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.

Obsessed
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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Posted in Public paths, green spaces, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking, Access, Coastal access, National trail, campaigns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 http://www.gov.uk. 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.

 

 

 

Posted in Access, Defra, Natural England, Obstructed path, Public paths, riding, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Puzzled
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.

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

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

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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

 

Posted in Public paths, Ramblers, walking, Access | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

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.

Destination
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.

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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.

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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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Welsh Government tugs its forelock to developers

Wales wants to be different from England—but only when it suits it.  When it comes to allowing developers to destroy green space, Wales is only too happy to copy England’s laws.

Yesterday the Welsh Government published its Planning Bill which apes the Westminster government’s Growth and Infrastructure Act in prohibiting registration of village greens* when land is threatened with development (see here).  It follows a draft planning bill published last December which contained similar proposals and was condemned by many organisations including Wales Environment Link, an umbrella for conservation bodies.

No proposals
Yet less than six months ago, Alun Davies, then Welsh Government Minister for Natural Resources and Food, said that he had ‘no proposals at all’ to amend the Commons Act 2006 so as to make it more difficult to register village greens.  This was a debate on 30 April, initiated by Suzy Davies, Conservative Assembly Member (AM) for South Wales West and Shadow Minister for Welsh Culture, Language and Tourism.  Suzy asked the natural resources minister if he would consider introducing a presumption in favour of village greens where local authorities threaten to appropriate land for development.

AMs of all parties backed Suzy: Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour), Elin Jones (Ceredigion, Plaid Cymru) and Peter Black (South Wales West, Lib Dem) all spoke up for greens, leading the minister to deny that he had plans.

Vexatious
Over the summer the Open Spaces Society’s case officer Nicola Hodgson, local correspondent Jay Kynch, and Wales Link rep Beverley Penney twice met the planning minister Carl Sargeant and officials from the Welsh Government.  Mr Sargeant claimed that he had evidence to show that people were using the greens process vexatiously to thwart development.  When at last he gave Nicola this ‘evidence’ she could see that it did not show this at all and provided a detailed rebuttal.

She gave him the Open Spaces Society’s proposals for speeding up the village greens process so that it would not delay development, inserting time limits at every stage and ensuring greater dialogue between the registration and planning departments.  Since Wales is entirely unitary, these departments are in the same council so dialogue ought to be easy.  The OSS’s package did not require a change in the law.

Ignored
Disgracefully the minister has ignored those suggestions and steamed ahead regardless.  However, the explanatory notes to the bill are somewhat circumspect: ‘Applications for greens are sometimes controversial as in some cases applications to register land appear to have been made to frustrate development rather than to protect rights.’ (my emphasis).  This is hardly evidence of a problem.  The notes go on to assert that ‘there is no mechanism for discouraging vexatious or speculative applications’ and the ‘timescale for deciding applications is indeterminate’.  Our proposals were designed to address these concerns but without changing the law.

We had thought the Welsh Government would show a more enlightened attitude than the coalition towards its green spaces but it too tugs its forelock to developers.  We can only hope that those splendid AMs who backed greens in Suzy’s debate will fight the government’s plans to prevent us from registering new ones.

 

Patchyn Plant village green at Talybont, Ceredigion, registered earlier this year

Patchyn Plant village green at Talybont, Ceredigion, registered earlier this year

*A village green is land where local people have enjoyed 20 years informal recreation, without challenge or permission.  Once registered the land is protected from development.  The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 prevents registration of land which is threatened with development, and the Welsh Planning Bill intends to do likewise.

 

Posted in Growth and Infrastructure Act, Open Spaces Society, town and village greens, Wales | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Canal celebration of Northants Ramblers’ 25 years

It couldn’t have been a better day on 5 October for the final leg of the Northamptonshire Ramblers’ celebratory six-day walk on the Queen Eleanor Crosses Way between Stamford (Lincs) and Stony Stratford (Milton Keynes).

Led by David Yeomans of the Ramblers’ Daventry Group we set off from Stoke Bruerne in glorious sunshine.

At Stoke Bruerne

At Stoke Bruerne

The canal here was busy, but it soon became more peaceful.

web 3 Stoke Bruerne

 

The countryside on either side was gently rolling and the hilltop tower of Grafton Regis church came into view.  We stopped for coffee where the road bridge crosses the canal.

Grafton Regis

Grafton Regis

We passed a silly sign at Yardley Wharf

web 6 Ducks sign, Yardley Wharf

and a bit further on I was pleased to see a marked-out cross-field path heading straight for the imposing spire of Hanslope church on the horizon—a path with a purpose.

