Online Feature: Access All Areas?

September 16, 2010

In his article from Issue 58, Dave Anderson wants to start the discussion of where were are and where we want to go with land access reform for bikers, looking back to Benny Rothman, a hero of access who has rightly been idolised by ramblers for the Kinder Trespass but was also a cyclist. This piece asks why Scottish style access has been denied to people in England and Wales, wonders why some people don’t seem to realise a bike is not a horse and wonders that if we ask for rights then maybe we should acknowledge our own responsibilities…

I’m writing this, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, looking out over moorland and hills that, not too long ago, were out of bounds to mere mortals like you and me. Outdated laws, created before the demand for access, stopped normal folk from heading out of towns and cities to appreciate the countryside that surrounded them. Vested interests held sway until a trespass altered everything. Trespass, hold that thought for later.

So first up let’s get cards out on the table. This is not a call to arms; a demand for action; and yes I am one of the folk responsible for

And I happily ride footpaths.

And I’m not ashamed of that fact, not one little bit.

OK, so what is this all about? It’s about the need for brain food, an article to get people thinking about where we are and what happens next. I don’t think I know the answers, in fact I’m fairly sure I don’t, but I’m equally sure that some questions need answering. So think of this as stimulus for you to assess the situation we’re currently in and where you stand in the debate.

Benny Rothman is a personal hero of mine; a political activist, an early conservationist, involved in the fight against British Fascists. What’s not to like? And of course he had a leading role in the Kinder Trespass which led to all the wonderful access rights and National Parks we enjoy today.

But Benny Rothman was also a cyclist. His love of the ‘wilderness of the Peak District and North Wales’ was gained on a bike he built from spare parts he had salvaged. He was a cyclist, and if there’s one thing we should feel a sadness for it is that he left his bike at the bottom of Kinder instead of heading up there on it.

Lesson One

So lesson one. A key moment in the history of British access to the countryside was a trespass and those trespassers became heroes for the Ramblers that came after them.

Without the Kinder Trespass, access would likely have continued with concessionary routes only and indeed many ramblers were happy with that likelihood, considering the action of trespass to be too radical to consider.
“These people believe quite sincerely that we can achieve access by negotiation” Rothman is quoted as saying, adding “possibly in another 500 or 600 years”. So while accepting the differences in scale, would it be wrong to point out the similarities and parallels to access in Britain today?

Except of course that Britain today is a country of double standards, thanks to recent reforms north of the border, Scotland enjoys open access to most open spaces regardless of your method of enjoying it (as long as it’s not mechanically powered).

So in the hills of the Borders you can head up into the wild quite happily and legally ride footpaths until you reach the English side where suddenly you’re liable to civil proceedings for trespass.

Is it just me that finds this crazy? But crazy it definitely is, because there is no logic to the sudden change of legality.The laws that define our rights to access to the countryside pre-date the invention of our sport.

The reasoning behind where you can and can’t ride depend entirely on the decision of some random parish council’s reckoning, with ignorance, vested interest and, in all too few cases, historical usage all playing their part.

Lesson two.

Where we can legally ride has not been decided with any thought to mountain bike use, or indeed according to likely impact, suitability of the ground nor any other more logical means.

My bike is not a horse! An obvious statement unless approached from a current rights of way viewpoint. But bikes and horses are very different things. In terms of impact and erosion we mountain bikers are much more similar to walkers (if you’re genuinely interested check out IMBA’s collection of research papers on this). So once we accept that all outdoor activities have some impact on the environment, doesn’t it make more sense to group users by likely impacts and manage access that way?

Still with me? Good let’s press on.

So as I was saying, I ride footpaths, always have done and always will. I also consider myself a conservationist, my job revolves around it. Despite a common misconception that ‘many mountain bikers are not aware of the damage they are doing’ I counter that I’m painfully aware of it. I think very carefully about where I ride and the impact this is likely to cause; because I love to ride trails without destroying the very quality that makes me want to ride them, I time when I ride trails to ensure I conserve that quality, even if it means only riding something a couple of times a year. And the luxury of having that choice comes mainly through not limiting myself to where I have a ‘right’ to ride. I’d rather ride responsibly.

But I also wish others would too; there’s nothing more heartbreaking to see the deterioration of a trail from ‘special’ into ‘mediocrity’. Pussy lines, chicken lines, cheater lines, call them what you will but they still trash trails. I’ve watched once- sinuous singletrack get bludgeoned into a straight line by riders who fail to appreciate its qualities and cut corners.

I’ve also watched local harmony descend into trail conflict both with local residents and within the local riding community as what was once sustainable use becomes the next great thing to ride. Information and the speed it is now capable of travelling at brings new issues to deal with, given the dissemination of local trail knowledge through forums, videos and gpx files.

So let’s talk responsibilities and ethics. Once local knowledge becomes digitallyfreed, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. So once-secret trails become available to anyone with a log-in rather than anyone prepared to put some effort in. Riders travelling into an area to ride the ‘must do’ loop are less likely to change plans because of local conditions, especially if they’ve come equipped to follow a line on a GPS.

Requests not to ride contentious trails at weekends or other busy periods are unlikely to travel with the trail location as it passes from mate, to mate of mate, to internet. Trails that can carry small numbers of riders mid-week or at night may suddenly become conflict zones when 30+ riders head down there in full view on a weekend.

The solution.

So how do we deal with this? Is it possible to share trails responsibly? I’d like to suggest some pointers to start us on our way.
Smile at other trail users; stop and chat. Everyone is there for the same reason and you’d be surprised the effect it can have on changing people’s perceptions. If they’reexpecting a confrontation, nothing works better than not letting them have one.

Think about why you ride a path; what makes it special? Now think about how you can keep it that way.You don’t have to ride a route if the weather’s bad. Avoid damage by choosing something more capable of withstanding erosion. New to the area? Ask at the local bike shop. User responsibility is an important part of access negotiations.

If we’re happy riding paths we officially shouldn’t, then we also have to accept that there are paths that we really should stay away from. Nature reserves, sensitive habitats and rare species all really need avoiding.

Keep singletrack single! Don’t cut corners and don’t choose the pussy line. Surely it’s better to wait until you’ve got the skills to ride something than hack your way down it on an approximation of the correct line?

Trespass is not a crime; it’s a historic part of access negotiation. Benny taught us that. Next time someone complains about where you’re riding point this out to them calmly, they probably don’t realise. We would appear to be at a crossroads. So what do we do? It seems to me that we can carry on doing what we’re doing now; either sucking up the current situation, sticking to legal routes or furtively riding footpaths trying not to cause offence. Or we can start to have a dialogue about a better system of access that better reflects the needs and impacts of users.

We cause the same amount of erosion, whether we’re on foot or bike, we impact on wildlife in exactly the same way too so why should it matter where we are and what type of path we’re on when we’re doing either?

Isn’t open access a better goal? With a focus on responsibilities rather than rights? It works in Scotland, the Swedish have their Allemansstratten, isn’t it time we worked towards a better system here too?

I’d really like to hear some others’ views on this, I see this as the start of a debate. My email address is at the front of the mag, I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

A Brief History of Access

1932 – Kinder Trespass; 300+ walkers take to the hills to campaign for access to ‘forbidden moors’
1949 – National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act; sets the framework we enjoy today. National Parks, long distance paths and the Definitive Map, a record of rights of way enshrined in law.
1968 – Section 30 of the Countryside Act; permits the riding of bicycles on public bridleways but they must give way to other users.The act says that it “shall not create any obligation to facilitate the use of the bridleway by cyclists”
2000 – Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CroW); opens up 750,000 hectares of mountain, moor, heath, down and common land to anyone as long as they’re on foot.
2005 – Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003; establishes a statutory right of responsible access to almost all land on foot, bike or horseback.

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