Hikers’ Henley welcomes walkers

On 30 September, the Ordnance Survey’s GetOutside Day, I launched Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire as a Walkers Are Welcome Town. 

I cut the ribbon with the mayor, Glen Lambert and pronounced the town ready to welcome walkers.  I dubbed it ‘Hikers’ Henley’ (rather than ‘Boaters’ Henley’).

Henley Standard

Cutting the ribbon, left to right Peter Stone (WAW committee chairman), KA, volunteer Clare McCarthy, secretary Alie Hagedoom and mayor Glen Lambert. Photo: credit Henley Standard

Located on the edge of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Henley has a terrific network of paths, including the Thames Path National Trail, the Oxfordshire Way and other named routes; but more importantly there are the many field and woodland paths which run between villages and take you to fascinating places.

Temple Island

Thames Path National Trail

Henley achieved its status a few months ago, having complied with the goals set by the Walkers Are Welcome towns.  It has a strong committee made up of representatives from the Ramblers, the town council, the Chiltern Society, the visitor centre and local businesses.  The Chiltern Society does maintenance work on the paths, and there is a wide choice of walks, with a good public transport system, to name a few of the town’s assets.

Signpost

A number of businesses have already signed up to support Walkers are Welcome including the River and Rowing Museum, Stoke Row stores, the Cherry Tree at Stoke Row, the Stag and Huntsman at Hambleden and The Barn at Turville Heath.  No doubt more businesses in the town itself will want to sign up soon.

Henley is only the second Walkers are Welcome town in Oxfordshire (Charlbury was first), and there are still too few accredited towns in the south-east of England.  We must remedy that.

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National parks: a common good

I was invited to have the last word at the national park societies’ annual conference, What value our national parks? held at the Two Bridges hotel in the heart of Dartmoor, on 6 October.  Organised by the Dartmoor Preservation Association, it was a very full day with many excellent speakers, covering sustainable tourism, natural and cultural capital, and farming and conservation.  Inevitably it focused mostly on farming, especially since the Agriculture Bill had recently been published and we were staring Brexit in the face.

It was particularly appropriate that the national parks societies’ annual conference should have been held during World Commons Week (4-12 October).  The week, organised by the International Association for the Study of the Commons, is to celebrate half a century of commons scholarship since Garrett Hardin’s influential but misleading Tragedy of the Commons article in Science magazine.

Public benefit
National parks are common goods in the broad sense—they are not commonly owned but they provide massive public benefit: clean air and water, beautiful landscapes and places for quiet recreation and reflection.  More than a third of Dartmoor is registered common land where commoners exercise rights of grazing, peat cutting etc and the public enjoys rights to walk and ride.

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Double stone row on Merrivale, Dartmoor

There is so much that national parks can achieve, given strong leadership from the national park authorities, Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.  The Campaign for National Parks has set the parks the challenge of upping their game on nature conservation (Raising the Bar), and in Wales the minister has recognised that it must be a priority for designated landscapes to improve the resilience of their ecosystems.

Flexible
Farmers are important partners, but not the only ones; the value of cultural heritage, wildlife and archaeology had all been highlighted.  We need to have flexible prescriptions for agricultural grant schemes because Dartmoor and Exmoor are very different from the northern uplands; it is essential to keep grazing at the right level or molinia (purple moor grass) will swamp our moorland and its ancient monuments and restrict access.  The wording in the Agriculture Bill about public goods is a start, but it must become a reality.

Wensleydale

Wensleydale, Yorkshire Dales National Park

The Glover review of designated landscapes in England is a great opportunity for us to say what we want for national parks, but it must be the start of the process and not an end in itself.  We are facing the biggest change in living memory (for most of us) and national parks must be at the core of it.  They can demonstrate what can be achieved and generate many public goods.

The national parks are each very different, but we are all united in our belief in them and their special qualities.

And the Campaign for National Parks unites us all as the campaigning organisation for the National Parks in England and Wales; it does an amazing job on small resources.

It is time to rekindle our movement.  National parks are as important now as when they were invented nearly seventy years ago.

Norman Cowling and Janette Ward

Norman Cowling, chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and Janette Ward, chair of the Campaign for National Parks

Posted in Access, commons, Dartmoor, International Association for the Study of the Commons, National parks, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, wild country | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Forest at forty

I was pleased to join the Forest of Dean Ramblers for their fortieth anniversary celebrations at Yorkley on 22 September, and the rain did not dampen their spirits.

I arrived rather late so did not do the full walk, but even so got soaked.  It was fun to walk again with my friend Marika Kovacs from Hereford.

Forest of Dean Anniversary Walk2

Walk in the rain

We were glad to return to the community hall for tea and cakes and a great gathering. Robin and Susan Warren and Ray Short, the founder chairman, secretary and treasurer respectively, cut the cake.

