Walking the Footpaths in a Cornish Village

On Sunday, I joined the Parish Plod, an event whose aim was to make sure every footpath in the parish was walked in a single day. It’s not a traditional event, but I’m guessing it could turn into one.

We broke into five groups, followed our assigned footpaths, reported back on work they needed, and drank caffeine at one of the beach cafes (and one lucky group stopped at Wooda Farm, a midway point on their route, for homemade cake).

The Parish Plod

The Parish Plod

Eventually, as so many things do, it ended at the pub, at least for some of the walkers.

A word about footpaths in the U.K.: Forget your castles, your cathedrals, your stone circles—the footpaths make me feel I can almost touch history here. I’ve followed paths that have been walked not just for centuries but for thousands of years, and they’re still in use. People walked them before running shoes were invented. Before maps. Before metal. Before pubs, even. The people who built the stone circles walked them, and they saw at least some of the same wildflowers. (Land use patterns and imports would have eliminated some and added others, but some would have been the same.)

These footpaths are protected public rights of way, giving walkers the right to cross private land. They take you across fields, through herds of cattle and sheep, through mud that comes up to your ankles and fights for your boots, along the cliffs by the coast, and sometimes through a farmyard or past someone’s front windows. Some landowners hate them, but if you buy a house with a footpath, then you own a house with a footpath. It’s like owning a house next to a road: You don’t get to move the road just because you’re not crazy about the traffic. In 2004, Madonna butted heads with the laws governing footpaths after she bought a modest little mansion whose land included a footpath, and she came away with a bruised forehead when she tried to close it.  She did win the right to limit people’s access to parts of her land, but ramblers (as dedicated hikers are called) kept the right to cross it.

parish plod 004

Cattle making sure we left their field as we found it.

Many of the old footpaths have been lost, so the ones left in our parish don’t entirely link up, but the ones that are left are a real asset, loved by both tourists and local residents.

The group I went with got back to the café first (we had the shortest route), declared ourselves the winners, and waited for everyone else to straggle in. I brought the dog down to the stream and washed the mud off her, then we came back equally wet and cold, so at least I hadn’t done anything to her that I hadn’t done to myself.

I’ll be surprised if we don’t do it again next year.

32 thoughts on “Walking the Footpaths in a Cornish Village

  1. Hi Ellen,
    That right of public way has always amazed me. Unthinkable in my native Germany. And here in the US walking across someone else’s private property might end you up with “lead poisoning”. ;)
    Have a good one,
    Pit

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    • No children were harmed in the making of this walk. And since we split the paths up among five groups, it didn’t take as long–which is a good thing, given the length of the days just now. Somebody organized a beating of the bounds a year or two back, didn’t they?

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  2. I’d love to see the historic photos, too. Wish we had something like that in these parts. The ability to walk cross country without fearing trespass.

    One thing though: there’s actually a time before pubs? Huh.

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  3. Sounds like a fun event! By a curious coincidence, this is the second post I’ve read today about these British footpaths; the other post was published earlier, but I didn’t stumble upon it until this afternoon. I found the bit about Madonna’s battle over the footpath especially interesting.

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  4. I am so, SO longing to spend some time in England and associated isles! I had a couple days in London, which was lovely … but I was en route from Johannesburg to Seattle to meet Himself for the first time and so I wasn’t paying quite as much attention as I would now.

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  5. We had a wonderful hiking vacation through the Scottish Highlands last year and yearn to do the same in England sometime soon. We were told that in Scotland one cannot ban another from rambling through their property. True or not, I don’t know….

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    • True. In Scotland, you can walk anywhere. Here you need to follow the footpaths, but for the most part I haven’t minded since the paths keep me from getting hopelessly lost. We did have to leave the path and cut across private land once when being on the edge of the cliffs got to me and I wasn’t willing to either go on or go back. We met the farmer whose field we were crossing and both apologized and explained and he was fine with it.

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  6. I had absolutely no idea that things like this existed – in the US, we’re far too possessive of dirt to allow common walkways through the countryside. We’ve even started to gate access to public parks and nature reserves so the someone can charge admission.

    Insane – yes?

    Come to think on it…the US is far too possessive of just about everything :(

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    • The footpaths blew me away when I first understood what they were. But really, they go back (as far as I understand it) to a time when they were the highways and feet were the transportation. For all I know, they may date back to before private ownership of land. And somehow they’ve been preserved–or some of them have. I know many have been lost.

      I grew up in New York and took it for granted that grass was fenced off to keep people off it. Yes, it is insane.

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