Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The road less travelled

Our landscape is criss-crossed by track-ways and paths, not all of them the product of human activity. Enter a wood or a meadow and you will find the tracks created and maintained by other creatures, from the temporary meanderings of a fox made through wet grass to the more regular routes of commuting badgers.

Our own tracks and paths tend to have more permanence, especially those built, through the use of tarmac and stone, to resist colonisation by nature and to provide a flat surface for feet and tyres. Such creations bully nature into submission, our technology able to deliver roads and paths that are not constrained by the landscape but instead thrust their way across it – the shortest journey between intended destinations. The journey (and the road or path itself) no longer matters when using such conduits; our focus shifts towards our intended destination. We no longer have the time to meander or to take in the landscape; we simply need to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’.

One strange feature of the road is the way in which we describe it as ‘going’ somewhere – ‘that road goes to Norwich’. Of course, the road doesn’t go anywhere – it is immobile and rooted in the landscape and it is we who are the travellers. I have little time for the modern road and favour older routes that are more sensitive to the landscape and whose journeyings follow the contours of the hills and the crossing places of the rivers. Such routes slow your journey and present you with views of landscape that would otherwise have been constrained by cuttings, embankments and roadside plantings of amenity trees and shrubs.

Better still are the ancient track-ways, whose former routes can still be found as echoes within the landscape. These have been colonised by nature and only remain open, in parts, through use, providing a sense that they are in keeping with the land rather than a challenge to it. These old routes require you to walk rather than drive, removing you from the air-conditioned cocoon and rewarding you with exercise and stimulation. Such journeys made on foot also provide a link back to our nomadic past, a past when we were more in touch with the world around us.

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