Footloose and car-free

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What was Britain like before it was motorised? On the rolling heather moors of Bronte country, and in Surrey and Northamptonshire, Graham Coster found places so off the beaten track they can only be reached on foot IN THE Thomas Hardy novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, the Mayor goes to visit Mr Fall, the local weather forecaster. "The way to his house was crooked and miry," writes Hardy. "The turnpike-road became a lane, the lane a cart-track, the cart-track a bridle-path, the bridle-path a footway, the footway overgrown." But this is where the anchoritic Fall chooses, and manages, to live - and if you want to go to see him, there is only one thing for it: you walk.

Hardy was writing more than a hundred years ago, about a rural world long before the era of the internal combustion engine - and new even to the invention of the railway. These days, though, walking has become a leisure pursuit we reserve for the wildestmountains and moors, places which are by definition strange to human habitation. Modern guidebooks to Britain map out sightseeing routes with the presumption that their readers will be touring by car.

In the last few years of the 20th century, they will become more vehicle-oriented still. The number of cars on our roads is projected to increase by a third before 2000, and the M25 is being widened to four or five lanes. But despite the relentless marchof Autogeddon, there are still places in Britain which - like Fall's house - can only be reached on foot.

These are not remote seabird cliffs, fell-tops or beaches where natural topography has prevented easy access. They are places of human settlement to which the only mode of access remains the same today - on foot - as it was when they were built hundreds of years ago.

Dunstanburgh Castle, out on a dramatic Northumbrian headland, has been ruined for more than 400 years. A mile and a half's walk from Embleton village, it is as secure a refuge today as the Earl of Lancaster planned it to be in the 14th century. The YouthHostels Association's two most inaccessible youth hostels, open during the summer months, are to be found in the Lake District. Skiddaw House and Black Sail Hut are three miles from the nearest road: hikers follow exactly the same route as the shepherdsfor whom these were originally lonely bothies.

To visit such places now is to gain some sense of how life was in the centuries before we were motorised - when anywhere was only as accessible as your own two legs could make it. What you also discover is that there are good reasons for them remaining so distant from roads, driveways, cars and coach parks. To walk to them nowadays is to acknowledge the odd quirks of history - or perhaps the general march of social change - that have left them isolated, secret and truly off the beaten track.

ce TOP WITHENS, WEST YORKSHIRE "Yesterday afternoon set in misty and cold," writes the narrator of Emily Bronte's only novel. "I had half a mind to spend it by my study fire, instead of wading through heath and mud to Wuthering Heights." But Lockwood sallies forth to Heathcliff's dwel ling - some four miles out on the moor - arriving on "that bleak hill top" just in time for a snow shower. "Wuthering," he helpfully explains, is "a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed i n stormy weather."

Whether the farmhouse of Top Withens was Emily Bronte's model for Wuthering Heights is debatable: a plaque set in its wall by the Bronte Society sternly declares: "The buildings, when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described." But of course not: Wuthering Heights is as much a psychic, elemental domain as it is bricks and mortar. It is the sheer isolation of Top Withens, and its wind-ravelled location a three-mile tramp from the Bronte Parsonage across Haworth Moor, in West Yorkshire, tha t is more likely to have been the inspiration - and so it remains for the Bronte enthusiasts who seek it out today.

In 1915 the author of A Spring-Time Saunter Round and About Bronte Land had peered through the mullioned windows of Top Withens and seen "a rudely-constructed table and seats, a dented enamel kettle, and heaped-up ashes in the grate (that) suggest occasional visits by shepherds." Photographs taken early this century show a typically sturdy stone hill farm. It was last occupied in 1926, by a poultry farmer, Ernest Roddy. He may have been the "solitary man, a discharged soldier trying to regain his health", noted in residence three years earlier by the writer of another guidebook. It is hardly surprising to read of his daily treks down to the village of Stanbury to seek out human company, often staying all day, "for the solitude is too much for any humanbeing who has not sought it voluntarily".

Now Top Withens is a roofless ruin. When I looked inside what would once have been the parlour, the only evidence of human habitation was a discarded nylon mac. Even the lean-to shed at the side, previously a mountain bothy for walkers of the Pennine Way, which passes alongside, has been declared unsafe and boarded up. The building now belongs to Yorkshire Water, various water boards having owned it since the turn of the century, the surrounding moorland being the catchment area for the district's water.

Could anyone live up at Top Withens again? Almost certainly not: there is no power; the springs that formerly offered a water source have either dried up or been diverted; and the moor is now conserved as a Site of Special Scientific Importance.

But, above all, it is miles from any road. It is a grand walk from Haworth - taking the footpath out of the churchyard and up over Pendon Hill - but it is a long one, and in bad weather it would be an arduous slog. You pass two other farms, more recentlyderelict - further testament to the impossibility now of eking out a living on Britain's upland moors.

The American companion I walked with wondered why they couldn't just label the nearest farm - which is a mere mile out - as Top Withens, "and then none of us would have to walk so far!" As the last part of the way climbs up from the Bronte Waterfall, thelonely ruin of Top Withens suddenly comes into view ahead, a black outline on the hilltop. When you look back the way you've come, all you can see is rolling heather moor, all you can hear is the chukking of the grouse.

