Monday, 4 February 2013
Into The Elsewhere
'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.