First published in the Observer, 27th December 2015
It’s surprising how little freedom we have to walk this land. Now we have more and we must use it responsibly.
‘They sent some bugger up from the parish council to talk about footpaths,’ said Pat. Several hours afterwards, he was still blazing with indignation. Together with his wife Lesley, Pat runs a 150-acre hill farm on the border with Wales. Pat is 77 and though he hasn’t got the same energy he once had, nothing sparks him up like a really good row. ‘Footpaths! I sent him from here with a piece of my mind. Bloody footpaths.’
While Lesley gives all visitors an open welcome, Pat treats anyone setting foot on the farm as outlying snipers from a vast invading force of idiots and meddlers. Some weeks it’s DEFRA (or ‘the Ministry,’ as Pat still refers to them), some weeks it’s Welsh Water or the Single Farm Payment snoops. Like many farmers, he regards any incursion on his land not just as a personal affront, but as some sort of sinister intimation that he’s not doing his job properly. To concede land – even a sliver – to ramblers or utility companies would not just be an insult, it would be defeat in the eyes of his ancestors.
There are already two rights-of-way running through the farm, well-signed and maintained. But someone had recently been looking at old pre-war maps and found a path crossing from west to east. It had been heavily used during the 1920s when unemployment forced many farm labourers to walk down off the hills to the poor-house in the next village. With every inch of land pushed up to full capacity during the Second World War, the path fell into disuse. Though it remained on some of the old OS maps, no-one had since given it a thought. Until the Parish Man arrived.
‘Daft bugger!’ said Pat. ‘I’ve never heard anything so bloody stupid in all my days. I says to him, ‘Where the hell do you think I put the bull? Eh? Tell me that. Where’s the spare field to put the bull in?’ I never seen one, because the fields is all occupied, and I’m not moving all those beasts round just so some bloody ramblers can go for a walk. And’ – working up to full steam – ‘who’s going to pay for this, like? Tell me that. Who’s to pay? He don’t have an answer for that.’ After half an hour, having been set straight about Pat’s views on land in general and footpaths in particular, the man left. ‘I told him to get from here and don’t come back, like.’ He glared at me. ‘To be fair, he don’t look like he wanted to.’
Today’s announcement that work has started on opening up a huge swathe of England’s coastline to walkers might not bother Pat; his farm is nowhere near the coast. But for other, more distant farmers and landowners, it represents some significant territorial concessions and a great many skirmishes behind the scenes.
Rural Minister Rory Stewart – himself famed for once having walking 6,000 miles across Asia
At present the coastal path runs for only around 100 miles and, like the Thames Path in London, lurches from fabulous leg-stretching segments to long stretches of private land. Work has already started in Kent, Devon, Lincolnshire, Hampshire, and Lancashire, and the Rural Minister Rory Stewart – himself famed for once having walking 6,000 miles across Asia – says he’s keen to have every one of England’s 2,700 coastal miles joined up by 2020.
It’s the sort of announcement that no-one can complain about, an unmitigated, straightforward Good Thing. More walkers means more tourism and more tourism means more people making connections to both the sea and the land. It means more healthy people, and more of those healthy people falling in love with the countryside.
There really isn’t anything which sorts you out quicker than a good walk. There’s something about setting out to follow the line between water and earth that blows everything the right side out again. You go out with a headful of thought-spam, and after a few hours you come back exultant, knowing that for the first time in a month you’ve just done something which actually matters. Even in the middle of a rainy December, you’ve stared at Chesil Beach or Helston Cove or Whitley Bay and seen something bigger than just the next task.
Still, the fact that it has taken until now for a full coastal path to become a reality is a reminder that England still occupies the middle ground between freedom and possession. In Scotland, even without the SNP’s new land reforms, the law is generally on the walkers’ side. As long as your dog isn’t bothering stock and you’re not damaging crops, you can more or less walk where you like.
Back here, it’s probably fair to say that Pat has never been for a walk in his life.
In America, Land of the Free, everything you see is privately owned, so nowhere – except the National Parks and the freeway – is open. It makes those great wide skies feel somehow watchful and claustrophobic. I once went for a walk in Colorado, wandering down over a broken-down line of fencing to the railroad and beyond. When I got back, I told my hosts where I’d been. ‘You were lucky,’ they said. ‘You were trespassing, and there’s a lot of folks got guns round here.’ But I didn’t have dogs with me, I protested. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘They wouldn’t shoot dogs. They’d shoot you.’
Back here, it’s probably fair to say that Pat has never been for a walk in his life. Not a walk just for the sake of it. What would be the point? To him, the country is a place of work, and walking is for the poor, the young, or the idle. He might take Bryn the collie up the hill on the quad bike to look over the cows or walk down to the lower field to check none of the ewes had gone lame, but he wouldn’t just wander off on a stroll.
So, while it’s definitely worth savouring this new route round England’s edge, it’s also worth remembering that it comes at a price. What enrages Pat and other farmers is walkers who don’t fulfil their side of the bargain, who litter or leave gates open or let their dogs chase sheep. For Pat, beleaguered by global economics and the slump in prices for just about everything, his victory against the Parish Man was a rare push against an incoming tide. To live and walk in Britain is a privilege, but the countryside is also – still, just – the place where a lot of people make their futures. So tread softly, for you tread on their dreams.