Monday, 22 December 2014

Stile Council: Where Are We Heading For?

I read an article today – someone sent me a link to it, knowing it would be of interest in my line of work. At first glance, you may be wondering where the walking connection is – but bear with me, and all will be revealed.

In it was described a council that have outsourced or intend to outsource so many of their services – not just the usual suspects such as parking, highways and so forth, but planning, regeneration, HR, IT, procurement, finance, legal services, trading standards, council housing, environmental health, rubbish collection, libraries, care of the vulnerable and the disabled, and even, would you believe it, cemeteries and crematoriums – that in the space of just a couple of years, the council will have shrunk from just over 3,000 staff to just over 300. 

To save their embarrassment, I won’t name them.

According to the article, there appears to be three main concerns about a state of affairs such as this. Firstly, all of these services are being farmed out to a very limited number of massive, privately-owned infrastructure and business services companies that have little knowledge of local issues and concerns, whose contracts are such that the details are often shrouded by “commercial sensitivity” and who can, in a worst-case scenario, go bust. Where would that leave us?

Secondly, these contracts are typically let over lengthy timespans, often as much as 10 years at a time, so the entire democratic process is lost to the local community – whoever you vote for, you get the contracted infrastructure company, like it or not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, local expertise is lost. At the end of these lengthy contracts there will be so little experience, expertise and infrastructure remaining locally within councils that it would be almost impossible to return to the “old” way even if they wanted to.

These deals are usually touted as a route to saving money, although it seems that is not always the case. In one example, a deal was meant to deliver £70m savings and 100 new jobs: when neither benefit actually materialised, the contract was transferred back to the council.

So how does this affect walking, I hear you ask?

Well, the obvious answer is that local authorities are responsible, through Rights of Way departments, for the upkeep and maintenance of the all the footpaths, bridleways, by-ways and so forth. But with low priority, reduced budgets and outsourced responsibility, how will upkeep and maintenance of the network be enacted and policed?

The providers are only in it to make money, and I suspect there is little money to be had from contracts like this because we all know that RoW team budgets are miniscule in relative terms, and that a good footpath network runs on the goodwill of many people – landowners and managers, local volunteers, Ramblers’ groups, and the like. Will those volunteers still feel as altruistic if they are ultimately helping to line the pockets of big business and greedy shareholders?

The other aspect – the one that is perhaps most immediately concerning here on Ambles & Rambles – is that my own local authority, Northamptonshire, is set to adopt an “alternative delivery model” like this and follow in the footsteps of the council mentioned above, declaring just last month that it intended to outsource 95% of its work and go down to a skeleton staff.

Quite how this will manifest itself in the future, no one yet knows. It’s one thing to ask local residents to keep an eye out for any maintenance issues, to help fix a stile or put up a new waymarker, but another altogether to expect them to fight legal battles over illegal closures, maintain (or even improve by 2026, the cut-off date for re-inclusion of remembered but lost pre-1949 routes into the network and set out in the CroW Act 2000) the definitive map, or negotiate new access rights with landowners.

Because, in the end, it all comes down to money. It’s the reason that outsourcing is being proposed, and it’s why contractors will take it on. If they can’t make any money out of it, they won’t do it, and I’m sure they will be inclined to minimise outlay in order to maximise profit margins and keep shareholders happy. Unless the contracts are absolutely correctly specified then the contractors will work any loopholes they can find – they have whole departments given over to just that sort of fine-tooth-combery – and exploit them to the full if they can.

And by the time the contracts are re-let, there could be a lot of damage done.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Scratchings & Squeakings From An Ill-lit Corner

It’s now mid-December 2014, some two months since my last scribblings (a half-baked rant about energy and wind farms) and even longer since a proper report about walking-related matters has appeared – a short commentary on a long weekend walking bits of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.  

Stormy skies above Grasswood from the Dales Way near Grassington

So it’s been a quiet time in this dimly-lit corner of the blogosphere, with nary a sound to be heard but for the odd scratch or squeak every once in a while.

