Map access

Access Rights: Be Nice, Say Hi, Ask Why

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Recently, I’ve been thinking again about access rights. Previously I was definitely on the side of ‘ride legal, or keep it quiet if you’re not’. Now, I’m not so sure. Increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that access is a right, and that the proposals for Wales – lauded as progress by many as opening most of the rights of way network to riders – are just fighting for crumbs. While in the Welsh case these crumbs are perhaps very large and tasty croutons, they perpetuate the structures of access rights being ‘granted’. Increasingly, being told I’m permitted or allowed to do something is jarring, and the irate jangly feeling that gives me under my skin makes me want to get outside with placards. Preferably somewhere I’m not ‘supposed’ to be.

‘Permissive’, not a right.

The reasons for this radicalisation are many – a confluence of various influences and events rather than a specific trigger. Being absolutely furious about the political leaders of this country, their financial influences, and shameless cronyism definitely plays a part. Why should I be abiding by access laws that enable a few incredibly privileged and influential landowners to keep the ‘riff-raff’ out? They’re already keeping people out of the most influential positions in the country and perpetuating their control through structures and policies that limit access to the best education and training to those that aren’t part of this influential elite. ‘We the people’ are being kept off the land by laws created by and for the benefit of the elite whose lands have been paid for by the profits often gained by birthright, exploiting low paid workers, slavery, and the environment.

Climbing down off the top step of my soap box, there is yet more land owned by utility companies and the Forestry Commission. These commercial-ish landowners have a mixed record on granting access, with the Forestry Commission doing a better job than many of the utility companies. I’m at something of a loss to explain what is incompatible with riding bikes on land that is more or less just sitting there waiting for the wind or rain to hit it – especially where there are maintenance tracks on the land for actual vehicles with four wheels and a combustion engine. Why can’t I ride my bike here too?

At a slightly less philosophical and more immediate practical level, I’m frustrated that lockdown has shown so many the importance and pleasure of outdoor space and access to it, but by having such limited access there has resulted a narrative of overuse, abuse and damage. The criticism of people for heading to beauty spots and making them too busy seems to me to be pointing the finger of blame in the wrong direction. We live in a world of supply and demand – not enough TV channels for you to find something you like? We’ll give you more to choose from! There’s a queue at the supermarket checkout – so an extra till is opened. When a local population descends on the few spots accessible to them and on which they have been permitted to ride their bikes, walk their dogs, or eat their picnics leads to a feeling of overcrowding, we don’t open up a new woodland, or offer up some extra fields to sit in. Instead we put up a bunch of signs issuing grumpy orders and even adding extra restrictions to what existed before. Don’t park here, don’t take your dog there, no cycling, no music, no swimming, no fishing.

sign access fish
No frying or cuddling of live fish.

For as long as we talk about ‘granting’ access rights rather than considering access as a right, and granting protection where needed, I think the balance of power is wrong. I’m all for protection of fragile landscapes and vulnerable wildlife, but the current systems make a nonsense of that. When grouse moor owners can build trails for Land Rovers across their land, or burn heather, while simultaneously rejecting access requests on the grounds of protecting fragile peat bogs, I think it’s pretty hard to argue that the law is working in the interests of wildlife or landscape protection. I’d pretty happily have whole protected wildlife wilderness areas declared out of bounds for access in their entirety or on a seasonal basis, providing they were truly out of bounds – to the owners, or anyone trying to make money out of the resources there – and genuinely left as natural and wild habitats.

There has been a good deal of public outcry over the recent case of tax benefits being granted to a landowner in exchange for increased rights of access to the public – but with a good deal of mystery over what rights are supposed to have been given, or indeed if they have, and whether HMRC (who are surely supposed to be acting in the interests of the public, or at least the public purse…) has taken any measures to address it. That outcry seems to have gone beyond the relatively focussed interest groups of cyclists and into the wider public realm. In a similar vein, communities affected by flooding have long been raising some pointed questions about the relationship between Natural England and land owners. There may well be opportunities for campaigners to gain reviews of access and land laws by making an administrative nuisance of themselves, but I can’t help but feel like pen and ink might not get the changes we need.

Trespass is not (yet) a criminal offence, but incitement to trespass is. So I’m definitely not going to be organising any banner making workshops, or flash mob placard waving. Nor will I be encouraging you to ride where you ‘shouldn’t’ be. No. Definitely not. But next time someone tells me I’m not supposed to be somewhere, I’m going to be a little less meek and apologetic. I’ll be nice, I’ll say hi, but I’ll also ask ‘why?’.

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Hannah Dobson

Managing Editor

I came to Singletrack having decided there must be more to life than meetings. I like all bikes, but especially unusual ones. More than bikes, I like what bikes do. I think that they link people and places; that cycling creates a connection between us and our environment; bikes create communities; deliver freedom; bring joy; and improve fitness. They're environmentally friendly and create friendly environments. I try to write about all these things in the hope that others might discover the joy of bikes too.

