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Are walkers truly welcome?

Friday 18 September 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has rambled on the Pennine Way as well as in print, admits to an ambivalent view towards ramblers. The majority are nice people, he says, but contends that their biggest organisation has become a guerrilla army in the class war

THE Pennine Way passes down the main street of a village where I lived 20 years ago and actually turns north round the gable end of the only pub. It was there I witnessed for the first time the distinctly ambivalent feelings that some, but not all, Yorkshire Dales residents hold towards walkers.

In those days, the pub closed at 2pm on Sundays and, in one of our first visits, I was astonished to see the landlord flee from behind the bar to slam the front door shut, muttering under his breath as he did so.

poWer lines
walkers welcome?

Turning round, I saw that – on the pavement outside – was a small group of walkers, including a couple of children aged perhaps ten and twelve. It was not yet 1.30 pm and they were peering in through the window , gesturing to the landlord to open the door.

They pleaded in vain. “I’m not having that lot in at this time,” the landlord grumbled. “”It’d be all muddy boot on my new carpets, the cheapest food on the menu and complaints that even that is too much. I’d rather shut early and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.”

Now I had walked part of the Pennine Way in Derbyshire with my son when he was about the same age as the kids stranded on that pavement and knew, only too well, just how few pubs or cafes there are on the more rugged sections of the Way.

When one was marked on the OS map, we made it a key way point for that day’s walk, to be hit at lunchtime or early evening for a bar meal and (in my case) a welcome couple of pints.

To have reached such an oasis within legal opening hours and to have been refused entry would have been a shattering blow for from that particular pub – I won’t name it here because that landlord and his wife did not stay in business long – that wretched family faced perhaps another ten miles of hard walking before they came to the next place where they could buy so much as a cup of tea.

At the time I was appalled – and, indeed my wife and I moved house from that village within two years – but as I got to know more and more people living near the Pennine Way in the western Dales, I came to a point of view which was, if not as extreme as those of the former innkeeper, a little closer to understanding his point of view.

For the fact of the matter is that some ramblers can be a pain in the boot, demanding, choosy and – the worst fault of all – dismissive of the needs of the country folk who own the land they are treading and make an often precarious living out of the pubs, cafes, shops and B&Bs they provide them with a meal and a bed.

It is unavoidably a symbiotic relationship but sometimes a difficult one. For in the past half century or so, when I have had the odd contact with the Ramblers’ Association, I have seen it change from an archetypal, slightly eccentric amateur English body of warm-hearted do-gooders into a class-war campaigner on behalf of the far left of the Labour Party.

that wretched family faced perhaps another ten miles of hard walking before they came to the next place where they could buy so much as a cup of tea.

To any ordinary, active rambler who may be shocked by this view, I apologise: I don’t mean you. I mean the militant campaigners in the RA HQ in (of all country places) London’s Wandsworth. It was them who, backed by Left Wing MPs forced through the Right to Roam legislation a few years ago and are now about to impose on coastal landowners an open invitation to anyone to wander across their farmland, hotel grounds, golf courses or even their back gardens.

Private land, you see, is anathema to them, you see, despite the fact that it might be the sole source of its owner’s livelihood. Farmers are not hardworking businessmen, they believe, but Tory toffs striving to keep the peasantry down.

This is an attitude which I know upsets a lot of local ramblers here in the Yorkshire Dales, who strive hard to maintain friendly relationships with local landowners – but that does not mean a jot to the commissars of the Wandsworth Kremlin.

One of the most outspoken of these campaigners was in West Yorkshire last weekend to celebrate a truly important innovation in town-walker relationships. Kate Ashbrook is a leading member of the RA and general secretary of the Open Spaces society, England’s oldest conservation body which was set up to protect public spaces like commons and village greens – an aim which has my enthusiastic support.

The project she was in Hebden Bridge to praise was the Walkers are Welcome initiative, a campaign to make sure that ramblers will know they are going to be well received if they step off the beaten track to look for a meal, a beer or a bed in some nearby town or village – in other words, the total opposite to that former landlord discussed earlier (See News, Monday).

There are 31 of these in England and Wales but very few in North Yorkshire and none on Pennine Way (Ilkley in West Yorkshire comes nearest) and I wonder why? Could it be the experience of a farmer I knew near Settle whose land carried a footpath linking to the Pennine Way – and who lost 17acres of grazing every wet summer because ramblers would not stick to the muddy path in case it soiled their £100 boots?

And this is the crux of the problem. Access to the countryside is an important right for any English man, woman or child. But it has to be a two way thing, with ramblers – mainly townsfolk – fully understanding that the open countryside is not a pleasure park but a working, living environment. But most of all, they must respect local people and the businesses they run. Treat them with contempt and you will not be welcome here.

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