An imperfect rights of way network?16th December 2008
Access to the countryside has always been a contentious area and a recent piece of blundering of mine along a public footpath returned that very much to mind (I ended up straying away from where I should have been to earn some yelling from a passing gent atop a quad bike on a nearby road). Within the last decade, Scotland has got its very enlightened access legislation and a less extensive variant has made its appearance south of the border in England and Wales, with legal wrangles forcing up the cost of implementation of the latter.
Until these innovations, public rights of way did next to all the access backwork in England and Wales and the question as whether the network that has come into place over time is all that useful for the purposes of exploring the countryside. In a similar vein, Graham Wilson, in his book Macc and the Art of Long Distance Walking, comes up with some thoughts on the subject:
Many of these exist for reasons long since forgotten and to insist that the world and his wife can march through someone else’s back garden because a postman from Time Immemorial has had to take this route to deliver a letter to a neighbouring farm is as equally unreasonable as it is for us to be denied the right to walk in a straight line across rough country direct from the summit of Shutlingsloe to the hospitality of The Hanging Gate.
I must admit that I find it hard to improve on that well put sentiment from the time prior to the Countryside Rights of Way Act that has given us tracts of Open Access Land with all their limitations in size. It just seems to capture so much and very much fits in with my wonderment as whether we are using a network designed in another era and for another purpose for very different ends. To my mind, it seems that we are using paths and tracks that came into use to link up houses and their ilk to explore the countryside. Add to that the very modern need of privacy and security and path diversions come to life, adding to the complexity that was there in the first place and things become more tricky as you approach civilisation. All that’s needed is a momentary slip of concentration and the ungainly activity of map inspection and not always in the most opportune of places either.
That intricacy and complexity makes waymarking even more important and it’s not always up to scratch; even the best OS mapping cannot be expected to show every twist and turn of a path within a field with complete accuracy. With circular waymarks, the rotation of the arrow can confound if one is without the understanding that an arrow in the 2 o’clock position means that you are meant to take a sharp right! Apart from poor waymarking, other ways to make walkers a little unsure of themselves include the condition of stiles and the state of a path. Some areas do well on this and Cheshire would seem to be among them. Surprisingly, North Yorkshire is poor for waymarking away from its national parks while overgrown paths in North Wales are things that I have encountered a few times now. All of this doesn’t aid one’s sense of self-confidence if an unwelcoming soul were to be encountered (yes, the countryside is like anywhere and they surely exist there too). It seems that those spontaneous on the fly decisions to see where a right of way takes might be best replaced by a modicum of planning unless it’s an area that I already know.
The impression that starts to build from this is that we might need a simpler network of rights of way in place of the rag bag that we use now. What I wouldn’t want to see is a reduction in ease of access to any area, but diversions away from houses and farmyards would suit me better; I like my explorations to be uncontentious rather than appearing to be prying. However, I cannot see that scale of improvement happening because there are always other things that command the attentions of governments and local authorities and that is never more true than in these times of economic upheaval. Inertia probably rules anyway with a major push being needed to get anything like a path and bridleway reorganisation through; it took a huge effort to get the “Right to Roam” legislation implemented and I cannot see a government again confronting vested interests in the countryside quite like that for a while.
My conclusion from these ramblings? It sounds like making the best of what’s there is the sensible approach, sharpening those navigational skills along the way. My days of spontaneously following a tempting signpost might be best put behind me in place of some more advance planning and noting of field exits or wanderings in open country where few are likely to feel threatened or annoyed. As with everything, you always can learn more and I am open to the idea, with thoughts of perusing the Open Spaces Society’s book on rights of way coming to mind.
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