The forgotten path

‘Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk, signs of passage.’

I’ve just finished reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, a beautiful book, almost a meditation, on the ancient paths – tracks, drove roads and ways – that criss-cross the British landscape. He talks about paths not just as connecters of places, but as keepers of the past, as rights of way – ‘a slender network of common land that threads through our privatised world’ – and as acts of consensual making.  He also describes how they offer a way of feeling, being and knowing; they lead backward in history and inwards to the self.

The old path, overgrown but I can see it clearly in mind’s eye.

It made me think about a path that starts at the end of my lane. We walked it daily when we were young. It cut a safe passage through the hinterland that lay between our row of cottages and the other side. I remember the shade and the mulch and the way it wound its way through a maze of scrubby gorse where sheep hid in thorny hollows. The path, once the main route into Portavadie, fell into disuse a few years back when a better way, a shorter cut, came with the marina development. Everyone followed it instead. How easily, I realised, we’ve let this right of way, this passage of history that holds the tracks of generations, slip from use, sight and mind.

So I went to have a look. I stood at the gate that appeared to lead to nowhere. Grasses shimmered silver, copper and purple. Spiky reeds pushed through the mint-green moss. Small white flowers laced the ground. Rhododendrons, exotic beasts, loomed large and shiny. Everything was oversized, pumped up with all the rain. And the place hummed with beasties. Flies buzzed overhead, hazy and lazy in the afternoon sunshine. Bees disappeared up the big pink foxglove bells. Butterflies rested on bristling purple thistles, then rose, like scraps of tissue, whirling up and off into the sky.

Overgrown path

Without common use and care paths soon disapear.

I pushed my way through the undergrowth, forging a path where I remembered the path to be. The further I walked the more impenetrable it became and about half way through nature began to close in around me. I was hot and itchy and this place – part bog, part scrub, part wood – without its path was unwelcoming, uncivilised, unknown.  I imagined ticks and adders lurking. Then I hit a wall – higher than me – of bracken, furling and fierce. As I stood facing it, something barked from the undergrowth – a low, raspy, rough sound. It barked again, nearer and more insistent. I heard a sharp cry from a circling bird of prey. I felt a nip on my arm and looked down to see a cleg squatting, flat and dark, sucking.

Just a few hundred metres from the road I’d passed into a different world. It filled me with unease, pitched sharp and strange. The bark was surely a deer, yet in this landscape my mind raced, my hairs rose. Suddenly I wanted to get out. I understood what MacFarlane meant when he said that we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move; when he asked: ‘What does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?’

I passed the gate to the path today. I looked down through the trees and the grass and the ferns, remembering the wild world in there. I thought about retracing my steps, about making tracks and bringing the old path back to life. But I decided to leave it as it is, bound and swathed, but not erased, by vegetation, by the tangle of trees and time. I know it’s there. It carves it ways through my mind and memory and perhaps that is enough.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The forgotten path

  1. Mick Greaney

    That’s lovely Eve!
    When I walk the dog sometimes a try a new route from time to time that I don’t know and it gets a little inhospitable but you carry on and before you know it you are in a place that the dog loves but it’s not fit for humans. Makes you feel useless! I take comfort in the fact that where it’s not human friendly it will be haven for hundreds of other critters.

  2. Exactly. I was totally out of place…or maybe it was all just in my head! But the ticks…

  3. I very much enjoyed reading about the old path that is now overgrown and impassable. It conjures up a very romantic vision apart from the beast sucking blood from your arm.

  4. Hi Eve

    Yes, the hidden and half-forgotten paths are always the most intriguing, and make all the senses sharper. My ideal paths always climb upwards and round a bend, so you are never quite sure what’s coming up.

    I’ve also just finished The Old Ways and an inspiring read it is. Would like to get hold of his limited edition ‘Holloways’ that has just come out as well.

    Eddie

  5. Shuna

    lovely description. I can imagine! But I hope the ticks have gone when i go!

  6. Thanks Shuna.I know – those pesky ticks!

  7. “It’s a dangerous business going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
    – Bilbo Baggins

      • anna strachan

        Hi Eve, I remember the path you mean, i tried to go that way last summer but it was a wall of gorse that I came across.perhaps we could attempt to cut a path together in winter when it dies back a bit? Am reminded of that victorian poem about the path through the woods.Also of an angela Carter short story by your writing.
        lots love to you and your mum.
        Annaxxxxxxxxx

      • I think we should have a winter of opening up all the old paths! You mum, my mum and Eileen should be able to send us off in the right direction!

  8. Carole Shields

    I can’t decide which image will stay with me the longest — perhaps the tissue paper butterfly next to the disappearing bee going about his own very different life cycle — just like the path — and you.` I found your website by accident while researching your part of the world. I’m from the U.S. — Miami, Florida. I will stop by again sometime. You are a lovely writer.

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