The Archers they're not: the angry voice of the countryside heads to town

Derek Cross polished off his pint and popped another tablet, his seventh pain-killer that morning. He is booked for a double hip replacement in the new year, but for Mr Cross, 52, a landscape gardener from the Cotswolds, preservation of the countryside is all he cares about.

Hunting comes first, his hips second. "I'm doing it for the love of my countryside. It means everything to me," he said. "It's my body and if I wears them [his hips] out on this march then I wears them out."

He commended his comrades. "Without these lads and lassies I wouldn't have done it," he said, calculating that when he reaches London tomorrow he will have clocked up 400 miles. Not without the likes of David Brierley, a pest controller, Henry Hudson, a plastics salesman, William Wakeham, master of the Eglinton Hunt, Scotland, and Shaun Vickers, a factory worker. The 32 core marchers and hangers-on who joined them each day are a motley band. The T-shirts which for the past three weeks emerged like beacons from the brows of hills set out their grievance. Some say "The voice of the countryside," others "Listen to us." The marchers were on their final leg yesterday and, as they neared the capital, the banner "This is real life, not the Archers" gathered poignance. As they strode up the hill, eyes on the pub where their morning's 12 miles of walking would be rewarded with a ploughman's lunch, they had a spring in their step.

Not only had they nearly arrived at the big day - the convergence of marchers and gathering of 80,000 supporters at Hyde Park tomorrow - but they were beginning to feel they were making an impact. The result of the previous night's phone-in after a Channel 5 television debate on hunting had yielded promise: of 34,000 callers, 62 per cent said they were against a ban.

Furthermore, the reception for the marchers had been overwhelmingly positive. "The majority of people smiled sweetly, give you the thumbs- up or honk their horn as if to say `Good on you lads'," said Mr Brierley. Some were converted along the way. Nathan Oldham, who works on a deerstalking estate in Scotland, said: "There was a girl calling us all sorts of names ... Later on ...one of the lads spoke to her and talked her around. She thought we were all toffs, if you will, Hooray Henrys. She didn't realise that most of the people are working- class like myself."

Frederick Forsyth, the novelist, turned up in Shefford, Bedfordshire, yesterday. He does not hunt but opposes the bill initiated by Michael Foster, Labour MP for Worcester, proposing abolition of hunting with dogs.

Fox numbers had to be controlled, but the question was how, Mr Forsyth said. There were five "feasible" methods: "Gassing, which is indiscriminate, poisoning which is massively indiscriminate, trapping, which is singularly cruel, shooting, which is no good, because you can't hit a fox's heart at 200 yards, and fox-hunting. The advantage of hounds is that the fox escapes totally intact or is killed outright. It is never wounded."

Essay, page 14

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