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Country diary: Footpath furniture can be a work of art | Rural affairs

This high stile, beside Coundon Beck, would be a challenge for anyone with ageing hips and dodgy knees. After the recent first snow of winter, a combination of ice and mud made its steps doubly hazardous, so thank you to whoever had the foresight to install a stout pole beside it. I hauled myself up, pausing to admire the top of the post, a rough-hewn hemisphere worn smooth by the grip of countless ramblers. Collectively, they’ve created an accidental work of art, smoothing the wood’s exquisite pattern of concentric annual rings, polished by their palms with the glassy patina of frequent use.

I’ve experienced a similar kind of fellowship with unknown walkers in parts of Weardale. Near Wolsingham, there is a rickety old gate that opens with a springy iron latch, forged by a blacksmith in the distant past, closing with a satisfying snick. Winter sun highlights a pattern in the metal surface, like shallow craters on the moon, created by hammer blows, but at the top, which curls like a shepherd’s crook, they have been worn smooth by the hands of passersby who have pulled on the latch. How many generations has it taken for flesh to polish away the scars of a blacksmith’s hammer, as they passed through the gateway? Thinking about that question, a superstitious hiker laying hands on the latch might imagine walking in the company of a pageant of ghosts.

Country diary: Footpath furniture can be a work of art | Rural affairs
A post polished by ramblers’ hands. Photograph: Phil Gates

Dale footpaths used to be full of gates with handmade iron fittings, everyday minor work for village blacksmiths: hooks, eyes, chains, hinges, drawn cherry-red from a forge then fashioned by hammer on anvil. As this footpath furniture falls into disrepair, when wooden gates and gateposts crumble, it’s replaced by factory-made, galvanised metal substitutes – but even these sometimes have character.

One such, on a path across the flanks of Chapel Fell, is closed by a spring-loaded bolt that shoots home into a hollow, tubular post. When a south-westerly wind blows across the bolt hole, the post becomes an organ pipe. A mournful sound, rising and falling with the gusts and lulls, drifts across the fell, oddly in tune with calls of golden plover and curlews that will return there to nest in spring.