Cutting the cake

Roy, Susan and Robin cut the cake

Forest cake

Anniversary cake

 

 

 

 

 

 

The group was the second in Gloucestershire, Cirencester having been formed first in 1974.  Roger Cox and Susan Warren (then Fox) set up the group.  I presented awards to Roger and Susan who have led walks for the group throughout the 40 years and continue to do so: they were given personalised Ordnance Survey maps.

 

Forest of Dean awards

Alan Fisher (former chairman), Robin Warren, Susan Warren, Roger Cox and Barbara Fisher (publicity)

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Personalised OS map for Susan Warren

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I congratulated the group on its 40 years of achievement.  Through the production and sale of walks books it has raised significant sums of money for path improvements.  For instance, I took part in the ceremony to reopen Upper Ford bridge over the River Lyd in June 2015.

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The celebration at Upper Ford bridge, June 2015

It was fun to browse through all the old programmes and posters which the group had produced over the years.

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Memorabilia

Long may the Forest Ramblers continue to enjoy their walks and their work on the paths.

 

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The last full-day’s walk

Ten years ago today, 26 September 2008, was my last full day’s walk on Dartmoor with my friend Rozel Lawlor.  Neither of us had any idea that it was to be our last walk, but the following April she was diagnosed with liver cancer and she died in April 2010, aged only 74.

RozelLawlor

Rozel Lawlor

We first met properly in January 2000, at the funeral of my great friend Sylvia (Lady) Sayer, the Dartmoor champion.  Rozel was a much-loved cousin of Sylvia’s whose grandfather, Robert Burnard (founder of the Dartmoor Preservation Association in 1883), was Rozel’s great-grandfather.  I had heard much about Rozel from Sylvia but rarely had the chance to meet her.

Our friendship blossomed quickly and soon I was a regular visitor to Rozel’s house at Coarsewell, near Ugborough, in south Devon.  We loved to go out all day on Dartmoor with the dogs; Rozel adored Dartmoor but had not had much opportunity for long walks in recent years because her husband, Patrick, no longer wanted to walk far, and was anyway reluctant to explore anywhere new.

And so, on that glorious September day, with dachshunds Diva and Hattie, we parked at Venford Reservoir near Holne and made our way up past tin workings to Ryders Hill, the highest point on the southern moor.

Tin workings on Holne Moor

Tin working on Holne Moor

From there we headed to Ter Hill with a wide view of the Swincombe valley, such a significant place to me given the reservoir battle which was raging just as I became interested in conserving Dartmoor.

Ter Hill cropped

Ter Hill cross with the Swincombe valley beyond

We went down to Deep Swincombe and followed the bridleway to Hexworthy, with views over the Dart to Corndon and Yar Tors in autumn colours.

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The view to Yar and Corndon Tors

We took the track over Huccaby newtake, the scene of a long battle.  Ron Bagshaw of Devon Ramblers had applied for the path to be added to the definitive map; it was the subject of two court cases and a public inquiry.  We lost because the land belongs to the Crown, the Duchy of Cornwall, and so the normal tests for path claims do not apply.  The tenant had locked the gate and put up private notices but, on 26 August 2005, we won access here, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and could enjoy it once more.

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At the stile into Huccaby newtake from the south, on the day it became subject to rights of access, 26 August 2005. photo: John Bainbridge

We followed this track, legally at last, onto the common and then crossed the O Brook and went on to Combestone Tor.  The final leg was above the Dart valley, with a view down to the Double Dart and Eagle Rock (also known as Luckey Tor) where I had enjoyed my first picnic with the Sayer family in 1974.  No doubt I told Rozel all about it (and probably not for the first time, for that was a special day).

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The Double Dart and Eagle Rock, showing white among the trees on the bend in the river

As we returned over the common by Venford Reservoir I was so impressed by the hawthorn berries that I photographed them.

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Hawthorn berries

It had been a perfect Dartmoor day. For our last proper walk it was a memorable one.  I look back on it as a happy day and the calm before the storm of poor Rozel’s fatal illness.

 

 

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A welcome focus on public access

On 14 September, Lord Blencathra (David Maclean), deputy chair of Natural England, opened the National Land Access Centre at the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve in Oxfordshire.  Natural England tends to focus far more on its biodiversity role than its access one, so it was a very welcome speech indeed.  However, only a short extract has been posted on the government website.  Here it is in full.

John Howell Member of Parliament.  Ladies and gentlemen.

I’m honoured to be asked to participate in the opening of this unique facility today – the first of its kind in the UK.

So why are we here?

