Sunday, 24 February 2013
I'm unsure why I felt compelled to stop, but I'm here now. I turn off the headlights, pour myself a hardly-warm coffee from a large flask and allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness. There's an eerieness to this stretch of road that always makes me uneasy. The tree makes it more so.
Finishing my pick-me-up, I open the wagon's door and step onto the verge. I'm swallowed by the coldness of the night air. I zip my fleece to the top and take a few tentative steps into the edge of the forest.
The glow of moonlight forces its way through overhanging branches, hiding waiting monsters, making shadows sinister. And yet I keep walking.
Until I'm there.
Then I reach out for the tree. Touch its alien branches. Imagine what stories it has to tell.
* * * * * *
I'd first seen The Shoe Tree a couple of weeks previously. Leaving Saleby before light, I'd driven up with Our Kid to the highest point of Derbyshire's Snake Pass road to meet a good friend, Dave, and spend a day running through the finest terrain of the Peak District. Whilst not the most successful of days - the weather had been terrible, the visibility non-existent, our navigation questionable at best and amateurish at worst - we'd returned to the car five hours after setting out with that feeling that being in the hills with friends always brings. Once in the car, wrapped in warm clothes, clutching a brew and eating cake, we'd laughed at the mistakes we'd made, planned future day outs, and arranged our next meet-up. Then, after bidding farewells, Dave had headed off west, and me and Our Kid had started the long drive east to Lincolnshire.
Just through Worksop, the A57 passes through the very edge of Clumber Park before joining the A1 at the Five Lanes End roundabout. This section of road, heavily wooded on both sides, always feels dark and foreboding. Numerous lay-bys line the road, and rumours abound of unsavory activities in the area.
It was driving along this stretch on the way home that I saw it.
Near a lay-by on the opposite side of the road stood a large tree. Set slightly away from the verge and surrounded by a host of other smaller trees, it stood out, its twisted branches bearing strange fruit.
I did a double-take, originally doubting what I'd seen, and looked across to Our Kid, head back, mouth open, eyes closed.
'Did you see that tree?' I asked him. 'All those shoes hanging from it?'
He opened one eye, looked at me, said, 'No', and shut it again.
For the following few days, I found that the image of The Shoe Tree kept bringing itself to mind. I checked out Google in an attempt to convince myself I'd not imagined it. Typing in 'A57 shoe tree' revealed a handful of results, mainly flickr pages or twitter feeds. Adjoining comments added to the sense of strangeness:
'This tree on the A57 to Worksop is a local mystery. Nobody seems to know who puts them there. Or why. But they are accumulating.'
'The mysterious shoe tree on the A57 near Worksop. Who puts them there? Nobody knows.'
'Located by a busy road, this is another shoe tree withy no obvious reason for its existence.'
Lured by these tantalising snippets, I resolved to find out more.
The next weekend, I'm sorting through a stash of CDs in the back room, looking for sounds for the van and attempting to match up discs with their rightful cases. It's a big job. After a bit, I come across 'Abbey Road' - my favourite Beatles album. The cover photograph is so iconic, and I can never look at it without being reminded of the whole 'Paul is dead' saga. When rumours started to circulate in 1969 that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a look-a-like, it was always the imagery of 'Abbey Road' that was pushed forward as evidence. For most of us, the album artwork just shows the four members of the road walking over a zebra crossing. However, for the 'Paul is dead' conspiracists, it represented a whole lot more. Lennon, dressed in all-white, symbolised the preacher or heavenly figure. Ringo Starr, dressed in black, symbolised the undertaker or mourner. George Harrison, in denim jeans and shirt symbolised the gravedigger - and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with the other members of the band, symbolised the corpse. Of course, it was all bullshit - only Macca's creativity died in 1969, only rarely to be revived after that - but it's still one of rock and roll's great stories.
A while later, I'm finished with my sort-out and listening to 'Golden Slumbers' whilst reading through the 'Abbey Road' CD booklet. I look again at Paul's bare feet and can't help thinking of The Shoe Tree.
What if each pair of shoes was a touching momento of a life no longer lived? Just as the loved ones left behind might leave flowers by a headstone, what if each pair of shoes had been lovingly placed on those bare branches - a symbol of respect and devotion for someone who needs them no more?
The CD had finished, and I'd hardly heard it. My mind had been with The Shoe Tree. It was starting to become an obsession.