Negotiating Conistone Dib

I must confess that time and motivation for posting to the blog has been in short supply of late, something that has been true for much of the year (and which has also affected the reading of and contributions to other blogs, as well). There have been some notable exceptions – Norfolk, the Peaks of the Balkans and the Camino posts, for example. But, by-and-large, contributions to the blog have been much reduced – around half the number of posts of previous years – and what momentum there was seems to have been lost.

Watching the Wharfe go by

However, a lack of online activity does not equate to a lack of walking or enthusiasm for it: we have been slowly racking up mileage throughout the autumn, and it looks as if we will top last year’s total and post a new best-year-ever figure come December 31st

Weir near Linton Falls

But apart from a couple of weekends away (more of which in a moment) most of this mileage has been accumulated during shorter walks on familiar local circuits – a couple of hours grabbed here and there – and these haven’t really offered enough in the way of new paths, high drama, great photography or worthwhile distance to warrant individual blog entries.

Two weekend trips do stand out, though. Firstly, a budget hotel deal afforded us the opportunity for a brief trip up to the Yorkshire Dales, during which time we walked from Grassington and Bolton Abbey (and photos of which are included in the post). Over the course of the weekend we remained largely dry, inadvertently improved on an established circuit, caught some beautiful autumn colours in the sunshine, and wiped away a tear (not the result of a chill wind but from being relieved of an eye-watering £8 for parking by one of the richest men in the UK).

This information, posted on the gate accessing the path to the Valley of Desolation, did
not appear to be in evidence in the car park. I would have been more than "desolate" if
I'd paid £8 parking only to find there was no access on the moors that day 

The second was a weekend in the White Peak built around a Saturday-night gig in Youlgreave by Whalebone, an entertaining evening of “high energy acoustic music” from talented musicians Steve, Char and Sarah that draws on traditional folk, classic rock and their own compositions for inspiration. If you fancy catching them live or simply want to find out more about the band and their music, further information can be found here:

Descending from Simon's Seat

My plan for 2015 is to gradually get back into the swing of things, and hopefully be a bit more active on the blogging scene. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but it does seem to have been a quieter year all round, with many contributors seeming to have posted a little less frequently.

Dales Way path beside the river

Some of the biggest subjects have been controversial, too, which made for higher traffic volumes but a less harmonious online outdoor community – important principles to be defended, perhaps, for those involved (and I would probably do the same in similar circumstances) but a slightly unedifying experience for those watching-on from the outside. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, I suspect this is, in part, a consequence of the time of year: as winter is not yet upon us and Christmas approaches, there are simply fewer interesting topics and trip reports to peruse. Hopefully, all will soon be forgotten as next year progresses and the winter walking season gathers pace.

Finally, because it was a lovely afternoon, I'll finish with a few more photos from our Yorkshire Dales weekend - beautiful autumn colours near The Strid.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Energy: Saving

We recently received our energy bill. Normally this is cause for a sharp intake of breath, the jumble of figures on the page aligning in such a way as to achieve a larger sum than might reasonably be expected. On this occasion, though, it proved to be slightly less eye-wateringly expensive than usual, this being some reward for our efforts to reduce energy consumption.

We both dislike waste, be it over-consumption of energy, reckless creation of landfill volume, irresponsible attitudes towards the use of water or other precious resources, or anything else (don't get me started on the estimated £12 billion of food we throw away in the UK each year). Use, re-use, repair, recycle, up cycle: to me it doesn't really matter, as long as waste is reduced and profligacy prevented.

However, it was another figure on our bill that really caught our eye: apparently, we are ranked as the 7th most energy efficient household in a comparison of 100 similar properties. This is good news for two reasons: a) our efforts to reduce energy consumption appear to have been effective, and b) we now know how many households we need to catch to become the number one most efficient. (Competitive? Who, me?)

