Many of us have witnessed rights of way in our communities being eroded. Health, history and a sense of belonging are all threatened as rights of way are cut off. For me the informal education provided by footpaths and the surprises they hold started at a young age, exploring the Nant-y-Ffrith valley on the border between Wrexham and Flintshire at the weekends, and then a nearby estate during the lunch breaks in school.
I attended probably one of the most fortunately situated schools in Wales, Ysgol Morgan Llwyd on its original site near the National Trust’s Erddig estate. There were teacher-accompanied sanctioned trips through the gap in the hedge to the wonderland that lay beyond, but we’d discovered the keys, like in Hodgson Burnett ‘Secret Garden’, we only had to wait until the conditions were right. This was responsible truancy I may add, where we’d be back in time for class.
The citadel of Erddig Hall was far beyond our childhood reach, but filled us with awe and adventure nonetheless. Time would allow us to run through the meadows and reach a wooden bridge that spanned the Gwenfro running through the estate. Sticks with make-believe fishing wire would land prizewinning specimens and the hypnotic flow of summer sparkling water seemed a million miles away from the next class.
The end of the journey, a point of no return that had been timed tested by older school boys, was Erddig’s ‘Cup & Saucer’. It stirred up in me, and still does when I visit it today, with a mixture of emotions. Apart from being the outer limit of the known world aged 12; with its cascading water falling through a cylindrical tunnel into the bowels of the earth, it was reminiscent of Greek fables where the ocean would fall away into the abyss. The visible structure of the Cup & saucer was combined with a hidden hydraulic system which hid heart thumping behind a bolted prison-like door set into an earth dug out. What for me was Beelzebub’s heart beating in the ground beneath our feet, the ‘Hydraulic Ram’ works to this day and has enabled the estates gardeners 90ft above, to enjoy a vital supply of water all year round since Victorian times. The ‘Hydraulic Ram’, invented by Frenchman Joseph Montglofier, was so-called because it sounded like two adult rams smashing their skulls upon one another. Not the horned beast I’d imagined, but very close.
There’s a beauty in Erddig’s Cup and Saucer mixed with dark magic: a magic that’s key to Erddig’s horticultural beauty. The structure isn’t visited in the numbers who head straight for the house itself, therefore to any would-be visitor to Erddig I would suggest exploring the wider estate along the marked footpaths provided; this is where Erddig’s story can be fully understood and where the childhood adventure in us all can be re-kindled.
There are numerous paths in all parts of Wales that I could have written about, all have their own unique history, though not always immediately visible. Interpreting the contours stretched over burial chambers, lime kilns, railway cuttings and abandoned farmhouses sparks the imagination; it’s human nature to question. Footpaths and the human history they weave through, provide accessible and continuing education for communities, a sense of belonging with of course all the health benefits. The Cup & Saucer snapshot in one corner of Wales is a case for the preservation of rights of way. Times have changed since it was built and Wales’s hidden wealth and diverse history is no longer the preserve of the few. Keep footpaths open, they’re more than just a means of getting somewhere.
If you suspect your communities footpaths are being threatened, speak to your local Ramblers Association. Here’s their site: http://www.ramblers.org.uk/ plus details for North Wales: http://www.ramblersnorthwales.org.uk/