Now I'd chanced upon my own little mystery, it was disappointing to find out that my shoe tree wasn't the only one. In fact, world-over, they're not as uncommon as you'd like to believe. The UK's most famous is an ash tree growing alongside the A40 between High Wycombe and Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire. For over 40 years, the tree's branches have been festooned with discarded footwear. It even made national headlines in 2005 when it was added to a list of 500 special trees in the Chiltern area as part of the Special Trees and Woods Project, an initiative which subsequently received £265,000 in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In an article typical of the usual reactionary bollocks found in its pages, The Daily Mail lambasted this waste of public money whilst clumsily succeeding in linking a shoe tree to other matters closer to their right-wing, middle England agenda:
"Rachel Sanderson, co-ordinator of the project, described the tree as 'an absolute mystery'.
'When we heard about this tree, we realised that it had to be on our special tree list,' she said.
'We're here to use examples like this to try and leave a legacy which protects the local wildlife.'
In the past, lottery funding aroused stinging criticism for paying millions to bizarre causes.
These included a campaign to prevent the deportation of failed asylum seekers from Britain and a project to grow fatter guinea pigs for Peruvians to eat.
At the same time claims from the Samaritans have been turned down as have applications from rural communities because they do not have a big enough ethnic minority population."
The article also quoted David Holmes, a walker who regularly passed the tree.
'There are so many stories about why the shoes appear in the branches,' he said.
'Some say it was a form of toll payment by travellers, or a fertility ritual, but I think it's probably a hoax that just carries on.'
'Whatever the reason, new shoes keep appearing, even now.'
Why would someone decorate a tree with shoes? What's the point of all this? Perhaps the US gives us some clues. In the States, the phenomenon of 'shoe tossing' or 'shoefitti' has become increasingly popular in recent years and has spawned imitations in most countries in the West, including Britain. 'Shoe tossing' is the act of throwing shoes over raised powerlines. The reason for this is unclear, but a number of theories have been proposed.
Bullying is the most logical explanation. Having beat up a guy, you steal his shoes and lob them to a place where he can't get them, thereby exerting his perceived superiority.
Another theory proposes that the shoes represent gang activity in the area. Shoes hanging from powerlines could be the footwear of a recently beaten gang-member or the 'snakers of a fallen homie'.
Yet another says that shoes on powerlines indicate a crackhouse in the area.
Now, this is all well and good, but I'm talking Bassetlaw not South Compton - how much of this translates to this run-down area on the Lincolnshire / Nottinghamshire border? And why a tree and not a powerline?
Two weeks after my original sighting, I pass The Shoe Tree again late on a Saturday afternoon on another journey to the Peak District. It had been my intention to pull over in the lay-by while there was daylight, have a look round. However, traffic on the short stretch of the A1 from Markham Moor had been murder. I resolved to carry on, aware that any stops would make me late for my fell-running rendezvous. But the ghostly sight disturbs me, intrigues me, entrances me, and I think of little else for the remainder of the trip - theories of my own, born from the boredom of a long drive:
What if, instead of a sign of death, violence or addiction, The Shoe Tree was actually a totem of goodness? A man leaving behind a material possession that is no longer important and moving on to a new live shaped by dreams and strong convictions? A woman discarding the reminders of a hollow marriage to a man she no longer cares about and deciding that there surely must be something more out there? A teenager saying goodbye to the innocence of childhood before venturing into a future life on his own terms?
What if the shoes were left as a result of a subconscious fear of the untamed world around us? In an age where man must be the master of everything, what if leaving shoes on a tree was an attempt to 'humanise' nature, assert our dominance over it in a symbolic way, strip it of its beauty, its wildness - make it safe?
What if there was no good reason for leaving shoes on the tree? What if, after one pair was discarded years previously, other people just decided to follow suit?
What if it was all a joke?
And what if all possible reasons were true? What if every single person who'd ever left a pair of shoes on the tree did so for their own reason - a reason unique to them - a reason different to every other person who had every hung, or would ever hang, shoes from the branches?
After running into the night, it's almost midnight by the time I'm driving back through Worksop. The bogs of Bleaklow have taken their toll. My body's tired and my eyes are heavy. In desperation I casually contemplate a stop at the 24-hour MacDonalds, But the image of The Shoe Tree reappears and, suddenly, I have a much better idea.
* * * * * *
There's a force in this tree. It's made from xylem, sap and bark. It's made from lost lives, discarded dreams and new horizons. It's amplified by darkness and bent into the shape of question marks. It's humbling, invigorating, terrifying.
I make my way round it, exploring it in just-light. Brand new children's shoes, laces tied in a hurry and carelessly thrown. Adult sizes, covered in moss - plastic hosting new life - now a part of nature. Intricate knots, tied with measure and precision around specific branches.
Now I'm here, I still don't know what to make of it.
The headlights of a lone car illuminate the road beside me and pass quickly, leaving only the dim glare of retreating red eyes.
