Take a walk on the wild side

Ramblers still risk the wrath of landowners and the law as they follow in the footsteps of the early trespassers. Paul Vallely reports
Click to follow
It was one of those high summer days of which memories are made. The sun was hot on our faces as we sat in new heather, vivid with bright purple flowers, amid clumps of gorse, intense yellow as only newly emerged blooms can be. Above, an invisible skylark chirruped its high skittering call. It was a celebration of the most innocent of pleasures.

We were up on the edge of the moors at Lantern Pike on the high western extremity of the Pennines. Alan Mattingly, the director of the Ramblers' Association, looked across to the high scarp which marked the start of Kinder Scout plateau. "That is the valley they moved up," he said, pointing. "Then, when they got to the point just below that hill, Benny Rothman blew a whistle and everyone moved in a horizontal line up the slope. As they moved, a line of gamekeepers appeared over the top. The keepers moved down to check them. But there were too many. A good number got through to the top, where they were met by the men and women who had walked across from the Sheffield side."

Little had changed up there since 1932 when 500 ramblers, mainly unemployed mill workers from the industrial towns which flanked the moors, staged the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass to assert the right of the common man and woman to tramp the open country. Half a dozen of the ringleaders were arrested as they left the fells; at Derby Assizes, they were jailed for between two and six months.

"It's amazing how things become clear as they recede into the past," said Mr Mattingly. "At the time, many of the established rambling organisations opposed the mass trespass. But now it is recognised as the turning point in establishing the right of the ordinary people to the countryside."

In the English countryside, since the Industrial Revolution at any rate, it has never been a simple thing to go off for a quiet walk. It still isn't. Only last Thursday, a group led by the Ramblers' Association's chairman, Kate Ashbrook, was turned away from a Pennine moor at Midhope, near Sheffield, by barbed wire and Keep Out notices erected because of grouse shooting. To have ignored them would - for the first time - have risked arrest under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act on the new charge of aggravated trespass.

Under the old law trespass was a civil offence: those caught trespassing could either be sued in a county court or ejected by the property owner, or his gamekeeper, using "such minimum violence as is necessary to remove the trespasser". Under the Criminal Justice Act, trespassers can be arrested by the police and charged with a criminal offence if they enter private property "with the intention of disrupting a lawful activity". The ramblers fear that being on a moor, for example, while shooting is taking place could be interpreted as falling foul of this definition of "aggravated trespass". Already, says Mr Mattingly, walkers have reported seeing permanent- looking signs in the Highlands that say: "Keep Out. Deer stalking in progress. You may be arrested under the Criminal Justice Act." "Most walkers don't want to fall foul of the law," Mr Mattingly says, "so it means the place is now permanently closed to them."

This curious combination of innocence and intrigue has always characterised rambling in Britain. Walking in our countryside is, bizarrely, a political activity. But if it was a class issue in the Thirties, it is now a more complex amalgam of concern for the environment and a conservative desire to protect old traditions. "There is, undoubtedly, a much greater concern about the countryside - about the loss of hedgerows, the threat to land from development, the effects on health and on the landscape of spraying with pesticide and intensive farming generally," says Mr Mattingly, explaining why his organisation's membership has more than doubled in the past decade.

In the Twenties and Thirties hikers may have been a radical lot - trade unionists and Fabians and daring young women sporting shorts for the first time - but today they cut a different figure. Before the Second World War they were mainly young; now the average age of Mr Mattingly's members is 54. A recent survey showed that most are teachers, civil servants, engineers, or are retired. The majority are Daily Telegraph readers who between them spend a total of pounds 10m a year on walking gear and give pounds 14m a year to charity, chiefly to environmental causes.

Half of those surveyed said that the most important work of the association was protecting rights of way, but they couch their beliefs more in terms of protecting traditional values and their historical heritage than in anything political. When Red Rope, a group of socialist walkers affiliated to the Ramblers, was suspected recently of manoeuvring to increase its influence in the association, a strong unity of purpose emerged among the members to protect the independence of the organisation.

But for all that, even Daily Telegraph readers, in this age of single- issue pressure politics, are happy to turn out on the association's regular confrontational tramps across the land of farmers, construction firms or even golf courses which are found trying to block existing rights of way.

It only takes one ostentatious walk to demonstrate that a right of way has not fallen out of use, as landowners often claim. This is why ramblers donned hard-hats recently to walk through the site of a half-built clubhouse on a golf course in Oxfordshire, forcing the Japanese owners to apply to the local authority for a diversion of the path to a new route, which they had to provide. With recidivist offenders, the Ramblers resort to legal action - which is why a housebuilder was forced to leave open the front and back door of a newly built house on a new estate in Wiltshire only last month. "We had had problems with that builder before," says Mr Mattingly, who has become adept at such genteel guerrilla tactics.

