Day 31: Grrr
Uttoxeter to Thorpe. 15.6. miles. Miles to date: 492.9.
I write this from the hillside hamlet of Thorpe, just ten minutes walk from the stepping stones in Dovedale, one of England's loveliest valleys, and in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud, a tiny mountain with a big place in my heart as it is the first I climbed, with my grandad, nearly four decades ago.
I have spent most of the day not moving a muscle on a king-size bed propped up by what holiday brochures often describe, I think, as 'fluffy pillows'.
Now I'm drinking gin & tonic in a secluded hotel in a bowl of hills that are many shades of green under a lazy summer sun.
When the G&T's done I'll have a pint. I'll eat. Then I'll saunter the quarter mile up the hill to my beautiful B&B, run by a couple who, after 20 years in the London ratrace swapped Surrey for the north, and a different lifestyle. It's hard, they say, but they're doing a great job – and still maintaining a smile. They've seen a few LeJoggers over the years, some broken, some raring to get back on the trail.
Because after yesterday's slog I'm somewhere between the two, I'm resting.
It's a rest which, after walking 135 miles in a week, I need.
I say all of this because – trigger warning! – today's post will be a right old moan about yesterday's walk, government cuts to rights of way budgets and landowners.
If you're not up for that then at least you know I'm in good spirits again, that the rest has given me a chance to recharge my batteries. Pretty pictures will return in the days ahead, because the long-term forecast is good and I can't wait to get stuck into the Pennine Way; my feet have always been most at home on the fells.
But if you're up for a rant, though, this one's vintage...
I left Uttoxeter as early as I could. I couldn't fault my cheap and cheerful B&B. They even served me a slice of veggie bacon, a LeJog first – with a big smile. I'm not sure I'll be coming back to Uttoxeter any time soon, but if I do then the Meadows Way Guest House, despite its odd shower design, is top of my list.
Then, almost immediately, it became obvious I was in for yet more of the now familiar slog-walking.
Knee-high meadow grass and shoulder-high crops. Paths were poorly signed – if at all – and more than once they disappeared into nettle seas. So commonplace has all this become that I'm getting bored even writing about it, let alone fighting through it.
The predictability is the worst thing. One of the great joys of walking is not knowing what's around the corner, and being constantly engaged as the countryside and views change. But over the past few weeks two things have become obvious: one, if you're spending a large part of the day crossing farmland you're likely to have a grim time; and two, you should never trust a long distance footpath – unless it's an officially recognised trail.
When you accept these two caveats an awful lot of enjoyment is sapped from the walk. Because you can tell from the map over breakfast if you're going to have a tough day.
There are some really impressive metalwork statues on the roundabouts around Uttoxeter, like this centaur.
Sums it all up: waymark in a sea of nettles, pointing through a thicket that no right-minded person would attempt to penetrate without a suit of armour and a scythe.
Then I met two different walkers who got me thinking, and before long my anger shifted focus away from me for choosing this walking challenge, to those who are really at fault for letting – and deliberately helping – our ancient network of paths fall into the state of disrepair I have found them in.
The first was a local out walking his dog. "The paths round here have become dreadful," he said, indicating various field edges where paths once were. "Farmers know they can do what they want." He pointed at a waymark sign. "See that? Keeps getting knocked down. So I keep putting it back up. I tell the farmers the council will have 'em in court. But nowt happens." Turns out he also farmed. Can't imagine he was particularly popular with his land-owning neighbours.
My next meeting was a mile or so up the road, in a meadow with no sign of a path. The walker was a serious one; he'd paced trails all over the world. "It's Staffordshire council," he said. "They don't care about paths. Never have done. One of the worst places in the country to walk." (Which did slightly beg the question as to what he was doing walking through Staffordshire. At least I had the excuse of ignorance.)
But both chats were interesting and, in their own way, reassuring.
The thing is, if you walk this trail alone you can lose your sense of judgement. Is it that the trail is hard work. or that you're in a bad mood? Is it your fault for setting off when the undergrowth is in full verdancy, or should someone, somewhere be maintaining these rights of way?
