Bird count and path check

This is the third year of the River Thame Conservation Trust bird survey.  I have opted for a two-kilometre square, accurately but unimaginatively called ‘M40 junction 5’ (SU79N), which is at the top of the Chiltern escarpment. 

The south-west quadrant of this square is the one where I do the breeding bird survey, described here.  I also covered the square for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Bird Atlas 2007-11.  For the RTCT survey I have to walk for at least two hours in the two-kilometre square, taking in a range of habitats.

So I set off on Armistice morning from a housing estate in Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire, conscious that people might be quite suspicious of a person with binoculars peering at their houses at 8am.

10 housing estate

People might be suspicious

The path goes straight from the estate into an open field, nice for those who live there.

1 fields

Open fields

It then enters a strip of woodland, where I heard fieldfares.

2 path

A benefit of the bird survey is that I can check paths at the same time.  I had already encountered some substandard stiles, and then I found that Stokenchurch footpath 86 was unrestored across the field; I have reported this to Buckinghamshire County Council.

3 not reinstated

Unrestored path goes diagonally across the field

I entered Stockfield Wood which was looking very lovely, but there were not many birds around.

4 Hawing Wood

The path divides Hawing Wood on the left and Stockfield Wood on the right

The path curves round past Gurdon’s Farm where red kites wheeled, a buzzard called from a fence post, and two skylarks were singing over the field.

5 where skylarks were

Two skylarks were singing

After Gurdon’s Farm I joined Collier’s Lane.  This is an old drover’s road.  I did a loop through the woods here, catching sight of a kestrel.  As so often happens, I could hear tits but not see them so could not be sure if they were blue tits or great tits.  It was safest, but annoying, not to record them.

I ended up on the A40, which is pretty boring but my choice of routes was limited by the presence of the M40 cutting across the square.  At least the A40 provided another habitat.

7 A40

Looking east along the A40

I followed it back to Stokenchurch, spotting two redwings.  I noticed for the first time (because I never walk into Stokenchurch) a sign pointing to the site of Swilley Pond on the south side of the A40.

8 Swilley Pond

In fact this is registered common land, which appears to have been enclosed and built on.  I suspect this was not done legally since it is still shown as a tiny square of access land on the Ordnance Survey map, indicating that it was registered common land at the time of mapping under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.  I guess that the right of access does not currently apply because the land is within 20 metres of a building.

My Ordnance Survey map also shows a larger rectangle of access land immediately to the east.  This is allotments with a sign saying no public right of way—but it is also registered common land with a right of access.  I shall try to find out what is happening here.

11 allotment

Allotment, marked as access land on Ordnance Survey map

I finished by crossing part of Stokenchurch’s attractive and extensive village green.

9 village green with rooks

Village green with rooks

Posted in AONB, Birds, Bucks, Chilterns, Obstructed path, Public paths, walking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roaming the Cromer coast

My recent visit to Cromer in Norfolk for the Walkers Are Welcome annual get-together was short, but I squeezed in some exploration of the local coast.

When I arrived on the Friday afternoon (12 October) I found I had a spare hour and so set off eastwards, through the town to Warren Woods at the top of the cliffs.

Warren Woods

The path to Warren Woods, east of Cromer

Soon I came to the impressive lighthouse.

1a lighthouse


The path along the cliffs from this point is labelled as permissive, across the golf course.

2 Notice on golf course

Permissive-path sign

This I find puzzling.  The route on the Ordnance Survey map is on the cliff top and although some of it may have fallen down the cliff, part of it appears to remain.  It is marked on the map as the Paston Way but unfortunately this (and the England Coast Path) has been routed along the beach, omitting some of the finest cliffs in Norfolk which are over 70 metres high.

3 view to Overstrand

The cliffs east of Cromer

4 view to Overstrand

The view towards Overstrand






The view was lovely, and below the woods tumbled down the cliffs

5 undercliff

Woods at the foot of Overstrand cliffs

I wished I had more time, but I had to turn back for the Walkers Are Welcome reception.

