There was a time when the Ramblers’ constitution required its members to pledge observance of the Country Code.
The Ramblers and Open Spaces Society had drafted the first Country Code in the 1940s and pressed ministers to act on it. They were pleased when the code was published in 1951, and at some point the Ramblers made it a constitutional requirement for its members to observe it.
However, 33 years later the Ramblers renounced the code, by a close vote at national council (the AGM) on 15 April 1984.
The Ramblers’ Midland Area (as it was then called) was frustrated by the deplorable state of the paths in its territory The national council motion was inspired by Leo Ménage, chairman of the Stratford Group, who proposed it at the meeting. Jane Timmins seconded it. Leo felt strongly that it was impossible for walkers to follow the Country Code when farmers were ignoring it, and that it was wrong to expect Ramblers’ members to sign a commitment to observe it. The motion was as follows.
This National Council
1. Affirms the right of any individual member of the Association to take any lawful action in response to problems encountered an public rights, of way as a result of unlawful action by landowners or negligence by highway authorities;
2. recognises that this involves failing to observe the Country Code in the following circumstances (inter alia):
(a) It is impossible to ‘keep to public paths across farmland’ if the paths are undefined or obstructed or if dangerous animals are at large.
(b) It is impossible to ‘use gates and stiles to cross fences, hedges and walls’ if there are no gates and stiles.
(c) It is impossible to ‘leave crops alone’ if crops are growing on the surface of a path;
3. directs that members should no longer be required to sign an undertaking to observe the Country Code;
4. calls upon the National Executive Committee to bring forward appropriate proposals for the amendment of Rule 6 of the Constitution.
The motion was carried by 41 votes to 38, tight but good enough.
The following year, on behalf of the executive committee, Peter Melchett (president) proposed the motion to amend the constitution. I seconded it.
Clause 6: delete paragraph 2 [which required members to observe the Country Code] and insert in its place ‘Any person accepting membership of the Association agrees to respect the countryside, especially its beauty and wildlife, and to promote access to it on foot’.
This was passed by 67 to 32 with 4 abstentions, so the necessary two-thirds majority was achieved. The new words were also included on membership cards.
The constitutional amendment has been carried forward into the current articles of association. Article 15.2 states: It is a condition of individual membership of Ramblers that the individual member agrees to respect the countryside, especially its beauty and wildlife, and to promote access to it on foot.
Some years after the 1984 resolution, with an eye to the difficulties in obeying the Country Code, Alan Howard (a member of the executive committee and a graphic designer with a flair for publicity) designed a leaflet setting out simply what one should do if one meets the sorts of problems identified in the 1984 resolution. The leaflet had a form on the reverse which enabled people to report problems to the Ramblers.
These problems have not gone away. Natural England and Natural Resources Wales have recently refreshed what is now called the Countryside code. The 2021 version is less prescriptive than the original skirting around the problems which arose in 1984. There is also now a much-needed code for land managers.
Things have improved somewhat in the last 37 years but there is still a way to go.