Eyes and ears on public paths

It is 25 years ago this month that I explored the public paths around John Major’s house at Great Stukeley in Cambridgeshire.  It was 1991 and John Major was Prime Minister, at a time of heightened IRA activity.

Earlier in 1991 the Ramblers Huntingdonshire Group had been stopped when walking one of the paths near the PM’s house. They were not prevented from continuing their walk, but had been left with the impression that the police had the right to stop them.  The group secretary, Bill Thompson, wrote to the Cambridgeshire Constabulary.

He received an extremely helpful reply from Chief Superintendent R L Waters, dated 18 March 1991, which path defenders have quoted ever since.  The Super wrote:

In the normal course of events the police officers tasked with the Prime Minister’s security will be only too pleased to see members of the public and local people using the public footpaths.  This gives the opportunity for additional ‘eyes and ears’ to be present in the area.

Absolutely right.

Letter from Superintendent

I was intrigued to see the site for myself, and I visited on 1 June 1991.  This account comes from the notes I made of the occasion.

When I arrived in Great Stukeley I had no idea where to go.  I found some Childrenchildren playing on the green and asked them where John Major’s house was.  I got a chorus of different instructions, but one took charge:  ‘We’ll show you if you like’.  I didn’t want to take them away from their football but they were keen, so we set off, all eight of us.  We went on the main road—which was a bit worrying as I felt responsible for the children as the cars whizzed past.  Then as we got to the bend they said that this was the house and that the police cars would be outside.  Not wanting to be conspicuous I suggested we went along the field paths.

Bean crop
They marched along the headland path through a bean crop which had encroached onto it, and which I later reported to Cambridgeshire County Council.  I felt like the Pied Piper.  We got to the corner of the house and I sent them all back along the path while I went on. The house  was some distance from the path and well hidden by trees beyond the wire fence.

John Major's house

John Major’s house from the footpath, 1 June 1991

I saw a policeman with a dog walking up the field, not on a right of way.  We had a chat and he expressed an interest in the Ramblers saying he’d always meant to join.  I took his address to send him a leaflet—a nice reversal of roles since usually it’s the copper taking the address.  (He was 322 Streater, Dog Section—I hope he joined.)  Over his radio came the words from another policeman: ‘There’s a young lady stating her claim to the path’.  I told him that this was incorrect, I was on a public right of way, not stating a claim to it. They were clearly a bit confused.

I walked onto Bampton, a couple of miles to the south, on more cropped paths (which I reported), where I joined Chris Hall who had been speaking at the Ramblers Hunts Group AGM.

It was an interesting experience, and goes to show that there is a lot of scaremongery about public highways and security.  If the Cambridgeshire police could recognise the benefit of having a public footpath running behind the PM’s house at a time of terrorist activity why should other landowners complain?


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
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