To Sheringham
The next day I slipped away to walk to Sheringham, on a glorious October afternoon in the good company of Randal and Pat Metzger and John Sparshatt from Otley in west Yorkshire.  We had hoped to walk on the clifftop all the way, but the coast is debased by mobile homes and caravan parks, pushing the path inland.

6 walk to Sheringham

West of Cromer we are forced inland by the caravan parks

After negotiating a caravan park we had to resort to the busy A149 to East Runton where we turned down to the beach.  The tide was out and we walked under the cliffs towards Sheringham, admiring the geological strata.

7 Sheringham beach

On the beach

We reached Water Lane and were able to go back onto the clifftop; the Laburnum caravan park sign is not particularly welcoming, but there is a small waymark.  This is the England Coast Path.

8 Laburnham caravan park

Not the most welcoming sign

8a waymark

National trail waymark








We came to Beeston Bump, which is part of the Cromer ridge, glacial moraine left when the glaciers retreated northwards at the end of the last ice age, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.  It was a signals intelligence post, known as a ‘Y station’ during the World War II.

10 bump

Beeston Bump from the west

From the bump we had a view over Sheringham.

12 Sheringham

Sheringham from Beeston Bump

Randal and Pat decided to return to Cromer by public transport (there is a train and bus); John and I wanted to walk back.  We returned along the coast with a view east to Beeston Regis church, spoilt by the caravans in the foreground.

13 W Runton

View to Beeston Regis church

We decided to take the old Norfolk Coast Path national trail’s inland route.  We crossed the railway and the A149 and entered woodlands, part of Beeston Regis heath owned by the National Trust.

13a Beeston Regis

Soon we came to Beacon Hill, at 105 metres the highest point in Norfolk.

14 Beacon Hill

Beacon Hill looking north

Next we reached Congham Hill common, recognisable because it was marked as a small area of access land on the Ordnance Survey map.  We went to the top, though it was a tricky scramble through deep bracken and brambles with not much view.

15 Congham Hill common

On top of Congham Hill common

A bit further on we passed under the fine bridge on the Cromer Curve, the railway line between Norwich and Cromer.

16 railway bridge

Railway bridge on the Cromer Curve

And so we returned to Cromer for our evening entertainment, after a pleasant and varied walk.  It is sad that some of the coast is degraded by caravans and made inaccessible, and that the named routes tend to follow the beach rather than the clifftops.

Cromer church

Cromer church

Posted in Access, Coastal access, commons, National trail, National Trust, Public paths, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Mangled memory

A letter from my partner, Chris Hall, was published in today’s Guardian.  It is reproduced here:

‘In September 1914 Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, a poem in which one line stands out from the routine patriotism of the rest. It reads: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” These words occur on war memorials up and down the land, and are often misquoted as “They shall not grow old” (They Shall Not Grow Old review – Peter Jackson’s electrifying journey into the first world war trenches, Guardian, 16 October).

‘The misquotation is now given extra currency by the film of that title. It is of course obvious that the fallen will not grow old. How could they? But Binyon says they shall “grow not old” (my italics) and he continues: “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” The implication is that they will grow in our collective and individual memories. It is a far more subtle and more moving thought than the misquotation.

‘It is a pity that in this centenary year of the armistice, the IWM and 14-18 NOW (the WWI centenary art commissioners), who jointly commissioned the film in association with the BBC, could not understand these famous words and get them right.’

poppies and windmill 2

This is not the first time Chris has written to the Guardian about this, as reported on my blog here.  I too have observed this solecism in many places, including the memorial at Deal in Kent and in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

It is a miserable misquotation which debases a lovely line.

White poppies1

You can buy peace poppies here

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Activist Anne Wilks’s centenary

The Open Spaces Society’s former indomitable vice-president Anne Wilks would have been 100 today (9 November).  She died in 2012 aged 93.

Anne spent most of her life in Kent.  She was born in Hornsea, East Yorkshire and moved to Seasalter in Kent in 1924.  Shortly after that she met her future husband, Hector, playing on the beach.  After she left school in Tankerton she went to evening classes in French, shorthand and typing. During the war she worked as a typist in the Canterbury telephone exchange.

