It was good to go to Swaffham, in Norfolk’s Brecklands, for the annual get-together of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network. Swaffham is the only WAW town in East Anglia and it certainly gave us a great welcome, with an excellent meeting in a super venue.
Less welcoming was the shoot taking place on Castle Acre common on the afternoon of Saturday 19 October. The Iceni Partnership, which organised the conference, arranged three walks for us. I went on the Nar Valley Way from Castle Acre to West Acre and back (about three miles each way).
The path runs along the north side of Castle Acre common which straddles the river.
The shooting was taking place on the common, which is public-access land. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives the public the right to walk on all commons which had no pre-existing access.
Landowners can carry out their own activities on access land, but they need to tell Natural England and advertise the access restriction. In the case of shooting, obviously they must put up notices and arrange for people to be posted at all access points to prevent walkers from being shot. There were no notices and no one to warn us. The shooters didn’t stop when we passed by on the footpath.
I have complained to Norfolk County Council, the access authority, but so far have not had a satisfactory response. This was dangerous, walkers were at risk, and the incident should be followed up to ensure it does not happen again.
The council should also arrange for access signs to be put up at all the access points onto common land. There was none on Castle Acre common nor on West Acre common, yet we passed some obvious access points. For many, the rights to enjoy these commons are a well-kept secret.
The sign below (not a county council one) on West Acre Common exacerbates the confusion. Yes, strictly speaking, it is private property, just as all land in this country belongs to someone, but those words in large letters are off-putting to walkers. Then if we read on, we see that we ‘are welcome’, as if the landowner is generously giving us permission, whereas of course we have the right to walk here. A county council public-access sign would make things clearer.
Path maintenance in Norfolk is patchy and inconsistent. The total recorded network is about 2,400 miles. Half this length, 1,200 miles, is branded Norfolk Trails. These routes get higher priority and waymarking. The stretch of the Nar Valley Way which we walked is well signed with sparkling new waymarks.
The unpromoted routes are not so well cared for. Of course all the paths are public highways, and Norfolk County Council has a duty to keep them all in good order. This two-tier system is damaging for those which are not named trails.
Norfolk has fewer paths than many counties, due to the predominance of influential landowners when the definitive maps were prepared in the 1950s, so it really has no excuse for neglecting any of them.
(Since writing this I learn that, in a survey by the National Highways & Transport Network, Norfolk ranks bottom (ie 25th out of 25) for public satisfaction with the maintenance of its public rights of way. So it seems that this hierarchy system is clearly not working.)