Lines in autumn

Now it is morning again, the 25th of October,
In a white fog the cars have yellow lights;
The chill creeps up the wrists, the sun is sallow,
The silent hours grow down like stalactites.

It’s 45 years since I learnt those lines, and the 32 which precede them, as punishment at school (Benenden) for a minor misdemeanour.  They come from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, XII (1938) and were appropriate for the time of year.  

The poem starts:gate
These days are misty, insulated, mute
Like a faded tapestry and the soft pedal
Is down and the yellow leaves are falling down
And we hardly have the heart to meddle
Any more with personal ethics or public calls;
People have not recovered from the crisis,
Their faces are far away, the tone of the words
Belies their thesis.

The task, known as a ‘moni-book’ was given to me by a monitor (now a Member of the Scottish Parliament) on 24 October.  A few days later I had to recite the 36 lines before my house mistress, kind Miss Langton (known as Pob), and the monitors. The lines weren’t easy to learn, not having many natural rhymes, but they were intriguing; I kept at it and managed to imprint them on my brain—so much so that I can recite most of them today, 25 October 2014.IMG_8020

And in case you were wondering, the misdemeanour was poking a hole, with a compass, in a cubicle wall in my dormitory.  My accomplice, on the other side of the wall, who was required to learn a chunk of Keats’s (rhyming) The Eve of St Agnes, is now a prominent solicitor.

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Wales encircled by birds

One of the loveliest works of art I have seen in a long time is the ceramic pavement at the start or finish of the Wales Coastal Path, by the old bridge in Chepstow, which is also close to the start or finish of Offa’s Dyke National Trail.

Photo by Ned Heywood

Photo by Ned Heywood

It was created by local potter and craftsman, Ned Heywood, mayor of Chepstow, who opened the Walkers are Welcome annual get-together, hosted by Chepstow Walkers Are Welcome, last weekend.  The pavement was installed for the opening of the Wales Coastal Path in 2012.  This view is roughly from the south and you can see how the coast of Wales is marked with the dragon-shell symbol, and Offa’s Dyke with the national trail acorn.

Ned Heywood addresses the gathering

Ned Heywood addresses the gathering

Of course I was fascinated by the birds depicted at the circumference.  Ned tells me that they were chosen by the local tourist boards.  Starting at the south-eastern corner of Wales, ie Chepstow in Monmouthshire, they are: Monmouthshire: mute swan, Newport: curlew, Cardiff: shelduck, Vale of Glamorgan: peregrine, Bridgend: oystercatcher, Neath Port Talbot: lapwing, Swansea: osprey, Carmarthenshire: common scoter, Pembrokeshire: razorbill, Ceredigion: chough, Powys: red kite, Gwynedd: chough, Anglesey: Sandwich term, Conwy: razorbill [N compass point], Denbighshire: little tern, Flintshire: chough, Wrexham: mute swan, Powys: red kite, Shropshire: buzzard, Brecon Beacons: skylark, Herefordshire: green woodpecker, Gloucestershire: peregrine.

The Chough wins, having been chosen by three tourist boards. Mute swan, peregrine and razorbill were each chosen by two.  Powys (red kite) features twice because it is crossed by Offa’s Dyke, and the coast path goes inland at the top of the Dovey estuary.

I felt that Gloucestershire’s choice of peregrine was particularly fitting.  On Sunday morning I went down early to the river bank and stood close to the pavement, looking across the Wye to the limestone cliff.  There was a male peregrine perched on a crag at about 2 o’clock from the top right hand corner of the square hole (known as the Gloucestershire Hole), and he was in Gloucestershire.

Gloucestershire Hole and union flag, first painted in 1935 to mark the jubilee of George V

Gloucestershire Hole and union flag, first painted in 1935 to mark the jubilee of George V

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Creech Jones’s failed attempt to win access

Arthur Creech Jones, who died 50 years ago today on 23 October 1964, is remembered in our circles as the MP who got the Access to Mountains Bill 1939 on the statute book.  Unfortunately by the time parliament had finished with it, the bill was very different from the one Creech Jones introduced, to his great disappointment and the fury of ramblers.

Creech Jones was Labour MP for Shipley (1935-50) and Wakefield (1954-64).  In the Atlee administration formed after the Second World War he became, in 1945, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Colonial Office and a year later colonial secretary, where he was pioneer of the ‘wind of change’ which ultimately freed so many British colonies.

