The British countryside is suffering a major problem – congestion. This ‘green and pleasant land‘ as William Blake put it, is becoming more Goretex than grass, more litter than landscape and more car park than copse. The major problem is not only the sheer number of people (UK – 609 per sq mile against Poland at 328 and Spain at 210), but also because of their desire to use the outdoors. Though we all have a right to go out and enjoy ourselves, we have no right to cause damage. As a Leave No Trace Trainer, I do everything I can to protect the countryside I live in and enjoy. One of the seven principles of Leave No Trace is ‘travel and camp on durable surfaces‘.
I’ve been lucky enough to make some great friends in the outdoors. One of my best mates is Ian, who has climbed, skied, rode, swore, drank, slipped, paddled and walked with me for over 20 years. We have our disagreements of course, and have been likened to a married couple. Ian has even been accused of being my carer..! For many years, Ian has driven 4WD vehicles, whilst I have driven a VW camper. We have repeatedly argued over ‘Green Laning’, but we’ve always looked at the issues which surround it with a deal of fairness and openness. The press have reported many stories recently about lane closures and ground damage, so I thought it important that someone who actually drove the lanes should have a say. Take it away Ian…
“Sitting in the warm evening sunshine after a session climbing at Harborough Rocks in Derbyshire, Nigel and myself started to discuss the contradictions in our lives. We both work within the electricity industry, and right in front of the rocks a set of wind turbines is under construction. These new wind farms affect our work in different ways, but we both struggle to come to terms with them as lovers of the outdoors. We presently have an uninterrupted 30 + mile view towards Leicestershire, but I wonder how much longer that will last?
This discussion moved forward to one of my other passions – four-wheel drives and trail motor bikes, and the use of them on un-surfaced highways. People have asked “how can you love the outdoors but destroy it with these machines?” My reply is I don’t want to destroy anything. I just want the status quo to remain and people to work together to solve a lot of the problems caused by each group.
Let me tell you some of my views and thoughts on this, and try to establish if there is really a contradiction. Then I’ll ask a question at the end…
Many of the skills that are required in the mountains are the same as when using vehicles – i.e. the ability to read a map, plan the route and communicate effectively being an obvious few. I have always considered myself to be a responsible user, sticking to the letter of the law, driving an un-modified vehicle, and respecting others and their rights to be there. Like the gullible fool that I am, I want people to treat me with the same respect, whether climbing, mountaineering, walking, riding or driving. If I want to ride my bike or drive off-road like an idiot I will attend a pay and play site, where I can be as daft as like. A public un-surfaced right of way is not the place to mess about on, nor are they the place for the money modified and aggressive looking vehicles you now see on the lanes. In my view, if you can’t drive the route in a standard farmer spec vehicle then don’t go there. Note I have not said driving off-road as these are public highways that have missed the tarmacking machine, so the vehicle has to be taxed, MOT’d, and insured, yet so often I see people abusing this right and privilege. I don’t feel guilty about using these routes as they have come into existence by a quirk of the law and the majority have existed for hundreds of years. Most of the lanes, especially in the Peak District (where I have driven and ridden most) are down to bedrock, and it has always been so. Hundreds of iron clad cart wheels draw by horse and oxen have seen to this. The lanes that are muddy will always have been muddy and travel by wheeled vehicle a hundred of years ago was impossible in winter conditions. Modern vehicles are less capable than these old horse-drawn carts, and yet the old hauliers accepted the fact that travel in winter was hard or impossible. Whilst I agree that a lot of these old roads are being damaged and destroyed, so are many footpaths and bridleways. A lot of this is down to increased use, lack of maintenance and the closure of lanes forcing more traffic on to the remaining routes. Please don’t think that this is confined to lanes with vehicular rights. Forty years ago when I started walking (before I could drive) and exploring my local area, some footpaths were little more than a faint line. Now, some are many metres wide. Human nature is such that people will go around the worst obstructions, leaving the legal route (but if you are walking, it’s ok to do so) and making it many metres wide over time. Increased use by the public is causing damage to all rights of way, but it infuriates me when a lane with vehicular rights is closed due to damage, but routes like the Pennine Way receive funding every year, with helicopters airlifting materials to it with little or no thought to what environmental damage this causes. For walking to be truly ‘green’ these slabs and rocks would have to be quarried by hand and taken by horse and cart to the site, not dug out from an un-wanted quarry, by a giant diesel guzzling earthmover and carted to site in a polluting helicopter. In these times of cutbacks and austerity should we be spending public money on this route? Why not just take the simple option and close it? If it had vehicular rights this is exactly what would be done!