Meeting others tells you you're not alone. In the evening reading blogs of other LeJoggers revealed identical tales of woe about the same parts of the country.
A walking solidarity of sorts.
That sinking feeling.
Sign indicating that the footpath enters a hedge, then a river.
So I started doing my research.
The law as it applies to public rights of way is not complex.
There are 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England, providing the ability to walk recreationally and to get from one place to another on foot. The local Highway Authority is legally responsible for protecting these rights of way.
The landowner has various legal responsibilities, including to: ensure vegetation does not encroach onto the route from the sides or above; not plant arable crops over a footpath unless the footpath remains apparent on the ground to a minimum width of 1 metre; restore footpaths across ploughed fields to a minimum width of one metre within 14 days of ploughing; not put up barbed wires, electric fences or exposed barb wire that prevents or obstructs a public right of way; and not place dairy bulls over 10 months in fields crossed by a right of way.
Obstructing a public right of way is a criminal offence and the Highway Authority has a duty to ensure the public’s rights to use a public right of way are protected, and to ensure landowners carry out their duties – and take action if they don’t. Yet on my walk I have seen every one of the above legal don'ts for landowners broken many times over.
Our paths, say the Ramblers – the organisation that exists to care for and, where necessary, lobby on behalf of footpaths – are in crisis.
The ongoing squeeze on local council budgets by a government with an austerity dogma means councils are trimming perceived non-essential services at a rate of knots. Civil servants tasked with deciding whether to cut funding for mental health services, pre-school care or rights of way are forced to make decisions they never wanted to make, and even the most ardent walker would have a tough time arguing the funding case for a footpath over, say, end-of-life care.
The Ramblers – helped by a committed network of local walkers – are tracking the effects of the cuts. Over 70% of highway authorities have slashed their rights of way budgets over the period 2009–12. 11% of councils have cut that budget by more than half. As a consequence there are currently over 100,000 path problems in England waiting to be fixed. The number is growing every day.
This all means that the historic network of paths we are rightly proud to have in this country are falling into a state of disrepair, waymarks rotting, stiles surrendering to undergrowth, and miles upon miles of paths across farmland being consumed by crops.
It also means landowners are increasingly able to do what they like to the paths across their land, knowing toothless local councils have neither the personnel nor budgets to investigate and, where necessary, prosecute. These are good times for the land-owning class who have long hated backpacking types crossing 'their' land.
I couldn't help feeling vindicated on the one hand. This explained so much that I was experiencing on the ground. At the same time, it was difficult not also to get angry.
It wasn't all bad. While I was trying to work out where the path had gone, two hares came into the meadow about 20 feet from me and had a full-on boxing match. Then, just as I got my camera out they edged apart and started munching on grass. But it was a magical moment. I'd never seen hares box before.
Old green lane.
Sheep in the shade.
Summing up the week for me! This sign was on the shed of an allotment I passed.
Farmers – across whose land I have been walking on public rights of way since I started my long walk – currently receive, on average, £28,300 in subsidies each year. £28,3000 per farm, per year. On the other side of their balance sheet, the average farm makes a profit of £2,100 a year from agriculture. That's a whopping annual loss of £26,200 pa – which is not a business I'd choose to invest in
Although farm subsidies and income breakdowns are complex, and differ widely depending on the type of farm, and farming, the headline fact is that the public forks out significant sums of cash through taxation to prop up an industry that clocks up huge losses.
Not only do we pay to buy our breakfast cereal – we also pay to grow it.
There are a few good reasons for this: some subsidies are used to carry out work that benefits the environment, while some are in place to ensure that if Britain ever needs to become self-sufficient (more than half of our food is imported), it would at least have the cultivated land, skills and labour to make a decent stab at it.
Even so, given that British (and currently European) taxpayers are keeping British farms afloat financially, the amount of outright hostility to the walking public seems crazy.
Aside from the occasional irresponsible dog owner, litter dropper or gate opener, walkers are a respectful bunch. They spend time in the countryside because they love it and care about it. They have zero interest in hassling cattle or vaulting gates or going where they shouldn't.
