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Village walks

Enclosure hedgeThe paths that run through and around our villages look timeless. But in the past their routes would have been the subject of continual change, as the pattern of village and town life mutated. Many of the classic 'nucleated' villages across England would have started out as dispersed farmsteads, as can still be seen in much of our uplands. As that change occured during the early middle ages the path network would have altered to accommodate new routes between neighbours, fields to be worked and centres of commerce.

A second massive change took place with the 'enclosure movement' that swept through Britain from the 17th century onwards. Enclosure brought much common land into private use; it was fenced off and paths were forced to go round the edge of the new fields. 'No trespassing' signs were seen for the first time and an age of poaching began.

The John Clare village walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.

Below you can read the full chapter from the book.

For more than a thousand years, the commonest form of path in this country has been the one linking farm to village, village to village, village to town. These are the paths that have been used by countless generations moving from their homes to work in the fields, to visit friends and relations, to carry out the everyday business of a community where most people had nothing more than their own legs to take them from place to place.

Almost all the villages that we see on the map today were already firmly established by the 11th century. Many are mentioned in the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror's survey of his kingdom completed two decades after his triumph at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is thought that some date back as far as the fifth or sixth centuries. It was in the following 500 or so years that the “nucleated” village emerged, with households brought together from their scattered farmsteads into a cluster of houses, typically around a green, with a church and a well, and paths and lanes leading into the central space from all points of the compass.

The nucleated village coincided with the adoption of the “open field system”, whereby land was parcelled out in strips to each householder. The system became the primary method of land management in a vast swath of lowland England from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, through the Midlands to most of south-central England. It coincided with a rise in population and allowed the villagers to have shared use of the more efficient heavy ploughs. The method of ploughing gave rise to the characteristic landscape feature of “ridge and furrow”, where the fields are corrugated into ridges between five and 20 yards wide, sometimes with a slight curve at each end to make a long reverse S shape (an effect of the way the team of oxen and plough had to turn round at the end of each furrow). A similar pattern called “run rig” can be found in Scotland. Both features can still be seen today, hundreds of years after the open field system was abandoned, especially at dawn or dusk when the sun is low.

In many upland regions, where the land was not suitable for arable farming, the model remained that of the scattered farmstead, with a network of paths joining them together and to the villages in the valley. In other parts of the country, such as Kent and Essex, land continued in the more ancient configuration of small squarish fields.

Back in these early medieval times, the notion of trespassing on land belonging to another person seems to have been unknown. The open field system meant that everyone had a reason to have access to the land. Folk could pretty much wander around the countryside as they pleased, although if you were a stranger to a region and travelling through a wood you were expected to sound your hunting horn to indicate that you were not a poacher or a thief.

With the Norman Conquest there was a profound change in the structure of land ownership. William made all land the property of the Crown, and then parcelled it out to his barons, who in return were required to contribute troops on demand. There may well have been a continuation in the formation of nucleated villages and open fields, under the direction of new lords of the manor. However, even under Norman rule paths remained generally accessible, as they were vital to the commerce and communications of the countryside.

There are many examples of paths being protected in court in medieval times. Rowland Parker wrote in his book The Common Stream: “The manorial court looked after all matters relating to the village, and was the place to register transactions relating to the sale, lease, sub-letting and inheritance of land. It also exercised the right to fine villagers for misdemeanours, including many relating to paths: ‘Henry Atthil ploughed a public way to the width of half a foot; fined 2d.’ Much of the stuff bought up in court was about the encroachment of one man on another’s land. Obstruction of roads and paths was a frequent reason for being in court.” Likewise there is a record from 1320 of a route to Canterbury Cathedral that was arbitrarily closed. Users of the path, mainly monks at a local monastery, took the case to court. The sheriff ordered that the path be kept open as he judged it to be an “ancient and allowed highway”.

From this period until the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries, paths traced the movements of labourers and farmers between fields, commons, villages and homes. Although there were well-beaten tracks linking regular destinations, one might still wander at will through common or uncultivated land and by a variety of ways along the unploughed “balks” that divided the narrow strips where crops were grown.

The Parliamentary Enclosure Acts of 1750-1850 changed all this. The purpose was to increase farming productivity and consequently the value of the land. Where heathland had been broadly accessible to everyone, with only loosely defined paths, now there was no entry unless there was a “right of way” as laid down by the enclosure map. Access to the countryside became much more restricted.

Enclosure meant the extinction of common rights that people held over the farm lands and commons of the parish – the abolition of the scattered holdings in the open fields and a re-allocation of holdings in compact blocks, accompanied usually by the physical separation of the newly created fields by the planting of hedges. Thereafter each field was reserved for the sole use of the individual owners or their tenants. It is from this time that those forbidding signs start to appear: “Private property – trespassers will be prosecuted.”

And indeed most landowners were keen to curtail any footpath they could that ran across their land. Until 1815 they could simply put up barriers or “no trespassing” signs to discourage the use of paths across their lands. In 1815 an Act of Parliament – the Act as to Closing Footpaths – was passed, requiring two justices of the peace to close a public right of way. But this power was widely abused. It was recorded in Hansard that one magistrate would commonly say to another, “Come and dine with me: I shall expect you an hour earlier as I want to stop up a footpath.”

Enclosure changed the number and type of paths in a variety of ways, as Anne Wallace describes in Walking, Literature and English Culture: “Some of the footpaths which followed the old field boundaries simply vanished under the new cultivation, obliterated by the plough. Other paths, curiously enough, achieved their first legal status as public ways across private lands because they appeared on the maps which accompanied awards of enclosure.”

The game laws were another way in which landowners took control of the English countryside and denied rights and access to the common man wherever possible. They were relatively benign when first conceived in the 12th century to protect royal forests – they conceded, for example, that no man was to lose life or limb for poaching the king’s deer (see Chapter 8). But they were ratcheted up at the same time as the enclosure movement gripped the countryside. Hanging, deportation and flogging became commonplace punishments for poaching.

In the last 60 years of the 18th century only five acts were passed dealing with the poaching of small game: in the next 50 years there were well over 50. The period saw a steady process of punitive escalation as the landed gentry tried to take complete control of the countryside in pursuit of their grand obsession, the shooting of pheasants. Their stubbornness also arose from fear that, if they didn’t keep the common people firmly in their place, they would rise up as their French counterparts had done.

But despite the increasing severity of the punishments, poaching remained endemic in Britain. The general population often sided with the poachers, who were frequently otherwise stalwart members of the local community.

Helpston in Cambridgeshire
The enclosure act covering Helpston in Cambridgeshire was enacted in 1809 and, as elsewhere in the country where enclosure had taken place, dramatically altered the landscape. At the time of the Helpston enclosure the justices of the peace needed little encouragement to side with the landowners in the closure of a path. This improved slightly after an act of 1835 that transferred the power of closing paths to juries.

Where there had been heaths and fields, typically over 1,000 acres apiece, now there was a neat patchwork of much smaller fields, typically 10-20 acres, separated by thick hawthorn hedges. New roads were built (another major economic benefit of enclosure since it expedited the time to market) at a stipulated width of 40ft to enable animal droving and to allow carts to manoeuvre around potholes and puddles.

Helpston is the birthplace of the poet John Clare (1793-1864). It is a classic English village, with footpaths going through it, others leading to the neighbouring villages of Marholm and Ashton, and a green lane that was originally the main route to the neighbouring town of Peterborough.

Clare’s popularity has steadily grown as environmental issues have come to the fore. His poetry is characterised by an affinity with nature, captured in a fresh and vivid tone. He stands apart from other 19th-century romantic pets in that he was a labourer on the land rather than an intellectual. He loved nothing more than to ramble along his native paths, and his best poems record the impressions of those hours in simple and direct language:

And then I walk and swing my stick for joy
And catch at little pictures passing bye
A gate whose posts are two old dotterel trees
A close with molehills sprinkled oer its leas
A little footbrig with its crossing rail
A wood gap stopt with ivy wreathing pale
A crooked stile each path crossed spinney owns
A brooklet forded by its stepping stones
(The Moorehens Nest, 1820)

In Clare’s early childhood, the heaths of Helpston, Ailsworth, Ufford, Southorpe and Wittering were almost continuous, apart from small wooded areas and parts of the villages’ open fields. This heath was a level area of limestone, which was maintained as grassland by the grazing of the villagers’ sheep and cattle.

At the time of the Helpston enclosure in 1809, Clare, by then 16, looked after flocks of sheep and geese on the heath, so he was directly and detrimentally affected by the change as the heathland was enclosed. John Barrell, in his classic book on Clare, 'The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840', describes how devastating the effect of enclosure could be:

“Everything about the place, in fact, which made it precisely this place, and not that one, was forgotten; the map was drawn blank, except for the village itself, the parish boundary, and perhaps woodland too extensive or too valuable to be cleared, and streams too large to be diverted. The enclosure commissioner would then mark in the new roads he was to cause to have made to the neighbouring villages, running as straight as the contours of the land would allow… The effect of enclosure was of course to destroy the sense of place which the old topography expressed, as it destroyed the topography itself.”

Clare’s journal from September 1824 records:
“Took a walk in the woods saw an old wood stile taken away from a favourite spot which it had occupied all my life – the posts were overgrown with ivy and it seemed so akin to nature and the spot where it stood as tho it had taken on a lease for an undisturbed existence it hurt me to see it was gone for my affections claim a friendship with such things…”

And in his poem The Village Minstrel (1821) he was in no doubt about the negative impact of enclosures upon paths:
There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound, – 
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fix’d his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground:
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound: -
Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.

While enclosure undoubtedly improved agricultural productivity, it also profoundly changed the relationship between the villagers and the countryside around them. What had been part of their existence became a place of work that was at other times inaccessible.

Helpston today remains the classic English village, with old cottages along the main street, a church, a pub and a village shop struggling to survive. The routes around the village are not much altered since Clare’s days, but very few inhabitants make their living from the land today. Many people commute into Peterborough or even London to work, although in many homes you will find at least one of the partners working from home. It is this trend to homeworking, along with the growing popularity of moving to a village on retirement, which has done so much to keep the English village alive. It has also meant that the paths are more likely to be kept open, as many of these newcomers enjoy walking or have dogs, and are willing to defend and maintain “their” public rights of way.

Our walk
Nicholas Rudd-Jones sets out with David Stewart and the good dog Brough, eager to understand why the footpaths of today take the routes they do.

Our five-mile walk begins at John Clare’s birthplace, in the centre of Helpston. It is a quaint old village cottage that has been transformed by the John Clare Trust into an environmental and educational centre designed to raise awareness of the poet and to “explore and look after the world in which we live today”.

Leaving the village, we immediately sense the change that must have occurred to path directions at the onset of enclosure. The path hugs a field edge and then, without warning, plunges diagonally across a field to College Cottage. It is not particularly logical for a path to cut across a field, and we can only assume that it existed before the enclosure field, at which time it would have fallen on the balk or uncultivated area between crops.

South of College Cottage the path soon reaches Maxham’s Green Lane. Before the fields were enclosed, this was the most direct route from Helpston to Peterborough. The field to the north of Oxey Wood was the site of a Roman villa. In the 1820s Clare apparently helped with an archaeological dig here, during which Roman pottery and a mosaic floor were unearthed.

Coming out onto the road, we encounter an S bend. This is a classic example of the joining-up of an old village road (to the north) and a new enclosure road (to the south). The field layouts were typically planned first, then the roads to provide access to them. Almost as an afterthought the village and its existing main street had to be slotted in; hence you often come across a sharp bend to join the new with the old. Walking along this road we note classic enclosure road features – a wide 40ft carriageway between robust hawthorn hedges, well-dug ditches and a straight trajectory.

We leave the road and head towards Swaddywell Pit, which is now a nature reserve, after a recent history of light industrial use. This was a great haunt for Clare as a boy, and he called it Swordy Well. In his poem The Lament of Swordy Well he bemoans the loss of this wild space to enclosure and to the plough. Swaddywell is steadily being returned to the state of natural glory that he would have known (you can find out more at It probably most merits a visit in early summer, when you will be rewarded with an array of wild flowers, including the pyramidal and bee orchids, and numerous birds and insects. Out of season it is rather forlorn.

Emerging from the bridleway that runs from east to west above the pit, we soon reach King Street, formerly a Roman road linking Water Newton with Bourne and Lincoln. Slightly raised as it is, you can easily visualise a Roman legion marching along it.

On the other side of the road is Hilly Wood, another of Clare’s favourite haunts. On one of his visits he records in his diary that he found five types of fern in this wood. On another, he was accosted by one of Sir John Trollope’s “meddlesome and consieted” gamekeepers and accused of being a poacher. He was indignant because he had “never shot so much as a sparrow in my life”.

Hilly Wood is all of 30 metres above sea level and pretty much the highest point of the walk. David, the Cumbrian hill dweller, was looking positively twitchy about the lack of contours, but these things are all relative – Clare pined for the rolling landscape of Helpston Heath when he moved for a while to the truly fen-encircled Northborough just up the road.

Coming back through Rice Wood, it is worth recalling that it used to be called Royce Wood after a family who lived in the nearby village of Alwalton, one of whose descendants was the Royce in Rolls Royce. And that is a reminder of what a throughway this part of the country has always been: the East Coast rail line passing just to the north-east of Helpston and visible for much of the walk, the Roman road almost touching the village, and a few miles west the Great North Road (now the A1) carrying coaches from London to York.

In the past 50 years village footpaths have become almost exclusively used for leisure purposes, especially dog walking. During our walk we encounter a group of horse-riders, in whom Brough takes rather too much interest. In this period local paths have been increasingly well protected and looked after by walking groups and residents. Indeed, the walk we have taken today is available in Clare Cottage and is called “John Clare Country: the poet’s favourite places”. What would he have made of that?

The John Clare centre is open 10.30am-3pm each day. Check opening times on 01733 253330 or visit

Other village walks
Take a curious eye to just about any village in England and you will find something of interest footpath-wise. It’s worth noting that while the enclosure acts changed vast tracts of countryside in the Midlands, they hardly affected upland areas or the south-west. So this is a key consideration as you set about your detective work.

Laxton, 25 miles north east of Nottingham, merits a visit as it has the last remaining open field system in the UK. Fields, divided into strips, are farmed in common between the landowners of the village. Although the village is now recognised as an important heritage site, it is home to working farmers who rely on the land for their income. The Old Fosse Way also runs across this medieval field system.


A village walk tracing the paths that the nature poet, John Clare, took as a lad, with pleasing landscapes, woods and plenty of historical interest. Clare was a vociferous opponent of the Enclosure Movement, which was sweeping the country at the time... More info

5 Miles
Easy Walk