The joy of walking
A path through time immemorial
A trip along the Dales Way shows how Britain balances walkers’ rights with property rights
Dec 17th 2011 | ILKLEY | from the print edition
PACKHORSES first crossed the Old Bridge in Ilkley in 1675, probably bringing wool to market from the sheep farms that still dot the Yorkshire Dales. The modern traveller will approach the bridge across the river Wharfe with a different purpose. A sign at its foot heralds the start of the Dales Way, a 76-mile (122-kilometre) trek through some of the prettiest parts of England.
The intrepid hiker who makes the full trip will walk on every kind of surface: main roads, narrow rocky paths that are slippery when wet (as this correspondent can painfully attest), alleys overgrown with weeds, and fields where mud has merged with sheep and cow dung to form a brown ooze the colour of oxtail soup. He will pass through tiny villages with quintessential Yorkshire names like Hubberholme and Yockenthwaite and cross (via an overhead walkway) the six lanes of the M6 motorway that threads from Birmingham to Carlisle. And he will observe the English at play in all kinds of weather—teenage boys enjoying a refreshing swim, trout fishermen standing thigh-high in the current, elderly couples accompanied by their dogs and even one man taking his falcon for a walk.
The joys of walking have long inspired poets and writers. Some have spoken of the sense of freedom that comes from leaving the city behind; the delicious choices offered by forked paths that lead through deep woods or over hilltops. In the “Song of the Open Road”, Walt Whitman wrote:
- Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,
- Healthy, free, the world before me,
- The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Walking seems to set the mind free for contemplation. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” The Welsh writer Lloyd Jones, who was inspired to produce his first novel by a 1,000-mile trek round his homeland, said that “The moving landscape provides an absorbing diversion which frees the mind and gives us a fresh viewpoint, and we’re most at ease with the world when we walk because everything is happening at a manageable pace.”
Some politicians like the ability to ponder the great issues of state as they plod. William Gladstone, a Victorian prime minister and moralist, was an enthusiastic daily walker, opening a route up Mount Snowdon at the age of 83. While mired in the euro zone’s financial woes this year, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, chose to spend her summer holiday walking in the south Tyrol (although the trip didn’t inspire any immediate solutions to the problem).
In Europe, now that national borders have withered away, the open road is longer. Paths criss-cross the continent from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. Lis Nielsen of the European Ramblers’ Association recounts how she met a young Slovenian while walking in her native Denmark. He had grown up in a village marked by a sign for the E6 hiking trail that runs from Finland to the Aegean. He dreamed of following the route to Denmark and saved up all his annual holiday entitlement so he could do so.
America has a huge number of hiking routes, nearly all on public land. The Appalachian Trail, which follows the eponymous mountains from Georgia to Maine, is almost 2,200 miles long (some hikers claim that there is little to see but trees). Yosemite national park in California includes over 800 miles of trails.
Some 56m Americans went hiking in 2010, according to a survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. The number of people who went backpacking overnight rose by 18% between 2006 and 2010. It is a cheap activity, well-suited to an era of economic malaise. A survey of hikers in America’s Washington state found that, on average, they each spent just $409 a year on their hobby.
Broadly speaking, the countries that offer the most liberal rights to walkers are those with the most free space. In Norway and Sweden, where the national character is steeped in stoicism and fresh air, there is a general assumption in favour of access. But the pattern does not always hold. In the thinly populated American West, hikers sometimes find it necessary to cross private land in order to link between national and state parks. They can do so only if landowners are friendly: the idea of a “right to roam”—enacted in Britain in 2000—would strike most Americans as very strange.
Recreational walking is by far the most popular leisure activity in Britain: 16% of Britons do it each week, according to the government, compared with 11% who go to the gym. Perhaps this derives from the old connection between rural pursuits and breeding: Victorian businessmen who made good hastened to buy a country estate. Perhaps the claustrophobia caused by living in the most densely populated large country in Europe drives Britons to seek out open spaces at the weekends. Or perhaps it is down to the British love of dogs, who trot behind many an occasional walker.
But while Britons have itchy feet, they are also very attached to the notion that their homes are their castles. So there is a struggle—albeit a generally well-mannered one—between walkers’ rights and property rights.
