Visitors to England, and in many cases those who are life-long residents of the country, are often puzzled as they travel through the countryside by the seemingly illogical and erratic way that the roads and country lanes twist and turn in all directions. You can be travelling in a particular direction one minute, only to find that a moment or two later you are travelling entirely the opposite way for no apparent reason.
However, the answer to this conundrum is in fact quite straightforward and lies, like so many things in England, in the country’s rich historical past.
In the days before England took on the charming patchwork of fields that is commonplace in the landscape today, the countryside was densely populated by woodland, punctuated here and there by isolated farming communities. It was for this reason that people rarely travelled in the lowlands preferring, whenever possible, to use the trackways on the high ground where they would be relatively safe from thieves and wild animals.
One such trackway – The Ridgeway – which has been in existence for thousands of years runs from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire, covering a distance of 87 miles, and is still in use today as a popular destination for walkers from all over the world wishing to follow in the footsteps of their prehistoric forefathers.
By the Middle Ages the countryside had been opened up to farming and the basic network of roads and lanes linking the towns and villages had been established.
As many field patterns had by now been created, and the right to walk across fields somewhat restricted, people had little choice but to follow the line of the field boundaries to reach their destination. The result of this formed the basis of what is now the English country lane.
But, as most things are never straightforward in life, other human activities intervened to alter the shape of the lanes.
Always in need of more land, farmers regularly encroached onto the byways, thereby altering their shape. It only required one farmer to ‘grab’ a portion of a lane on one side, and another farmer further along on the opposite side to do the same, and a permanent ‘S’ shape would be created in what may otherwise have been a fairly straight lane.
Depositing a heap of dung, disused farm machinery, pens for livestock or making a wood pile at the edges of a lane would also, with the passing of time, alter its shape.
As people were forced to make a wider berth to pass by such obstacles, the result would be a bend in the road as the opposite side was gradually eroded, or the road would become narrower. The course of the diversion would become permanent as the centuries passed, long after all traces of the original obstruction had disappeared completely.
However, it cannot be said that farmers were solely responsible for changing lane contours.
As far back as the 16th century it was not uncommon for people to build ‘squatters’ cottages at the side of a lane. This initial action would invariably be followed later by the planting of gardens and the construction of outbuildings, drastically changing the course of a lane. Evidence of this kind of activity has been recorded near Chalkney Wood in Essex. Four domestic buildings, three of which dated back to 1598, existed in one particular lane.
But buildings were not the only obstructions. Travellers also had to navigate their way around fallen trees, by-pass muddy areas and avoid the carcasses of dead animals, holes and muckheaps, all of which gradually altered the route of a byway.
However, not all of the numerous twists and turns in the country lanes are the result of human activity. Nature itself has played its part by presenting mankind with obstacles such as hills, valleys, rivers, marshland and lakes; all of which have to be negotiated.
But, without doubt, as even a cursory glance at a large-scale map of a section of English countryside will show, man has imposed the greatest changes on the landscape; altering the original, relatively direct course of the English country lane to the meandering contours that we see today.