"Dogs not on a lead will be shot," says the notice at the foot of the hills as we walked down. "It's not a legal notice," Mr Mattingly observed. "If a dog is worrying animals, it can be shot; otherwise not."

There is a lot of bluff and double-bluff in the politics of modern rambling. Once, landowners were fairly up-front about their dislike of walkers. "It's much more subtle now," says Mr Mattingly. "They are much more likely to say, 'Of course everyone has a right to walk here, but only when we say and on the conditions we lay down for the effective management of the area'. Some even want to begin charging - as has happened with new bridleways in Essex."

But if the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union have got craftier, so too have their opponents. The Ramblers' Association now has a staff of 35 and offices not in some rural backwater but in central London. "We try to monitor all relevant legislation, to lobby MPs and promote suitable amendments," says Mr Mattingly. "But nowadays, if you start when a Bill is published, you are much too late. We try to get in on the interdepartmental consultation beforehand." Their clout as lobbyists is considerable. A recent survey by the Countryside Commission showed that there are 33 million day visits to rural areas a year, primarily for walking, and that on average each person spends pounds 5. That's pounds 165m in total, which makes rambling big business.

For all that, there is a delightful lack of guile about the world of walking. What really excites Ramblers, if you peek into their internal files, are rows about whether dogs should be allowed on official rambles, whether the association's set walks are too long or too fast, whether wind farms are eyesores or a sustainable technology.

Alan Mattingly himself likes to keep rambling simple. "A bottle of water and a map is all you have to have. No boots unless it's wet or mountainous; trainers can be best. I always take some gloves and a bit of food and a waterproof - you have to assume it's going to rain."

Thus clad, he will set out later this month with, he hopes, some 4,000 of his members on 101 campaign walks conspicuously to tread rights of way that landowners are trying to obliterate by ploughing or by replacing stiles with impenetrable fences. The Ramblers' Association is calling it Open Britain Day to mark its 60th anniversary. "It's to celebrate what we've achieved so far and to look at the problems that still exist," Mr Mattingly says. "Now the Duke of Westminster has some rather intimidating Keep Out notices on his land in the Forest of Bowland. Perhaps we'll have a go at those."

Open Britain Day is on 24 September. The Ramblers' Association, 0171- 582 6878.

Rights of way: milestones in rambling's history

1770 Eccles Botanical Society is formed, the first of a number of clubs founded by town dwellers as the Industrial Revolution begins. Many of its members are illiterate factory workers who explore the countryside in their few hours of leisure.

1815 An Act of Parliament enables landowners, who are afraid of the poor poaching their game, to apply to magistrates to close public footpaths. Ancient common lands and manorial wastes are enclosed. In Scotland, thousands are evicted during the Highland Clearances as sheep and game become more profitable than tenant crofters, and landowners' attitudes towards access change.

1824 Association for the Preservation of Ancient Paths in York is formed, the first known footpath preservation society.

1835 Wordsworth publishes his Guide to the District of the Lakes, popularising among the middle class the idea of rural walking for pleasure.

1845 A society is formed in Edinburgh for "protecting the public against being robbed of its walks by private cunning and perseverance".

1879 One of the earliest known rambling clubs, the Sunday Tramps, is formed by writers, lawyers and philosophers. Various others follow, including in 1884 the founding of the Forest Ramblers, the oldest club still in existence.

1905 The first federation of rambler clubs is established to fight for ramblers' rights and to campaign for travelling concessions for them on public transport.

1920s Ramblers begin to campaign for wider access. Many demonstrations are met by violence from gamekeepers.

1931 Youth Hostel Association founded.

1932 500 ramblers stage a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Pennines. The leaders are arrested and jailed.

1933 The Duke of York, the future King George VI, includes in a speech "a word in defence of the hiker".

1938 Access to Mountains Bill makes trespass a criminal offence in certain cases.

1939-45 Government encourages "walking in war-time" programme.

1946 Water authorities lift their ban on ramblers walking on their land.

1949 National Parks and Access to Countryside Act establishes machinery for giving access to large areas of open country and provides for a national survey and record of all rights of way.

1960s Ordnance Survey, after lobbying by ramblers, puts rights of way on maps.

1965 Pennine Way opens, the first long-distance footpath in UK.

1985 Ramblers' Association celebrates 50th anniversary and its 50,000th member.

1989 Countryside Commission finds that walkers have only a one in three chance of completing a two-mile walk without coming across an obstruction.

1990 Ramblers' Association wins test case against Ministry of Defence attempt to block footpaths during military training.

1993 10,000 walkers take part in protest against Forestry Commission privatisation.

1994 Ramblers lock horns with Scottish landowners' attempt to restrict access to 34 Munroes in the West Highlands for up to six months a year during stalking season. They also campaign, unsuccessfully, against the Criminal Justice Act's new offence of "aggravated trespass".

1995 Ramblers' Association celebrates 60th anniversary and a membership of more than 107,000.