Desire paths are, in the most literal terms, human-made trails created by erosion. You’ll most often notice them outlining the edges of fields or forming shortcuts across grassy corners. However, they can form on worn-down pavements, through fallen leaves, or even as trails through snow and ice. These visible paths are formed by desire lines: the route taken to travel from A to B.

The first roads were desire lines, connecting towns and villages to one another. These lines are not always straight but are most often shortcuts. It is human nature to follow them: whether to rebel, save time and energy or in the pursuit of change. It is along these new routes and their newer perspectives that we can find inspiration to write: if you know where to look for it.

A Local History of Desire Paths
Canterbury has a rich history of pilgrimage that can help us understand the connectivity of paths through and around the city. Canterbury has been a site of Pilgrimage, ‘A journey made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion’,1 since the early twelfth century. Pilgrims would have followed the ‘Pilgrims’ Way’ route, a 153-mile journey from Winchester to the tomb of the medieval Archbishop, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral.

This historic pathway still exists today, and there are similarly connected routes in the more everyday locations of the city. Whether window shopping along the high street or hurrying to the train station, you’re walking along paths that many pilgrims would once have taken. Notably, ‘pilgrimage’ also means to wander, and it is wandering beyond these existing routes that creates desire paths.

Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking provides interesting perspectives on this concept of wandering, from what it means to be a walker across the eras, to the art of landscape and the importance of walking for spiritual connection. Solnit describes walking across desire paths as ‘a mode of making the world as well as being in it’.2 Hence, the desire lines that we follow are the living history of those who have meandered before us, and Solnit writes of these as continual journeys through time or like the passing of a torch.

The Written History of Desire Paths
Unforgettably, Canterbury was the home of England’s first known female professional writer, Aphra Behn (1640-1689). The city has seen a plethora of writers walk its streets, including the prolific playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who also lived and wrote in Canterbury.

Looking beyond Canterbury, we find literary figures such as Thoreau, the Transcendentalist writer who wrote his essay ‘Walking’ (1862) on the title topic. Over 24 pages, Thoreau framed walking as a self-reflective practice that, in connecting with nature, connected him to the world of thought. If you’ve ever wistfully stared out from a train carriage window or sat in a park and watched dog walkers pass by, you’ve probably practised it too. His ideas have been likened to 21st Century ‘mindfulness’, and they are certainly useful when considering the nature of walking and the history of desire paths in literature.

Thoreau was an example of ‘the wanderer, the stroller, the flâneur’3 that Roy Bayfield mentions in his book , Desire Paths: Real Walks to Nonreal Places (2016). Bayfield’s memoir documents his ‘quest to experience the true nature of the places [he] walked within’. Each chapter retells a journey that he has walked, with “multiple layers [of] landscapes” unfolding before him. Like Thoreau and many writers prior to him, Bayfield finds solace through this “unlicensed wandering”. It is this wandering that not only forges the path of Bayfield’s journeys but also secures his memoir a spot in the long tradition of place-based writing.

Creating Your Own Desire Path Walk
Of course, you don’t have to be a writer to engage with the landscape creatively. You could take a walk to photograph the world around you, collect items from it such as leaves for collages, or use the real-world landscape to draw an imaginary one on a site such as Inkarnate.

Desire paths are a tool to help you notice the inherent history of places; where people have walked and the directions that they went. They’re a way of walking across the margins of places, even within the heart of a city such as Canterbury. It’s not often that we pay more attention to the journey than the destination, but creating your own walk across desire paths is a fun way to re-engage with the world around you.

University students, in particular, will take far more desire paths than they might realise. Often times when rushing to class, you’ll cut through alleyways or across roads that form these paths. For example, just outside of the CCCU campus is a desire path that was most likely made by students.

To create your own desire path walk, you can find one local to you or start here on Monastery St. (From here, the best direction to walk is towards the High Street, passing St Paul’s Church). Wherever you are, search for places of interest like street signs, benches, or even monuments. You can choose your own direction or flip a coin and follow left or right for ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. Most importantly, desire paths border all parts of urban and rural landscapes, though searching for parks and grassy areas will be your best shot.

If you’re on the High Street, you can pass the Cathedral and walk towards Abbots Mill Garden or Westgate Gardens if you’d rather go further. Around these areas, you’ll be sure to find another desire path to continue your journey.

Once you’ve found one, consider whether the path has changed the architecture. Is it a newer trail of scuffed-up dirt, or is it a cemented path over what once would have been one? Can you tell if pedestrians still walk across it?

Writing the Desire Line
Now that you’ve found some desire paths, you presumably have a pen and paper or notes app open, and you want to write. With place-based writing, the best way to begin is to ground yourself. Focus on your senses: What can you taste, smell, hear, or feel? Jot down anything that comes to your mind. Now focus on where you are. Do you know this place well? How did you get here? Think of the desire path where you began and consider if there’s a link between there and where you are now. Does this link tell a story?
Whatever ideas you have, make sure to write them down. Whether you’re a poet, playwright, or just dabbling into writing, I can’t tell you how to do it. However, here are some prompts and pictures to inspire what you write:

-What catches your attention on/near the path?
-Who would have created the desire paths you’ve found?
-What would the paths look like at different times of day/across the seasons?

Desire lines are ultimately a joining of places, and to engage with them, you don’t need to plan long stretching hikes or elaborate daily walks. You don’t even need to be a writer, but for those of us who are, the desire paths that they form across the landscapes where we write are a useful tool.

Imagine you’re a character crossing a path:

-Who are you, and where are you going?
-How is your character moving across the path? Are they limping or avoiding the cracks/lines?
-Is your character walking in the present or remembering? Will they revisit this place?
-Are there obstacles like warning signs or gates? Can you pass them? If you needed one, where could be an escape route?

Now, I’m not encouraging you to walk anywhere forbidden or to wander some place dangerous, but rely on your imagination. Describe the path you’re walking along and consider if or why it’s a shortcut.
Have you begun to notice which paths people take and which they avoid? Could you create your own desire path over time? If you walked the same path every day, at what point would you see it form?

According to Bayfield, ‘focusing on unreal aspects reveals the real’, and it is through focusing on the imagined history of desire paths that writers can create new stories from them. Moreover, searching for these paths encourages you to interact with the local landscapes and the traditions of walking and writing. For example, finding a shortcut or passing a new street on the way home will give writers and walkers alike fresher perspectives of the places around them. So, next time you’re at a crossroads or an unwavering path, consider wandering past it. Try and create a new route to explore; beyond the A to B.

Inspired to take your writing further? You can find out more about our BA Hons in Creative and Professional Writing here

This article was published: 6 July 2023. <param ve-image url=”https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Pilgrims%27Way-geograph.org.uk-_3148465.jpg” label=”Pilgrims Way” attribution=”N. Chadwick, via Wikimedia Commons” license=”CC BY-SA 2.0”>


Bayfield, Roy. “Desire Paths: Real Walks to Nonreal Places.” . Bridport: Triarchy Press. 2016.
Coverley, M. “Psychogeography.” . Harpenden: Pocket Essentials. ,2010.
Inkarnate. inkarnate.com.
“’pilgrimage, n.” .’ OED Online., Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2023.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.” . London: Granta Books. ,2014.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking.” . 1862.


  1. ‘Pilgrimage’ Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online

  2. Solnit 29. 

  3. Bayfield.