On that basis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that "clean, green" energy production would be a real passion too. And, up to a point, it is. However, regular readers of this blog will know I have commented unfavourably on wind farms in the past. This is not simply through some blind belief that wind turbines are possessed of an inherent wrongness, or that they are in anyway aesthetically displeasing (which is entirely a matter of opinion).

No, my dislike of them is a considered position based upon facts that are widely available – if you look hard enough! Namely, that they are grossly inefficient, very expensive, ecologically unsound, subject to a planning process that favours the energy companies, and often inappropriately situated. 

And it is this last issue which for me is the cause for most concern.

Take a look at this example from Alan Sloman’s BlogI won’t elaborate further, as Alan’s post (and many others like it on his blog) speaks more eloquently and knowledgably on the subject than I ever could.

The main reason behind the current rush towards wind-powered energy generation is less to do with suitability or sustainability and more with the fact that that successive Governments have failed to grasp the nettle and formulate a coherent future energy policy. Now, with many of our existing power stations in the process of being decommissioned at the end of their lifetime, there is simply nothing to replace them.

It doesn’t help that so-called environmental groups have actually been complicit in this kind of desecration. Unwittingly or otherwise, their refusal to support the kind of generation necessary to power the UK in the coming years (such as nuclear) has helped create this position, as though it is perfectly acceptable to sacrifice anything on the altar of ideology, without realizing the ultimate irony of forever degrading the very thing they say they want to protect: the environment! 

To be frank, I find the implicit assertion that their dare-I-say conceited version of environmentalism is somehow more worthy than my (and many others) more holistic interpretation - an interpretation that takes into account ecological as well as environmental aspects - more than a little arrogant.

And, as renewable solutions alone can only ever generate a fraction of the energy we need, the future looks set to be blighted by increasing energy poverty: this in a nation with the 6th biggest economy in the world. A high cost is set to be paid – in more ways than one.

The truth is there are now increasingly large tracts of the Scotland, Wales and England covered by or in the shadow of wind farm developments. It just so happens that many of the areas in question are also some of the wildest, most beautiful and most remote places in the country, fabulous resources in their own right that are in the process of being lost to this and future generations. The opportunity to roam, to explore pristine wild places, to leave behind the incursions of modern life and to gain spiritual and psychological sustenance from such landscapes will be gone - changed forever. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

Once the summer is over and the August Bank Holiday has passed, the opportunity for a long weekend relies on taking time off work. With just one day’s leave remaining until after Christmas, it was important to ensure it was carefully considered and used wisely. So would the risk pay off, and would the long haul out to the west coast of Wales in October be worth the effort?

You bet!

As we were also spending time with family, we had to restrict ourselves to shorter, half-day walks so as not to abuse the hospitality so generously offered. No problem there, then: and a good time was had by all. But we really appreciated the opportunity to get out again for a bit longer – the first time since returning from the Camino – and over the three half-days of great coastal walking on the PCP we covered most of the ground between Whitesands Bay and Broad Haven, although not in sequence.

Day 1: Solva to Nolton Haven – 8 miles

A bright, warm morning, gradually clouding over as the day went on. Looking at the photos, it’s hard to believe its October.

Solva and harbour.

Views along the coast.


Newgale beach.

On the way to Nolton Haven.

Day 2: Whitesands Bay to Caer-fai – 9 miles

Overcast; warm and breezy, but with rain never far away.

Whitesands beach.

St Justinian's and Ramsey Island.

More coastal views.

Porth Clais and Caer-fai.

Day 3: Nolton Haven to Broad Haven (and back) – 8 miles

A bright morning after heavy overnight rain and winds. All of a sudden, Autumn had arrived.

Nolton Haven.

On the beach.

More coastal views.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 5

Life In The Slow Lane - El Burgo Ranero to Leon

Day 14 - El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas: 21.07km / Ascent 78m / Descent 146m

This morning’s breakfast was notable for two reasons: first because it was available nice and early, and second because it was such a copious affair we were able to eat our fill there and then, take left-over bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes and bananas for lunch, and still not finish everything!

