Motoring: Following the country code: The off-road motorist's name is mud among riders and ramblers, but not all of them are hooligans. Phil Llewellin meets a man who knows

THE ROAD climbed steeply between old sandstone walls towards a viewpoint almost 2,000ft above sea level as Alan Kind squeezed a little more power from the Suzuki Vitara's engine.

'This would have been a busy route in the late 1700s and early 1800s,' he said. 'Carts carried timber for pit props up to the mines, then took coal and ore down to Penrith and the coast. Travellers heading from Newcastle to America would have passed this way, heading for Maryport.'

What used to be one of the main roads over the wilderness of the northern Pennines is now a broad, firm, grassy track. We were ambling along in four-wheel-drive mode, but most of the going was good enough for a conventional car with reasonable ground clearance.

Mr Kind, 43, is a lawyer whose knowledge of the countryside is complemented by concern for its future. He works for the Land Access and Recreation Association (Lara) and spends a lot of time driving along 'green lanes' at little more than brisk walking pace. Lara was established in 1986 to promote responsible use of the countryside for motorsports and recreation. Members include the All Wheel Drive Club, the Trail Riders' Fellowship and the Civil Service Motoring Association. The Sports Council is an active supporter.

Sales of vehicles with off-road potential have soared in recent years, focusing media attention on an apparent threat to the countryside. Mr Kind is aware that headlines about 'motorised menaces' and 'off-road fanatics' attract more attention than Lara's contribution to the debate.

He agrees that vehicles can savage the landscape, infuriating those who choose to explore it by foot or on horseback. Mechanical muscles and knobbly tyres can make idyllic byways resemble First World War battlefields. Riders of noisy, high-revving, fast-moving motorcycles are condemned as latterday versions of Genghis Khan and his Mongols.

'This is the old story of the sensible, responsible majority being blamed for the actions of a tiny minority of hooligans,' Mr Kind said. 'But we believe the situation is getting better. There were genuine problems between about 1988 and 1990, when Japanese four-wheel-drive vehicles grew in popularity and off-roading became a bit of a craze. Too many people were going at it too hard, particularly in the South where there is a lot of pressure on ancient roads such as the Ridgeway, which runs across Berkshire and Wiltshire for about 40 miles.

'We think we've seen that craze come and go, one reason being that there is now a growing number of properly managed sites where off-roaders can enjoy themselves without upsetting other people. Aside from that, is driving along a green lane for fun any less moral than walking for fun? If society says it is less moral, so be it.'

Mr Kind warns against the view that every sale of a Land Rover Discovery, Vauxhall Frontera or Ford Maverick contributes directly to the death of the British countryside. Manufacturers and importers confirm that few of these vehicles ever leave the tarmac.

Mr Kind is no blinkered champion of the off-roader's controversial cause. He has loved walking since childhood in Yorkshire. He pedals a mountain bike and his teenage daughter rides a horse. He says Britain has enough space to cater for these and other outdoor pursuits, but attitudes need to change at the highest level.

'We take the view that there must be a far better planning system for all recreational use of the countryside,' he said. 'Take the Lake District, for instance. Part of the western fells could be basically a vehicle-free area. Elsewhere, we could do with perhaps 120 miles of green lanes open to four-wheel-drive vehicles and maybe an extra 50 miles for motorcycles. There could also be 1,000 miles of bridleways for horses and maybe 3,000 miles of foothpaths for walkers.'

England and Wales have about 140,000 miles of footpaths, but only 5,000 miles of green lanes open to motorised vehicles. From my own experience in Wales, I can confirm his contention that recreational off-roaders are often blamed for damage done by tractors.

Intelligent self-regulation is one of the answers to the problem, Mr Kind believes. Lara's code of conduct covers such points as not driving along green lanes if bad weather makes their surfaces vulnerable.

'Go to an off-road centre if you want to spend a day getting stuck and winching yourself out of bogs,' Mr Kind says. 'Green-laning should be a gentle pursuit.'

(Photograph omitted)