THERE'S AN UNUSUAL path from Clachan of Campsie to the Crow Road. It's a short sharp climb, but the path zigzags up and it never seems to take much effort. The surface is gravel plus slightly larger stones which have worked into the ground with time. It can be a little loose going down, but generally makes an inviting grippy surface. It's unusual in being a repaired path in a popular area that does not elicit a Pavlovian whinge of "what is the point of this?" from the Man in Front. The path-makers seem to have coped successfully with the issues of both gradient and surface.
Path-making has become a rural industry and Scottish Natural Heritage recently announced a £1.08 million grant over three years to the Paths for All project. Unfortunately, the current industry standard seems to be short and steep rather than long and sweeping. No doubt the direttissima is cheaper, and perhaps, to some eyes, a single line is less intrusive than a series of Zs "scarring" a much larger area of hillside. But the classic paths wend their ways up hills.
For Alfred Wainwright, this was a tradition to be praised and he highlighted one of the less-sung hill pleasures of spotting the traces of an old path taking the line of least resistance. His view (see Great End 7 in The Southern Fells) was that "walkers who walk for pleasure [...] find a fascination in a cleverly planned zigzag progression." There's a good example on the north flank of the Glen Affric Corbett, Carn a'Choire Ghairbh, where the careful observation required to identify the route through changes of vegetation and landform distracts from the effort of the climb and provides an aesthetic satisfaction. Other great examples include the recently repaired stalkers' paths in Glen Quoich mentioned by Ian R Mitchell in TAC66. That on Gleouraich has been described by Hamish Brown (in The Munros) as "one of the most impressive of all such paths", but I wonder if creating paths like those from new today would be acceptable.
The new Ben Ledi path is a great improvement on the old, but there are a couple of places where it seems that someone thought: "Can't be bothered with this slow and steady approach, let's just get up the hill." Elsewhere, for example Conic Hill, huge bucket steps have been laboriously constructed, only to be avoided by the masses either through choice or - if you're under six foot tall - of necessity.
The trend of urbanising previously rough paths is another concern. The Man in Front and I were amused a few years ago to find that a section of the Lyke Wake Walk, marked on our North York Moors map as "undefined", was now paved with large slabs. No doubt this solves routefinding problems for the sat-nav brigade and also encourages fair-weather walkers out of their cars, which is a Good Thing. Trouble is, flat blocks of stone may be fine for striding out on a dry day, but if greasy or icy you either have to slow down to a shuffle or walk on the untamed ground at the side. I've recently followed in the slabbers' footsteps on several days in the Brecon Beacons (my first visit, so I don't know how necessary this work was) and in the Peak District. Walking along the Derwent edges above Ladybower Reservoir was quite disconcerting. In my youth, a walk in the Dark Peak required gaiters and solid boots in all but the driest summers (when of course you couldn't get on to the moors because of the fire risk). Now the surface was better than many of the pavements in Glasgow and it was a completely different experience from the traditional bogtrog: good for leg-stretching, but all the challenge had gone.
The logic behind path-slabbing is comprehensible, but there is one type of path-making which seems ridiculous and counterproductive. This is where small chunks of rock are set vertically into the ground like giant rows of uneven teeth, so that you have to teeter along the top of them. You might be able to twinkle up them on your toes, but coming down, the only option is to sidestep - in which case the most attractive option is to trample the vegetation at the side. There is a prime example on the Ben Lomond tourist route, all the more frustrating when you think of the huge amount of effort put in by volunteers. James Cameron, the celebrated journalist and putative Munroist, might have been describing this path when he wrote (in Point of Departure): "To make any progress necessitates a series of little mincing steps with the eyes constantly seeking a new foothold: the moment you ceased to concentrate you risked a broken ankle." In fact he was talking about a once well-made Himalayan path which had deteriorated to a dangerous state. The only reason I can fathom for making life this difficult is to dissuade repeat visits - it has certainly worked for me with Ben Lomond.
I do like paths: I follow sheep, deer, Land Rovers, the Man in Front, even argocats - although the tracks the latter make are rarely better than the surrounding terrain and often much wetter. The problem with painstakingly repaired routes is that often it is more attractive to avoid them. The proof of the path is in the walking, and if you find people are walking beside a path, rather than on it, then something is wrong.
Ed. - Just as some made paths include steps too deep for those under six foot tall, so there are examples of the reverse: paths with pitching so tight and narrow that anyone over six foot and with even moderately big feet struggles to stay on them. (A section of the Ben Vrackie path above Loch a'Choire is like this.) The result is the same: the walker takes to the vegetation alongside and the pathwork becomes counterproductive. Personally, I'm a fan of both new paths on the east side of Ben Ledi - the main tourist one from Coireachrombie and the Stank alternative further north - but being tall I would say that. There's no doubt that some of the required stride-lengths, especially when crossing drainage channels on the Stank, are longer than the average step.
As for slabbing, there is also the question of terrain appropriateness. If boot-erosion has genuinely damaged a bog or moor (as on the Cheviot or Cross Fell), then slabbing is understandable, if not necessarily desirable. But Black Hill above Holmfirth in the northern Peak / southern Pennines seems to have been slabbed simply to make the Pennine Way easier, rather than to compensate for erosion. In other words, the ground just is like that - and surely a natural bootswallowing bog ought to be left as it is, otherwise we're on the route to railings along ridges.
At lower levels, there is also the question of motorwayising paths to make them accessible for wheelchair-users and the infirm generally. Although no doubt done with the best of intentions, this often smacks of a dumbing-down of the landscape. There was, for example, a lovely (and quite wide) woodland path in Yewdale near Coniston, but this has been widened and surfaced with gravel. It's undoubtedly now more "accessible" than before, but there's a feeling locally that the overall quality has been reduced. There are other examples of this in the Ponds and elsewhere (it's a particular trend in tourist-honeypot areas), so maybe it won't be long before the letters PC on the map come to mean Political Correctness rather than Public Convenience.
TAC 67 Index