Natural England research shows that there are around 519 million visits to paths, cycleways and bridleways in England each year.

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Lord Blencathra opens the centre

However, mobility issues can be a major barrier to people heading to the countryside. Over 20 per cent of England’s population cannot use public rights of way, either because they cannot use stiles or kissing-gates themselves, or they are accompanying someone who can’t.

So we decided to do something about it and this project is the culmination of many years of partnership working and determination to ensure that our countryside can rightfully be enjoyed by everyone.

I am delighted to see our partners in the project alongside Natural England represented here today—The British Horse Society, Centrewire and the Pittecroft Trust and I thank them for their work.

Improve
Natural England has been working with the British Horse Society to improve the design of self-closing gates for a number of years following complaints that many were not safe and were reducing access to the countryside. We took the opportunity to widen this work to include all user groups, including those who were less able, as part of our Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010.

Gates

The various structures at the National Land Access Centre

The partnership undertook a ‘Trial of Self-Closing Bridlegates’ in 2015. This involved live testing of ten gates incorporating different design features by approximately 150 people, including horse-riders, disabled users, cyclists, walkers and landowners to find design features that made the gates easy and safe to use.

The trial resulted in a report that contributed to the revision of the British Standard for Gaps Gates and Stiles which was published in February 2018 (BS5709).

Access specialists
This new National Land Access Centre has been designed by access specialists to offer a secure environment to test gates and other access infrastructure meeting the new British Standard for Gaps, Gates and Stiles. This seeks to ensure use of ‘the least restrictive option,’ aimed at opening up the countryside to all, inclusive of walkers, cyclists, horse riders, mobility vehicles, wheelchairs and push chairs.

Trying gates

Testing the gates

Fencing, gates, stiles are all part of the British countryside but not all existing barriers are necessary. Many that are necessary could improve access eg by tying a gate open if livestock are not in the field.

However gates, kissing-gates and self-closing gates are necessary and we would like landowners to install these new ones when they are replacing old ones so that the countryside can be enjoyed by all, not just the able bodied.

Every time a new structure like those you will see today is installed it has the potential to change lives for the better.

But we say that there is an obligation on users too.

The Bridlegate Report recommended that horse riders should be trained on the use of gates. It also recognised that there was a lack of understanding of ‘access furniture’ which needed to be addressed, and that organisations should work together to spread information about the revised standard.

Training courses
Training courses will be available to try out designs, hear about construction and maintenance; see, touch and test real examples in situ to find out how they can provide improved access for all, and identify the most appropriate for their needs.

From what I have seen today I hope the team will come to the House of Lords and install easy opening doors since wheelchair users have awful problems there.

The launch today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Aston Rowant national nature reserve which itself was made accessible to all in the 1990s.

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One of the five statutory duties of Natural England is to promote access to the countryside.

Improved access will help to connect more people with their natural environment, giving them a chance to enjoy our countryside and improving mental health and well-being —all key aspects of the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan.

Aston Rowant

Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve

I am delighted that Natural England has played a key role in the partnership responsible for developing the National Land Access Centre, and I congratulate our Natural England staff and all our partners and everyone involved in this excellent initiative which I now launch.

Thank you, Lord Blencathra, for those welcome words.  I hope we can work with Natural England to ensure that the Agriculture Bill really does encourage more access to the countryside, and ensure that farmers and landowners comply with their legal responsibilities on paths and access land.

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PM opens Margaret’s Bridge

Theresa May, as MP for Maidenhead, took a break from Brexit on Monday (14 September) to open the bridge in honour of Margaret Bowdery, the tireless Ramblers’ campaigner in East Berkshire, who died in 2016.

The bridge is over the stream called The Cut, and links Braywick Park with Oldfield School in Bray Road, creating a safe and pleasant route for walkers, riders and cyclists.  It was funded by money from developers in mitigation for nearby building.

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Bridge over The Cut

The event was organised by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM) in conjunction with the East Berkshire Ramblers, and I had been invited to speak in my capacity as chair of Ramblers GB.  Margaret’s husband Bernard and son Nigel were there.

Because of security requirements, I had no idea that Theresa May was coming until I arrived—and it was a great tribute to Margaret that she took the time to join us.

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Margaret Bowdery in 2013

We were introduced by the Mayor, Paul Lion, then I spoke of Margaret’s contribution to the Ramblers, some of which I have recorded here.

When Margaret moved to Maidenhead in 1964 the public paths were in a dire state.  When an officer from Berkshire County Council told her that the paths were not needed and should be extinguished, she was furious and immediately set to work, forming the Ramblers’ group to clear, waymark and sort out the paths.