I walk back to the wagon, turn on the headlights and look at The Shoe Tree one more time.
Then I start the ignition and pull away, questions unanswered, but strangely satisfied.
As I continue my drive, Robert Pirsig's 'Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance' comes to mind. It's a book I read several times in my younger days - an important book that is, at once, infathomable and revealing. Within the pages of this seminal pop-philosophy classic, Pirsig categorises people into two broad groups with two contrasting ways of thinking, and thereby, living.
There's those of an analytical mind who want to know how and why a thing works, what intricate processes and mechanical mastery actually make the motorcycle tick. And there's those of a romantic mind who greatly appreciate the beauty of a smoothly-running engine, but don't really care about what it is that's happening in order to get that result.
I've always put myself firmly in the latter camp. I live by feeling.
There's answers for everything, but I'm not sure that I always want them. I want to hear music, not analyse how the radio works. And it's this way of thinking, or not thinking, that extends to most aspects of my life.
I think of Whirlwind coming up to me this morning with a silver bolt in her hand, found in the kitchen junk drawer. 'Dad,' she'd said, before giving me a kiss, 'I've found the key to your brain.'
I think of my pride in Lightning when he tries his best in everything he does, the way he'll explain things in that serious way he has sometimes.
I think of holding Tammy in my arms, half-awake on a lazy, weekend lie-in.
There's an explanation for the feelings that life's best, and worst, moments give me - a complex mess of hormones, chemicals, blood through vessels, messages over synapses. But I'm not interested in these. To feel is enough for me.
I remember the words of mountain runner, Joe Grant. 'I'm an artist, not a mathematician.'
And my thoughts move to the way they relate to the other thing I value in life - my forward motion, one foot in front of another. I don't want to analyse - answers are not important. It's the feeling that motivates me. I could explore the science, follow a schedule, keep a diary of runs, miles and minutes, and, maybe, I'd run faster. But at what expense? Because once that simple essence - the feeling it gives me - is gone, there'll be nothing left
Then I think again of The Shoe Tree, and I realise that, here too, I don't want answers. I don't really want to know why the shoes are there. I like question marks, and it's the unanswered questions surrounding that tree that have captivated me for the past weeks. With the questions answered, it would just be an ugly tree, covered in unwanted shoes, by the edge of a scruffy lay-by. But with questions unanswered it's mysterious and magical.
I drive the rest of the way home relaxed and oddly content. I sing along to the music on the radio and look forward to getting home to my family.
The Shoe Tree's never far from my thoughts as I wonder what what the future has in store. A future full of question marks, feelings and only the occasional answer.
But I wonder only for a moment, not for long.
Because sometimes it's just better not to know.
Saturday, 9 February 2013
It's not often that I have that dream nowadays, but I did last night.
In the dream, I'm in a place I don't know. The girl I love is there as well, but I'm alone. In her presence, more alone than alone. We're not strangers, no longer lovers, now just friends with a history. We act out surreal dream scenarios, but these scenes are tainted by a feeling that crushes me, almost impossible to bear. The girl I love moves through this dreamscape effortlessly, but, in her company, I'm slowly dying. She's a reminder of what we once had and have no more.
The dream always ends the same way. I'm leaning against a large glass window. Outside, it's raining. The world is ending. I'm by myself. The girl I love steps behind me, puts a hand on my shoulder and turns me round to face her. 'Chris, what do you want?' she says.
'It's you I want. It's what we had. Can't you feel it? Can't you feel it? I love you.' The words I should say. But I don't. I look at her, a desperate plea in my eyes, and just say, 'Nothing.'
I wake in the middleland between sleep and real life. Although the dream's gone, the feeling remains. It takes me a few moments to realise she's still there. Then the feeling subsides, different feelings take its place. I turn on my side, reach with blind eyes, and bring her close to me.
I'd given up almost everything to go to Africa, and came back to nearly nothing. Subconsciously, I must have known that I was at the fork of important paths. One path led me back to the respectable, but deeply unsatisfying, salaried life I'd left behind for these few recent months. The other led me to unpredictability, financial hardship and potential disaster. Of course, there was only one way I could go.
The resignation letter was surprisingly easy to write. Pushing the envelope into a postbox on Lumley Road, the words of a headteacher I'd recently worked for nudged themselves into hearing. 'Another year Chris, and you'll be Deputy Head material.' Turning and heading up the street, hands deep in pockets, I left those words and a previous life behind.
There wasn't a great deal of choice in the estate agent's window, but finding somewhere to live was a priority. I'd rented my flat in Boston on a long lease to a mature French student, and the thought of staying any longer in my Mum's spare room just didn't feel right. There were a few dodgy flats in Skegness, a couple of nice, but too expensive, bungalows in Chapel-St-Leonards, and that was about it. I mulled about in the cold for a bit, then decided to go inside to see if anything else was on offer. Five minutes later, a smart man in a suit was taking a sheet of A4 from a file and sliding it across a desk, almost in apology.
'Well, there's this. Just on the market. Haven't even got the keys yet.'
I took it. Looked it over. A picture of a dreary wooden chalet. An address. '6, Lakeside, Anderby Creek.' I thanked him, took the sheet, told him I'd have a look and be back in tomorrow. As I left, I already knew I'd found a home.
Anderby Creek has always captivated me. A tiny, edgelands hamlet, it consists of thirteen houses and one shed sitting high on the dunes. Behind these dwellings - one of the most beautiful and iconic beachfronts in Lincolnshire - stands a pleasingly ramshackle collection of bungalows, huts and small, family-owned caravan sites.
Down a dirt road, left from Sea Road, there's a small crescent of wooden buildings, situated around a large lake. Designed by Derbyshire achitect, Vic Hallam, these 'Anderby Chalets' were built in 1959, having been designed to provide afordable, but luxurious, holiday accommodation. A phenomenon of its time, the 'Anderby Chalet' design proved enormously popular, with orders arriving from all over the country. Over 200 were sited in Devon and Cornwall and a large number were exported to Germany.
It was drizzling as I rode onto Lakeside that February afternoon in 1998. I found number 6 in the far left corner of the crescent. With its peeling paint, dirty windows and knee high grass, it was easily the most delapidated of the dwellings in view. I leant my bike against the front of the chalet and walked round the property, peering inside through each window I came across. Threadbare carpets, brown and orange '70's wallpaper, the hue of mould in room corners. I'd fallen in love.
Before starting the long ride back to Skegness and the estate agent's office, I'd pushed my bike the short distance to the top of Sea Road, abandoned it by the tea-shop, closed for the winter, and walked over the beach to the sea. I stared out to the horizon for a long time, and then turned a half-circle to face the row of houses looking out from the dunes. The sun was low in the sky, and dark clouds were gathering. For a moment it seemed as if the earth was flat - that if I turned around again, I'd find not sea, but a sheer plunge into an abyss of nothingness. I'd found the edge of the world. As I walked back to my bicycle, I knew I was in the right place.
I went back to The Creek today. Driving home from an afternoon on the water, I parked up the van on Sea Road and spent an hour exploring the past and pondering the future. I strolled onto Lakeside, pointing out to Lightning the place his Mum and I first called home. We looked in on The Creek Club, where I'd taken Tammy on so many of our early dates. We walked past the tea-shop, closed for the winter, and onto the beach. We spent some minutes on The Cloud Bar, idly watching the sky, pointing out imaginary landscapes, dragons and demons. Then, as Lightning took off down a narrow path through the scrub of the dunes, I walked back to the sea, to the same spot I'd stood at nearly fifteen years ago. The edge of the world. I stared out to the horizon for a long time. Small, lazy waves welcomed me back.
I remembered my earliest childhood visits, blackberry picking or just playing on the beach. I remembered endless runs over countless years, across the sand, looking up to that row of houses that symbolise so much to me.
I turned, lost in thought, to face them again. Anderby Creek. I thought of the two years I lived at Number 6, Lakeside. Losing everything, but finding something. I thought of my darkest night, the stranger who saved me, and the girl I always knew I'd find.
And then, from deep within, last night's dream reappeared, but now it made sense.
Is it possible to love a place? A beautiful place made special with memories you'll never forget? A beautiful place made precious by its gifting of a second chance?
I stood in the middleland between remembrance and real life, and cast my mind to what might become. This wild, desolate place is perfect as it is. I can't afford to lose it.
My dream always ends the same way. There's things I should do and words I should say, but I do nothing, say, 'Nothing.'
As Lightning burst from the dunes towards me, arms outstretched, a huge smile on his face, it was then that I understood I could do nothing no longer.
* * * * * *
The Tritton Knoll development, proposed by energy company RWE, will see over 300 wind turbines built off the shore of Lincolnshire. It will be the largest project of its kind in the world.
The electricity cables will come ashore at Anderby Creek. Initial underground 1km 'cable corridors' have been revealed from Anderby Creek to Ingoldmells, Skegness, Wainfleet -St-Mary, Sibsey, and onto Bicker Fen, where a national grid substation the size of thirty football pitches will be constructed.
Announcing plans on the 2nd February, project manager for Tritton Knoll, Jacob Hain, said:
' I think people now realise this type of infrastructure has to happen to deliver renewable energy as we cannot be reliant on home energy. It will create hundreds of jobs in the UK and generate billions of pounds into the region.'
Anderby Parish Council's chairman, Coun. Carole Mason has expressed her grave concerns about the proposed onshore connection point. She said:
' We can't believe they want to bring the cables on shore through the Coastal Country Park - lots of families come to Anderby every year to enjoy the peace and quiet, the sea and sandy beaches and I don't think people realise the impact this will have.
If these developers have their way, Lincolnshire will become an industrial nightmare.'
Lincolnshire County Council’s environmental scrutiny committee chairman Coun Colin Davie, said: 'Despite making our position clear over many months, RWE have chosen to ignore the county council and proceed with these totally unacceptable proposals.
We have made it clear that any proposal to bring cables and an intermediate substation to the east Lincolnshire coast would meet with our opposition - it now meets with our full and formal objection.'
Monday, 4 February 2013
'When once beyond the “town,” I looked for notices that trespassers would be prosecuted that gave a strong presumption that the trespass must have some attraction. To me it was a reminder of the many delicious bits of walking which, even in the neighbourhood of London, await the man who has no superstitious reverence for legal rights. It is indeed surprising how many charming walks can be contrived by a judicious combination of a little trespassing with the rights of way happily preserved over so many commons and footpaths.'
'In Praise Of Walking', Sir Leslie Stephen
Some days some things really wind me up. This was one of them.
There was a kayak leaning against the hedge in the back garden. Since getting hold of it at the start of the year, I'd had some vague, romantic vision of exploring Lincolnshire's waterways. I'd found a map of the local drains and spent a couple of afternoons cycling around, checking if they were suitable for my new mode of transport. I'd visited bridges and banks, looking for good launching spots for future journeys. And now I'd got a few hours on a quiet weekend afternoon to do some virtual exploring.
There wasn't a great deal of information on the internet, but there was plenty for my needs. I printed out a few pages of maps and information, but one word was starting to get to me.
I'd been familiar with access issues when travelling on foot, but I'd naively assumed that England's waterways were open to everyone. The more I looked into it, the more I realised how mistaken I was. This was about the point at which I started to get really pissed off.
For those of you unawares, let me share a fact or two.
It is estimated that our country has approximately 42,700 miles of rivers. Unfortunately, only 1,400 miles of them have clear and undisputed access. These tend to be, according to the campaign for River Access For All,
'the larger, regulated rivers with active navigation authorities which are often shared with motorised craft. It's a bit like being told that if you want to enjoy the countryside, you can use the A-roads.'
Some of England's waterways are accessible only at a cost. By purchasing a license from the British Canoeing Union (£37 per person per year), a paddler will be granted access for all the 2,000 miles of British Waterways canals, British Waterways rivers and Environment Agency waters.
Now, I've got no problem with licenses. A license usually denotes some level of competency has been gained in order for you to carry out your chosen pursuit safely. You are awarded a driving license as a result of pasing a driving test. By proving you've reached a certain level of competency, you are then free to drive your vehicle on the roads. The same principle applies, albeit with far more vigorous criteria of competency, with vehicles of flight. Fly a glider, a micro-light, a helicopter or a light aircraft and you'll need a license. Rightly so, too.
But, here's where the problem lies. There's no test involved in procuring a license to paddle on these 2000 miles of waterways, just a simple exchange of cash. The BCU recommends that maybe you take a starter course in order that you've got some rudimentary skills on the water, but their license has nothing to do with proving you're a competent paddler. If that's the case, what is the point of the BCU license? Moreover, once you've handed over your £37, where exactly does that money go? I suspect British Waterways and the Environment Agency take their cut. Then, I'd guess what's left gets channeled into the sport of canoeing. It might enable clubs to subsidise courses or advertise what's on offer. It might enable more white-water slalom courses to be established or new facilities to be built on prime riverside outdoor education centres. Some might go towards paying the staff of the BCU or lining the damp pockets of aspiring Olympians. If I was actually interested in the sport of canoeing, then I'd happily purchase a license, knowing that perhaps some of it might get spent wisely in the cause of development. This is the case with my involvement in athletics. I belong to a running club and it's something I enjoy wholeheartedly. To help finance the sport of athletics, I willingly pay a yearly affiliation fee, although I don't necessarily agree with the way it subsequently gets used. However, I've no interest in the sport of conoeing, just the pursuit of paddling- there's a big difference. Bearing this in mind, there's no way that I'm ever going to buy a license to paddle on water which, I fully believe, is rightfully ours anyhow.
I spent a few moments that afternoon pondering a couple of lazy journeys on local stretches of water. Trespassing, without a license.
Improbable scenario #1
As I paddle, I spot a figure on the bank - tweed jacket, corduroy trousers, stout brown brogues, Land Rover Discovery. Eyeing me, he calls out. 'You there! Do you know you're trespassing? That my family own this stretch of river?'
'No, I didn't,' I reply, smiling. (Smiling's always good - it inevitably irritates self-righteous pricks.)
'Actually, I didn't know that rivers could be owned by anyone. (Lying's always good - it avoids confrontation, and if you're going to continue trespassing successfully, it's always vital, up to a point, to stay on the right side of landowners.)
'Well, I'm really sorry for the inconvenience I've caused you. I'll paddle back to my van, and, now that I know I can't use your river, I'll not come here again.' (Apologising's always good - but only if you don't mean it.)
The chances of being apprehended when paddling on a river are, I'd hesitate to guess, fairly remote, yet an internet search does reveal a surprisingly large number of 'access confrontations' on England's rivers. The question that looms large is Why is access ever denied? Undoubtedly, angling rights have a massive say in some regions, and I've few problems with that - many anglers sit on the banks for the same reason I sit on my boat. I agree that the rights of anglers and fishery owners need to be respected, but these rights should not include the right to extinguish public rights of navigation. Maybe some waterways pass through 'sensitive areas' - military firing ranges and the like where restricted access is understandable. But what else? Bypassing the whole issue of how come rivers can be privately owned in the first place, why would a landowner ever deny access to canoeists, kayakers and wild swimmers? The simple answer, I imagine, is 'because this land's mine, and I can.'
Over-exaggerating, I hear you whisper. Well take a look at this:
Improbable Scenario #2
Paddling along the Fossdyke Navigation (a local drain, and a British Waterways stretch of water), I spot a figure on the bank - peaked cap, shiny shoes, dark uniform, massive bunch of keys on a belt clip. The License Police. Eyeing me, he calls out, 'Excuse me! You do realise that this is a British Waterways waterway and, as such, you require a license to be able to grace your presence upon it? Would you kindly, per chance, mind showing me your license young man?'
Ok - I'm bullshitting, but you get the drift. I've been driving a car for 20 years and have only been asked to show my license on two ocassions. What are the chances of being asked for a license whilst paddling? Zero. Who would actually ask to see your license? No idea. (Is that particular responsibility in anyone's job description, I wonder?) If this is the case, and it is, then why bother with a license at all? And, if paddling without a license denotes trespass, and is, in effect illegal, then so be it.
I'll leave the water with words from broadcaster, countryside campaigner and canoeist, Paul Heiney:
'Over a few decades we have seen enormous progress in giving each and every one of us access to all parts of the countryside. Where once we were barred, we are now free to roam the hills and fells, the moors and the Dales. It has been a real revolution.
But there is one important part of the rural scene which remains closed to us, and that is our beautiful river network. As a canoeist I know all too well the unique view of the landscape that comes from quietly and thoughtfully paddling our rivers, doing no damage to the environment and causing no disturbance to others. Yet despite the lightness of touch that this sport brings to the countryside, there remain many miles of river where we not allowed to paddle. The reasons can be complex but the solution should be simple - the waterways are for all to enjoy, and the law seems to agree.
We have shown that we can live alongside other rivers users, such as boaters and anglers. We are one of the most peaceful sports imaginable, and all we ask is to be allowed to quietly paddle through some of Britain's best landscapes. Can it be too much to ask?'
There was a famous battle in 1066 and William the Conqueror came out tops. Everybody knows that. What fewer people know is that, having become King of England, William's first act was unprecedented. In a move that was even more shocking that our modern day William's naked orgy in a Las Vegas penthouse, he declared that every acre of land in England now belonged to the monarch. Having grabbed the land that was not rightfully his, he then proceeded to hand out large swathes of it to his cronies, yes-men, and those who fought beside him.
Nearly a thousand years later, the situation in England is neatly summed up by Paul Kingsnorth in an article for The Guardian. I'm sure you'll agree, the figures are staggering - almost unbelievable.
'...so much of the nation's land is locked up by a tiny elite. Just 0.3% of the population – 160,000 families – own two thirds of the country. Less than 1% of the population owns 70% of the land, running Britain a close second to Brazil for the title of the country with the most unequal land distribution on Earth.'
I've been trespassing most of my life. In childhood days, it would be innocent forays into farmers' fields or abandoned yards. Buoyed with the adrenaline rush of a 'TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED' notice on a fence, or the rumours of an old man with a gun, we'd mess about for half-an-hour and then clear off, revelling in the feeling of getting away with it.
