Jason Goodwin: The quiet miracle of ‘paths of will’, where we shrug off authority and trust the people who have gone before

Jason Goodwin takes a moment to consider those little paths which spring up almost of their own accord, the muddy strips through the grass where common sense and expediency has triumphed over the planners and builders.

The first frost of the year fades quickly from the hills, but lingers in the bottoms. Gates open with a snap of ice on the hinges. For the first time in ages, we have walked under the line of blown-out thorns along the hedge. The cattle mooch about down here as well, but they poach the ground and make it boggy to walk. The frost has stiffened the mud into tyre treads and it’s momentarily solid underfoot.

On mornings like these, the countryside is a compendium of animal purposes, slyly revealed by the frost. It’s as if we’ve been dusted for fingerprints. Partings in the whitened grass and contour lines against the slopes reveal the tracks picked out by sheep and cattle.

Foxes, no doubt, drew the dark thread across the meadow. Along the lane, the verge is punctuated by runs worn smooth by badgers and rabbits worming under the wire, emerging from a thicket of brambles, scurrying to a burrow. Other customary tracks tell of night errands, hunts and foraging expeditions. They show as a muddy scuffing below the hedge and bald spokes radiating from a water trough. Some of them, I suspect, make towards the hen house.

‘They are the scuffed grass below trees on the green, the line that cuts off the end of a bed of ornamental roses, the tamped earth lining the inside curve of an ornamental path’

The process of quiet trailblazing goes on in cities, where you can find similar paths without the aid of a frosty morning. There’s one I know near the station at Greenwich, where the pavement runs along a dwarf wall and takes a right-angled turn at the end of the road.

Twenty yards from the turning, just where a pedestrian can tell what’s coming, an entirely new path opens up, skipping up onto the wall like a step and dropping down through a patch of scrubby trees to the adjacent road. Nobody drew it on a plan. In winter, it’s muddy; in summer, you can be lost for a moment in the leaves.

Coastal heath (Common heather, Bell heather and Western gorse) lining the coastal path in late summer on the hillside above the Heddon Valley, with Exmoor beyond.

Heddon Valley, with Exmoor beyond. Picture: ©National Trust Picture Library

They are often called desire paths, or paths of will, and once you have your eye in, you can spot them popping up wherever the official route seems artificial or uncongenial. They are that strip of beaten earth between the cotoneasters, planted in an unfriendly effort to separate the supermarket car park from the bus stop; they are the scuffed grass below trees on the green, the line that cuts off the end of a bed of ornamental roses, the tamped earth lining the inside curve of an ornamental path.

Sometimes, they run parallel to a cycleway, created by joggers looking to avoid collisions or to use softer ground. They mount a grassy slope, ignoring a nearby flight of steps. They clip corners. They bisect perfect squares.

‘They’d rather trust the people who have gone before. They literally prefer to follow in each other’s footsteps.’

There is nothing new about them: a century ago, J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, called them Paths that have Made Themselves. And there’s no harm in these offbeat quirks of common sense. Scored into the ground, written there by the passage of countless feet, they slant off from the official way, on a tangent from the delineated course.

As the planners work tirelessly to shepherd everyone safely along, putting up railings and installing road crossings, people have other ideas. Instead of taking the prescribed route, sanctioned by a remote power, they’d rather trust the people who have gone before. They literally prefer to follow in each other’s footsteps.

There are desire paths even through the air, I think, although invisible to the naked eye. They are made by birds and by people sitting at their desks. Mine runs through the window out to the bank where the fieldfares and robins peck at windfall apples and the tits search for insects, tossing the dead leaves over their shoulders.