Last week I met up with a local volunteer group who mostly do maintenance and conservation work at Buchan country park, but sometimes travel to other places locally to help the council maintain public rights of way. So under a grotty, damp sky we arrived on some private land that is part of the ancient Worth forest; which was once a hunting forest but is now sadly mostly conifer plantations. The site we were working on however was a SSSI for its ancient oak woodland, it was relatively small but clearly was a remnant of the original wood – there were very large veteran Oak trees scattered around the place. Our job was to clear shrubs and trees from a long-neglected bridleway; apparently it had been forgotten as a public right of way for centuries before someone found it marked on old maps of the area, the council were (begrudgingly) allowing it to be reinstated.
What really made me think the whole day we worked there was the age of the path we were working on; it had clearly not been used for a considerable period because there were mature willow trees growing from the middle of the path. There were also many Birch and Hawthorns growing right along the paths length, with thick sedges filling the gaps – not only that but sediment had filled the once steep-sided path right up so that it was essentially a boggy ditch. It was apparent that it had once been used frequently because there was a short section that was not boggy which had steep banks on either side – evidence that the path had sunk downwards with erosion from many passing carts and horses. When I got home I checked a detailed local map (the path was not marked on it) that showed the path followed the edge of the wood and joined up with another bridleway further north in a ghyll (small valley), and interestingly that just next to the paths intersection was the site of an old mill pond.
It was stimulating to think that we were reviving an ancient holloway which had likely been used to connect the road with the mill pond, the thought of all those passing feet throughout history all carving a path into the ground through the centuries. It was a piece of our local culture; the old iron industry of the wield, the coppicers and woodsmen and huntsman who traveled along that short holloway. Only for it be be lost by men and reclaimed by nature; filled in and the wood advancing upon it – another hundred years or so and I think that there would be no trace of that path left – if someone had not rediscovered it.
Sussex is a bit of a hot-spot for these ancient sunken lanes; throughout the wield there are many such tracks eroded into the clay and sandstone, all linking up, a system of rather muddy and deep-rutted roads once used by countrymen of old but now used by walkers and cyclists for pleasure. Such track-ways give the walker a connection with his ancestors; the view may change but the path rarely does. Of course they also have value for wildlife; the hedgerows that line each bank are of significant value to many species of plant and animal. Bats will travel over these paths for safety and foxes, badgers and deer will patrol them – birds will likely use these timeworn routes as territory edges.