She strongly believed in connecting missing links in the path network—which is why it is particularly appropriate that she should be honoured with a bridge.  She won the footbridge over the River Thames at Temple, which opened up 16 miles of the Thames Path, and claimed 3.7 metres of missing path under Cookham Bridge, using paintings by Stanley Spencer as evidence of its existence.

Lethal road
And after a long fight she won a footpath under the lethal A404 dual carriageway at Bisham—which was opened by Theresa May in 2005.  Until now the Bowdery Arch was the only public monument to Margaret.

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Theresa and Margaret celebrate the opening of the footpath under the A404 dual carriageway at Bisham, 17 June 2005.

I was told before we started that Margaret’s Bridge is made of extremely strong material, from waste.  Like Margaret it is tough and long-lasting: she fought for paths and open spaces for more than 50 years.  She would have been delighted to have learned, as we did last week, that the government’s Agriculture Bill contains provisions for farmers to be rewarded for providing access after Brexit—but she would also expect us to lobby hard to ensure that the access becomes a reality.

Simon Dudley, leader of RBWM Council, talked of the difference that Margaret had made in the borough, and Theresa May then spoke of her persistence and determination, saying that she was the most frequent visitor to her surgery.   ‘Margaret Bowdery’s tenacity meant something to me because she ensured that spaces were opened up for people to be able to enjoy the countryside and their local environment; I think Margaret’s bridge is a fine addition to Maidenhead,’ she said.

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Cutting the ribbon. Photo: RBWM

She then cut the ribbon and declared the bridge open to all: a fitting memorial to a great campaigner.

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A plaque in the centre of the bridge marks Margaret’s great contribution to safe paths and greenways around Maidenhead

 

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Counting owls

I signed up for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Tawny Owl Point Survey.  The BTO is concerned that tawny owl populations may have declined but it needs evidence from nocturnal surveys.  This one is being done in selected areas, where BTO has carried out surveys in the past (most recently 1989 and 2005), so that it can monitor the changes. 

The Chilterns are included so I opted for two tetrads in Buckinghamshire: SU89B near the village of Wheeler End, and SU89C immediately to the north, on the northern side of the A40.  I am familiar with this area because it falls within my Ramblers’ path-checking parish of Piddington and Wheeler End.

Two visits
The requirement is for at least two visits in each tetrad, preferably separated by less than a fortnight, within two hours of sunset, between 15 August and 15 October.  You have to stand as near to the middle of your tetrad as you can, and listen for owls for two consecutive spells of ten minutes, recorded hoots and calls.  From this you can estimate the number of territories in each tetrad.

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Denham Wood

Fortunately, with plenty of paths here, I could walk very close to the centre of my tetrads.

To reach the site for SU89B, I followed the footpath through the gate installed under the Chiltern Society’s Donate a Gate scheme, by the Ramblers’ Wycombe and District Group in honour of John Esslemont’s long service (grid reference SU805929).

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John Esslemont’s gate on Piddington and Wheeler End footpath 7

I crossed a field

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The path to the owl site

and went into Denham Wood, where I found a spot I would be able to identify again, where two beech-trees are growing close together.

4 Wheeler End

Owl site

On the first visit on 7 September I started at 20.06, and during both the first and second point counts heard one owl calling.  My second visit was on 17 September (starting at 20.00).   I heard one owl hooting during each count.  I hope I haven’t mixed hoots and calls, but it can be quite difficult to distinguish them despite the helpful recordings on the BTO website.  I think sometimes I was hearing young birds.

Matters were made more complicated by the constant chunterings, from pheasants I presume.  When I walked back through the wood they flew noisily out of the trees.

Crossroads
The second tetrad to the north has conveniently at its centre a crossroads of footpaths: from Ham Farm to the south, Green End Farm to the west, Chorley Farm to the north and Great Cockshoots Wood to the east.  I found a spot where the footpath goes through a gap in the hedge at the top of the hill, a good vantage point.

2 Green End Farm

Good vantage point

On my first visit, 1 September, I started at 20.28 and heard nothing in the first ten minutes, and then a call in the second.  On my second visit, on 7 September at 21.03 (after visiting the Wheeler End tetrad), I heard one hoot in the second ten minutes; both times the owls were in Chawley Wood to the north.

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Gap in the hedge, looking north to Chawley Wood

So my conclusions so far are that there is one territory in each tetrad.  I shall repeat the exercise in February or March, and again in autumn 2019 and spring 2020.

It is not too late to sign up for a tetrad, so take a look at the BTO website.  Also, there is a tawny owl calling survey which starts from 30 September and is very flexible.  As we have owls close to home I shall do that one too, from my doorstep.

It has been delightful on these warm autumn evenings to be out listening for owls.

Posted in AONB, Birds, British Trust for Ornithology, Bucks, Chilterns, Public paths | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment