Half my life a footpath secretary

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.

FP58 direct route

The view from Harrow footpath 58, which we have saved from diversion

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.

Z Tur FP19 Geoff Dowen 14 May 90

Turville footpath 19 in May 1990, after Bucks County Council had prosecuted the landowner for crop obstruction. Photo: Geoff Dowen.

North Crawley footpath 20 was cleared after a council prosecution in 1991.

Z N Crawley FP20 cleared for first time 30 Mar 91

North Crawley footpath 20, cleared for the first time in living memory, March 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.

More resources for paths

Our 1989 campaign report

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.

Paths Day
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.


The late Oliver Statham tackles a blocked path in Oakley, June 2003

There are lots of cases to celebrate.  For instance, Cuddington footpath 13 at the Mill was obstructed by a stone wall.  Two months later it was cleared.

Z Cuddington Mill FP13 obstructed 21 Feb 93, Clive, Dave, Jo

Footpath 13, Cuddington Mill

Z Cuddington Mill FP13 reopened 12 Apr 93









Fawley footpath 2 was blocked by a fence—and quizzical llamas—in 1992, but was soon cleared when we protested.

Z Fawley obstruction Tony White The Times 12 Jan 92

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.

Z 8 May 05 Eakley Manor, Stoke Goldington, Donald MacCallum

Donald MacCallum, former group footpath secretary for Milton Keynes, is not normally on the fence. This was the walk to commemorate his predecessor, the late Don Whiteley in May 2005, and the obstructed path is at Eakley Manor, Stoke Goldington

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.

Posted in Access, Bucks, campaigns, Obstructed path, Public paths, Ramblers, Ramblers' path-check, walking | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Swift action in the North York Moors

Shortly after my visit with the Ramblers to the North York Moors on 18 July I reported the wobbly, dangerous stile at Fylingthorpe (grid reference NZ 945048).

1 Stile at Fylingthorpe

Wobbly stile at Fylingthorpe, 18 July 2017

On 15 August. it was fixed.  Bernie McLinden, the North York Moors National Park Authority senior ranger (coast), has written: ‘Couldn’t get agreement for a gate but have repaired the stile. Given the nature of the gap with stone walls and stone floor we had to install something a little different to the usual stile—but I think it works well.’  Although he had been away that did not hold things up, and the stile was built by his colleague, Martyn Williams.

Mended stile at Fylingthorpe

New stile at Fylingthorpe, 15 August 2017

It looks wonderful; I can’t wait to go back and use it.  And what a speedy response—I doubt many authorities would fix a stile within a month.

Thanks Bernie and Martyn!

Posted in Access, National parks, Obstructed path, Public paths, Ramblers, walking | 4 Comments

Heart-lifting finale

The final session of the Utrecht conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) was held in the Janskerk.  It was a policy debate on the interplay between science and practice.  I welcomed this as it is what I believe the IASC should be promoting.

Policy debate

Entertainment before the policy debate began in the Janskerk

The most heart-lifting moment was when Miguel Laborda-Pemán of Utrecht University presented the results of a meeting of young scholars the previous evening.  Sixty young scholars had attended, the average age was 30 and nearly half of them were affiliated to institutions outside their home country: they are a mobile community.

Here is the slide.

Young scholars' meeting

Top of the list, under the heading ‘relevance’, is: To explore and make more visible the connection between research and social impact.

And under ‘communication’: With the general public to increase knowledge and awareness—activism and institutional barriers.

This is encouraging stuff.  The young scholars are saying very clearly what they want from IASC.

International divide
This was reinforced by Jagdeesh Rao, head of India’s Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), who called for more action on the ground.  He said that the divide between researchers and activists is international.  ‘If science is going to pour new wisdom into village communities I have trouble.  We’ve had four to five thousand years of castism—thinkers and doers have been reduced from humans to lesser humans.  There is no method in the madness of the real world, how does science improve on method?’

FES team

Jagdeesh Rao (right) with, left to right, Rahul Chaturvedi and Subrata Singh of FES

I asked the platform team how they considered IASC should realise the excellent aspiration of the young scholars to bring together research and social impact and make the connection more visible.  Marco Janssen, Professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona University, chose to answer.  He will take on the presidency of IASC in 2019, following John Powell from the Countryside and Communities Research Institute (CCRI) of Gloucestershire University, who is currently president.

Marco said that a lot of universities were not prepared to collaborate with practitioners, or at least were not willing to travel to do so.  He said that we need to become less risk averse, we need a long-term strategy and we have to experiment—but he did not suggest that he would lead the IASC council in this activity when he is president.

This was a disappointing response.  However, we have another 18 months of John Powell’s presidency and, with the young scholars snapping at council’s heels, I hope that much can be achieved.

Lima here we come!
And we can look forward to the next global conference to be held in Lima, Peru, 1-5 July 2019.  It will be organised jointly by universities in Peru and Colombia.  I joined the organisers at a breakfast meeting to discuss plans for this conference and was encouraged that practitioners will be at its heart.  We are on the right road.

Breakfast meeting

Breakfast meeting. Left to right: Marco Janssen, Deborah Delgado Pugley (Pontifical Catholic University, Peru), Anne Larsen (Center for International Forestry Research, Indonesia), Xavier Basurto (Duke University, North Carolina, USA), Juan Camillo Cárdenas (Universidad de los Andes, Colombia), John Powell and me.

Posted in commons, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Colour Kitchen

A feature of the biennial conferences held by the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) is the dinner.  This year it was held at Utrecht’s Museum Speelklok, a museum of extraordinary, automatically-playing musical instruments. 

We gathered in the main hall for the presentation of the Elinor Ostrom awards and sumptuous food, before having a tour of the museum.

musical instrument

Travelling organ

There were many examples of co-operatives at this conference, such as The Colour Kitchen, which provided the excellent food that evening.  It was organic, vegetarian and locally-sourced.

The Colour Kitchen’s slogan is ‘No social waste’.  David Poiesz, the manager, explained that they give an opportunity to people ‘at a distance from the job market’.  They take on the unemployed, former prisoners, people with health problems and others who have difficulty finding jobs.  It trains them and then encourage them to train others.  At the end of the course they gain a qualification.

‘Talent should not be left on the couch’ said David, ‘everyone deserves a chance’.  It is a social enterprise, speaking with a social heart and working with an eye for people and the environment.  Each year about 300 people are employed by The Colour Kitchen in various parts of the Netherlands to learn skills.

David and manifesto

David Poiesz with the manifesto

The manifesto sets out its ethics and ambitions.  Translated, it reads:

  • Talent should not be left on the bench
  • Everyone deserves a new chance
  • We don’t work with labels (but with a quality mark)
  • We believe that we can make a difference together
  • Show that social is the new normal
  • People with a story have more to offer
  • Be creative every day
  • Give people space to learn from their mistakes
  • You’ll find that you get a good return
  • Everyone is entitled to a job
  • Social enterprise is seriously addictive
  • We get energy from people who grow
  • You need the space to discover your talent

Tine de Moor from Utrecht University and former president of the IASC signed the manifesto on behalf of the Institutions for Collective Action, one of the organisers of the conference.

The Colour Kitchen is an excellent model for others to follow.

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Late-singing chiffchaffs

Tuesday’s episode of The Archers was quite earthy, with Roy Tucker being ‘caught short’ and his daughter Phoebe having to do a pregnancy test.  

Listeners may have been so taken up with all this that they failed to notice a chiffchaff singing in the background when Clarry Grundy, Susan Carter and Roy were chatting outside the Dairy.

If Jim Lloyd or Robert Snell had been around they might have observed that 15 August was pretty late in the year for a chiffchaff to sing.


Chiffchaff. Wikipedia commons

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Defending land rights: finding solutions

A novel feature of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) Utrecht conference was the invitation to submit proposals for practitioners’ labs.  The idea was to have a number of snappy presentations and then a discussion, on a theme of practical value. 

With help from the IASC’s president, John Powell, I put together a proposal called ‘Defending land rights: exploring the solutions to current issues’, which was accepted by the conference assessors.  Despite the lab being scheduled for the last morning, we had more than 30 people which was encouraging.  The 90 minutes allocated was nothing like enough time—we were still in full flow when we had to break.

We were allocated zaal (room) 1636 which was lined with photos of  women professors of the university.

Women's room

The women’s room

John Powell chaired the session and we had contributors from all over the world.  Here are some titbits from the flipchart.

Fionuala Cregan from Land Rights Now spelt out the problem her group faces.  ThereLand rights now badge small are 2.5 billion people with no secure land rights.