As I've grown older, my trespassing has been more considered and mature. In recent years, it's been almost exclusively related to my running. The default 'easy run' from my doorstep involves a half-mile section along a field edge that carries no public right-of-way. Reaching the back of a farmyard, my run continues for a mile along a farm road, also with no public right-of-way, before it reaches the rural lane east of Saleby. I do this run at least twice a week, sometimes more. Every time I do it, I'm trespassing. Every time I do it, I'm breaking the law.
I've always had the utmost respect for other people's property. I would never trespass in the close vicinity of a person's home, for example, but I honestly can't see the problem with the situation I've just described. I'm putting one foot in front of another. I'm doing no harm, leaving no trace. I'm invading no-one's privacy. Why, then, should access not be allowed?
Most school children know the date of the Battle of Hastings. Radio-broadcaster and author, Stuart Maconie believes that another battle was so important that it deserves a place on the National Curriculum.
'It is as significant an event in our history as any coronation of a king or a queen, and it should be taught in every school,' he said in April 2012.
The date of this event was Sunday 24th April 1932. It's become known as the Kinder Mass Trespass.
Benny Rothman, a key mover in that day's events wrote:
'Town dwellers lived for weekends when they could go camping in the country, while unemployed young people would return home just to 'sign on' at the Labour Exchanges and collect their dole money. Rambling, cycling and camping clubs grew in membership...The feeling of being close to nature receded as the crowds grew, and ramblers looked longingly at the acres of empty peat bogs, moorlands and the tops, which were forbidden territory. They were not just forbidden, they were guarded by gamekeeper armed with sticks, which some were not afraid to use against solitary walkers.'
Turned away by gamekeepers in the weeks before April 1932, members of the Lancashire branch of the British Workers Sports Federation, led by Rothman, decided to publicise their plight by making a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, the Peak District's highest point.
On the 24th, 400 ramblers set off from the Bowden Bridge quarry. Half-way to the Kinder plateau, they were met by the Duke Of Devonshire's gamekeepers. A scuffle ensued, leaving one gamekeeper hurt, and then the crowd pushed on to the summit. Here, they were met by a group of Sheffield-based trespassers who had set off that morning from Edale. After celebrating for a while, the two groups retraced their paths to their respective starting points.
On returning to Hayfield, however, Benny Rothman and five other ramblers were arrested and locked up. The day after that, they were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace. All six pleaded not guilty, but in Derby in July 1932, five of the six were found guilty and jailed for between two and six months. This action unleashed a huge wave of public sympathy. Indeed, such was the strength of feeling that a few weeks later, 10,000 ramblers assembled for an access rally at Winnat's Pass, near Castleton.
The Kinder Mass Trespass was a landmark, not in returning land that was rightfully ours to the common man, but in creating a movement and a national feeling that demanded that the common man at least have access to it. In 1935, the national federations of different rambling associations became united in the Ramblers' Association, and activism on behalf of access became the top priority. In response to growing pressure, in 1939 a bill for increased access was put before Parliament, but was unsuccessful. Finally, in 1949, a stronger bill succeeded and The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act became law. This stipulated that every county council in England and Wales was required to map all rights-of-way in its jurisdiction. Once paths were mapped, they were definite. These rights-of-way have appeared on Ordnance Survey maps ever since, making thousands and thousands of routes accessible to everyone.
In the years since this act was passed, the issues of access improved only slightly. A number of National Trails were created, but walkers and fellow foot-travellors continued to grow restless and frustrated. On the 50th anniversary of its creation, the Ramblers' Association began holding 'Forbidden Britain' mass trespasses of its own. Their aim now - the 'right to roam'.
Again, the government relented under pressure. In The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, the story of access to our own land took another massive step forward. For the first time since days long distant, everyone was granted the right to roam on 'mountain, moorland, downland, heath and common.' A victory of sorts was celebrated. The question remained, however. Was this enough?
A good friend of mine posted this status the other day:
'There are 578km of public rights-of-way in the Lincolnshire Wolds, 0.7km per km squared. That's impressive. So run across a field in just about any direction, and within a km you are likely to be on a path.'
I liked. It is impressive. Maybe even more impressive is the fact that there's over 4000km of public rights-of-way in Lincolnshire as a whole. That's a good few days' running.
In the last few years, my travels have taken me over a fair chunk of those paths. By immersing myself in the otherworld of footpaths and bridleways, my running has matured and become a totally different beast than the schedule-led, PB-chasing animal of my younger days. I've grown, become better. My criteria of success is no longer speed, but satisfaction gained. I owe a great deal of this to access to the countryside.
