We're bordering on madness down here

'I've been invited to Malmesbury, but I can't see myself going there. It's north of the M4, after all'
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The Independent Online

I was taking the dog for a walk up a small lane in our village at the weekend, a paved track that leads between houses to the top street, and was amazed to find that, when I got to the end of the track, my path was barred by a notice stating that it was forbidden to enter this "footpath" because of restrictions imposed because of foot-and-mouth disease.

I was taking the dog for a walk up a small lane in our village at the weekend, a paved track that leads between houses to the top street, and was amazed to find that, when I got to the end of the track, my path was barred by a notice stating that it was forbidden to enter this "footpath" because of restrictions imposed because of foot-and-mouth disease.

Foot-and-mouth disease is a sort of influenza that attacks cows, sheep, pigs and other farm animals and from which animals recover in due course without severe after-effects. It has no effects on humans. Well, that's not quite true. It does affect human brains in one very strange way: it causes a sort of madness that makes some humans want to slaughter any animal that may have been in contact with foot-and-mouth, even thought the disease seems to justify no such action. When animals take over the world, I just hope they don't slaughter all humans suffering from a touch of the flu...

Anyway, back to the path. The trouble was that I wasn't actually entering this track with the exclusion notice on it; I was already on it and was trying to leave it - and there had been no notice at the beginning of the track to forbid me entry. You'd think, wouldn't you, that if they were trying to close a footpath, they'd close it at both ends...

"Well, no, you wouldn't," said my wife, when I mentioned this conundrum to her. "One end of the path is in Somerset, don't forget, and the other's in Wiltshire."

She's absolutely right, too. We are very close to the county border here, and this path actually crosses it. The authorities in Somerset have been incredibly officious and bossy about closing any path that looks as if it might be useful to someone, while those in Wiltshire have restricted themselves to issuing general directives without putting up notices, so obviously the Somerset end has got the treatment while our Wiltshire end hasn't.

I think I prefer the laissez-faire attitude of Wiltshire, but maybe that's because I'm a comparatively recent arrival and am still infected with county loyalty. Rodney, on the other hand, is a countryman who has lived in Wiltshire all his life and does not feel a general loyalty to Wiltshire at all. The other day I mentioned to him that I had had to go to the far side of the county, to a place called Oare between Marlborough and Pewsey, and he displayed an impressive lack of interest.

"I don't know that part of Wiltshire at all," he said. "Never been there. Not interested. But you've got to remember that Wiltshire isn't a proper county like most counties. I always think it's like a doughnut with bits of sugar hanging off. The doughnut is the big central bit which is all bleak and downland and mostly uninhabited, and the inhabited bits are the lumps of sugar here and there. There's the bit round Swindon and Malmesbury, and the bit near Marlborough, and our bit near Bradford and Trowbridge, and the Devizes bit, and the Salisbury bit, and they're all separate from each other. Lots of different Wiltshires."

I think he's probably right. If you drive across Wiltshire, you're bound to go through long barren stretches of windswept upland where nothing happens and where the people who live on either side of these areas know very little of each other. Some of these upland stretches are controlled by the Ministry of Defence (Salisbury Plain, for example) and are out of bounds to everyone, even when animal-slaughtering is not in fashion. People in London will know what I mean when I say that it's a bit like north of the river and south of the river.

Actually, I think we have our own version down here. I heard someone the other day say that she had been invited to someone's place in Malmesbury.

"But I can't see myself going to Malmesbury," she said.

"It's north of the M4, after all."

And the M4 does indeed cross Wiltshire from west to east like the Thames through London, a lazy blue ribbon on the map cutting the county in half. Neither of them is much of a physical barrier, only a psychological one. But then, there's no barrier like a psychological barrier...

Tomorrow: what do people in North Devon think of people in South Devon? And why can't South Walians stand North Walians?

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