Walking since time immemorial
The 4,000 or so people who annually complete the Dales Way are tackling just one of the 720 long-distance trails that traverse the British Isles. The longest, the South West Coast path, is 630 miles long, taking in the coast of Devon and Cornwall; it is also one of the easiest to navigate as long as travellers follow a simple rule (start in Minehead and keep the sea on your right). New long-distance paths are added every year, largely by linking existing paths together; there were just 150 national trails back in 1980. The total British network covers close to 150,000 miles; a lot for a small group of islands.
These treks are part of a grand British tradition; the right to walk over private land. This right is not unlimited. The route has to have been established by custom. Some of the paths were built by the Romans; others date back to “time immemorial”, a date established by legal convention to be the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199).
Paths were originally designed for practical, rather than leisure, use. In Scotland broad paths were built after the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century, as a way of allowing English soldiers to move quickly round the rugged landscape. Medieval peasants needed to cross feudal estates to get to market. Some paths disappeared when common land was enclosed in the 18th century but walkers fought back: in 1826, the Manchester Association for the Preservation of Ancient Footpaths was formed with the aim of taking a local landowner to court.
A legal principle dubbed “once a highway, always a highway” means that a right of way, once established, is hard to abolish. That is why English hikers can find themselves wandering through a cornfield, or facing the suspicious gaze of a sheep; activities that in America might attract the attention of an angry landowner with a shotgun. The Dales Way takes the hiker past the kitchen windows of several farms and down private driveways; on this correspondent’s trek, an enterprising schoolboy had set up a stall, complete with honesty box, to sell drinks to parched walkers.
A rough code binds both parties. Landowners are not supposed to block footpaths, or leave hikers at the mercy of an angry bull; walkers are supposed to shut gates, leave no litter and keep their dogs under control. The designated highway authority (usually the local council) is responsible for maintaining the route and, as a result, owns the physical ground of the path, “to the depth of two spades” according to legal custom.
These hiking rights were established through classic English compromise. In 1932, 400-500 ramblers walked across a stretch of grouse moor in Derbyshire in the face of robust opposition. Gamekeepers sought to repel the invasion, lest the hikers scare away the birds that their employers sought to shoot. Some of the trespassers were sent to jail. In those days, hiking was a cheap way for factory workers to escape from their satanic mills at weekends, so the pastime was imbued with proletarian virtue. Ministers in the post-war Labour government of 1945-51 held an annual ramble in the Pennines. That government duly passed the National Parks and Access to Countryside Act, enacting walkers’ rights and creating much-loved parks in, for instance, the Lake District and Snowdonia. Another Labour government passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 that gave walkers Nordic-style rights to roam across open land like moors and mountains.
Such acts have a difficult balance to strike. Even those who guard the right to roam most jealously would object if passers-by wandered through their back gardens. Some celebrities, such as Madonna, have argued that walkers represent a threat to their personal security and demanded restrictions on access rights. One landowner, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, blocked a path through his land with barbed wire and even a padlocked gate. The Ramblers’ Association took him to court and won.
But such cases are rare. The most alarming hazard this correspondent came across was a sign implying the presence of a bull in the next field; fortunately, it turned out to be a pictorial, rather than actual, deterrent.
To the annoyance of landowners, ramblers tend to resist permanent alterations to ancient paths, even when a diversion would make the walk no less pleasant; but landowners are often able to get courts to agree to temporary diversions past their land (as the model Claudia Schiffer did when she married in the Suffolk village of Shimpling in 2002). The Ramblers’ Association, which fights doggedly for walkers’ rights, says it is notified of such diversions, the vast majority of which are unopposed, 70-80 times a week.
In America, the hiker’s biggest problem is generally isolation. It can be a week between towns on the Appalachian Trail, so travellers need a week’s worth of food as well as extra water. On long stretches of the trail, the accommodation is a wooden hut with one side exposed to the elements.
The British hiker, by contrast, is rarely far from a bed-and-breakfast where sweaty clothes can be shed, showers taken, and a full English breakfast provided, complete with such nutritionally dubious items as fatty bacon and fried bread. At the communal dining table, doughty old women rub shoulders with rugby-playing students. While the landlady slaves away in the kitchen, the landlord may well give the guests the benefits of his views on the finer points of politics and economics. But even if his company is uncongenial, the boarding house will soon be left far behind. On the Dales Way, only the sheep can hear you scream.