Before the advent of the railway era in Britain, the canals were the motorways of the Industrial Revolution, transporting fuels, and raw materials to the factories and large items of production to where they were needed. In the forties and fifties, by contrast, when I was growing up in industrial northwest England, the railways were enjoying their hey day and the local canals were silted up, partially filled-in, reed infested stretches of stagnant water, not without their occasional dead dog to fascinate us kids. The railways in their turn were superseded for a while by the new motorways, although they are now experiencing a resurgence. And the canals, too, have made a dramatic reappearance, rescued and reinstated initially by people generally held to be somewhat eccentric - or downright mad - and now the pride of the Waterways Board, a national leisure resource populated by pleasure craft large and small. As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.
These thoughts have been prompted by a feature by Alasdeir Fotheringham which I read in the Independent On Sunday last weekend, about the massive decline of the vias pecuarias of Spain. These are the drove roads which for centuries (perhaps even millennia) have criss-crossed Spain. They were the motorways of the Middle Ages, the means by which huge flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were moved from the sierras to the plains for seasonal grazing, and by which merchandise travelled from where it was produced to where it could be sold, trains of mules plodding their way along broad green lanes over the plains and winding, narrow tracks through the mountains.
One such road passes through the middle of Frigiliana, though you would never know just by looking. In the days when a friend of ours, now sadly dead, moved here in the early 1960s, the road from Nerja on the coast, through the cane fields, up and along the ridge of La Loma de las Vacas (The Ridge of the Cows; a giveaway!), on and up onto La Loma de la Hermita (The Ridge of the Chapel), now completely built-over as the new village. Thence, down the main street of Frigiliana, in turn, c/ San Sebastián, c/ Real and c/ Chorruelo and on into the mountains, past the hamlet of Acebuchal and on to Granada. In one direction, fish and sea food were carried from the fishing village of Nerja to the city of Granada as well as lime produced in the mountains behind Frigiliana; the return journey brought fresh fruits and vegetables from the fertile plains beyond the mountains. In addition, day labourers from the coast travelled north to harvest the fruit and vegetables, and their counterparts came south for the sugar cane harvest. The route was in constant use.
Now, it is all asphalt or concrete until nearly at Acebuchal, and no longer used by the drovers. And if you want to go to Granada, you take the motorway network and get there in just over an hour!
According to Fotheringham, this is the fate shared by three quarters of the approximately 30,000 km of vias pecuarias in Andalucía; to have been buried under roads for motor vehicles or blocked by motorways, railway lines, or simply by the arrival of huge urbanizaciones of holiday homes. The practice of ‘transhumance’, the seasonal movement of huge herds and flocks from one grazing area to another, has declined from a total still of 200,000 animals in the early 1990s to around a mere 20,000 animals today. He gives the example of a family from the village of Laroles, in Granada province who walked with their sheep the 350km to grazing in the mountains fo Córdoba and then back again as recently as 2009, but have now given up in the face of the danger to life and limb from the heavy traffic they now have to share the route with. And, with the possible exception of Extremadura, the least populated and least developed of the autonomous communities, the same pattern can be seen all over Spain.
One of the many things that I admire about the Spanish is the way in which they protect, preserve and conserve the historic districts of their cities, towns and villages. The motive is local pride, but the spin-off is a valuable tourism resource which brings people to wander the ancient streets and buildings of cities like Salamanca, Toledo, Pamplona, Santiago de Compostela and dozens more. So I am saddened to see so little attention being paid to this other facet of the historic patrimony of Spain. The drove roads were the canals of the Peninsula, if you like, and just like the canals, they provide potentially a rich resource for developing rural tourism to the interior of Spain, a resource for walking, mountain biking, horse riding, birdwatching, study of the native fauna and flora - the list goes on. ¡Ojalá! someone will see this and do for Spain’s vias pecuarias what has been done for Britain’s canals.