But it's not just the occasional landowner who's antagonistic to walkers. It's the majority, choosing not to maintain paths, shoving cattle where they don't need to be, removing signs that would help walkers and putting up signs to intimidate them and - in the worst cases - locking gates, and adding electric fences where they never should be.
These have been the norm on my walk.
I can't count the number of warning signs you come across. The DON'T LET YOUR DOG OFF THE LEAD, and YOU ARE BEING WATCHED and DO NOT LEAVE THE FOOTPATH and so on and on and boringly on.
Everywhere threats and signs that you are not welcome.
Yes, it's easy to be paranoid. But as Nick pointed out below the line following my earlier post about cattle, only this week yet another walker was trampled to death by cattle, bringing the total to 74 since 2000. That's 74 unnecessary deaths. And while farmers have the legal right to shoot walkers' dogs that are bothering their sheep, trying to find a successful prosecution of a farmer whose cattle have killed is difficult. Some of the sentences are downright insulting. At the end of last year a farmer who'd been repeatedly warned about his dangerous cattle was spared jail after his animals finally killed a man.
It's almost as if the law is weighed in favour of the land-owning class.
(The above is not to say that I haven't come across any examples of landowners complying with the law and/or going further; there was one lovely farm in the Cotswolds which had signs up with clear, friendly instructions about how to behave around cattle and little information boards about biodiversity and crop rotation. It was a breath of fresh air.)
Beautiful laid hedge in the Dales.
The river Dove, which I will follow for another couple of days.
Occasionally the walk took you through isolated farmsteads, like this one with an amazing lily pond.
Rapids on the Dove.
The thing is, all this animosity and lawbreaking does not, ultimately, serve the landowning class well.
The antagonism of so many farmers to the public feeds into the deepening town/country divide, which helps no-one.
For many, farming is a tough business, that is getting tougher all the time. This is particularly the case for small and hill farmers.
With Brexit approaching, the generous handouts that have made their way into farmers' pockets will be renegotiated. The government has already signalled that it wants farms to stand on their own two feet financially – a humbling prospect given the current average £26,200 deficit. If that happens farmers will need all the friends they can get.
Equally, in their long-running battle with supermarkets to pay them a fairer price for food, it is the wider public who farmers ask for support by Buying British.
While historically my sympathy has been with the farmers, that sympathy has been tested to breaking point on this walk.
Sure, there are fantastic farms that engage with their customers – selling direct, opening their doors and playing their part in educating children – and adults – into where their food comes from.
But they stand out as a tiny minority in an industry that is not shy about showing its contempt for the public that it ultimately sells to.
If they want the backing of the public in the stormy waters ahead they could do worse than giving those who walk across their land more of a welcome.
It would not go unnoticed.
*** Rant over ***
Dry limestone wall.
It's hard, when you're fed up with the trail, to pull yourself around.
In the end it was the scenery that did it.
The other walkers I met had said it would. "Get north of the A52 and it all changes," I was told.
As if north of the A52 was some promised land.
But they were right. It does all change, the harsh arable landscape dissolving into gentle folds of limestone dales, buttercups flushing hillsides yellow while sheep munch on grassy slopes. it was impossible to keep up the grump.
I'd been looking forward to getting here for miles, and days.
A final descent to a packhorse bridge over the bubbling river Dove, then up the slope to Thorpe, boots picking at proper rock and stone for the first time in weeks.
And there, looking down on the village, the shapeley knoll of Thorpe Cloud.
I found a pub selling great burgers, bought a pint of the local, and let the beer and the hills under the last of the day's light do their job.
Finally, exhausted, I went to bed a happy man.
Lovely Dovedale, from afar.
The hamlet of Thorpe.
The mouth of Dovedale.
Dovedale. A perfect limestone valley.
The famous stepping stones.
Thorpe Cloud at dusk. It's the first hill I ever climbed.
Next: Day 33 – Thorpe to Miller's Dale.
Previous: Day 30 – Lichfield to Uttoxeter.