After another stifling night when sleep was hard-won, it was surprisingly cool as we set off in the half light of early morning. Nice for walking, though, and many others thought the same, judging by the number of familiar faces that were also hitting the trail early.

For much of the morning we walked beside the road, which was quiet enough at this time of the day. With trees on our left and occasional picnic spots along the way, we enjoyed a relaxed pace, passing and re-passing our friends as we went.

We stopped for a drink break beside the entrance to Villamarco village, chatted briefly to a girl from Hungary, and took a short detour to view the exhibition of old farm implements which made for an interesting diversion.

Tumbledown adobe buildings beneath clouds and contrails

Back en route, we kept along beside side the road, passed an airfield and further rest stops, until a picnic area near Reliegos provided a good, shady spot for lunch. A little later on, as we passed through the village, we popped into a bar for ice creams and cold drinks.

With only 6 kilometers of the day remaining, we took our time getting to Mansilla de las Mulas. Nevertheless, it was barely 2.00pm when we passed through the old town walls and headed for our hotel.  

Entering Mansilla de las Mulas

We bumped into the four Scots for the first time since Calzada del Coto, and a Japanese girl who had walked the 38 kilometers from Sahagun. This gave us some food for thought: having eventually reached a level of fitness, we both felt that the last few days’ walking had not offered quite enough challenge, and it would have been good if they’d been a little bit longer. Perhaps not 38k at a stretch: maybe 30 kilometers per day, give or take, would be ideal. That way we wouldn’t arrive at our destination quite so early in the afternoons, and may have “saved” a day – or possibly even two – by adopting a more flexible schedule between Burgos and Leon. Of course it’s entirely our own fault in that we pre-arranged the days’ duration in advance, but it’s a lesson learned for next time, I feel.

Once again, our room is simple and functional, but seems quite quiet and will suit us just fine. It’s hot, though, just like at Calzadilla and El Burgo Ranero, and we hope it will cool as the sun goes down.

Camino sculpture, Mansilla de las Mulas

We spent the afternoon resting and pottering round town. What interest there was lay mainly amongst the high-sided, narrow streets of the old town. It’s not a big place, though, and one lap revealed the best of what was on offer. We went to a bar near the Albergue where a few pilgrims lounged, soaking up cold drinks and writing up our notes, wondering if any familiar faces would appear. But they didn’t.

It was later that we caught up with friends: pre-dinner drinks with Fred, Frans and Ann, followed by a filling meal of pasta, grilled pork steaks and chips.  

Day 15 – Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon: 20.30km / Ascent 257m / Descent 175m

And so to our last day – the final leg of this section – from Mansilla into Leon, where we have to leave the Camino and return home.

Again, it was a cool morning, belying the fact of another hot, sleep-interrupted night. On reflection, I think we coped better with the heat during the day (wide-brimmed hat, frequent applications of sunscreen, plenty of water, keeping to the shade) than we did at night, which seems slightly odd given all the warnings about afternoon temperatures at this time of year.

Town walls, early morning

We were underway by 8.30am – later than normal, but not too bad considering there was only 20 kilometers to go.  Some of our regular chums were also about, but others had opted to take the bus. Word had got round that the last part of the walk into Leon wasn’t very nice: dangerous, even, as it followed the shoulder of a busy road.

True, walking into the main cities was often less than scenic, but there was usually something of interest to see. And all the reasoning in the world (more time in Leon, a chance for a rest day, catching up with others) wouldn’t change one simple fact: we were not going to put ourselves in the position of getting to Santiago, looking back and wishing we’d not missed a bit! After all, we’d promised ourselves “the full distance on foot, no matter what”.

Twenty-arched bridge, Puente Villarente

As has been alluded to earlier, the Camino again paralleled the road or used pavements for much of the day. We passed through a minor village, Villamoros, before taking a coffee break with Fred at a bar in Puente Villarente, a village with an historic twenty-arch bridge and a little museum about the history and restoration of the major bridges along the Camino.

