A newly arrived German friend, on being driven through West Sussex, became pensive. Somewhere around Graffham she remarked on the wildness of the countryside and especially the curving, apparently haphazard course of the lanes, exclaiming, “In Germany it would not be allowed!” Having myself been to Germany, I knew just what she meant.
The thoroughfares hereabouts are just as incomprehensible to the Teutonic mind. I cannot offhand think of any section of minor road, lane, byway, bridleway or footpath which is straight for more than a couple of hundred yards together. Some of those curves surely go back to prehistoric times; are echoes of who knows what needed to be circumvented, whether from convenience or fear. Others must reflect ancient squabbles over land rights, grazing, pannage, timber, crops – who can say? But most are probably due to the innate Englishness of the people who have trodden the ground for centuries.
These reflections were prompted by the late re-emergence of a public path across a local arable field.
Each year, usually, the footworn line of the path (about 360 yards) is ploughed up. For 2009 (aerial view, above) the tractor-driver remade the path by driving his machine along its length, but that was the exception. Normally the pathway must be forged by the boots of walkers. They pound it to a clayey hard-pan, cracked in dry weather, glutinous in wet.
Since I often use this path, and since I walk quite far enough on my excursions as it is, I have long been seized by the absurd notion that it should be as straight as possible. But every year (except when the tractor-driver intervened) the new-made course turns out curved.
Resenting being made to walk further than necessary, I used to try to ignore the wanderings of the new path and adopt a straight course. To no avail. Once or twice, when I was the pioneer, I went so far as to flag the line out, using plastic bags tied to two hazel sticks jammed in the ground at about 120 yards from either end. These I positioned by using binoculars and taking note of some oddly shaped clod or flint that happened to lie precisely on the line.
The sheepishness of subsequent walkers was confirmed by the way they obeyed the flags: their Englishness took expression in the lack of consistency as to which side they should pass the hazel sticks. One was passed to the south, the other to the north, producing a serpentine course.
A metaphor lies not far below the surface here, as well as a warning. The diversion produced by even the most wayward marking of the path amounts to no more than a few yards. To cross the field itself burns fewer than 17 Calories; the mental exertion involved in straightening the path (never mind the foraging for sticks and the making and positioning of flags), worrying about the problem, or becoming mildly exasperated by my fellow-men, dwarfs the expense of the detour.
So now I walk the two sides of the field, on the headland, when the soil is rough, and leave it to others to make me a path. Whatever they do is fine: it eventually gets me from here to there, just like all those other thoroughfares which, in Germany, would not be allowed.