaps you are now puzzling over the final two words of that opening sentence. What, exactly, are desire lines – and how might we treat them? Do they emerge with the first stirrings of passion for a loved one? Or are they manifest in the shopping malls of the nations?

Neither, of course. Desire lines are paths. You may know them as social trails, goat tracks or bootleg trails – those paths that people tread to get from one place to another in the shortest distance. It’s human nature to ‘cut the corner’.

No amount of wonderful desk-bound planning of a network of beautifully-symmetrical paths and pavements (or, to use the modern term, ‘walkways’) will get us to do otherwise. We vote with our feet.

There are plenty of examples near at hand. Look at the paths around Ripon Cathedral, for example.

The path from the north door round to the east end of the Cathedral has undoubtedly been used for many centuries; now mostly surfaced, it meanders down the slope, taking a slight detour that we can date accurately, because it avoids the grave stone of Dean Erskine, put up, to a design by Sir Gilbert Scott, in the early 1860s.

This is a desire line – taking the shortest practical way down to St Agnesgate.

This surfaced path joins the wide path that passes south of the cathedral.

A little to the east of where the narrow north path joins, this wide path does something illogical from the pedestrian’s point of view.

It goes to a right-angled bend, which then takes you towards the gate on High St Agnesgate. But who, other than anyone visiting the graves in the churchyard (for whom it was presumably laid out) uses this odd path? Unless the weather has made the going impossible, almost everyone cuts the corner. The logic would be to surface this part of the path, too.

Sensible town planners will take note of desire paths. In Finland the municipal authorities send investigators to their local parks after the first fall of snow, to see exactly where people walk when the ‘official’ paths are not visible; they use this information to put in new paths that people might really use.

The Romans, of course, were planners on a large scale, and their methods were simpler; roads must be as straight as possible, taking as little notice of obstacles of nature as was practical to achieve straightness.

In their towns and cities, too, they liked to build in a grid pattern – though between the blocks they created the people still managed to create their own desire lines.

At the other extreme, we might suggest, is what GK Chesterton called ‘the rolling English road’. We can all name roads that have what seem to us to be illogical twists and turns, and we may be inclined, like Chesterton, to ascribe them to ‘the rolling English drunkard’.

The poet is in favour of ‘a reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire’ that takes us ‘to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head’.

Some of this meandering may be the wandering of the inebriated; but it is much more likely to be the result of ancient ground conditions that had to be avoided.

Long-gone woods, even individual trees, perhaps once blocked a straight path; bogs and marshy ground had to be skirted; stiff climbs were avoided by following the contours of a hill.

And, of course, when marshy lands were drained in the 17th and 18th centuries, the roads followed the drainage channels – which is why the fens and parts of East Yorkshire have some very angular roads.

When we look at a road atlas today we see what, give or take the odd bypass, is a fixed system of highways along which we can travel – and which we expect to be surfaced well enough for us to drive our cars along.

In reality, though, we see only a small part of the network of routes that has developed in their country over the centuries.

If you go walking in the countryside this is a fact of which you are always aware.

Quite often your route will follow a ‘green lane’ – a walled route that may once have been roughly surfaced but is now mostly grass.

Sometimes, especially in the hillier parts of the country, you’ll be on a packhorse route, or, as in Swaledale, on a Corpse Road – the route by which people living high up the Dale brought their dead to their distant parish church.

On the North York Moors there are many “monks’ trods” – routes paved with flat stones to make travel easier between settlements.

And many of the upland tracks across the Moors, like Robin Hoods Bay Road on Fylingdales Moor, were once major routes but, left unsurfaced, are now routes for walkers and, more controversially, for bikers and drivers of 

The consequences of the decisions made in the early part of the 20th century about which routes should be upgraded by asphalt or left as country lanes are still with us; we tend to think that it is now as unalterable as the laws 
of the Medes and the Persians.

There is always an outcry when it is suggested that an unsurfaced green route could be turned into a proper road.

Yet most of these routes – with the exception of the Roman roads – started as desire lines taking people where they needed to be, by the shortest possible distance.

Our system of roads, lanes and paths is a precious historical survival – and, as we stagger along in the steps of the rolling English drunkard, we should be proud of them.