Anne was extremely active in the vicinity of Whitstable.  She claimed countless paths for the definitive map, and a multitude of commons and greens, including Duncan Down, and a string of village greens along the Kent coast.

Duncan Down

Duncan Down, produced as a card to fund conservation there. Photo: Ashley J Clark

The late Pat Wilson, Anne’s friend, fellow-campaigner for 60 years and also an Open Spaces Society vice-president, said of her: ‘By her belief in the power of the written word, and in the power of her individual principles backed by evidence which she meticulously checked and argued, she was a rock.

‘In the post-war era, obstructions on paths abounded, with crops and few signs.  Anne and I rapidly became involved in public inquiries, magistrates’ court hearings and appeals.

4 Anne Wilks

Anne Wilks. Photo: Patrick Smith

‘When it came to claiming commons and greens under the Commons Registration Act 1965 before the 1970 deadline, Anne invited some of us to submit our findings through her so that she could “swear” them before a justice of the peace.  She did not drive a car but sometimes when she needed to inspect potential land to claim, she boarded a double-decker bus and travelled back and forth, looking over the hedges to check the terrain.

‘To the end, Anne never grumbled or moaned. Her spirit was indomitable.’

Coast E of Whitstable

The coast east of Whitstable

With Hector, Anne was a founder member of the Kent Wildlife Trust in 1958 and a keen botanist.  In 2009 she identified more than 100 wild plants in the garden of her Gravesend care home.  She received an award in 1999 from the Lord Mayor of Canterbury for her work on public paths and for the community.  A seafront path close to tennis courts off Island Wall in Whitstable was named Wilks Way in her honour.

Anne Wilks 2

Anne Wilks receiving an award from the Lord Mayor of Canterbury in 1999. Photo: Kent Messenger

She is still remembered with great affection in East Kent for her tireless work on paths, open spaces and public access.

Anne Wilks, 9 November 1918  – February 2012


Posted in Access, campaigns, green spaces, Obituary, People, town and village greens, walking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is the impact of Walkers Are Welcome?

This year’s Walkers Are Welcome towns’ annual get-together was at Cromer on the Norfolk coast.  The town certainly gave us a good welcome.

We arrived on a calm sunny evening (while the west of the country was being battered by Storm Desmond) and enjoyed a reception at the Tides Restaurant on Cromer Pier.

Cromer Pier

Cromer Pier

Then the committee headed off to buy fish and chips and take them to Hilary Cox’s home for a committee meeting.  Hilary is a member of North Norfolk District Council and, with Gemma Harrison, led the WalkCromer team in organising a great event.

The next day we gathered for the AGM in the august ambience of the North Norfolk District’s council chamber.  Our chairman Sam Phillips sat in the big chair and had control of the microphones; he could cut anyone off if he wished.  While very grand, the surroundings did not lend themselves to easy conversation, but luckily no one seemed to be deterred from contributing.

Council chamber

Walkers Are Welcome committee in the council chamber: Ken Hawkins on my right, and Sam Phillips (chairman), Ann Sandell (secretary) and Geoff Kitt (treasurer) on my left

We saw an excellent video from the local Lib Dem MP, Norman Lamb, who had filmed himself.  His words were really encouraging: ‘I’m a massive advocate of the joys of walking … whenever I do walk it just lifts the strains and pressures away and allows me to enjoy great scenery. … As a former minister of care and support I saw very much the incredible power of walking for people who need to keep active.  Walking is critically important for our mental health, it’s not only the exercise, it’s the outdoors, witnessing and experiencing beautiful scenery and also the camaraderie of walking with groups, getting out of your home.  Too many people are stuck indoors’.  He described some beautiful walks in Norfolk, and ended by thanking us for ‘bringing the joys of walking to so many more people’.

Norman Lamb

Norman Lamb MP on video

I had been billed to speak before the AGM but the welcome from David Pritchard, Cromer’s Mayor, overran so I decided to wait until afterwards, and then provoke some debate.

