Travel: Forget the grouse. Let's go for a stroll

Townie Lilian Pizzichini took advantage of the green welly brigade's recent country march in London to wander at will over the ancient moorland around Sheffield
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The Independent Travel
"ALWAYS be prepared for the worst" is the unofficial motto of the Ramblers' Association. Usually, this means packing your rucksack with an extra pair of socks (to relieve the discomfort of wet feet from muddy boots), a compass and a laminated map.

But more militant members of the Ramblers' Association might also be carrying a placard on their hikes. The private member's Bill for the Right to Roam is the ramblers' latest battle in a war against landowners that has lasted over a hundred years. It began at the turn of the last century with the Open Air Movement, set up to ensure an occasional escape for workers from the polluted, smog-ridden streets of their daily lives into open countryside.

These days, ramblers are demanding access to the moors, woods and valleys that are privately owned. One of the movement's most vocal campaigners is Terry Howard, the black sheep of the ramblers' family and founding member of Scam or, as Terry would have it, "Sheffield Campaign for Access to t' Moorlands".

Certainly the contents of Terry's rucksack show he's prepared for anything. He takes with him a cagoule, spare hat and gloves, insect repellent, torch, Swiss army knife, first-aid kit, whistle, bivvy bag, thermos flask and "sit-upons" - mats for, well, sitting on. But the worst thing Terry has to deal with is irate gamekeepers and their dogs, and tenant farmers wielding shotguns. A third of Sheffield is open moorland, most of it privately owned, which means, in theory, that anyone going for a stroll in the muddy environs of the city is entering a legal quagmire. So I decided, when the countryside came to London town to march, to trespass with Terry on privately owned moorlands.

A 20-minute bus ride from Sheffield's train station brought us to a barren wilderness of moorland swathed in mist. We were about five miles west of the city centre, but I'd never have guessed - there were patches of heather and bracken as far as the eye could see. This was Ash Cabin Flat which, by following a north by north-west direction, would take us on to Hallam Moors. We followed the trail along Wyming Brook, which is owned by the family that produces Wilson's Snuff: "They're sympathetic to t' campaign, and if there's only a few of us, they'll tolerate our presence," said Terry. On the whole, though, landowners object most heartily. "They reckon it affects t' price of land, and the grouse shooting."

Terry pointed out ditches for me to clamber over, but not just because they were obstacles. "They're the remains of Stone Age settlements, burial cairns, huts and the like, and later, medieval sheep farms." The land up here has been farmed for centuries, and it has also been exploited by all the old industries - the peat has been cut, charcoal burned, quarries excavated and coal mined. But the most ecologically taxing of these has been the sheep farming. There are no trees on the moors because the sheep eat them, and over-grazing means that tussock grass and heather are the only plant life left.

But that's how the landlords like it, because for them these hills and valleys are a breeding ground for red grouse. At this time of year the heather is burnt so that the birds can feed off the new shoots in the spring. Walking on it is like walking on sponge, you put your foot down and it springs back up again. Grouse flapped around our heads screaming "Gobback, gobback" as though they meant it.

Terry led me through the bracken along a sheep track to a prehistoric earth circle. "Call it a mini-Stonehenge, if you like." A sunken piece of land on top of a hillock west of Packhorse Bridge, it was surrounded by rocks that had been embedded in the soil about 4,000 years ago. At night, Terry claims, they are aligned with the constellations, and in the morning with the rising sun. But at any time you can see how closely the ring is in harmony with the landscape.

I stood in the centre and looked to the east across a dip in the burnt- brown valley and saw the town of Doncaster spread out before me. "Thirty years ago you could see factory chimneys pumping out smoke," Terry explained. "Fifteen years ago you could hear the thumping of hammers from the steelworks." These days, you can make out cooling towers and the office blocks that have replaced the factories. All around the remains of bell-pits are scattered. "It's an armchair effect," Terry waxed lyrical. "The hills which used to be home to the lead-smelting industry form a natural cleavage and the land drops down to form a seat."

Turning my back on Doncaster, I could see across rock basins, hollow- ways and causeys on to Bamford Moor, on top of which two giant outcrops of eroded cliff walls are visible for miles. The locals call it "Witch's Piano", as the larger rock bends over its squatting neighbour "like an old crone putting bread in t' oven". The Ordnance Survey map, though, is less poetic. "Wheelstones" is its official name, and it marks the boundary between the limestone area, or White Peak, to the right and the peat-rich Blackmoor to the left.

Terry was chock-full of ancient folklore, and he loves his moorlands with a passion that is tempered with respect. On the whole, he gets on with the gamekeepers and farmers because they know he won't take advantage of their land (that is, he won't bring groups of more than two or three on to it). Back in 1982, he helped found Scam to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass when 900 ramblers marked their protest at their lack of rights to roam by climbing the 2,000-foot Kinder Scout, Britain's most sacred grouse moor. But they came up against implacable landowners protecting their hunting and shooting. There was a scuffle with the police and six ramblers were arrested and later imprisoned for "riotous assembly". "They were framed," asserts Terry. That's why he carries on the struggle.

After a couple of hours of tramping through heather that came up to our knees, negotiating ditches that marked the sites of former farms, and wading through streams, we settled down for a packed lunch in the shelter of a sandstone wall. The wind whistled through its crevices, and Terry shared his thermos of coffee with me.

From here, the moors unfolded to the west in a gentle sweep, and snow flurries began falling from the grey skies above us. In front of us was an old stone cabin used by keepers, and a gravestone marking the resting place of Ranger, a "trusty dog" who died in 1899. Just behind the wall was a shooting lodge. We were right in the heart of the private land that surrounds Sheffield, but if you want to clamber its hills and soak up its history, sorry, you can't. "It frightens the grouse," say its owners.

For details of meetings and rambles, and of Terry Howard's self-published book on the subject, contact SCAM at 334 Manchester Road, Crosspool, Sheffield S10 5DQ. For details of rail services to Sheffield, call the National Rail Enquiry line (0345 484950).