Beyond Puente Villarente, we headed off on a now-familiar gravel track. A short detour to the Albergue in Arcahueja offered a lazy rest stop with cheese and chorizo sandwiches and cokes. We met Belgian Dirk, and caught up again with the Chamonix ranger from a few days ago, who was stopping for the day there and then because of foot trouble!

We rejoined the main road in Valdelafuente, and followed an intricate set of paths and bridges to reach the outskirts of the town proper near the Psychiatric Hospital at Puente Castro. From what I can work out this sinuous route is new, created to remove the pilgrim from a dangerous roadside plodge.

Extravagant new bridge, Valdelafuente

Walking through the streets, familiar voices hailed us from a nearby bar. Having passed us while we were ensconced in the Arcahueja Albergue, Mike and Carol had been there a while and already slipped into relaxation mode. So we joined them for a beer: a bit early, maybe, but if it was OK by the locals and OK by other pilgrims, it was certainly OK by us.

Looking back at my notes and photographs, it seems like these final days just flew by. The thought of finishing this year’s section had been preying on our minds a little, and with these longer breaks I get the impression we were deliberately trying to prolong the experience and delay the moment when it would be time to rejoin the “real world” once again. 

The odd thing is that over the last two weeks the simple recurring mantra of “eat, sleep, hike” had become our reality, and we were reluctant to leave it behind. Our busy lives of only a few days ago, lives full of noise and stress and obligation, structured by outside commitments and pressures and soon to be rejoined, are the lives that now seem peculiar, distant and incongruous. I guess this is how the Camino gets into your system; how it changes your life.

Double thickness city walls, Leon

There was another kilometer or so of pavement bashing through the outskirts, before finally passing through the ancient walls and entering the beautiful and historic city centre. We followed the Camino through narrow streets, and turned towards the Plaza Santo Martino to reach our hotel. Part of the collegiate church of San Isidoro, it proved a magnificent setting in which to spend the last night of our pilgrimage.

Inside the Casa de Espiritualidad

After a rest and a quick wash and brush up, we set out to explore the city – wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. We’d arranged a rendezvous by the cathedral, but bumped into JD while we were out and about who said a bunch of pilgrims were gathered at a bar round the corner. 

Leon Cathedral

So we all joined up – us, Mike and Carol, Frans and Ann, Don, John, John and Stephen (the four Scots), Dirk, JD and Becky, Sandi and Dean – all our friends from the last couple of weeks on the Camino gathered together one final time before we all went our separate ways.

Sandi, Dean, Ann & Frans

Frans, Don & John

John, Becky, JD, Dirk & Stephen 

Us, with Mike & Carol

I had deliberately kept fairly quiet about it being my 50th birthday – the idea of arriving into Leon at the end of a great fortnight being present enough. But word had got out: Carol had bought me a small present and a beautiful hand-painted card which everyone signed. It was great – a lovely thought and a fantastic memento of a unique and wonderful two weeks!

It also turned out to be Ann’s birthday, and the eve of her and Frans’ wedding anniversary, so there was a definite celebratory air about the evenings’ proceedings. Eventually, though, everyone began to drift away. For some, the immediate future meant carrying on along the Camino: for others, like us, it was time to turn for home.


We had dinner with Mike and Carol at a small off-the-beaten-track café – loads of food and wine at a very modest price – and rounded-off the evening watching a son et lumiere show telling the history of Leon, which was projected on to the side of the San Isidoro church. Brilliant! It was a fabulous evening of fun, friendship and celebration, and I can’t think of a better way of marking the end of a memorable fortnight.

Sound & light show projected on to the facade of San Isidoro church

Day 16 – Leon to Home

There was precious little chance to do anything much this morning, but we did our best to make the most of what time there was. We had a quick look round town, wished a few departing pilgrims well (with more than a tinge of sadness) and took a guided tour of the hotel/church complex.

Tower and courtyard, Casa de Espiritualidad

It was hard to leave, but we know we have lots to look forward to when we return. And return we will to finish our pilgrimage – God willing, of course. 

Interior of San Isidoro from the gallery