On Location: Walking into a middle-class minefield

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!

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there