Pilgrims, radicals, adventurers, traders – the people who formed our paths


The Ramblers’ Head of Paths, Jack Cornish, tracks the generations making and remaking their landscape on foot and horseback

Slow Ways are a new way of exploring something much older. Slow Ways routes use our existing public rights of way – which are an ancient and venerable network of 140,000 miles of paths across England and Wales.

In my recently published book, The Lost Paths, I set out to walk and discover the story of our path network. The nineteenth-century American diplomat Elihu Burritt described the paths of Britain as spaces that “thread pasture, park, and field, seemingly permeating her whole green world with dusky veins for the circulation of human life”.

I found this human life in the ghosts which linger on the footpaths, tracks and trails – the pilgrims, radicals, adventurers, traders, and of the ordinary people who have formed and solidified our paths – generations making and remaking their landscape on foot and horseback, their actions now fixed in time.

What I discovered on our paths and in writing The Lost Paths is a messy, interleaved story of creation, transformation, continuity, loss and glorious revival. Below are just two of the paths I explore in the book.

By walking our rights of way, by tracing Slow Ways, we can discover and retell this story – of the oldest part of our heritage still in use for its original purpose – as we walk in the footsteps of those who came before.

Thircho: Thirsk to Chop Gate, North York Moors

About halfway through the Thircho Slow Way, from the market town of Thirsk to the village of Chop Gate, at the base of the Cleveland Hills, you will cross a long track which runs up the side of the looming Black Hambelton hill.

There are small groups of walkers making their way up the track, braced to the wind, enjoying what is now part of the Cleveland Way National Trail. Many have come this way before – William the Conqueror took this path when returning to York after his ‘Harrying of the North’; it was subsequently used by monks, with paths snaking off to monastic settlements at Byland, Rievaulx, Newburgh, Mount Grace and Arden.

Dorothy and William Wordsworth strode up here in the hot summer of 1802, stopping by a small stream to rest. Dorothy recalls in her journal, “We sate [sic] a long time by this water, and climbed the hill slowly. I was footsore, the sun shone hot, the little Scotch cattle panted and tossed fretfully about.”

These animals give a clue to the reason why I came to walk this path. This is one of our surviving long distance drovers’ roads, a route which started in the highlands of Scotland, heading south to transport animals to market in the cities of England. Before the age of refrigerated lorries and airplanes, our food was transported liked this, across country. The number of animals involved is staggering – almost 19,000 cows alone passed through Carlisle in 1663; Daniel Defoe recorded 150,000 turkeys travelling from Norfolk to London in 1724; a single tollbooth in Wiltshire registered payment for over 14,000 pigs in 1830.

The traces of the drovers can be seen in this path, as in many across the country. Characteristically wide paths, which frequently veered away from village centres in order to avoid local, and potentially inferior, animals breeding with drovers’ beasts.

Our modern roads which carry names from the droving past – Welsh Lane, Cow Lane or Bullock Way. Just down from the meeting point of Slow Way and drovers’ road, there is a neat holiday cottage, which used to be a drovers’ inn called Chequers, in which a peat fire is said to have burned continuously in its hearth for 200 years. On the wall of the house the original pub sign survives, protected under glass. Beneath a painted chequerboard, it reads:





Caemen: Caernarfon to Menai Bridge, Gwynedd, Wales

On the Caeman Slow Way, the path snakes pleasingly, its borders blurred by vibrant ferns and ivy and a gentle accumulation of leaf litter. Small indistinct noises penetrate from the outside world. There are thousands of people a short distance from here, shielded by the trees, but in these north Wales woods I am seemingly alone.

As I walk, I get glimpses of the outside world. A statue of Nelson which was an early experiment in sculptural concrete, rises from the water and functions as a navigational aid to help ships negotiate the treacherous waters of the Menai Strait. I see where the trees meet the shore, occasionally slumping into the water (a gentle erosion through which fossilised plants appear, uncovered from a muddy tomb after 300 million years).

As I follow the coast to the west, with Bangor long behind, the woods seem to become lusher and the path rides undulating ground. Trees are painted with the luminous green sheen of damp lichen. Salt from the Menai Strait, just a few yards away, and the taste of decomposing leaves are caught in the back of my throat and up the sides of my nostrils. Despite the clear path, this feels like a wilder, more elemental place.

Suddenly a high stone wall topped with spiky slabs of grey slate cuts through the trees. I wasn’t expecting this solid man-made line to cross my path, an interruption to my gentle walk. Set in the stone wall is an ornate gate, and from this side it feels like a portal to a secret garden.

Beyond is the National-Trust-owned land of Glan Faenol. Upon passing through the gate, the trees change. Towering pines emerge from a dense green undergrowth, ivy climbing their trunks. The green lichen from before has gone, and these trunks are splodged bright orange. Walking further, the trees change again: the blotched, cracked and streaked bark of a stand of shorter silver birch, more numerously planted.

The way between these trees is new, I’m no longer on the mapped Slow Way. This mile and half route was created by the National Trust and Gwynedd Council in 2018. It’s a new and improved section of the Wales Coast Path, joining the 870 miles of coast path around Wales and the 2,700 miles of newly created England Coast Path. This is where our path network has been expanded, paths going on the map, new possibilities created for exploring the land.

I’m off now, to suggest a new route for Caemen, so that the Caernarfon—Menai Bridge Slow Way can follow the coast the whole way.

Jack Cornish

Jack Cornish is the Head of Paths at the Ramblers, Britain’s largest walking charity. In 2017, Jack undertook a 1550-mile walk across Britain, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He is the author of The Lost Paths, published by Penguin Michael Joseph. This book is a personal journey and exploration of the deep history of English and Welsh paths and how this millennia-old network was created, has evolved, and been transformed. It is story of traders, soldiers, artists, farmers, radicals, and hikers. This book celebrates the ordinary and the extraordinary in our paths and serves as a call to arms to save this vital part of our collective heritage for future generations. Jack lives in South East London, from where he sets out to complete another mission, a potential futile attempt to walk every street and path in London.