In 1938 as an opposition MP he was no doubt delighted to get the chance to introduce the Access to Mountains Bill, for which the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) and the Ramblers’ Association (RA) had long fought.  It was largely the same bill as had been introduced by James Bryce 50 years earlier.  Unfortunately the landowners soon got at it, and Creech Jones was weak about defending his bill.  He‘expressed willingness to allow almost unlimited modification to the bill in committee’ (Hansard, 2 December 1938).

The bill was butchered as it went through parliament, the Commons Society secretary Lawrence Chubb conniving with landowners behind the backs of the RA, with the result that a bill that was intended to allow freedom to roam on open county became an act which gave access in limited circumstances and made trespass a criminal offence.

It received royal assent on 13 July 1939, fortunately it never came into effect.



During the bill’s passage Creech Jones seemed to remain upbeat.  He spoke about the bill at the Commons Society’s AGM on 10 May 1939.  According to the report in the society’s Journal of July 1939, he ‘testified to the goodwill and spirit of accommodation which had been shown by all those with whom they had had to negotiate.  He wished to say emphatically that the landowners in these negotiations had attempted to meet the promoters’ point of view with a genuine regard to the public interest’.  He considered the bill ‘marked a very considerable social advance.’  These sentiments also appeared in the Manchester Guardian and attracted angry responses from ramblers.  Even so, the RA elected Creech Jones as a vice-president in 1939.

He served on the Commons Society’s committee from 1939 to 1956.  On his death in 1964 he left his estate to his widow Vi, and on her death a decade later the estate was divided between the Commons Society and the William Morris Society ‘expressing the hope that the societies will as far as possible use the same in some way that would preserve the name of my late husband Arthur Creech Jones’.  The Commons Society made a number of useful grants to local societies with the fund.

The view from Fur Tor, Dartmoor

The view from Fur Tor, Dartmoor

According to his colleague, Carol Johnson MP, Creech Jones was ‘keenly interested in the protection of the countryside and the opening up of facilities for walking and climbing.  For many years he led walking parties in the Alps (France, Switzerland and Austria) and was one of those responsible for creating the Workers’ Travel Association Mountain Group which opened opportunities for serious climbing in the Alps for many young people.  In this country he and his wife entertained many people at their country house, first at Leatherhead and later at Elstead.’

He is described by Patricia Pugh in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as ‘unimpressive in appearance’, ‘not a brilliant or witty speaker; but he was one whom the House of Commons greatly respected for his knowledge, integrity and sincerity’.

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Walkers Are Welcome—a winning formula

Last weekend, as patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network, I went to the towns’ annual get-together.  This year it was in Chepstow, at the start or finish of the Wales Coast Path and Offa’s Dyke National Trail.  It was organised by Chepstow Walkers Are Welcome, who did a superb job.  At the AGM I spoke about Our Walking World, roughly as follows.

Walkers Are Welcome towns make an important contribution to the campaign to get people walking and to give a higher profile to the economic benefits of walking, thereby attracting more funding for paths and access.

Chepstow castle

Chepstow castle

Some good things are happening—coastal access around England is progressing with a new stretch in Norfolk due to be opened at the end of the year and the Deputy Prime Minister recently pledging to complete the task ten years early.  In Wales we already have the wonderful Wales Coast Path which starts and ends here in Chepstow.  England is going one better by introducing spreading room on either side of the path—it would be great if Wales could do the same.

Our three nations are obsessed with development, at the expense of green space and wild land.  In Scotland there is the threat of a major windfarm on Rannoch Moor, the first proposal within a mapped area of core wild-land so it will be a vital test of how well wild land is protected.  In England we have already lost the chance to register land as village green when it is threatened with development, and Wales may go the same way with its Planning Bill, copying England.  The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act takes effect in England and Wales tomorrow, enabling local authorities to make public spaces protection orders which are not about protection at all and could be abused, keeping people off land without reason.

Chepstow's old bridge over the River Wye

Chepstow’s old bridge over the River Wye

With the Westminster election next year, it’s a good time for towns to develop their manifestos and take MPs and candidates for a walk, to talk to them about local issues concerning paths and access and to gain their support.