LRN acts for them, communicating why land rights are important and building a global movement.  Earth Day on 22 April is a worldwide event to promote environmental and climate understanding.  Fionuala showed a couple of one-minute videos which are powerful, see here, here and here for instance.

wampis summit-590

Wampis delegates at their summit to form their autonomous government. Photo: New Internationalist

Thomas Niederberger from the University of Bern in Switzerland has been working with the Wampis in Peru’s Northern Amazon.  After decades of abuse and exploitation, the Wampis have established their own government. Their story is told in the Guardian here.  Thomas explained how they must protect 1.3 million hectares of forest to combat climate change; how the oil and gas have been exploited, with pipeline spills, a hydro dam and a terrible massacre; the lack of recognition of indigenous people as a legal category, and the action the Wampis have taken to get publicity (through the Guardian and Facebook).  There are great problems of finance, for the indigenous organisations, active research and communications, and of ensuring the people are safe.

Pranab Choudhury, Center for Land Governance, NRMC, India spoke on Community land rights and customary tenure.  There is no commonly-agreed standard or definition for common land; customary tenure is largely not legally recognised.  There is a diversity of tenure, sometimes the chief decides, sometimes there is a democratic process.  There is some legal protection but mixed implementation.



Pranab suggested that resolution is through the documentation of customary tenures and creating records of land.

Anne Larsen, Center for International Forestry Research posed some questions and thoughts.

Anne Larsen

Anne Larsen

What do we mean by success?  It is always temporary, because new challenges come.

What do we mean by recognising community land-rights?  This can take a long time.

Reforms come from many perspectives: eg conservation, rights, forests, which affect the goal.

Most positive steps come out of crisis or political change, eg from authoritarian to democratic, or vice versa.

You need: leadership, monitoring, communication and allies in government.

Leticia Merino, University of Mexico UNAM spoke on forest rights in Mexico.

Latin America has the largest area of forest land under community control.  This is the result of social movements which have had a profound effect.

In Latin America, the mining sector is very strong.  The federal government has the right to use the subsoil, oil and water.  Land grabbing is related to exports.

Sixty per cent of the forest areas are under concessions.  There is misuse of water for mining and fracking.

We need new frameworks for social action and new alliances.

For the Open Spaces Society (OSS) I talked about use rights and public access in England and Wales

In the inclosure movement of 17th-19th centuries many commons were taken from the people and put in the hands of relatively few landowners.  In 1965, we had an act of parliament to record the remaining commons.  There was no right for the public to walk on most commons.

Activists ran a campaign to win access rights for the public to commons and mapped open country.

Prentice & Meacher, Boulsworth 1997

Gordon Prentice, Michael Meacher and ramblers on the approach to Boulsworth Hill, which was forbidden land then (1997).  We were lobbying for a right-to-roam law.

Campaigns must have a clear aim or target, you must identify who is the decision maker and then focus your lobbying on that person or organisation.

For the access campaign, we had to lobby government, with evidence of need and benefit.  When a favourable government took power in 1997 we were ready with our campaign.  We won the new law in 2000 but the campaign took over 10 years.

Chris Short, Foundation for Common Land (FCL) explained that the FCL strapline is ‘collaboration, convening, championing, challenging’.

Chris spoke of a case where the Lake District National Park wanted to lease land at Glenridding Common.  The FCL talked to the national park authority and set out a number of requirements of the new lessee.  He or she must:

  • recognise the formal pastoral system and not exercise a right of veto,
  • consult the commoners,
  • manage the infrastructure supporting agricultural activities,
  • at the end of project (3 years) consult over what happens next.

FCL was successful in getting these points recognised in the lease to the John Muir Trust.


Striding Edge, Glenridding Common. Photo: John Muir Trust

Anne MacKinnon, water-law scholar from the University of Wyoming, spoke on overcoming inequity in water-use Anne McKinnonrules.  The Wind River tribe won rights to water.  There was a 1990 water code but it was subject to state law and it was still impossible to use half of the water right.

In the tribe there was great poverty with 70 per cent unemployment; it had no access to the living river—ie it had legal rights it could not exercise.

The question was how to get to co-management of the resource.

The presentations raised lots of issues for discussion, but there was little time and it was frustrating not being able to pursue points fully.  We touched on campaigning techniques but could have said so much more.

Issues which came up were:

  • you need evidence to raise awareness,
  • be ready when opportunity arises,
  • it is important to note that success is not permanent, and that failure can be temporary too,
  • you need to create a presence,
  • what is the best political strategy for protecting community rights?  There are different models for different situations,
  • there is a political attempt to hijack commons for global institutions,
  • commons need to be part of the discussion on land rights,
  • you should have a list of things not to do.

I shall send a note of the lab to all those who were there.   I have a growing list of practitioner contacts to which I add from each conference.  I am hoping that this global gathering can communicate and learn from each other’s experiences.


