On Location: Walking into a middle-class minefield

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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE ELSE from the Staines Rambling Group had chunky walking boots with unbreakable inch-wide laces, military trousers tucked into thick green socks, and a back-pack carrying water and a first aid box. So I felt like a kid arriving at PE without his kit, expecting the head rambler to make me do the whole walk in my underpants.

But while a part of me felt unprepared, another part thought: "We're only going round Richmond bloody Park." Maybe we should have taken flares and a crocodile gun and a machine for transmitting Morse code, in case we took a wrong turning by the tea bar and ended up in a swamp in Nepal.

So I couldn't help feeling embarrassed, as we strolled off like a team of Sherpas, at being overtaken by nine-year-olds on skateboards, and women in high heels going up the shop for some teabags.

The walk passed some fascinating points; deer herds, a view of Twickenham rugby ground, and a flock of parakeets who've bred after two escaped from a cage in nearby Putney. But after walking for an hour, we passed a map that informed us we were a few hundred yards from where we'd started. We'd just gone round and round in a series of loops and not gone bloody anywhere. I felt so cheated. This must be how Patrick McGoohan felt in The Prisoner, with no one else bothered that they were being so cruelly deceived. "But look," I pleaded, "over there's where we started. Can't you see what they're doing to us."

Completing a walk from Reading to Oxford, or across the Pennines, or even the perimeter of Richmond Park, has an appeal; a smug satisfaction of conquering something or other. But where's the sense of achievement in having walked over there, and round a bit, and along and back again?

It may be that the indifference to where you're going is part of the attraction, as any need to think is taken care of by the leader, who walks the route beforehand, carefully mapping it and working out stopping points for tea-breaks and lunch. A register is taken at the start of the ramble. This would have been essential for a school trip, but probably not quite as necessary with this group. There was never much likelihood of a Staines rambler slipping off for a fag and turning up three hours later riding an electric caddy they'd nicked from the golf course.

So you follow the leader - andthis is the problem. It's too organised. The exciting part of walking is the uncertainty - taking a path that could go anywhere, or going round so many lanes you aren't certain of the way back. Leaders of rambles should encourage members to live a bit, saying: "The route is left. So let's recapture our youth and go RIGHT."

Instead, the affair reeks of suburban sensibleness. Including the most suburban trait of all: the newsletter packed with exclamation marks. For example: "then we retired to a local hostelry for some much needed refreshments!"

"You learn a lot from the experienced walkers," someone told me. "One thing I've learned is how to get round the thorny problem of pub landlords not allowing you in with muddy boots. Now, you know the shower caps you get in hotel bathrooms. Well, what I do is collect them up and bring them on a ramble. You see, they're the ideal size for wrapping around your boots before entering a pub, ensuring none of the mud goes over the carpet." Though if he'd written that down, it would have ended "...over the carpet!"

One of the charms of rambling is that you can wander in solitude, clearing your mind and contemplating your own thoughts. So I can see why it wouldn't be appreciated if a speed-freak turned up with a portable CD player and tried to get everyone to sing along to "Smack My Bitch Up".

But much of the conversation which did take place revolved around the process of rambling. I can understand discussing matters that arise from rambling: wonderful views, the shape of twigs, or the time someone got caned on a hip flask of tequila on the South Downs and had to call a cab. But this was talk of rambling itself: the best place to start in The Chilterns; how many loops on a new rucksack; and where we're rambling on Boxing Day.

Which may be why the most enthusiastic and passionate ramblers appeared to be Valerie and John, who led the Richmond ramble. For they were fascinated by geology, botany, the parakeets, and a path in which no trees had ever been planted, in order that it remained possible to see St Paul's Cathedral. And when we stopped for lunch, John had the All-Day Breakfast with an extra sausage, always a sign of a man who's full of life.

But everyone in this safe suburban pastime has now been thrust into a political challenge against the upper class which, if they win, will place them in a magnificent tradition.

For Richmond Park was the subject of one of the bitterest battles against the enclosures. The son of Sir Robert Walpole arranged for the gates to be shut, and the public to be excluded. On several occasions, the walls were torn down by demonstrators until a brewer called John Lewis, armed with a mass petition following a militant campaign, won a court action. Walpole junior was ordered to re-open the gates and place ladders by the walls. Then, with admirable cheek, the brewer took out a further court action, insisting that the rungs on the ladders were too far apart, and he won again.

The origins of modern-day rambling lay in the industrial working class, as workers sought refuge from the stifling atmosphere of the mills and factories. But landowners objected to grubby oiks on their property, and it took decades of campaigning, and celebrated "mass trespasses" to establish the right to footpaths.

Now the modest aspirations of the modern rambler have put them in a similar camp to their 19th-century counterparts, as certain landowners, such as Nicholas Van Hoogstraten in Sussex, are determined to prevent them. In Van Hoogstraten's case, a public footpath has run through part of his land for several decades, so he's illegally built a barn across it to stop ramblers, referring to them as "the scum of the Earth".

Only the most appalling creature could act in that way against the harmless, mostly retiring, and mostly retired, world of ramblers.

Could the resistance to these attacks lead to a split in the rambling fraternity between militant and moderate factions? Perhaps we'll soon be seeing news-flashes, in which we're told that a barn has been blown up, with responsibility being claimed by the Provisional wing of the East Sussex Ramblers' Association.

But my proposal is for a special ramble which starts in a stagnant pond, winds its way into Van Hoogstraten's living room, stops off for cream tea in his bedroom, and finishes with the splendid view from his kitchen? I'd remember my especially thick boots for that one! And I wouldn't bother to wrap them in a shower cap first!