Times are tough, but they also provide opportunities.  We can show the economic benefits of walking.  We can help the cash-strapped highway authorities with their work—if they will allow us.  Ramblers in Herefordshire have had much difficulty getting the council’s contractors, Balfour Beatty, to accept volunteers.  Some councils make difficulties over health and safety, but the fact that others welcome volunteers shows that the problems are not insuperable.

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Earlier this year I met some visitors from the area hit by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Here the government has established a national park as part of the green reconstruction with a 700 km trail along the affected coast.  The visitors wanted to learn from our experience of promoting tourism and attracting income by providing facilities for walkers, such as trails linked to communities.  I told them about Walkers Are Welcome.

Straitened times
Ours is a winning formula, especially in these straitened times.  We need some hard evidence of the difference we make and we need to publicise our work and influence politicians.  There has never been a better time to promote the Walkers Are Welcome concept.

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Government invents public-path law and misleads landowners

Over the last few months the familiar websites of agencies such as Natural England have been sucked into a generic government website The detailed information has been severely reduced and dumbed down.  In the case of public rights of way it is plain wrong.

The web page for ‘Public rights of way: landowner responsibilities’ says:

You should leave fields with cross-field footpaths uncultivated (not ploughed) unless users can easily walk around the edge of the field (my emphasis).  The legislation says no such thing.  

Section 134 of the Highways Act states that in the case of cross-field footpaths and bridleways the occupier of a field may plough or otherwise disturb the path surface if it is not reasonably convenient to avoid doing so.  There is nothing about deciding whether people can walk (or ride) round the edge.  It goes on to say that the disturbance must not render the path inconvenient for the exercise of the public right of way.  Still nothing about users going round the edge of the field.  This is a myth.

A farmer obeying the law on Turville footpath 24

A farmer obeying the law on Turville footpath 24 in Bucks.  It is reasonably convenient to avoid disturbing its surface.

The website continues:

If you have to cultivate, and users can’t walk around, you should ensure that the path is:

  • apparent on the ground, to at least the minimum width, at all times, and not obstructed by crops
  • made good to at least the minimum width, so that it is reasonably convenient to use, within 14 days of first being cultivated for that crop, or within 24 hours of any subsequent cultivation (unless a longer period has been agreed in advance in writing by the highway authority)

But again, this has nothing to do with whether users can walk (or ride) around the field edge.  Owners and occupiers must ensure that the path is apparent on the ground and made good to at least the minimum width regardless of whether users can follow the field edge. Someone is inventing the law.

Great Marlow footpath 61 illegally blocked with oil-seed rape in 2012

Great Marlow footpath 61 in Bucks,  illegally blocked with oil-seed rape in 2012

Whoever wrote this should read the excellent booklet for farmers, produced by the Countryside Commission and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when the Rights of Way Act 1990 took effect and amended the law on ploughing of paths.  This booklet spells out the law clearly and accurately.

RoW Act 1990 booklet

Moreover, a Countryside Commission household survey in 1986 showed that 88 per cent of people walking in the countryside used public rights of way which were clearly signposted and waymarked (Enjoying the Countryside, Countryside Commission 1987).  The figure is unlikely to be very different now.  If paths are cultivated and not marked, they won’t be used—making the problem even worse and denying people their rights.

The abuse of public paths is one of the most commonly occurring crimes in the countryside. The government’s advice will ensure that it becomes even more common.

The Open Spaces Society is calling for the website to be corrected immediately.  I am indebted to OSS local correspondent for Hampshire, Dave Ramm, for spotting these egregious errors.

PS I am pleased to report that the website has now been corrected, 24 hours later.




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Don’t tinker with Tinkers’ Lane

When the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill was going through parliament, with its pernicious provisions for gating orders on public paths, ministers said it would only be used in urban areas, where crime and anti-social behaviour were a problem.  The bill became the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, with no such safeguard included. 

However, it has largely been used in urban areas, often to the detriment of path users and the benefit of adjoining property owners who have been able to incorporate gated routes into their gardens.

I was dismayed and puzzled to receive a proposal for a gating order from Warwickshire County Council on Tinkers’ Lane, Lapworth.  This unclassified road runs from the busy A3400 Stratford Road, about a mile south of the M40 junction 16 (close to its junction with the M42).  It goes eastward to join Hole House Lane which links with Wheatsheaf Lane in a triangle.