My main message was that we must produce hard evidence of the impact we make, and publicise it.  In these times of uncertainty the main certainty is that there will be continuing austerity—whatever Theresa May might say.  We also know that people’s health is deteriorating: only the day before (12 October) there had been a story in the paper that four per cent of children in year 6 were dangerously overweight.

So Walkers Are Welcome has never been more relevant, and we have an opportunity, with the Agriculture Bill in Parliament, to argue for agricultural payments to be invested in more and better public access.

Warren Woods

The path to Warren Woods, east of Cromer

But it will strengthen our arguments on all fronts if we can spell out in numbers the difference we make: assisting the local authorities in maintaining paths, leading walks which help to keep paths open, and bringing visitors to the area who then spend money locally.  While our survey last year showed that we have developed 1,200 walks, totalling over 6,342 miles (the distance from London to Lima), we need to be able to show how many people walk those paths, how much money they put into the community; what is the saving on the public purse of all the work we do, and what is the social benefit.

This resulted in some discussion and a helpful suggestion from New Mills in Derbyshire that we should investigate the template produced by the Association of Independent Museums for estimating the value we bring to our communities.  Our committee will look into promoting this tool, to enable us to demonstrate what a difference we make.


The banner, made of squares contributed by nearly half of the 100 Walkers Are Welcome towns, was on display in Cromer

Posted in Access, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

One bittern—or maybe more

At last I have seen a bittern at Otmoor, the RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire.

Bitterns have been booming here since 2013 and were found to be breeding in 2016.  I have visited many times since then but had never seen one—until yesterday, 2 November.

It was very quiet there birdwise.  I went to the first hide where the water was completely still and producing wonderful reflections.  There were a few duck, not doing much.

small 1 1st hide

Reflections on the lagoon

So I went on to the second hide and found it full of people with binoculars trained on the far bank of the lagoon.  There was a bittern around.  ‘It’s moving’ they said, but I could see nothing.  I was told it was in the reeds below a bush on which was perched a marsh harrier.  I could see the harrier all right, but no bittern.   Then suddenly it burst out and flew a short way along the bank before disappearing again.  I had never seen one fly before; it is a slow and stately flight.  For a photo look here and scroll down.

small 8 2nd hide

Where the bittern was lurking. The marsh harrier was on the red-coloured bush

After a time someone saw it, or another bittern, moving again in the reeds.  Once more I had difficulty seeing it, but then in flew out right across the lagoon.  I stayed there for some time, watching gadwall, mallard, tufted duck and a female teal.  I was rewarded with two more bittern sitings.

Starling murmuration
I walked back to the first hide in time for the starling murmuration.  They were coming in overhead as I made my way.

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There was quite a gathering of watchers by the first hide.

small 12 starling watchers

Starling watchers

I arrived just in time to see a sparrowhawk fly out of the reed-bed with a starling in its talons.  The starlings kept coming in and dropping into the reeds, then they spread out across the lagoon to find new reed-beds.  There was constant movement and noise.

small 14 starlings

Starlings fly in

So what had at first seemed a quiet day at Otmoor proved to be an active and exciting one.

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MK Ramblers help wayfinding

Milton Keynes Ramblers has teamed up with Milton Keynes Council rights-of-way department and has funded and installed five new waymark posts and discs on footpaths in the parish of Moulsoe.  The new waymarks will help walkers to find their way on public paths in the parish.

1 Milton Keynes Ramblers

MK Ramblers: Gail Dunn, Keith and Sue Lloyd, Pat Fitzsimmons and David Reed by a new waymark post

Like every highway authority, Milton Keynes is short of staff and resources, so it was good that the Ramblers could lend a hand.  While the council has a legal duty to erect signposts where a path leaves a metalled road, and to erect waymarks as necessary to help people find their way, the waymarking duty is less clear-cut.

As David Reed, the footpath secretary for Milton Keynes Ramblers, says: ‘By co-funding five waymarking posts, the Milton Keynes Ramblers’ Group was able to bring forward the replacement of posts in an area that needed immediate attention.’

2 Gail Dunn and Pat Fitzsimmons

Gail and Pat fix a waymark disc to a new post

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