I have always had something of a romantic notion of what constitutes a green lane. Growing up on the edge of the Surrey Weald, with its sunken track-ways running through thick woodland, I have carried the notion that I am walking along lanes with an ancient heritage. As the poet Edward Thomas once noted, it is easy in these lanes to feel as if you are treading softly ‘over men’s dreams’.
Of course, not all green lanes are this ancient; if we are brutal about it then most are not that different from the quiet country lanes so familiar across much of the county. The distinction comes from the definition of a green lane: an unmetalled road or track, wide enough for a cart and horses (or car) and bounded on both sides by a hedgerow. We shouldn’t get too hung up on definitions though, as these are often restrictive; a narrow definition ignores those lanes that have a ditch for a boundary instead of a hedge, or which never carried traffic of any kind. Many green lanes do have a genuine sense of history and can be found on old maps or in documents written generations ago. This history is likely to have changed the nature of the lane over time, perhaps so that it now resembles a footpath, the hedgerows on either side unmanaged and encroaching.
Natural England, the Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS) and the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society are running a project on green lanes this year, working together to record the location, type and quality of the county’s green lanes. Recording forms and instructions are available from the NBIS website (www.nbis.org.uk/green-lanes) and I’d urge you to go out, spend some time exploring the lanes around you and let them know what you find. You might already know of a lane green lane near you but, if not, simply pick up a map and look for unclassified roads that might turn out to be a green lane.
One aspect of this work is the recording of the wildlife present in these lanes. Being linear features, often connected to patches of wildlife-rich habitat (like wet grassland or woodland), they can support a richness of species, from nesting birds to the insects that nectar on trackside brambles and umbellifers. Much of this richness will be undocumented, largely because we tend to use green lanes as a means to reach somewhere else; they are the journey rather than the destination. That’s why people are needed to spend some time in these lanes, becoming familiar with them and their wildlife, rather than just pass through. I suspect that you will discover some interesting things.