LEITH HILL TOWER, SURREY The man who built Leith Hill Tower has resided there for over 200 years. Richard Hull, a barrister in London and MP for a seat in Ireland, died in 1772, seven years after it was completed; he is buried, as he wished, under its ground floor. Indeed, a few years ago, when a tiny servery was being constructed in the foot of the tower for the sale of tea and cakes, excavations laid bare a skeleton. The tower, which is not only the highest point in South-east England but also, at itstallest, more than 1,000ft above sea-level, is certainly a prominent headstone.

"Traveller!" reads the text of the Latin inscription beside the doorway through which 25,000 visitors a year now pass to climb the 73 steps to the top: "This very conspicuous Tower was erected ... that you might obtain an extensive prospect over beautiful countryside ..."

Richard Hull provided chairs and a telescope at the top for his guests, but after his death the tower was vandalised and for a while reduced to a shell. The battlements, the octagonal turret, the spiral staircase and the glass in the windows were all added 100 years later - but the prospect has remained just as extensive. On a fine day you can see St Paul's Cathedral to the north, and ships in the Channel through the Shoreham Gap to the south.

Stand on the top of the tower nowadays, and various facets of the prospect mark the passage of history. Canary Wharf is the most prominent addition to the northern skyline; the incessant rumble of planes taking off from nearby Gatwick the most audible reminder of modernity. Leith Hill Hotel, directly below as you look south, is where up to 40 horse-drawn carriages pulled up in Hull's time, packed with sightseers from Dorking. Today, a little green 1950s-style bus threads its way around the tree-lined lanes on summer Sundays instead. This is not a time-warp illusion but a nostalgic ramblers' service enabling people without a car to visit the Surrey Hills.

But there remains only one way to reach the tower itself, as there has been since 1765: a walk up Leith Hill. The steepest haul is also the shortest - just a quarter of a mile - but the gradual climbs are nicer: from the Rhododendron Wood at Hull's erstwhile residence, Leith Hill Place, open to the public since the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams donated it to the National Trust; or through the woods to the east from the hamlet of Coldharbour and its idyllic cricket ground. Nobody would be allowed to build such a tower these days at a prominent beauty spot - but neither has anyone tried to blaze a motor road to the top. As in Hull's time, you leave your carriage at the bottom.

ce LYVEDEN NEW BIELD, NORTHAMPTONSHIRE From the road that takes you south-west out of the distinguished Northamptonshire town of Oundle, it looks like a film set. Glimpsed briefly against the skyline, it appears as a one-dimensional facade of an Elizabethan house: were you to walk round the back, it seems, you would see the props holding it up to await the cast of the next Peter Greenaway film.

Although the usual, and shortest, way to reach Lyveden New Bield is to park in the lay-by along this Brigstock road and walk up the half-mile track, there is a better route. The Lyveden Way bridleway starts just outside the little village of Wadenhoe: follow it up the farm road past Wadenhoe Lodge, through shrubbery full of scuttling pheasants, and over the meadow.

The whole walk is about a mile and a half. The last part is an arrow-straight ride cut through Lilford Wood, an eerie and dense plantation of silver birches and pines: at the end of the tunnel of trees is the fragmentary sight of a grey limestone building. As you approach, it first of all becomes clear that this is a large house; then that its windows have no glass or shutters; that there is no roof; and finally, as you emerge to behold it in its field of lush grass, that it is not a one-dimensional facade, but cruciform. It is a numinous encounter to come upon it through the wood: mist, or the last minutes of twilight, would complete the experience.

Nobody has ever lived in Lyveden New Bield - though they nearly did. When its owner and builder, Sir Thomas Tresham, died in 1605, it wanted only a roof and internal furnishing. Tresham was an ardent Catholic during the Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, and paid dearly for his recusant faith with large fines and years of imprisonment. Over-generous settlements on his six daughters meant that he died leaving large debts. The builders stopped work on his house immediately; it was never re-started.

Lyveden is secret in more than just its location: an intricate religious symbolism informs the design. Tresham had already built a Triangular Lodge at Rushton, near Kettering, whose shape and architecture celebrates the Trinity: Lyveden's cross shape commemorates the Passion, and the friezes around its exterior enshrine an arcane religious numerology. Cromwell's army did some damage after its abandonment, but since 1922 it has been a National Trust property (while English Heritage looks after the Triangular Lodge). According to the guidebook I read, "Owing to the superb quality of its masonry and its lonely position away from any pollution, it is still in such mint condition that work could be started up again tomorrow."

If you ask the Custodian, he will let you into what were supposed to be the gardens. Tresham planned a great water garden which was to be bounded by a four-sided moat, leading to lavish terraces - but the builders had only dug three sides when work ceased. Today you trace the outlines of the design among a wilderness of trees that overhangs the dark and gloomy water. Here, even more strongly than inside the house, there is the weirdest sense of the clocks suddenly having stopped one day, and a strange, capricious project frozen for ever. Even now Lyveden New Bield is undiscovered: "We get hardly any visitors," the Custodian admits cheerfully. "The next news story will be `Skeletons found at Lyveden'."

ce ! Lyveden New Bield (0832205 358) is open daily, admission £1.25. Northamptonshire Libraries and Information Service publishes a leaflet about Sir Thomas Tresham and Northamptonshire; 40p from 27 Guildhall Road, Northampton NN1 1EF (0604 20262). LeithHi ll Tower is open on fine Sundays and bank holidays until Easter, 11am-3pm. Admission 50p. A leaflet about walks on Haworth Moor, including the route to Top Withens, is available from the Tourist Information Office in Haworth (0535 642329).