I realise that I have spent more than half my life as the Ramblers Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and West Middlesex Area footpath secretary.
I was elected on 26 April 1986 at a special Area committee meeting. Jean Jefcoate, the Ramblers’ Area footpath secretary had resigned. We believed it to be over a difference of opinion with Oxfordshire Ramblers about the route of the M40 east of Oxford. Jean’s resignation was no small thing, she had long served as Bucks footpath secretary for the huge Southern Area, out of which our Area was carved in spring 1984. Buckinghamshire (which then included Milton Keynes) and the five outer London boroughs of Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow, formed an Area. The other counties surrounding London also became Areas incorporating their adjoining boroughs.
At the special meeting I volunteered to become Area footpath secretary and said that I wanted a clear process about agreeing our response to path changes. Until then the parish path reps (now called path-checkers) had been given autonomy which meant there was an inconsistent response across our territory. There was some reluctance about my proposal but, thanks to the positive attitude of Patrick Darnes of Wycombe Group and Tom Berry of West London, we agreed a process which we still follow.
As Area footpath secretary I receive all the consultations and orders for path changes from the local authorities and send them to the relevant parish path-checker, who comments to me. Provided we agree, I send the response to the authority. If we do not, we discuss it further and if we cannot reach agreement, we put it to the Area committee to decide. I do not recall having to put a case to the committee.
We have been critical of path changes which are not in the public interest, objecting when change is proposed to a path which has been deliberately blocked or ploughed and not reinstated. I have appeared at many public inquiries to fight such diversions, and although we lost more than we saved, it has been worthwhile.
For instance, we stopped the extinguishment of Cholesbury footpath 24 in 1992 and Wavendon footpath 7 in 1996 and the diversion of Hanslope footpath 50 in 1994, Newton Blossomville footpath 3 in 1996 and Hughenden footpath 36 in 1995. And only this year we helped to save Harrow footpaths 57 and 58 across the school grounds from diversion. These victories are uplifting, and I am quite sure that there are many changes which were considered and dropped because the councils knew the Ramblers would fight them.
In the early 1990s Bucks County Council had a good reputation for prosecuting landowners who obstructed paths with crops. I alerted them to the obstructed Turville footpath 19, the council prosecuted the offender who was found guilty by the magistrates, and the path was cleared.
North Crawley footpath 20 was cleared after a council prosecution in 1991.
In 1997 Milton Keynes borough became a unitary council. In the preceding months we met the staff and borough councillors to impress on them the importance of investing in public paths. But the paths in Milton Keynes got nothing like the attention which they had when it was part of Bucks, and this discrepancy continues today.
In 1989 we ran the first of a series of campaigns to persuade Bucks County Council to increase staff (a far cry from today’s situation when we are trying to stop cuts) in order to meet the Countryside Commission target of having all its rights of way in order by the year 2000. Then it had only one and a half officers dealing with problems on 2,500 miles of paths. We had two months’ notice of the opportunity to argue for greater resources so we hastily put together a campaign report.
We used the results from surveys which showed that in parishes north of the Chilterns an average of 39 per cent of the paths was poor or unusable, worse than the national average of 34 per cent in a recent Countryside Commission survey. We compared Bucks with its six neighbours and showed that it had the greatest length of public paths and the smallest number of staff. We sent a press release headed ‘Bucks bottom of league table on public-path spending’. We met the chairman of the Planning and Transportation Committee.
Our campaign helped to win an increase of two officers, one for problems and one for legal work (we had asked for three more to deal with problems and one for definitive-map work, but we were not disappointed with the result).
We have run similar campaigns in successive years, but with decreasing success as money gets tighter.
On 23 June 2003 the Ramblers held a national Paths Day and we marked it by a walk on blocked paths in the parish of Oakley in Aylesbury Vale, three miles north-west of Long Crendon.
There are lots of cases to celebrate. For instance, in 1993 Cuddington footpath 13 at the Mill was obstructed by a stone wall. Two months later it was cleared.
Fawley footpath 2 was blocked by a fence—and quizzical llamas—in 1992, but was soon cleared when we protested.
I have been immensely fortunate throughout my 31 years to have a dedicated team of parish path-checkers. They endeavour to walk all the paths in their parish at least once a year and report their results which we present in the Area annual report. I have recently taken on path-checking. My parish is Piddington and Wheeler End in Wycombe district. It is enjoyable and takes me about 15 hours to walk the 20 miles of routes and report problems.
We have 88 path-checkers covering 160 parishes plus the London boroughs, with 162 parishes not covered. People come and go. Some of our groups organise survey walks, when they blitz a parish and report the problems, an excellent idea because it combines going for a walk with helping to make the paths better and explains to our members what we do to help people walk.
I am conscious that I do not do the job as thoroughly as I might, largely due to shortage of time. My role is to deal with path changes, answer queries and lead campaigns to get a better deal for paths. I would like to have time to run training events and get-togethers for our path checkers, which we have done in the past.
Volunteers, such as our acting Area secretary John Esslemont and Aylesbury and District Group footpath secretary Roy Johnson, have been invaluable in checking on the forthcoming HS2 and East-West Rail, both of which will have a devastating effect on some of our paths. Within the Area there are 10 groups, and the group footpath secretaries are a great help: they manage the path-check and collate the results, and find volunteers to fill vacant parishes.
We are a good team, and it is because of this support that I have been able to do the job for 31 years.