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Up the country path: from roman roads to pilgrim's paths, the British isles abound with historically significant thoroughfares. Whether winding through woods or raised up on ridges, these ancient routes offer photographers an added element for their landscape studies.


As any mathematician will tell you, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but ask a surveyor whether this always works in practice and you'll get a very different response. Local topography has always determined how straight any stretch of road or rail can be.

For the record, the world's longest section of straight road is Highway 46 in North Dakota, which stretches 205 kilometres without a bend, while the Trans-Australian Railway across the Nullarbor Plain has a 478-kilometre dead-straight stretch.

In the UK, Ordnance Survey maps of the fens in East Anglia reveal numerous coloured lines as straight as scalpel cuts. Closer inspection also shows an absence of contours, such is the flatness of this landscape.

'Flatter than a pancake' is an apt description of the fens, the Nullarbor Plain and many of the Midwest states of the USA. In fact, in 2003, scientists at Texas State University--using data from the US Geological Survey concluded that the state of Kansas really was flatter than a pancake.


Before the Industrial Revolution brought motorised transport to our pedestrian existence, people settled in small farming communities linked by leafy lanes that threaded through the landscape with only the odd horsedrawn cart or carriage interrupting the ambling pace of life. For centuries, journey times were determined only by the speed of one's gait, and the world seemed a much bigger place.

The Romans were great architects, and remnants of their vast empire are visible throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. While ancient temples, walls, aqueducts and theatres are easy to see, the network of roads they left behind is more difficult to detect. Roman roads were built to be straight and true wherever possible the fastest connection between forts and towns was essential to speedy communications and deployment of troops for the defence of their empire. Such is the precision of their direction and soundness of foundation that many a modern stretch of bitumen has been built over an original Roman road.

Fortunately, there remain sections of ancient path within our countryside that have been left alone, their presence only discernible by a raised ridge, the occasional fiat stone exposed in the grass, or by a line of trees growing along the margins. Britain's oldest road is the Ridgeway, which originally covered 400 kilometres from the Dorset coast to The Wash in Norfolk.

As its name implies, the Ridgeway provided a route over higher ground that was drier and less wooded than lower tracks. It was a major road for travellers, traders and drovers from prehistoric times until the mid-18th century, when the Enclosures Act required the route to be more clearly defined by the planting of hedgerows and building of earthen banks to stop livestock straying into nearby fields.

Other ancient paths were formed by the steady procession of religious devotees paying homage to the burial sites of saints in major religious centres. The best known of these is the Pilgrims' Way from Winchester, Hampshire (site of the shrine to St Swithin), to Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, burial site of St Thomas Becket, a distance of 192 kilometres. Much of this path follows the North Downs Way, a popular trail today with walkers rather than pilgrims that passes through the shade of mature native woods.


Where the Ridgeway and the Pilgrims' Way were once major pedestrian highways, today they offer a more peaceful interlude, traversing picturesque stretches of countryside. The Ridgeway's elevated route is much loved by landscape photographers, who are treated to sweeping views in all directions of some of England's finest chalk-land scenery.

There are many ancient features within easy reach of the Ridgeway's well-trodden path, including Stonehenge, the White Horse near Uffington, Avebury stone circle and the Neolithic long barrow of Wayland's Smithy. Each of these is a prominent subject on its own, but the Ridgeway is what links them all.

Pathways and country lanes present photographers with a prime element of composition--a lead-in line. The first question to address is how much context to include in the composition; in other words will the pathway be the main subject or a supporting element to another primary focal point?

Choice of viewpoint, shooting angle and lens will help determine the outcome of this decision, as will the quality of light, the time of day and the time of year. In this respect, photographing exposed paths on higher ground is similar to shooting many wide-angle landscape views.


As with all landscapes, studying the map is key, but none more so than when tracing the route of a path and selecting a section that will be the focus of your camera's attention. Many of Britain's oldest paths run in a mostly east-west or north-south direction, with occasional diversions due to changes in the local geography.

Depending on the time of year, the general direction of the path will also determine where light and shadow will fall. On higher, exposed paths such as the Ridgeway and South Downs Way, the sky features prominently. A bright day results in higher contrast, making it difficult to meter accurately for the wide range of exposure values. Using High Dynamic Range can overcome this as a camera will make several separate exposures, each weighted to a different metered area of the scene, in rapid succession and stitch these different exposures into a single complete composition that produces an accurate result across the frame.

However, not all cameras have this capability yet. Sometimes, a better and simpler solution is to choose an overcast day, when contrast will be less of an issue. Some cloud in the sky diffuses the sunlight and reduces contrast, making it far easier to achieve a correct exposure across the whole frame. Clouds also bring shape, depth and form to the sky--preferable to a flat, two-dimensional spread of even blue.


Narrow lanes and paths that are lined with trees or hedgerows present a different challenge, with views restricted to a glimpse between branches, and bright light only seen at the end of a leafy tunnel. But on a clear day with the sun overhead, dappled patches of light add brightness to the dusty floor and provide pleasant changes of shade and texture to the path.

Small local lanes that link adjacent villages or pass through wooded valleys are more likely to resemble this description. They appear more secluded and secretive. In smugglers' times, some even served as escape routes from better-known paths linking town to harbour.

Paths such as these are more than just lead-in lines to overall views; they are the composition's main subject, and the photographer has to decide where to best place it in the frame. Standing on the path, camera in hand pointing down to the vanishing point in the distance neatly bisects the frame, but won't necessarily achieve a balanced composition. But if one side is lit and the other in shade, then there are two contrasting halves to the image, two sides to the compositional story.

A line of trees on one side, or a fence on the other, provides the additional lead-in line needed to take you into the picture and down the length of the path that leads to something hidden, a destination the viewer will only be able to guess at. But that itself is the start of the story, for which there can be a myriad of conclusions.

Dos & don'ts of photographing pathways


Try different lens focal lengths for a variety of compositions. Often, the best image isn't the one you first considered

Look for other landscape features that provide a more dynamic background. Ordnance Survey maps are ideal for helping to plan in advance Take note of the position of sunrise and sunset as this will determine where the sun will be over the course of the day, and where the shadows will fall

Ignore the historical context. Try to convey the pathway's historical significance with choice of lens, foreground interest and the available lighting

Just shoot from a standing position. Try a wide-angle view from low down to accentuate any angle or curve in the path

Always avoid including people in the shot. Lanes and pathways were built for people, so contextually it makes sense to include them


PATHWAYS by Nicholas Rudd-Jones & David Stewart, Guardian Books, hb, 20 [pounds sterling]

100 GREATEST WALKS IN BRITAIN by Country Walking Magazine, David & Charles, hb, 14.99 [pounds sterling]

THE PILGRIMS' WAY by Derek Bright, The History Press, pb, 14.99 [pounds sterling]
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Title Annotation:GEO photo; Ridgeway and the Pilgrims' Way
Comment:Up the country path: from roman roads to pilgrim's paths, the British isles abound with historically significant thoroughfares.
Author:Wilson, Keith
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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