Monday, 21 June 2010

Keep Off the Grass: A Grand Tour of England

Officious men wearing bowler hats will ensure that you keep off the grass in Oxford, but whose job is it to make sure you don't stray too far from the footpaths, bridleways and byways of rural England?

During last week's tour of the south it dawned on me that Ordnance Survey maps provide an unexpected insight into the cultural differences between Scotland and England. South of the border the maps swarm with green lines of varying solidity, each denoting an acceptable route through the countryside. Footpaths, bridleways, restricted and unrestricted byways, long distance routes, 'other routes'. And then there are the orange lines denoting permissive footpaths and bridleways, on which the right of access may be withdrawn at the whim of the landowner.

It is unclear what sanction awaits the independently minded rambler who leaves his map at home, instead using his aesthetic sensibilities to plot his course through the countryside. Presumably he may find himself in a local magistrate's court, answering a charge of trespass. I expect that examples might be found where he would be sentenced by the owner of the land on which he trespassed. How quaintly, repressively, medievaly English such a fate would be.

Maps of Scotland - on which such paths, bridleways, routes and byways are conspicuous in their absence - must seem strange and even frightening to the visiting Englishman. How is he to know where it is acceptable to walk? The happy truth is, of course, that the Scottish tradition of free access to the hills - now enshrined in law through Access Legislation - means that one may quite legitimately rampage through the countryside at will. The knowledge that - should the urge possess me - I am at liberty take off in almost any direction contributes greatly to my sense of wellbeing. So accustomed am I to this freedom that England feels constraining, almost claustrophobic.

Oxford - the ultimate destination of my tour of these strange southern lands - elicited genuine feelings of claustrophobia. As one approaches within fifty miles of its famous dreaming spires there is a palpable increase in the level of congestion.  The city has the sense of a museum; its ancient road layout means that there is simply not enough tarmac to accommodate the traffic that crawls angrily through its streets. The constant din of these impotent motors reflects off the limestone walls of the colleges, assaulting the ears of those unaccustomed to this mild form of torture. Much of the city is off limits, hidden behind these fank-like walls, which funnel and corral the city's infuriating mix of bumbling, bewildered tourists, haughty, plum-mouthed students and impatient, exasperated townspeople through its congested thoroughfares. When I think of Oxford I picture the neat stripes of its immaculately manicured lawns and the simple message of the signs that adorn each and every one of them, 'Keep Off The Grass'.

I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the south; climbing on the sandstone crags of Northumberland; visiting family in Durham; walking the North York Moors; meeting old friends at a wedding in Oxford. But it is great to be back home.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Chris said...

I know what you mean about the English countryside. Sometimes it looks so pretty but it frustrates me because I am always aware that I am not really allowed to walk on it. Up here I see space that I can simply wander through. Done there I feel locked into streets, roads and paths

21 June 2010 at 22:15  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Much of what makes England unique and interesting is a direct result of its overcrowded state. There are not many places in Scotland where you can have a climbing experience comparable to that in Northumberland. I don't mean that the quality of the rock or the accessibility of the crags is superior, what makes it distinct is visiting the caff for a pre-climb fry up (the Belly Buster breakfast in Bellingham deserves a mention) then visiting the a charming stone-built village pub for a skinful of high grade real ale afterwards!

22 June 2010 at 11:33  
Blogger Deborah Pipes said...

here in the states is the liberal use of "no trespassing" signs - and they mean absolutely "no trespassing".

you probably know that from your excursions stateside.

i - and others - find it remarkable that so much of the U.K. has designated walking paths through private land.

my husband got fussed at by the land owner for running the dogs in an empty pasture just outside of town.

i find that example typical of the American nature - generous at times but oh, so, "no, it's mine, mine, mine".

to me that is a sign of fear....

23 June 2010 at 14:56  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

When I visit the US I spend almost all my time in National Parks and other public lands so I've never personally come up against access problems. I wouldn't take any chances with a 'no trespassing' sign in case someone decided to shoot me!

England is a funny mix - I noticed that some of the crags in the Northumberland guide had Rights of Way that passed beneath them, yet the owner's permission was required before you could actually climb on them.

Norway is the only place I have been that is as favourable from an access point of view as Scotland.

23 June 2010 at 18:43  
Blogger Robert Craig said...

That's why off-path rambling in England is an adrenaline sport - the constant arguing with landowners adds spice to the gentlest bimble, especially if you ignore them and go on your merry way.

Much of Ireland is similar to England in that respect. The US is even worse than England: you'll get shot for trespass.

27 June 2010 at 15:23  
Blogger Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

I think you can over do the difference. I grew up in rural Worcestershire, and then lived 4 years in Glasgow. In the immediate vicinity of Glasgow for walking/biking/getting to crags etc. you still had to be sensitive to access issues, follow existing paths etc. Once in the highlands - fair enough, there is so much space. But as a kid in England I used to roam everywhere and I think once or twice had landowners or their agents ask me to get back on a footpath, but never really in a nasty way. Now when I'm back in Worcestershire there are very few places you can't go because the network of footpaths is so complex and extensive and in recent years there has been lots of great work done to open paths, building or fixing stiles etc. The nice thing about footpaths is that you have a RIGHT to use it, plus of course in farmland you probably wouldn't roam that far off paths even if you could just because jogging through a potato field isn't much fun if there is an ok path going around it. And in open land now because of the CROW act, its basically the same as Scotland.

I do a lot of running and hiking around Worcestershire now when I'm in the UK and don't think I've ever had anyone try to tell me I shouldn't be there in the 20 years since I moved away.

1 July 2010 at 14:51  

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