The well-marked path to Hanslope

The well-marked path to Hanslope

Better still, the Ramblers’ logo was on the steps leading down from the canal, showing that Northants Ramblers had installed them.

web 8 Path towards Hanslope

 

Our way was frequently strewn with small apples, perhaps people on boats threw away their apple cores which germinated, or perhaps there were people living beside the canal.

Apples

Apples

We reached Cosgrove for lunch and clambered through the horse tunnel beneath the canal

Cosgrove horse-tunnel

Cosgrove horse-tunnel

A bit further on we encountered a fearless heron, more intent on fishing than on us.

web 15 heronWe came to the iron aqueduct over the River Ouse at which point we left the canal.

Iron aquaduct

Iron aquaduct

Then it was back to Stony Stratford and the site of one of the Eleanor crosses which was destroyed in the civil war.  We went to the sports club for tea.  The chairman Joy Tripp invited me to speak to the gathering of about 30.

Greetings
I brought greetings from the Area president, the feisty Bob Coles, who was unable to come. He had written ‘As president of Northamptonshire Area I am aware of the need to remind ourselves that we are a campaigning organisation and we must not allow the highway authority, Northants County Council, to use the oft-repeated excuse of lack of finance or staff when carrying out its duties and responsibilities regarding public rights of way.  Many of the problems we encounter in the countryside should be put right because they pose a serious threat to the safety of users.’

Bob is dead right, and the county council (which delegates its work to a private company, MGWSP) is behaving shabbily in making traffic regulation orders to close byways on alleged safety grounds when they pose no risk to walkers (and probably not to other users either).  It is doing this because it doesn’t want to spend money repairing them, yet it has a statutory duty to do so.  This may well be an abuse of the TRO process and the Ramblers are looking into it.

Founded
I told the Northants Ramblers that I looked upon them as one of the best Ramblers’ Areas. They have always been keen on campaigning for paths and access.  They were founded from the East Midlands Area (Northants and Leicestershire which included Rutland) in 1989 and over the years have brought some excellent motions to the Ramblers’ general council (national AGM).

Some areas are parochial in outlook, with detailed motions on issues which concern only them.  Not so Northants which in 1999 had a motion calling on the government to introduce freedom-to-roam legislation in the next queen’s speech, even though the county was unlikely to benefit much from this.  In 2000 it had a motion calling for government support to manage the uplands in a sustainable manner—again an altruistic view since Northants doesn’t have much in the way of uplands.

In 2008 its motion was for an amendment to the law to stop councils from using the magistrates’ court to close or divert paths, an intimidating and unnecessary process.  And in 2012 it called on the trustees to work with the newly-formed Canal and River Trust to deliver maximum benefits to walkers, some of which we saw today.

 

web 9 Canal

I then presented certificates to seven members who had done the whole of the six-day anniversary walk, and cut the exquisite birthday cake.  My only sadness was that so many old friends couldn’t be there—the president Bob Coles, former secretary Maurice Tebbutt, former chairman David Craddock and Northampton footpath secretary Jean Perkins, among others.  However, it was a splendid day and the Northants Ramblers can feel proud of their 25 years of achievement.

web 18 Cake

Posted in Access, Public paths, Ramblers, Ramblers' president, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Northants Ramblers’ silver celebration

This Sunday, in my capacity as Ramblers’ president, I am joining the Northamptonshire Ramblers for the final leg of their 25th anniversary walk.

They started the six-day, 66-mile, walk in Stamford, Lincolnshire, on 27 September. The final stretch on Sunday is nine miles between Stoke Bruerne and Stony Stratford. The route is part of the Queen Eleanor Crosses Way, a 215-mile long distance footpath.

The cross at Geddington. Photo: Zsolt Benedeck

The cross at Geddington. Photo: Zsolt Benedeck

I have been invited to speak at tea at the end.  I shall congratulate Northamptonshire Ramblers on 25 wonderful years of working for walkers.

During that time they have fought countless battles in defence of our paths, to get routes reopened on the Althorp and Boughton Estates and to claim paths at Lilford, Pitsford Reservoir and Kingsthorpe in Northampton. Walkers owe the Northants Ramblers a debt of gratitude.

Painstaking
More recently, with severe cuts to the county council’s budget, it has become increasingly difficult to defend our paths. Northamptonshire Ramblers are promoting the campaign for lost ways, to claim paths which were left off the official map. This is vital, painstaking work, but it can be fun too and we welcome new volunteers.

A walk through the county in the steps of Queen Eleanor’s funeral procession in 1290 is a lovely way to celebrate the silver anniversary of the Northants Ramblers, following paths which are a part of our history and which we campaign to keep open.

Anyone can join the walk.  Details here.

Posted in Access, campaigns, Public paths, Ramblers, Ramblers' president, walking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment