Day on the downs

A couple of times a year I meet up with my friends from Exeter University days, Mary Alexander and Drusilla Belfield, and we take a walk in southern England.  Last Sunday we started from Chilcomb to the east of Winchester, on the western edge of the South Downs National Park.

We parked at the early-Norman church, which is on the side of a hill a little way out of the village.

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Chilcomb church

As we joined the South Downs Way on the eastern side of the village, we saw a sign for one of the many water taps installed along the way.

1 water tap

The way gave us a view of Telegraph Clump and Cheesefoot Head, a natural amphitheatre where Eisenhower addressed the troops before D day.

2 Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Clump to the left, Cheesefoot Head is out of the photo on the right. There is a deep gully in the middle of the photo. The roads were made for the Boomtown Festival in September.

Soon we were out on the open Fawley Down with wide views to the Isle of Wight to the south and Beacon Hill to the north.

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Fawley Down

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Mary, Drusilla and dog Janet on Fawley Down







We stopped for lunch on the edge of a field, and then proceeded to Morestead.  We turned north past the isolated war-memorial which commemorates the soldiers of the London Regiment, stationed at Hazeley Camp, who were killed or went missing in the First World War.

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Hazeley Down war memorial

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On a long track heading north between fields we saw young stonechats flitting about. Then we turned north-east on the edge of the woods back to the church.

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Heading back

It was about six and a half miles, and a pleasant circular walk.

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Launch of the Shropshire Way main route

In the 1970s and 80s much of Shropshire was bandit country for walkers and riders.  The paths were overgrown, ploughed up or non existent.  Then pioneers Bob Kirk and Nick Wright decided to create the Shropshire Way, linking the Sandstone Trail in Cheshire with the Offa’s Dyke path.  It was a huge task, but they worked with many groups in Shropshire and the way was open, waymarked (with a buzzard logo) and ready for use by the Ramblers’ Footpath Heritage year in 1980.

In 1983 the delightful guidebook was published.

Bob Kirk's guide

The 1983 guide

In 2007 Shropshire County Council belatedly recognised the value of walking for tourism and took over the route to encourage walkers to visit Shropshire.  However, it started developing a number of paths as the Shropshire Way so that it was more like the Shropshire web. The waymarks varied too, causing confusion.  This prompted local walkers to form the Shropshire Way Association (SWA) in 2016, with Audrey Menhinick, Peter Carr, Marion Law and the late John Newnham as the leaders.

John had been responsible for the Ramblers’ Jubilee Walk, celebrating its fiftieth birthday in 1985, and that walk had covered part of the Shropshire Way between Clun and Ironbridge.

From Rucksack April 1985

The route of the jubilee walk around England. There was also a walk around Wales.

Over the last few years SWA volunteers have worked with Shropshire Council to identify the main route and ensure that it is open and clearly waymarked.  It takes in six of Shropshire’s eight Walkers Are Welcome towns, demonstrating the value of walking to the local economy.  It also coincides in part with the excellent Telford T50 trail which I opened last year.

11 Top of Wrekin

On the Wrekin: here the Shropshire Way and the Telford T50 trail coincide

On Saturday 28 September the SWA held an event to celebrate the launch of the main route, and I was invited to join in.

I arrived at Kingsland Bridge in Shrewsbury in time for the four-mile walk on the Shrewsbury Way, the final walk in the week-long Shropshire Way festival of walks.

Radio Shropshire
On the bridge I found a Radio Shropshire van with presenter Genevieve Tudor; Audrey Menhinick, the chair of the Shrewsbury Way Association, and Sue Turner, the walk leader.  They were waiting to do a live interview down the line on the morning programme.  Genevieve was happy to include me, although when it came to it there was no time for me to say anything.  I then asked her to do a recorded interview, which she did, and it went out on Monday morning.  You can listen here (2hrs, 45 mins).

2 Radio 2

Waiting to go on air

Thirty nine ramblers gathered for the walk on the other side of the bridge.

3 Setting off

Ready to go

We set off beside the River Severn.  I walked with my visually-impaired friend from Hereford, Marika Kovacs.

4 on walkAfter leaving the Severn, the walk continued to the Rea Valley nature reserve, important as a green corridor and for its history.  The mill races here powered the corn mills and are mentioned in Domesday.

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In the Rea Valley nature reserve

We returned to the bridge, and there was time for Marika to look down at the River Severn which slowly wended its way beneath.

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The Severn from Kingsland Bridge

6 Marika on Kingsland Bridge

Marika takes in the sounds and smells of the Severn







In the afternoon we met at the Trinity Centre in Meole Brace for celebrations.  I raised a toast to the Shropshire Way main route and all who had worked on it.  Audrey Menhinick spoke about the festival; this had attracted more than 300 walkers on the 26 walks.  These had covered more than 200 miles (which was the length of the Shropshire Way).  She reminded us that Wood’s pubs had produced a beer mat featuring the Shropshire Way’s waymark and offering a 10 per cent discount for Ramblers’ members for food and drink until 30 September 2020.

1 Beer mat

Clare Featherstone from Shropshire Council described how the council had worked with volunteers to sort out the route; a good partnership in these times of austerity.

John Gillham, author of the latest guide to the Shropshire Way, showed a video of the route.  The guide is to be published by Cicerone in November, and you can order it here.

Cicerone guide

The 2019 guide

Now the route must be maintained.  It is likely that it will be well walked, and the Shropshire Way Association has stage champions who care for their sections.  So the way looks set to be a real asset to this beautiful county.


Cheers, with Clare Featherstone, John Gillham and Audrey Menhinick

Posted in Access, Obstructed path, Public paths, Ramblers, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A special day for the South Downs

Twenty years ago, on 29 September 1999, we learned that we would have national parks for the New Forest and the South Downs.  The then environment secretary and deputy prime-minister John Prescott took the unusual step of announcing this at the Labour party conference.

The New Forest was already looking promising.  The Countryside Commission, the predecessor of the Countryside Agency which took over on 1 April 1999, had agreed to designate it.  However, the commission had resolved not to designate the South Downs, a deeply controversial decision.


Firle Beacon, East Sussex, in the South Downs National Park

Fortunately, having been heavily lobbied, the Labour party was determined that the South Downs should be a national park.  It was unfinished business from the 1947 Hobhouse Committee on national parks.  Here is the extract from John Prescott’s speech:

It was that great post War Labour government which gave Britain its first National Parks, the jewels of the Countryside.

I remember as a boy the wonder I felt on my first visit youth hostelling to the Lake District.

Its beauty remained eternally with me.

50 years on, this Labour government will begin the process to create new National Parks – in the south downs and the New Forest.

Two new national parks for the new millennium.

A hundreth birthday present from Labour to the nation.

And we will introduce legislation to extend the right to roam and enjoy open countryside.

Because we believe our natural heritage is for the many, Not just the privileged few.

Once the announcement had been made, the Countryside Agency got on with implementing it.  But it was another ten years before the national park was finally confirmed—an anniversary we shall shortly celebrate.

web campaign

South Downs rally on Harting Down, West Sussex, 8 July 2007

John Prescott’s announcement had been trailed the previous week.  I was walking on the Pembrokeshire Coast with others at the annual national parks conference on 23 September 1999.  Vicki Elcoate, the chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks, was paged by Emma Loat, a fellow staff member to say that the new national parks announcement would be made at the Labour party conference.


The limestone cliffs near Raming Hole on the Wales Coast Path in Pembrokeshire

On the day of the announcement itself I joined the Ramblers on a walk for MPs from the Labour party conference in Bournemouth.  Ten MPs and a number of colleagues from wildlife organisations came with us to St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester where we talked about the forthcoming access legislation as well as the national park announcements.  The environment minister Eliot Morley saw his first smooth snake (which bit him).  We returned to Bournemouth and issued a press release about the national parks announcement and then went on to fringe meetings where we celebrated some more.

In January 2000 the Ramblers organised a walk in the Yorkshire Dales to say thank you to John Prescott for his immense boost to the South Downs campaign.

Prescott certificate

A thank you to John Prescott

Posted in Access, National parks, South Downs | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Fifty years in England

Fifty years ago today my friend George Laurence, now an eminent QC, first stepped on English soil.

He was born and brought up in Pretoria, South Africa.  On 10 September 1969, a 22-year old, he boarded the SA Vaal in Cape Town, heading for University College, Oxford where he was to read law as a Rhodes scholar.

In a speech at a party for his seventieth birthday he recalled that ‘I was tall, brown, slender, fit and friendly.  But my first encounters with the daunting English reserve lay ahead of me.’  He related that, in thoroughly un-English fashion, he used to ask people when he met them what they were called and would record their names in his little address book.  He would introduce himself to people he met ‘in the erroneous belief that they would be remotely interested in knowing, let alone subsequently using, my name’.

George and Cathy, Henley

George with his daughter Cathy, in Henley, July 2018

He soon met many people who became lifelong friends, including Lennie (Lord) Hoffmann, his law tutor who was immensely kind to him.  George was called to the bar in 1972 and became a QC in 1991.

I am so glad that George did come to England 50 years ago.  Not only has he been a good friend and walking companion for the last 40 years, but he has also massively developed the law concerning our rights of passage in this country.


George (right) and friends on the Hollandridge track in the Oxfordshire Chilterns, August 2017

His quick, incisive mind and ability to pursue phenomenal arguments in the interpretation of the law have been invaluable.  For the Ramblers, Open Spaces Society and me personally he has won some crucial cases; these have enabled us to reopen blocked paths and defend people’s rights in the face of threats to their paths and spaces.  He does not always appear for our side though, and has gained experience and insight from representing landowners too (which he has then used to our advantage).

So thank you George for coming to England half a century ago, and for all that you have done for us since.

Balcony 4

George, with his wife Jackie, speaking at his seventieth-birthday party

Posted in Access, campaigns, Obstructed path, Open Spaces Society, Public paths, Ramblers, walking | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Humphrys, the terrier

I shall miss John Humphrys, who yesterday presented his last Today programme after more than 32 years.  On the occasions when I was interviewed by him, on public paths and access, I found him to be sympathetic and helpful, with his robust manner reserved for those in authority.  As Justin Webb said yesterday, he was a terrier rather than a rottweiler.

I found a transcript I made of an interview with John on Today on 14 August 2000 about the obstructed footpath, Framfield 9, in East Sussex.  This was the notorious ‘van Hoogstraten path’.  Six months before the Ramblers had prosecuted Rarebargain, van Hoogstraten’s company which owned the land, for blocking the path with a barn, refrigeration units, locked gates and a barbed-wire fence.  Rarebargain was found guilty, and was fined and ordered to pay the Ramblers’ costs, but nothing had been paid.

Shortly after this, East Sussex County Council, rather than enforcing the law, had promoted a diversion around the obstruction to which there had been thousands of objections.  John Humphrys evidently agreed with the Ramblers that East Sussex County Council should clear the path.

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Framfield footpath 9 before the obstructions were cleared

I was on Today with Mike Skinner, the then deputy leader of East Sussex County Council.

The interview

John Humphrys: Four thousand ramblers have told their local council in East Sussex to clear an ancient footpath so they can walk on it.  The path is on the estate of Nicholas Van Hoogstraten who’s very rich and doesn’t like ramblers.  He’s been issued with a court order to come up with an alternative route but the ramblers aren’t happy with that.  Kate Ashbrook of the Ramblers’ Association is with me, Mike Skinner is the deputy leader of East Sussex County Council.

So, Kate Ashbrook, it’s not just Van Hoogstraten you’re not happy with, for entirely obvious reasons; you’re not happy with the council either?

KA:  No, the council issued an order to ask him to clear the obstructions within 90 days, they then connived with him to come up with an alternative route, which is lousy.  Four thousand ramblers have objected to that.  We expect the council to carry out its legal duty and clear the obstructions, otherwise they’re giving a message to all landowners everywhere that they can get around blocking paths by just moving the path.

JH:  Councillor Skinner, why did you connive with him?

Mike Skinner:  I think that’s probably not the right thing to say.  The trouble with footpath law, like many other laws, is it takes no account of how horrible the applicant is, so we have to deal with the application on its merits, regardless of Mr Hoogstraten.

JH:  … The man who has done it is Hoogstraten.

MS:  The applicant for the footpath diversion is a company that everybody believes has some connection with Mr Hoogstraten

JH:  Right, quite, and they are the people who are horrible in your terms?

MS:  … We all agree.  I’ve had Mr Hoogstraten on my patch for about 15 years and I think we have managed him through a policy of managed appeasement, so I’ll accept that criticism.

KA:  Well, it’s time you took him to court Mr Skinner, he’s blocking the path, it’s a criminal offence and the council has a legal duty to clear the path, and East Sussex County Council should get on and do that and stop talking about moving the path onto a lousy route.

MS:  If we take him to court we have to be absolutely rock-solid certain….

KA:  Well you are, the magistrates ruled that it was a criminal offence in January this year when the Ramblers’ Association took him to court.  We know he is breaking the law.  You can take him to court, and you should get on and do it.

MS:  But we believe that if we don’t consider the diversion properly he could take us to judicial review.

KA:  No, rubbish, he’s breaking the law, you take him to court.  You don’t have to worry about the diversion, you came up with that, your staff connived with him at a secret meeting, forget the diversion, just get the path opened up.

JH:  Yes, this is the point isn’t it Mr Skinner, why is there a diversion here at all?  This is a public footpath, that’s absolutely clear.  He blocked it, that’s absolutely clear, I mean he hates ramblers, he calls them scum I think or something doesn’t he?

MS:  He doesn’t like a lot of other people either.

JH:  He doesn’t like many people at all.  He likes Robert Mugabe apparently, but most people he seems to think are scum.  Why do you not simply say to him “clear the footpath otherwise we will take you to court”?  Isn’t that your duty?

MS:  Because he’s put in for a diversion and if we don’t properly consider the diversion we could be held up for a judicial review, and the other thing you do know about Mr Hoogstraten is he has an extremely good record in the English courts.

JH:  He’s also got a lot of money, I suppose that helps as well.

MS:  Yes and there’s also a number of local government officers who are frightened to death of him.

KA:  Yes, but we know the police will give protection when you go in and clear the obstructions, I’ve checked that with Sussex Police.  They will protect you.

JH:  I mean it is outrageous that they should be scared of him, good heavens alive!

MS:  Well, that’s their perception, whether they are right or wrong is another matter.

JH:  But shouldn’t you as the political leader say, ‘do it, just do it’?

MS:  Yes but I want to make sure we do it correctly.

KA:  Do it today, Mr Skinner.

JH:  All right, there we are, do it today she says.  Mike Skinner, Kate Ashbrook, thank you both very much indeed.


Of course East Sussex never did act, and in 2002 I won the case in the Court of Appeal on the grounds that East Sussex had failed to follow its own policy in seeking to divert the path.  Eventually I opened the path in February 2003.  I am grateful to John Humphrys for giving the council a hard time.

web bolt cutters 2

Reopening the illegally-blocked Framfield footpath 9

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Posty Bob is 90

Today my friend Bob Coles is 90.  He was called Posty Bob because he was constantly driving in posts to mend stiles and signposts and provide waymarks and tree-supports.  I wrote about him on his 88th birthday, and I reproduce that blog, slightly updated, to celebrate his special birthday.

Bob has been a courageous defender of public paths, access and the countryside in and around Little Harrowden in Northamptonshire—a part of the country where farmers regularly blocked the paths with crops.  He has waded through fields of oil-seed rape, banging in posts to mark paths across fields, choosing a Sunday to avoid confrontation with landowners. He has built bridges and reported countless path-problems to the county council.  He is rightly outspoken against those who damage and obstruct the public’s paths, and he has a strong sense of their importance to our local history.

Battle honours
Bob has been active all over Northamptonshire, and has a list of battle honours. These include two bridges over the dangerous A14 dual carriageway, one of which enables people to walk safely between the villages of Woodford and Twywell, communities which were long separated by the monstrous road.

He campaigned for the reopening of a blocked bridleway, GT13 at Little Oakley on the Duke of Buccleugh’s estate near Kettering.  We had a photo opportunity there on 13 April 1998 with interviews on BBC and ITV and photographers from the Times and Telegraph.

Buccleuch bridleway KA and Bob Coles 13 April 1998

The obstructed bridleway, Bob is behind.

Buccleuch bridleway Chris Eilbeck and KA 13 April 1998

Chris Eilbeck and me on the obstructed bridleway, photo by Bob









Bob also fought blocked paths on the Althorp estate at Harlestone and lobbied for the restoration of access around Pitstone reservoir.  He is still awaiting the result of his campaign to get a path added to the definitive map at Lilford, providing a vital link in the Nene Way and avoiding a dangerous road-crossing.


Rally at Lilford, June 2010

He was publicity officer for the Ramblers’ Northamptonshire Area from 1986 to 2007, producing magnificent, informative displays.

display 2

Display 1

A member of the Area’s footpath committee until 2007 he still attends the meetings and has recently taken on the role of local footpath secretary for Great and Little Harrowden parishes.  He was also chairman of Little Harrowden Parish Council and chairman of the Finedon Group of the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust.

Little Harrowden
Bob was born and brought up in Little Harrowden, where he still lived with his wife Betty in the house which he built in 1962.  Sadly, Betty died last December, after 65 years of marriage throughout which she was a steadfast support to Bob in all his work.

Betty Coles

Betty Coles

Bob’s mother was clerk and chairman of the Little Harrowden Parish Council.  Bob used to ring the church bells and on one occasion, when he was bored, he carved his initials. He took pleasure in showing us this when we walked there to celebrate his retirement as publicity officer of the Ramblers, on a wet day in August 2008.

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Bob’s initials, carved in Little Harrowden church

Lt Harrowden church door

The Norman door on Little Harrowden church








It was a great event.  Bob led the walk, then back at the village hall we presented him with a tankard and ate a great deal of cake.

Bob Coles and tankard

We also ensured that, in Bob’s spirit of never missing an opportunity for publicity, there were stories in the local papers—the Northampton Evening Telegraph and the Herald and Post.



The photo shows Betty on the right

Thank you Bob, for all you have done and continue to do for walkers.  We are indebted to you.

Posted in Access, campaigns, Ramblers, walking | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fury at Fawley Court

For more than 11 months a popular Thames-side footpath has been unwalkable, due to a broken (and now missing) footbridge. Fawley footpath 12 runs between Henley-on-Thames to the Henley-Marlow Road (A4155), on the Buckinghamshire side of the River Thames.   It is well used, since it is a beautiful walk and it avoids the dangerous Marlow-Henley road.

The missing bridge is across a side-stream which flows into the Thames, below the magnificent Fawley Court, said to be built by Christopher Wren and said to be Toad Hall in the Wind in the Willows.  It is owned by a lady called Aida Hersham.

8 Fawley Court

Fawley Court

Buckinghamshire County Council is responsible for replacing the bridge, but this has been delayed by winter weather, and then the Henley Regatta and traditional boat festival.  However, the pressure for action is mounting, with angry correspondence in the local press, and people calling at the Open Spaces Society (OSS) office in Henley to inquire about it.  Henley is now a Walkers are Welcome town so naturally visitors expect the paths to be clear.

There are apparently problems with riverbank erosion, but I have suggested that Bucks brings in the materials by water and that Ramblers, OSS and Chiltern Society could provide volunteers to help with unloading and carrying.

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Remenham from the site of the missing bridge

This is the path about which I wrote in 2015 regarding a temporary closure during Henley regatta.

I walked the path recently, in two sections because of the missing bridge.  First I approached from the southern end, near Henley. There is a notice where the path leaves the Marlow Road (A4155 at GR SU 760832) saying that a section of the path is closed, under section 14(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, until 16 December 2019.  There is no plan so it is not obvious to which section it refers.  The legislation for temporary closures is grossly inadequate and there is no requirement to display a map at the entrance to the path, although it would certainly be good practice (and there is one at the other end).

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Sign at the southern end of the path (in Oxfordshire)

At GR 767839 there is a barricade across the path where it goes through a tunnel, a field south of the missing footbridge.  This is an offensive and unnecessary action.  People should at the very least be able to walk to the point where the footbridge is gone.  As I approached this point, I met a rambler who had travelled from London to Henley with the aim of walking to Marlow.  He had been thwarted by the obstruction (not having seen the insignificant notice at the path’s end) and was having to rethink his plans.  How many others have had their day’s walking ruined by this closure?

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Barricade across the path and a disappointed rambler

Later I walked the path from the northern end.  There are notices and a plan at GR 772855.

1 Closure on Marlow road

Notices at northern end

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The missing bridge is marked by the yellow blob

I walked over the fields in the soft evening light, with lovely views of the Thames.  The path goes past Temple Island.

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Temple Island

I came to the Temple Island Meadows site of special scientific interest.  The volunteers who work on this site have been laid off until the bridge is fixed because they have no access from the south.


Temple Island Meadows SSSI

I saw some notices telling me the path is closed and that there is no alternative: but of course there should be a safe alternative to the walk along the dangerous road.

5 notice en route

I came to the stream which lacks a bridge (GR 767841).


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Site of missing bridge

After all this time, a publicity stunt might be a good idea.  Perhaps we should organise a rowing boat to take walkers across, or a pole vaulter, to make our point.

I shall keep up the pressure on Bucks County Council as this has gone on for far too long.

Posted in Access, Bucks, campaigns, Henley-on-Thames, Obstructed path, Public paths, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments