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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

English Country Roads

Country Lane in Devon

Like so many school children of my generation, I was required, while I was at both Junior and Senior school, to learn large chunks of English poetry (do they still do it?). It was something I hated at the time, but which, to a certain extent, has stayed with me. Shakespeare and Kipling, Wordsworth, and Housman, they all had to be learned and on the appointed day the teacher would select a victim (sorry, engaged and willing pupil), to recite a verse of the poem. One that I do remember learning, and enjoying, because it appealed to my sense of humour, was ‘The Rolling English Road’ by G.K. Chesterton, written in 1913. The first verse goes,

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,

And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;

A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

Green Road on Cranborne Chase, Dorset. Photo: Roy Nicholls

Country Lane in Dorset. Photo: Roy Nicholls

While questionable historically, it perfectly captures the delight and eccentricity of travelling the backroads of England. Not the motorways, dual carriageways, and ‘A’ roads of the modern world, but the lanes and minor roads that criss-cross the countryside, wandering drunkenly across the landscape and totally confusing you as to their direction.

Country lane in the village of Stourpaine, Dorset. Photo: Roy Nicholls

Until the late 19th and 20th centuries few of these back roads were metalled, and when the process of giving these roads an all-weather surface did begin, it was often quite arbitrary as to which roads were chosen and which were not. So that today, there are thousands of miles of these lanes, often called ‘green’ roads (because they are so infrequently used that there is no wearing of the surface, allowing vegetation to colonise freely, hence "green"), ancient routes that have existed for millennia, such as hollow ways, drover's roads, ridgeways, and even ancient trackways. And even where these lanes are metalled, many will have a strip of greenery running down the centre of the road. When you see this, you know you are off the beaten track!

Autumn country lane.

An old Saxon roadway in Devon. Photo: Roy Nicholls

Rarely more than a car’s width wide, and with enclosing hedgerows or walls, and steep banks, they can be somewhat terrifying to a visitor exploring an area by car. And unless you have a detailed road map, they can be a nightmare to navigate. Few are the travellers who have not set off confidently across country to journey to a little village or country pub and who, after several miles, suddenly realise that they are back in exactly the place they started from. To the walker though, with an Ordnance Survey map of a good scale (1:25,000 or 1:50,000), they are a delight to explore, leading you to countryside, churches, pubs and pretty villages, that you would miss without taking to these country lanes. And they have the advantage, unlike many paths and bridleways, of being passable in all weathers and seasons. There is nothing worse than turning up at a pub for lunch, looking as if you have just fought the Battle of Passchendaele!

An old 'drove' road in Dorset. Photo: Roy Nicholls

Country signpost in Devon. Photo: Roy Nicholls

Whether you are in Devon or Cornwall, Norfolk or Suffolk, Yorkshire or Lancashire, the Welsh Marches or the Scottish Borders, these country roads exist everywhere and should not be missed. Just do not blame me if you get lost!

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