Pathways to History – A question of density

When looking at patterns of rights of way across Norfolk some are unsurprising, such as the greater number of footpaths and lanes in the south east of the county and the relative sparseness of the north west. Examining the historic development of such contrasts will form a key part of our Pathways to History project, but as we sort through the results of fieldwork and documentary research we’ve started to explore and map a range of other patterns.

Firstly, we’ve been looking at the modern density of rights of way (footpaths, bridleways and byways), calculated in terms of metres of rights of way per hectare of each parish. On this basis the densest network of rights of way is to be found in the parish of Wacton, to the west of the A140 near Long Stratton. Anyone who has ever looked at an Ordnance Survey map of this area won’t be surprised by this – the mesh of paths and tracks across and around Wacton Common is striking even in an area with as many footpaths as south Norfolk. It might reasonably be expected that the other most densely ‘pathed’ parishes in Norfolk would be in this area, but the distribution of the top ten is rather more widespread.

The top ten parishes in Norfolk on the basis of density of rights of way (metres per hectare)
The top ten parishes in Norfolk on the basis of density of rights of way (metres per hectare)
No Parish/Area PROW(m) per HECTARE
1 Wacton 59.95
2 Thurne 54.57
3 Downham West 40.00
4 Beeston Regis 39.59
5 East Beckham 37.82
6 New Buckenham 36.56
7 Burston and Shimpling 33.25
8 Runton 31.07
9 Yelverton 30.75
10 Drayton 30.37

Looking at these in a little more detail they can be divided into a number of categories. Firstly, there are those parishes which have high densities due to their diminutive areas, such as New Buckenham and Yelverton. Secondly there is Downham West, which scores highly here by virtue of the long bridleways and byways which follow the course of fenland rivers and dykes. Thirdly there are those parishes, such as Wacton and Runton where areas of common land survived much later than elsewhere in Norfolk. Indeed, Runton is one of the few places in this region where open field strips survived late enough to be included on the first edition six inch and twenty five inch Ordnance Survey maps of the 1880s. Drayton is a somewhat surprising entry in the top ten, particularly as there appear to be very few rights of way on modern maps. However, the definitive map for Norfolk includes a cluster of footpaths around Drayton Wood and Canham’s Hill which help to explain the results above. You can see them on Norfolk County Council’s interactive map here –

Runton Map
Strip fields around Runton on the north Norfolk Coast as shown on the OS 6″ to 1 mile map of the 1880s.

Further research, both fieldwork and documentary, will undoubtedly shed more light on these patterns; and on the more detailed history of rights of way within individual parishes.


Author: UEA Landscape History

Landscape historians based in the School of History at the University of East Anglia.

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