TWO or three years ago, a farmer I knew who grazes livestock on regularly flooded land in Lunesdale approached me angrily and snorted: “What people like you should be doing is writing articles to tell ramblers how to work farm gates!”
I was a little nonplussed because most walkers I know cherish the countryside and its working rules. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Close them you mean?” “No,” he snapped. “Leave them open when they are open.”
He had every right to be angry because some people walking the Lune Way the evening before, finding gates open, had firmly shut them after passing through.
When my friend went down to the flooded valley that morning, more than 30 sheep had been drowned, trapped in fields where he had gone out of his way to provide escape routes, routes which the sheep had followed many times before.
All this brings me to the new Countryside Code published with great fanfare this week by the Countryside Agency, the first revamp of the practical rules of rural good manners since the first was published more than 50 years ago.
It is, in the words of Jonathan Swift, satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, like the curate’s egg – good in parts. Illustrated by eye-catching graphics from the Wallace and Grommit studio, it will most certainly impress children. Whether or not it will make its many serious points with adolescents onwards is another matter.
For a start, countryside behaviour is not a joke, a bundle of laughs. It is a matter of deep concern to farmers, landowners and many simple folk like me who do their work – and take their pleasures – outdoors.
To make it look funny smacks to me of a bright idea from some youngster in a trendy London PR or advertising studio who thinks that the suburban wastes of Surrey and Sussex are the countryside, a place where rich folk relax and play and no-one has to do any work.
However, in this, I admit that I might be a grumpy old man wanting to keep the countryside to myself. This new code does have some very good points: when it comes to using farm gates, it says very firmly that you should leave them as they are, open or shut – something which would have saved my farmer friend a very large financial and emotional loss.
However, knowing that the code was due for publication, I did a little test run on less than 50 yards of bank on the river I fish at a spot a good 20 minute walk from the nearest village. Sadly, it is a place that has been discovered by the yobbo element.
Two weeks ago, I removed all the accumulated litter I could find and left the place in as pristine a condition I could manage (work which took up all my fishing time, I should add).
Last weekend, I went back to find the result of seven days of yobbodom: five empty lager cans and the six-pack packaging they had come in; several discarded cigarette packets; two large empty bottles of cider and – amazing this – the remains of a large cardboard box which had been the wrapping of a two-man rubber dinghy.
Now that is really sinister. It suggests that my yobbos will be back on a regular basis, boating as well carousing, probably poaching, and presumably bringing with them more piles of rubbish. I shall have to give up fishing and become a full-time refuse collector.
In the past, I have been threatened with violence near to this spot by youths illegally camping and lighting bonfires. When I pointed out that they were breaking local bylaws, the response was: “Do you want a swim in the f...in’ river, mister.”
No pretty pictures, however talented, will bring civilised country behaviour to these cretins. They need to be prosecuted and made to do many, many hours of community service cleaning up the mess they and their likes create. But it will never happen. In almost 50 years reporting on the countryside, I have never heard of a case like this being brought to court.
Pictures courtesy of Countryside Access.