The majority of drivers and riders are responsible, want the activities of the minority of idiots stopped, and will have no hesitation in reporting illegal activities. Operation Blackbrook run by Derbyshire police was excellent in this as it stopped a lot of the illegal riders and drivers, has now been abandoned due to cuts. Could we not spend the money from the Pennine Way repairs on this?
The news now that you have all been waiting for is that I have now stopped! The simple pleasure of going out on the motorbike on a summer’s evening, riding a few lanes and stopping for a pint has been spoilt! The politics, the increased use by other users, and the attitude of some in some well-known user associations has driven me off. The final nail in the coffin came when a group of bobble hatted, cagoule wearing ramblers verbally and physically assaulted a friend of mine with their wooden sticks as he waited for them to pass with his engine off. Having been verbally abused and having a physical attack on a vehicle, it poses the question of what these people’s home lives are like, and why they don’t behave in the same way every time a legally driven vehicle passes them on the street. Imagine the fun the press would have had if my friend had retaliated, the headlines would read something like “BIKER ATTACKS RAMBLERS IN UNPROVOKED ATTACK”. What makes them think that they can carry out a crime of this nature just because they are in the country? Yes, he did report it to the police but by the time they turned up the group involved had long gone. So to all those who think certain associations who promote walking, horse-riding and climbing are whiter than white, look closer to home. Whilst reading a climbing forum recently someone was yet again calling for the ban of vehicles on rights of way, yet the next page on the forum a person was asking about good buildings to climb in London as he didn’t want to pay the £10 entry to a climbing wall. Nobody in the off-road forums was asking for climbing to be banned due to this individuals activities, despite its illegality. And yet there are whole forums for illegal ‘Buildering‘. Why is nobody within the climbing community taking responsibility for these activities? Then there are the activities of the climbers who ignore climbing restrictions when birds are nesting, walkers who let dogs roam with sheep and cattle around, the member of the scout groups throwing stones whilst people are climbing. These are hardly the acts of responsible groups, and I would think in some cases illegal, yet if challenged a mouth full of abuse usually follows.
There are good and bad in all user groups and there is a need to police these individuals. Sometimes this needs to be with self-policing and education, and sometimes with the physical force of the law. You won’t get any complaints from me if you report any illegal activities of vehicle users, but if I report you for climbing my house don’t go blubbing to the authorities about how your rights have suddenly been removed. Having a foot in all camps, as a vehicle user, climber and mountaineer, gives me access to the different groups, and yes there is problem with vehicles in the country, there are issues with ramblers and there are issues with climbers, horse riders and mountain bikers for that matter, but remember this. When the people, who drive vehicles illegally, now, f### green laning up for the other legal drivers and gets it banned, they may just move on to other activities and f### them over. Because they can and will! And they won’t give a damn about your right to enjoy that quiet evening climb at Harborough. So I ask, is there really a contradiction, or are we all just waiting for the next idiot to spoil the fun?”
Thanks for your thoughts Ian. It’s always good to debate issues with good friends (usually over a pint or ten) and try to understand everyone’s point of view. Responsibility in the outdoors is vital if we are all to use them, and the numbers out there will only get higher. Two recent stories from the Peak District are the closing of Chapel Gate and Trail Riders at the Castleton Fun Day.
I’d like to look at a couple of points that Ian made. Climbing public buildings is generally frowned upon, unless it conveniently fits a purpose or is a media driven stunt. The recent ascents of power station chimneys and the Shard in London prove this pint, but I don’t like such stunts personally, as in my view there are much better ways of making your point.
Before anyone screams at the thought of scouts throwing stones over rock faces whilst there are climbers below – I was climbing with Ian at the time. I had a quiet word with the leader and all was well, but it’s very unnerving when you’re hanging from a piece of limestone whilst people stone you from above..!
I’d be interested in your views of outdoor activities, their effects and how we can all enjoy the outdoors together. Feel free to post a comment below…
Following on this blog, I’ll be looking at the use of renewable energy in the UK, its impacts electrically, socially and on the landscape.
Update – Sadly I noticed the steel barrier at Dennis Knoll car park towards the Long Causeway on Stanage has been smashed open. The welded steel locks have been broken off, and large concrete blocks have been placed in the way to block the track again. Such a sad reflection on some peoples view on outdoor access…