It's a pretty good bet that any public footpath you walk along has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In the centuries when travel by foot was the only means of transport for the masses, getting to the nearest market meant walking between villages.
When were footpaths established, and how do you identify if the one you're on is old? What about the law protecting footpaths? And how old are the tracks around St Ives? Read on to find out.
Origins of footpaths
Footpaths in England generally originate from one of three sources.
Some were established as early as 5,000 BC, linking Neolithic, Bronze or Iron Age encampments. They were used by traders moving from tribe to tribe, or travellers to visit places of worship.
Sometimes called green ways, they generally follow the natural contours of the landscape. An example is the 110 mile Icknield Way, most probably a series of prehistoric pathways which pass to the south and east of Cambridge. To access a map of the whole Icknield Way walk, click here.
Roman roads and tracks
Built during the Roman occupation of Britain from 43 AD to 410 AD, these routes were used to move men and supplies quickly around the country. Although existing tracks were sometimes upgraded, the Romans established the first proper roads. Many of these are now modern roads, identified by their straightness across the landscape, as in the case of Ermine Street. In some cases the roads have become footpaths, for example Worsted Street, south of Cambridge. Others have disappeared under agricultural land but are sill faintly traceable from aerial photographs.
Although some Anglo-Saxons came to Britain to fight, many family groups settled peacefully to farm the land. They tended to ignore abandoned Roman buildings and establish their own villages, sometimes consisting of just two or three families. Over the period 400 AD to 800 AD many of today's villages and towns were established in this way, with footpaths leading from one settlement to another. The footpath from St Ives to Woodhurst is a good example.
How to date a footpath
Whilst it is difficult to date a footpath with any accuracy, it is at least possible to judge if hundreds of years old from a few simple clues.
The easiest way to date a footpath is to date the villages it travels between. Most footpaths taking you from one village to another are probably of Anglo-Saxon origin. If the villages you're travelling between are in the Domesday Book you can reasonably be certain the path will be over 1,000 years old.
Another clue may be if the track is a hollow way, one of the most easily recognised types of ancient tracks. The above image is a good example. These sunken lanes can be formed by continued use over many centuries, causing the track level to sink below the surrounding countryside, Alternatively, they may arise from adjacent landowners each digging out a ditch and throwing up the earth into a continuous bank on their own side. The double ditch forms a track several feet wide and sunken several feet below the level of land on either side.
The vegetation and hedging along the track may indicate its age. A rule of thumb to date a hedgerow is that of Hooper's rule, which states the age of a hedge is equal to the number of woody species in a thirty yard stretch of hedge, times 110, plus 30 years. So a hedge with two woody species in it would be aged as 250 years. However, the hypothesis comes with a health warning that it may be out by as much as 200 years either way.
Plants such as bluebells, dog mercury and primrose all naturally occur around woods. If the track is no longer near a wood this indicates an Anglo-Saxon origin for the path, from the time when woodland was grubbed up for planting crops. Another indication is the presence of old trees or stumps.
The path may be Iron Age, or even older, if it appears to almost obsessively follow the lie of the land, particularly if it leads to a prehistoric site such as a barrow. The surface may give an indication of its age, for example Roman roads may be paved or metalled.
Protection of footpaths
Footpath rights are rooted in English Common Law. Today, anyone has a legally protected right to walk on public rights of way such as public footpaths. Walkers can also use permissive paths, where there is no legal right but the landowner has granted permission.
Responsibility for maintaining and recording public footpaths rests with the local authority. For Cambridgeshire this is Cambridgeshire County Council. They are prompt in taking action if a landowner obstructs a public footpath. If you encounter difficulties on any walk, leave a comment at the foot of that page so action can be taken.
The current legislation is the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This also introduced a 'right to roam' on certain upland and uncultivated areas of England.
Around St Ives
All of the footpaths from St Ives, and most around it, are over 1,000 years old. They link villages, many of which have their origins at least as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, from about 400 AD.
For example, Woodhurst and Holywell are excellent examples of Anglo-Saxon ring villages. Both Hemingford Abbots and Hemingford Grey have Anglo-Saxon origins. And Houghton is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 AD.