Tinkers' Lane plan

As you can see from the map, if Tinkers’ Lane was to be closed to walkers, riders and cyclists, they would be forced onto the other narrow lanes and the unpleasant A3400 where traffic whizzes past.

Tinkers’ Lane is an attractive route and has an ancient feel about it.  It heads purposefully away from the A3400 with pleasant views through the hedges to the side.


However, it is being rutted by vehicles, and that is perhaps the problem the council is trying to address.


At the junction of Tinkers’ Lane and Hole House Lane, opposite Hole House Farm, there are signs discouraging vehicles.









A gating order is not the remedy for abuse by vehicles.  That should be addressed by the police.  And it’s unreasonable that all users should suffer from such a draconian measure.  Before making a gating order the council would have to produce evidence of crime and anti-social behaviour.  So far it has produced none.

In any case, the lane is crossed by three public footpaths so gating would be pointless.

Footpath W14 crosses the lane

Footpath W14 crosses the lane

My story about this was published in the Stratford Herald on 17 July.  A week later the paper published a letter from Tom Archer of Bidford, Warwickshire, who wrote:

Your report on Warwickshire County Council’s proposal to gate Tinkers’ Lane in Lapworth omits the fact that this route is a minor public road and as such has vehicular rights which would be seriously compromised by the installation of a locked gate.

The council has provided no evidence of anti-social behaviour on this route, which raises the question of why they would even consider taking such action bearing in mind the cost and other outstanding priorities.  

With a recent report that the speed cameras near Alcester generate the greatest revenue via speeding fines, perhaps they should look to gating the A435 and other similar sites first and cease their apparent agenda to destroy our historic network of minor public highways to the detriment of the local community.

Well said, Tom.  The Open Spaces Society and Ramblers have objected to the proposal and we hope that the county council will not tinker with Tinkers’ Lane.

Tinkers' Lane near Hole House Farm

Tinkers’ Lane near Hole House Farm


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Tasting the Lickey Hills

I might never have visited the Lickey Hills, south-west of Birmingham, had the Open Spaces Society (OSS) not held its local correspondents’ weekend there.

On 10-12 October, we met at the excellent Hillscourt Conference Centre, Rose Hill, on the Old Birmingham Road (B4096).  The centre was built in 1897 and was a prep school (which one of our number, Peter Newman, attended), and then was bought by the National Association of School Masters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) which still owns and manages it.  We only had to cross the road to be in the Lickey Hills.

Lickey sign

The hills are a country park, in Worcestershire but managed by Birmingham City Council.   They are made up of four hills: the wooded Rednal, Bilberry and Cofton Hills on the east side of the B4096 and the open Beacon Hill to the west.  Rednal Hill was originally bought in 1888 by the Birmingham Society for the Preservation of Open Spaces (perhaps linked to the OSS which was then known as the Commons Preservation Society?) and handed to Birmingham City to hold in trust.  The city bought Cofton Hill, Lickey Warren in 1920, and the Rose Hill estate from the Cadbury family in 1923, restoring access to the public.

The Lickey Hills were a traditional destination for a day out by tram from Birmingham and the Black Country, and they still feel like a much-loved open space, with a mixture of laid-out paths and planted trees, and wilder, self-generating woods.


I managed to fit in three walks on the hills, two before breakfast with my friend Bev Penney, and a longer one with the group.  It was magic to be on Bilberry Hill at 7 am with the mist in the valley.

Looking east from Bilberry Hill

Looking east from Bilberry Hill

To the north-east we looked over the Longbridge factory and Birmingham, softened by the morning mist, with a tuft of smoke penetrating above the cloud level. IMG_2204


The view to the east shows how effective the south Birmingham green belt has been in keeping development at bay—not perfect of course, but so much better than nothing.


We walked further along the ridge for a view across the valley to Beacon Hill.  It was hard to believe we were so close to Birmingham.  Bilberry Hill is well named, there were many bilberry (wortleberry) bushes as well as clumps of ling heather.

Beacon Hill from Bilberry Hill

Beacon Hill from Bilberry Hill

The weekend provided a great opportunity for OSS correspondents to swap experiences and ideas and learn from each other.  The walk was a lovely break from the seminar room.

IMG_2198The Lickey Hills are one of the better-known spots of England but for me they were a novelty.  And I think many of our local correspondents were delighted to discover them too.

Open Spaces Society local correspondents

Open Spaces Society local correspondents



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