The Direction of Our Desires

You’re walking down a nice, broad footpath.

It’s been dry recently, so the ground under your walking boots is nice and firm and there’s nothing much to bother you other than this loop in the path. If you head across this grass bit, though, you can cut the loop out and carry on down the path. A couple of other people are doing it, so you follow them. And what you have just helped create is what’s known as a ‘desire line’.

Desire lines are present wherever there are people. Walking to work, walking across a car park or walking through a forest spins an invisible, complex web of desire lines that reflect our instinctive sense that, by cutting a few, tactical corners, we can make our journey more efficient. And if you happen to work at the visitors’ centre in Sherwood Forest, these desire lines can be the bane of your life.

Since the centre isn’t very old and some of it has only recently been planted,  desire lines now run across areas of grass, or what should be new flower beds for invertebrates and bees to enjoy. You can tell when this has happened, even in winter, because there will be a thin, brown line across areas set aside for nature.

This is the reason volunteers are currently putting low bollards, linked with rope, all around the turning circle. There are already vehicle bollards, closer to the tarmac, which are designed to stop people parking their cars there when they’re dropping people off or nipping into the shop, but these don’t do much to deter pedestrians. And when you’re the one who planted grass seed on a desire line a few weeks ago, it’s a bit annoying.

A simple routine has been worked out. The posts are laid out at two metre distances, as two metres just happens to be the span of the tallest volunteer’s arms. Then, a small hole is made in the soil with a spade, and a special, earth moving shovel, a bit like a large metal cup divided into two on the end of long handles, is used to carry out the soil. This is called a ‘rabbit shovel,’ which seems like a brilliantly descriptive name.


At certain parts of the process, it’s clear that the footpath extends underneath the area that has been planted, so a heavy metal bar is used to hammer away at the bonded gravel of the path and break through to the soil beneath. It’s the only thing that slows us down, so it only takes a couple of hours before about fifteen posts are in the ground with a device called a ‘tamper’ being used to bed down the soil on either side.

The rope comes off a giant spool and is wound around the post once before a giant metal staple is positioned over the back. With a hammer, this is then driven into the post, an action that one of the other volunteers decides is going to be called ‘whanging’. With each staple whanged into place, it’s on to the next post and then the next. In no time, a neat row of desire line-blocking posts girds the turning circle.

Whether it works or whether people choose to step over the rope when they think nobody is looking remains to be seen. Doing this job on the stroke of the New Year does feel vaguely fitting, though, like we’re taking part in a giant metaphor. When our desire line is normality, and there’s a great, big viral rope separating us from where we want to go, it might just pay to use the path for a few more weeks yet.