Long Distance Footpaths
Britain's Healthy Obsession?
Posted by Mark Armstrong 2nd April 2014
In my previous blog I explored Britain's footpaths through the experiences of Mike Parker in his book "The Wild Rover." Now I want to look at Britain's Long Distance Footpaths and whether they are worth the compulsion to complete them that some people dedicate and why at High Point Holidays we create walking experiences rather than just provide support for people looking to complete a National Trail as part of a holiday or challenge
Most of Britain's Long Distance Footpaths (LDP's) are not ancient tracks across the country, but in fact a modern construct from existing rights of way (some of which may indeed be ancient) that were mapped in the 1950's and then linked together by new paths where necessary. Their rise from a handful of National Trails in the 50's and 60's to over a thousand now logged by the Long Distance Walkers Association has been meteoric. Some routes were dreamed up to fit a historical theme, some a geographical feature or named after a famous local person. As Mike Parker puts it "Which of the 2 Limestone Links, 4 Jubilee Ways or 5 Millenium Ways to you fancy?"
Extraordinarily, the most popular long distance walk of all - Wainwright's Coast to Coast - is not a recognised LDP. Within the Lake District National Park, it's official policy not to signpost this walk at all. Wainwright wanted to prove you could put together your own LDP out of existing rights of way. In his words Wainwright wanted to "encourage in others the ambition to devise with the aid of maps their own cross-country marathons and not be merely followers of other people's routes." So as Mike Parker puts it: "40 years on, the thousands tramping religiously in his wake, sticking with dog-like devotion to every twist, turn, stile and gate mentioned in his book would, I suspect, bewilder him and make him despise humanity even more than he already did." Wainwright's Coast to Coast is now, not only Britain's most popular long distance walk, but the second busiest in the world, with tens of thousands attempting it every year.
In his year of walking, Mike Parker attempts the Coast to Coast walk and completes the Wessex Ridgway and comments on the 'heritage steam-train trip' mentality of many of those walking the long distance footpaths. "No deviation is allowed from the one route. Nor can you skip any part of the official path, every last inch has to be religiously trudged, as if in penance." He describes this as 'transforming something joyous into something so tediously anal' and calls it, the 'fascism of the trail': "you become flanged to it like a rusty old steam train on ancient rails, unable to branch off in any direction, or for any reason." For parts of the ancient tracks of the Wessex Ridgway this would be understandable, but much of the eastern half of the National Trail dates back to the 1970's.
In "The Wild Rover", you can read more about the history behind the forming of these National Trails. The Pennine Way was the one that started this national obsession. On 24th April 1965, 30 years after the idea was first proposed, the Pennine Way was opened. 268 miles from Edale to KirkYetholm with 32,000 feet climbed, it takes most people 2 to 3 weeks, although the record is 2 days 17 hours, 20 minutes and 5 seconds!
The point is that you don't need to journey on a recognised, named walking route for it to be enjoyable or a challenge, or whatever you are looking for from the experience. Many people walk these routes to be able to say they've done it and of course there will always be guidebooks for the most popular trails, but that's not to say that you can't piece together your own trail to explore the area of your choice.
That's not to belittle anyone's motivation for setting out on one of the National Trails. Many need to take their own pilgrimage, whether that's to take time out of their life to reflect or to do a challenge to raise money for a good cause close to their heart. They also may be done as a means to regain fitness or to get back to good health.
Of course Long Distance Paths can be tackled in smaller sections rather than all in one go. Plus you can also pick a particular section that you wish to explore; this is particularly relevant to the Coastal Footpaths that now navigate around the British Isles. High Point Holidays cover 2 sections of the South West Coast Path, Cornwall's Dramatic Northern Coast and Dorset Jurassic Coastal Path and Ridgway, allowing customers to choose the scenery, geology etc that they want to explore. Our Jurassic Coastal Walking Holiday does not rigidly stick to the coast as it goes inland to explore the South Dorset Ridgway, one of the UK’s most significant ancient ceremonial landscapes. From long and bank barrows constructed around 6,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, stone circles and 4,000 year old Bronze Age round barrows, to Iron Age hillforts, the area rivals the more well known sites of Stonehenge and Avebury. Plus it also offers stunning views of the Jurassic Coast.
If creating your own walking experience sounds too much like hard work, High Point Holidays have a range of walking holidays that pick the best routes to make the most of the countryside. That's not to say that we don't use National Trails, but we don't feel compelled to stick to them, but rather combine footpaths of all types to explore the best an area has to offer.
You can explore our full list of Independent Walking Holidays
Some footpaths can have restricted views....
and some can be overgrown.....
....whilst some may have wide horizons...
you may even find ones that have been mown.