King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, was in the Premier League of the Knights of the Round Table. Rightful heir to the Camelot throne, and best buddies with Sir Lancelot, he was ‘a carer to the poor, defender of women, and healer of the sick’. An all-round nice guy.
And it was on the Wirral that he almost met his untimely death.
Gawain was also a bit of a wanderer – never happier than when he was employed on some spectacularly romantic, overblown quest. Which is why he found himself, sometime in the 6th century, lost and lonely on an ancient footpath in the heart of the Wirral. As I do now.
Where do you go to unshackle the city for a while? For me, it’s the spidery labyrinth of footpaths that burrow into the heart of the Wirral – secret, neuronal pathways that transport me from Twitter stress to bucolic bliss in a few short, sandy strides.
That there still exists, within sight of the M53, a network of paths older than Liverpool itself – sleepy hollows redolent of a time when wild boar, not wild councillors, ruled our rights of way – is, I think, evidence of a miracle in our midst. You want to take the quickest route back to where we came from? I know just the place…
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – one of our better Medieval romps, written sometime around 1350 – our noble knight fought off surprisingly powerful beheaded foe on a quest to meet his destiny – and claim a mighty magical axe, at the mysterious Green Chapel.
We don’t know where his route took him, but we do know that, en route, he had to traverse the deep, dark forests of Wirral. No mean feat.
How old are Wirral’s ancient lanes? So old that they’re countersunk into the landscape. Like a hot knife on butter, they’ve sunk their way deep into u-shaped hedgerows and frantic tree roots. Medieval ‘hollow ways’, worn down by a millennia of traffic. Wolf, boar, pack horse and tracksuited joggers. Oh, and the odd Knight of the Round Table.
Rewind 12,000 years. The glaciers of the last Ice Age retreat, and trees colonise the Wirral – a marshy meh of land no-one much bothered with apart from penitent monks or angsty Vikings en-route from pillage station A to pillage station B.
In time, the peninsula became a Royal Forest – a hunting ground for bloodthirsty monarchs – but, as with all forests, the Wirral’s was already criss-crossed with desire paths – those sinewy routes through clearings, half as old as time, worn down by foraging beasts, hunter-gatherers and mountain bikers.
During his journey through the ‘Wilderness of Wirral’, Gawain encounters mystical beasts, giants and dragons.
The Wirral: a pumped up Knowsley Safari Park. Mean and menacing enough to almost defeat our hero. But not quite. Gawain battles on, but at a heavy cost:
“Warrior that he is, he defeats them all, but is almost defeated himself by nature and the bitter cold that accompanies the winter,” says Henry Savage in his 1931 ‘A Note On Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’
“Wirral loved neither God nor man,” Savage continues. “Marauders who sheltered in the forest of Wirral were such a menace to the citizens of Chester that they petitioned the Black Prince for the region to be deforested in 1372.”
These days, desire paths dog-ear Chavasse Park and Baltic Triangle scrubland – the easiest route from office to coffee shop.
When we make them, we’re just following in the footsteps of our ancestors. It’s why many ancient paths eventually graduate to become roads and railways. They have a habit of becoming deeply ingrained in the landscape. They just work. It’s why, after decades of green belt incursions, they’re still alive. Running along the ridgeway path of Storeton one autumn afternoon last year, I was struck by how busy it was – families en route to the shops, damson-pickers and dog walkers – and how, with little persuasion, we could all fancy ourselves as walk-ons in a Thomas Hardy novel. Of how, with earth and rock underfoot, we smile and nod at our fellow travellers while, less than 100 metres away, pedestrians pass each other blankly on paving slabs.
So how old are Wirral’s ancient lanes? Some of them must be 10,000 years old – or more.
I’m thinking about Gawain as I tramp along my favourite ancient Wirral footpath – the romantically named Footpath 59 (I love the way their classification is as dispassionate, yet as alluring, as the names we give to just-discovered star clusters at the edge of the cosmos.)
Could this be the trail Gawain traced, sometime in the 6th century? Or, if not him, the fanciful tale’s author?
What’s certain is that, if he travelled it today, he’d feel right at home. Not much changes here, just a few hundred metres away from housing estates and car showrooms – trees look like trees, not the reverse outline of box-sided vans. They prod and poke their way across your path. In ancient lanes, the slow traffic of oak bough and creeping ivy always has right of way.
Furry creatures scuttle into the undergrowth. Birds mutter, darkly, somewhere above. And, in spring, dog rose and foxglove splash the hedge with colour. As you walk, the sandy bedrock of the Wirral bleeds underfoot. Yields. Lets you in; if you let it.
The great Scottish novelist Nan Shepherd said, of her walks in her beloved Cairngorm Massif, ‘when I walk, my eyes are in my feet.’
I know what she means. There’s something about going off-grid that enmeshes you, your senses and the landscape – that binds them, vigilantly, together. You’re not escaping from something, you’re entering into something. And it’s a two-way exchange. We make an impression on each other.
For its size, Wirral is especially blessed with ancient rights of way – a full 75 miles of them. But just because they’ve been here for millennia and more doesn’t mean their future is assured.
A current fad being meted out to some of our most ancient ways is the sledgehammer/nut practice of overlaying them with recycled road surfaces – a tarry moraine of slag and rock, about as subtle as a Scouse brow, and as toxic to hedgerow life as a blanket of tarpaulin.
An ancient trackway linking Little Neston and Ness, Cuckoo Lane, is the latest to suffer this ignominy (there’s a support group on Facebook, should you wish to join it) – Cheshire Council claim they’re doing it to ‘preserve’ the lane. It’s been there for 700 years. I’m guessing it’s old enough to look after itself.
I stroll on, deep into the ‘Roman Road’ (not actually Roman. Probably older) that links Prenton to Landican, a lovely dark and deep track, complete with 15th century sandstone stoops, stile stones and silent ponds.
Vikings set up their ‘Althing’ parliament near here, on a grassy knoll. In spring, a wooded dell blazes with bluebells. Recently, a coin of Hardicanute, dating from around 1040, shone its way to the surface.
“One fine May morning I set out for a walk, not intending to go anywhere in
particular. Our way from Prenton to Storeton lies along an ancient lane popularly called the Monks’ Stepping Stones, also sometimes called the Roman Road. It is a strange and startling route – its origins lost in the mists of time…”
It’s as strange and startling today. But there are dark clouds on the horizon. Or, rather, dark mounds of sand, concrete and gravel. Landican, too, looks set for its heavy-handed makeover. And another of Wirral’s ancient tracks will be buried for ever. I grab a handful of crumbled bedrock and keep it as a souvenir of a land we’re about to lose.
We neglect our old ways at our peril. Erase them and we may never, truly, find our way home again.
(Cuckoo Lane pic © Bernard Rose)