Despite its sometimes quaint and genteel image, the Ramblers' Association walks to a radical beat. Their efforts over recent years have done much to aid the extensive network of rights-of-way in our county. Individuals such as Major Brett Collier became thorns in the sides of unco-operative landowners by constantly asserting their right to walk, legimately, over private land. Their actions have left an important legacy.
The CRoW Act laid down obligations to both users of rights-of-way, and the landowners through whose land these legal public highways pass through. Whilst walkers and runners are generally respectful to these obligations, the same cannot always be said of the landowners.Although, undoubtedly, the situation is much better than it was, it is still depressingly common to find that legitimate access to land has been unfairly denied. Paths ploughed over, rights-of-way covered by crops, fences barring any forward progress. A sign that used to be present on a land boundary in nearby Thoresthorpe portrayed the attitude that many people still hold towards walkers and public rights-of-way. 'Walkers - please leave your mud in this field AND NOT ON MY LAND!' It used to give me a few minutes of enjoyable and energetic cross-training each time I passed, uprooting the sign and flinging it in the direction of its creator's residence. It's a shame that the landowner eventually got the message. It's not there anymore.
Vigilance and dedication is needed to maintain our ability to travel on foot through the countryside. The Lincolnshire Fieldpath Association does a sterling job in highlighting rights-of-way that are not being adequately looked after. Additionally, in this age of government austerity, resulting in decreased county council budgets for footpath maintenance, volunteers from the Ramblers' Association and the Long Distance Walking Association do a great job of securing the access we've come to expect.
However, another, and perhaps greater, challenge to those wanting to explore the countryside on foot has reared it's head. This arises, not from landowners, but from fellow rights-of-way users. Green lanes and byways open to all traffic (BOATs) are facing a crisis. Often historically important routes, traditionally used by horse and carts, these rights-of-way have witnessed an insidious encroachment by the very thing many foot-travellers take to the countryside to avoid - motorised vehicles. Although legally able to use such routes, the increase in popularity of 'off-roading' has been staggering in recent years. The damage incurred as a by-product of this pastime can have long-lasting, detrimental effects on surroundings and sensitive habitats, and have made certain long-distance routes virtually unusuable to walkers and runners. The Viking Way's 'Sewtern Lane is a prime example:
Despite the greatly increased access in recent years, we still move within the parametres of our nation's past. These were a selection of sobering reminders that I photographed on just one run last week:
There's more. Many, many more. And the indignation felt whenever I see one of these signs leads me to where I'm going next.
In 2003 The Land Reform (Scotland) Act was passed. It granted our neighbours access rights that were amongst the most progressive in the world. In Scotland, everyone has the satutory right of access to all land and inland waters, save for a small number of exceptions - houses and gardens, land used by schools, land in which crops have been sowed, for example. In comparison, the access granted by England's own CRoW Act is woefully poor.
A new movement is gathering pace to open up the parts of the English countryside that are still locked away from us - large parts of our native woodland, our river banks, rivers and coastline, low-lying pastures and meadows, and the parklands of many of our great estates.
Last year, the Ramblers' Association launched the Kinder 80 Campaign. It is obvious that the spirit of Benny Rothman is still strong. Nicky Philpott, Ramblers' Director of Campaigns and Policy said:
'Since the mass trespass on Kinder Scout 80 years ago, people are now free to roam over large swathes of our countryside; we’ve helped to create National Parks, a properly recorded network of footpaths and in May we’ll see the launch of the Wales Coast Path – a world first.
“But the journey those trespassers started is far from over. Our countryside combines rugged mountains and rolling fields, magical forests and meandering waterways and it is sad that not all of these scenic sites can be shared by everyone.
“Ensure that the spirit of the original trespassers lives on; let us know the local places you still can’t walk and join us in our campaign to open up the countryside and make Britain the most walker-friendly nation in the world.'
Elsewhere, campaigners such as John Bainbridge are actively encouraging trespass. His words speak for themselves:
'We live in a strange land where we are but subjects, not citizens. Where it is deemed honourable for our young men and women to die for their country, but heaven help them if they want to walk across much of it!'
My journeys this year will be numerous and extensive. They'll take me along footpaths, bridleways, waterways, green lanes, restricted byways. They'll lead me through some of the most stunning countryside our country has to offer. But my journeys will also go to a place I've never been before.
It's a place that's denied us. Closed with barriers and threats. It's a place that's rightfully mine. It's your's too - the domain of everyone. Whilst campaigning and objecting may be noble, they're usually too slow in reaching the desired effect. My solution is much simpler. By quiet acts of trespass, I will explore this place, discover its hidden pleasures.
Bit by bit, I'll take it back. And on I'll go...into The Elsewhere.