Friday 28 January 2011

Access All Areas

There’s been a bit of chat lately on a couple of walking-related Internet forums about Access Land and whether, as walkers, we are getting as much out of it as we might. Access Land is the term used to describe land in England and Wales recently designated by the Countryside Agency on which the public can now walk and explore freely, without the need to stick to marked footpaths; land previously off-limits to walkers or, at best, accessible only by tacit agreement with the landowner.

These areas were drawn up as a result of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (often referred to at the time as “The Right To Roam” – of which more later) and which came into effect from late 2004 onwards, also the date from which the Ordnance Survey began showing the designated areas on their Explorer range of 1:25,000 scale maps. Around this time, signs and information also began to appear at the boundaries of Access Land.

At the time there were quite a lot of column-inches devoted to these newly created areas, about how this was the culmination of 75 years of campaigning and the final realisation of the legacy of the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout: a new freedom for all and a victory for the common man over the intransigent landowner. The creation of Access Land was, of course, a key constituent of the CRoW Act 2000 and hailed as a major victory for walkers both by the Ramblers Association and others. It is a noble concept that appeals to the liberated citizen in us and widely celebrated, but I suspect that, outside of the very keenest walkers, few actually take much notice of those areas even if they know what they are.

So, with areas designated, maps annotated and signs posted, the walking fraternity flocked to the fells to blaze new trails across this previously untapped resource, right? Well, apparently not - if the conversation across the ether is anything to go by.

In fact it seems as though it has made very little impact at all, so far. There are those who already took advantage of the open uplands, whether completely legally or otherwise: for them little will have changed. For others, the desire to remain on pre-determined paths is overwhelmingly strong. In many other countries, even those with vast areas of wilderness, most hiking is on designated trails or ancient paths and tracks. There seems to be a deep-set urge inside us, possibly from our nomadic past, to follow ancient and established routes – perhaps reinforced by a feeling of being in tune with the rhythms of nature and the folds of the landscape. Of course there are exceptions, but I would estimate that a very large percentage of walking is still on marked paths.

For me, there is nothing finer than the idea of pioneering a new route in glorious countryside, grabbing a slice of wilderness and getting away from the crowds. I know many who don't feel the same - who either lack the desire or the confidence to do so - and their experiences are just as valuable and valid to them as mine are to me. But for those few who do wish to venture off the beaten track the question is “How do I get the best from it?”

Looking at the maps for inspiration is a start, and it doesn’t take long for the colours, symbols and contours to work their magic. Intuitive lines seem to rise from the page – a ridge here, a summit there - and routes often fall readily into place. So far, so good; but the major problems facing the Access Lander now become more apparent. The question now is whether or not the route is passable on the ground.

Maps do show a number of official entry points to Access Land, and it is often easy to spot where paths intersecting or running beside Access Land boundaries might provide ingress. Beyond that, though, things become less clear as there is no sure way of knowing whether subsequent boundaries, streams or other obstacles can be readily crossed. Access Land or not, damaging property – such as walls or fences – is not an option.

Nor is it always easy to tell what the condition of the ground is. Some areas of upland can be notoriously wet and boggy, covered in tussocks of grass and reeds, or be a minefield of sinkholes. Therefore, it may be a rewarding way to spend an hour or two exploring an area with no target in mind, but it makes it difficult to incorporate such land as part of a longer route without prior knowledge of the conditions that might be encountered or whether the route is passable all the way through.

Coupled with that, the law allows for intermittent closure of Access Land for the protection of wildlife, ground nesting birds or livestock, and for a variety of other reasons such as maintenance, safety, etc. It is quite difficult to understand what is covered in these conditions – what reasons allow for temporary closures, how long they might last and what sort of notice has to be given. Websites need to be consulted, and finding the information is not particularly straightforward. Suffice it to say the situation can change at fairly short notice!

So it may well prove to be a matter of trial and error. Pick your route and maybe don’t commit to too much Access Land without prior knowledge, or at least have a “Plan B” ready for if it doesn’t work out. Gradually, over time, the picture will become clearer as more and more land gets explored. Some areas are already well covered – the Howgills for example, where there are many paths clearly apparent on the ground yet not shown on maps, but that are known about, appear in guidebooks to the area, and are regularly used. I’m sure the situation will be very similar in lots of places across the country – the Lakes, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and North Wales to name just a few.

I dare say blogs might have a big part to play, too. There are lots who are prepared to try a few different things and commit them to cyberspace. Others might then follow in their footsteps, adding their own twist to proceedings. Eventually, routes might appear in print – perhaps not in the conventional manner, but in a way that gives useful information about the quality of line/route, underfoot conditions and terrain, the best access points, boundaries and streams and how easy they are to cross, danger areas, and whether compass navigation is needed.

Whether Access Land as we now have it is the best way of dealing with the situation is a moot point. Many feel that a massive opportunity was missed to push for a model similar to that operating in Scotland. In my opinion, referring to it as "The Right to Roam" was something of a mistake, too - both in the sentiment if infers and the actuality of the legislation. The fact is that as a phrase it has the ability to rub landowners up the wrong way and, at the same time, inform poorly the general walker as to their rights. I speak to quite a lot of people (admittedly not all keen walkers) who think we are now perfectly entitled to traipse anywhere regardless.

But, since the situation is unlikely to be revisited anytime soon, we must make the most of things as they are, working within the uneasy truce that now exists. We must also resist the temptation to think that the job is already done. In reality, it may only be the next generation of walkers that experience the true benefit. In the meantime, I hope to make a few “off-piste” trips of my own in the coming year and to add a little extra spice to my walking. After all, the most important thing is to enjoy it - whatever you do.

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