Wind River range, Wyoming, by Jay Ashbrook

Next year the Countryside and Community Research Institute of Gloucestershire University is running an online course on Defending the Commons, in which I am participating.  This will be one of many opportunities to continue the conservation.

Posted in Access, campaigns, common land, common rights, commons, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Netherlands | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hidcote’s hidden story

My visit to Hidcote Manor garden in Gloucestershire on 20 June this year was the first time I had shown my National Trust card and gone in by the main entrance.

In 1989 and for some years after I visited using the public footpaths which crossed the garden—although I did so with some difficulty since they had been obstructed by hedges, locked gates and other paraphernalia.

2 long walk

Hidcote’s Long Walk today: footpaths HEB 6 and 8 used to cross this and were obstructed.

The matter came to my attention in May 1989 when Cotswold District Council made a diversion and extinguishment order to move the blocked paths around the illegal obstructions in the garden.  The Open Spaces Society’s policy is normally to object to the diversion of obstructed paths, since paths should be reopened as required by law rather than diverted to avoid the blockage.  In fact, the society’s former local correspondent for the area, Peter Newman, had objected to the diversions in 1985.

Hidcote FP HEB6 in May 1989

In May 1989 this hedge was obstructing Ebrington footpath HEB6 at grid reference SP 1752 4278

I walked through the garden, making use of Ebrington footpaths HEB6 and 8, and found the obstructions.  I had to make the necessary deviations to enable me to continue my journey.

The Open Spaces Society objected to the diversion and extinguishment and wrote to the National Trust and Gloucestershire County Council, pointing out that there were ten obstructions on 835 metres of public footpath at Hidcote.  The obstructions were:

HEB 8: a thick hedge, an unopenable door marked ‘private’, a padlocked gate
HEB 6: four hedges and two fences
HEB 5: fence

Hidcote FP HEB8 in May 1989

In May 1989 this locked gate marked ‘private’ obstructed Ebrington footpath HEB8 at grid reference SP 1755 4275

The OSS also issued a press release which received good publicity and caused some outrage from the tenant farmer.  Other objectors appeared, but unfortunately the Ramblers Gloucestershire Area did not object to the order.

Hidcote FP HEB6 May 1989

In May 1989 this fence obstructed footpath HEB6 at grid reference SP 1745 4275.

Correspondence continued for some years.  At first Gloucestershire County Council was defensive, claiming that the definitive map (the legal record) was wrong.  However, it relented and the National Trust did largely reopen the paths.  On 13 July 1996 I led a walk of Ramblers’ Area secretaries, who were attending the Area secretaries’ conference in Warwick, on the public footpath through the garden.

Area secs at Hidcote1 13 Jul 1996

Ramblers’ Area secretaries walking the old definitive line through Hidcote garden. Left to right: Geoff Williams (Dyfed), Peter Barbour (Oxon), unidentified person, Jo Bird (trustee), Maurice Tebbutt (Northants), Mavis Rear (Glos).

Area secs at Hidcote2 13 Jul 1996

Ramblers’ Area secretaries in Hidcote garden, second in line is Michael Bird (Warwickshire)

Eventually, in March 1997 Gloucestershire County Council said that the orders would be withdrawn.  After further discussion, and the offer of paths in addition to those created by the diversion, the OSS agreed not to object to a revised order and it was confirmed in August 1999—more than ten years after the original order.

1 diversion route point I

Diverted route of HEB 8 south of the gardens

The additional routes were one across the parkland adjoining the gardens, and a path parallel to the road leading to the car-park, which takes walkers off the road.  It has a generous width, stated in the order: ‘to be an enclosed width of a minimum of 2m at point U gradually widening from the gate at that point to a minimum of 4m wide and a maximum of 5m wide measured from the edge of the boundary adjacent to the unclassified road to the north, numbered 40518, leading to Hidcote Manor Gardens car park’.   I have put a copy of the plan at the end of this blog; it is quite complicated!

4 creation

Created path parallel to the road to the car-park

5 creation avoids this road

The path takes walkers off this road

When I visited on 20 June it was difficult to see where the paths had once run, and few people will remember that there were once paths across the garden.  It is good to know that as a result of the Open Spaces Society’s objection to the 1989 order, we have useful additional paths which would not have otherwise been created.

Hidcote plan

Plan showing path diversions, extinguishments and creations

Posted in Access, campaigns, National Trust, Obstructed path, Open Spaces Society, Public paths, Ramblers, walking | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments