Leaving the last terraces of Walthamstow, I pass the Walthamstow Pump House Museum, which although housed in an old pumping station is more focused on transport. The exhibitions are closed on this damp February day, but the volunteers are about, restoring, cleaning, rebuilding. The tiny coffee van is doing a decent trade despite the lack of paying visitors.
The road runs into an industrial area and ends at a large gate. At the other side of the Allied Bakeries facility, Argall Avenue will take the exact same bearing, heading straight for the river crossing at Lea Bridge. This is the Black Path, a route that divides the industrial estate, still running from the higher ground at Walthamstow across the marshes to Hackney. Its straight line can be seen cutting diagonally across the fields of the first Ordnance map, and in this form with official protection it has dictated the layout of the later industrial estate. Yet sixty years before that map, the path from Walthamstow to Hackney did not cross the land later covered by these obedient factories. Before the concept of rights of way, the fields had been differently arranged, and people accordingly chose a different diagonal. Footpaths flexed according to the needs of the land, but they could also wither in the face of more convenient routes, or be stopped up by fences or railways.
In this part of Essex, away from the city, a public right of way can be found in practically every grid square: a right inscribed on a definitive map and strenuously protected. Yet the original purpose of these paths is lost, and their antiquity debatable. The English footpath network is an accident of circumstance, and has become a thing in itself, though with little physical form, which exists now solely because it existed last year and because we suffer it to continue. A tradition in the truest sense.