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Comments (43)

    Amen Hannah. There’s good work being done by the people behind the Right To Roam campaign

    I’d also recommend The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes to anyone who hasn’t read it. Enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure.

    @sboardman I am waiting for my partner to finish reading the copy I bought him! So far I just get the ‘listen to this…!’ bits.

    A very good article Hannah. I’m liking the idea of asking why too!

    Sounds like Hannah has been trying to explain our nonsensical access laws to a “foreigner” 😉

    Whilst remaining polite, I often ask why I shouldn’t ride somewhere when confronted by a walker, runner, etc… In my experience it really throws them as they don’t know how to answer. I think it also winds them up which isn’t the intention, its just not the response they are expecting.
    One bloke who berated us whilst his dog ran round silly off the lead got proper arsey as I pointed out that his dog should be on a lead if signs were to be obeyed by all. Apparently he had written permission of the land owner but couldn’t provide it. To which I replied that I also have written permission off the land owner to ride my mtb there, but it happens to be in my other coat. He went an bright shade of red, said no more and walked off, dog still running round silly.

    I’ve come round to this way of thinking also. Good article.

    Excellent (rant) piece Hannah, well written and well said. It is about time the privileged few, including the Royal Family, gave up their rights (or had them taken away) to keep the great unwashed off of “their” land. It isn’t their land anyway, they just happen (usually by accident of birth) to have stewardship while they are alive. Perhaps if Charles (especially since he frequently berates the rest of us as to what we should doing with the environment) and the rest of the royals gave us access to their lands perhaps others would be cowed into following suit. A new cycling t-shirt logo maybe “So tell me WHY I can’t cycle here?”

    Asking why only prolongs the discussion. You’ll then have to debate trail erosion before realising it’s a pointless waste of time.

    Yep … I’m moving more and more to this perspective as well. Great piece Hannah! Thank You!

    Good article. Echos my own thoughts.

    Humans seem to naturally gravitate into groups (cliques)

    If you are not in my clique of (dog) walking then I am irked by this and want to attack your use of the land I enjoy on my walk

    If you are not a walker, then I like to offer you advice on having a bell (even though most on the canal have earphones so cannot hear).
    I was in a bad mood a coupe of years back when I received some cycling advice from a walker “You need a bell” and asked them why they thought it OK to offer advice, perhaps it was also fair for me to offer walking advice back (less of the red socks and maybe be a bit more aware of others?)

    Its a little off this topic but since its people who inevitably pull others up on thier use of land (legal or otherwise) its all down to cliques in the end!!

    HMRC are not there to act in the public interest, it’s not their job. They are there to administer the tax system as legislated for by Parliament. They have no say in what the rules are.

    As with everything in this country the law is designed to suit the establishment of those who donate enough to the party of the government of the day

    Excellent piece. Can feel my own views heading in this direction, and the “ask why” idea is very clever

    You could just emigrate to Scotland…

    You’d all be welcome. 🙂

    Right then.
    We need a schedule for mass trespass events.
    Same as some.mass trespass events brought the issue to the fore in the even worse access arrangements for kayaking in the 1980s (that at times the BCU sold It’s soul for just to hold a couple of slaloms at the expense of weekend after weekend recreational paddlers).

    It’s the realistic way of forcing the issue. Same as happened on Kinder nearly 90 years ago.
    (What I find so hypocritical of walkers who whinge is they themselves only have any footpath access on the hills because of people ignoring or purposely breaking the rules at the time. But most are too up their own acres to realise it. It’s particularly true here in Derbyshire of all places.

    @robertajobb agreed!

    It’s all a loads of nonsense really, we’re only riding bikes ffs, ride where you want, just don’t be a dick.

    On the bell and “you do realise…” advice, there’s a lot of entitled attitude that the usually older walkers feel they are more mature and know better than the scruffy hooligan yoofs on bikes (even if many of us are as old or older than they are).

    Amongst a lot of incidents over lockdown, one was up on Mickleham Gallops, National Trust managed and a couple of walkers decided to have a proper go that we shouldn’t be where we were. This despite that NT sign clearly saying bikes and horses to stick to the side we were on. They weren’t even on that side, they were on the walker side, we were on the cyclists side, distant from each other but they just had to single us out because we’re on bikes.

    There’s a war going on with many individuals or groups sticking up no cycling signs, many clearly unofficial, with no legal basis, some even on bridleways and dubious they’re provided or sanctioned by the land owner. Land owners I feel are less of an issue though the ones who are fed up with numbers of people just resort to putting up fences.

    I’d love to see wider access for bikes, and England’s access laws are obviously outdated nonsense, but development of purpose-built places to ride probably has a bigger potential for impact on the number of people taking up mountain biking. Rights of way were also one of the first public amenities to get their budgets cut by austerity policies, and many are now in a much worse state as a result, either due to neglect or repairs on the cheap. So yes to access reform, but it’s not the ticket to mountain bike nirvana that some people think it is.

    Widely repeated on here:
    “You’re not supposed to ride bikes here”
    “Yeah I know, dumb isn’t it.”

    Great article Hannah and mirrors the evolution of my thoughts both pre and during lockdown.

    Agree 100% with the intent of this article. I used to only ride on bridleways or BOATs. But over lockdown with limited local routes I started riding wherever. Wasn’t a dick and never had any grief from anyone, so will continue to do so.

    Mass trespass isn’t the way. Getting in the room is.

    Peak District MTB are being tireless in doing this – getting major landowners on side and working to increase provision.

    But we’re a few volunteers working in our spare time. We need more support and more of a push.

    Yesterday we were talking to the Chartered Institute of Foresters about wild trails. Putting the MTB viewpoint across. Changing perceptions. Opening the dialogue.

    We need more of that. Lots more

    Keeper of the Peak bongs on about this stuff all the time too

    Advocacy is “boring” though, of course. And we could just ride in our little bike parks couldn’t we?

    It’s a bit naive (and even disrespectful) to describe the proposed legislative changes in Wales as “fighting for crumbs”. They basically involve parity of access for all users on the existing RoW network.
    But don’t let facts get in the way of a soundbite.

    I agree with all the sentiments here and in the peak am fond of the ‘cheeky trails’, be them footpaths or new trails not strictly on the map…
    But, with this has to come responsibilty as to when we should ride these trails. Riding down Win Hill on a bank holiday weekend is asking for trouble as a lot of bikers sadly are dicks. Access to these more remote trails has become more accesible now with ebikes too. And we all get tarred with the same brush. Big groups make us look like gangs – when in helmets with googles and pads we can be pretty imposing. Equally riding cheeky trails in muddy slop only serves to erode them faster.
    So I pick my time and place accordingly. I follow the be nice, say hi sentiment – it’s difficult to be angry with someone smiling at you.

    “Mass trespass isn’t the way. Getting in the room is.

    Peak District MTB are being tireless in doing this”

    I’m in no way knocking the fantastic work of Peak District MTB, but the Peak District itself exists in small part because of mass trespass (and not just the Kinder one, but that is the most famousest)

    The ridiculousness doesn’t just exist on land either, get my other started on access to swimming spots…

    It does…but I think the mass trespass gets heralded as the one event that led to an overnight change, as opposed to their being a long, long campaign, the mass treapass, then another 20 years of campaigning before the changes.

    *there, tsk.

    Extensive trespass *does* work. Or anyway, can work.
    In the 1980s a long stretch of the Pembroke coast was closed to the public because it was part of the Castlemartin artillery range (the far SW corner, south of the town of Pembroke). Repeated incursions by rock climbers (including me) keen to explore a new, largely unclimbed area eventually persuaded the army to allow limited access. That evolved to the current situation with fairly easy access whenever the military aren’t flinging high explosive around & the choughs aren’t nesting. Which works well for everyone & has put an end to the illegal incursions. So everyone’s happy…
    See? It *can* work, with persistence, patience & reason.
    Nice piece, by the way, Hannah. I don’t always agree with everything you write, but can’t argue with a word of this piece.

    “Repeated”, “persuaded”.

    Nobody’s saying appropriate pressure isn’t needed, I can just see a mass trespass backfiring.

    “Patience and reason” too. Its sl about doslogue

    How would ‘bike only’ trails such as Surrey hills, or trail centres work under a general right to roam type arrangement I wonder. Would we expect and be happy to share those and see walkers and horse riders coming the other way. What would we say if a walker asked us ‘why’ if we were to tell them off. Safety this and that presumably. Definitely right that this is entrenched in history – goes back to the inclosures acts and people got hung for trespassing after that!

    Can I suggest making the article available to non members so we can share it on other platforms.

    @gdm4 how will this place stay the world’s largest mountain bike secret society with thinking like that?

    Agree hugely. Especially with your second paragraph. Clearly this is a big issue in England or Boris would not even be pretending to tackle it with his “levelling up”. It’s our class system, the Haves vs the Have Nots, and the Haves are going to make damned sure that the Have Nots do not reduce their pile in any way shape or form.
    For a quick start we could remove styles and kissing-gates from footpaths – CyclingUK has an article on why its not an offence to cycle on footpaths (specifically not including the pavement besides a road).

    Excellent article.
    I’ve experienced a lot more confrontation from walkers over the last 12 months or so. This has been on BWs, FPs, towpaths… everywhere!
    I’m going to up my response game. I currently rely on the old “I know” or occasionally go full-on Begbie. The Begbie instances are much shorter 🙂

    A couple of quotes from the replies:

    “just don’t be a dick”
    “a lot of bikers sadly are dicks”

    When confronted I say ‘are you the landowner, or the landowners agent?’. ‘No’. ‘Well **** off then’

    A great article and, as per normal for Hannah, has made me think; I’m sure you can smell the burning. I also discussed this with my riding buddy (the article, not the burning smell). You may have started something here.

    One tiny criticism of the article, can we stop using the word ‘cronyism’ and start calling it what it is; corruption!(which is what it would be called extremely vociferously if any other party was doing it!)

    Been reading a lot recently about land ownership and access:
    The Book of Trespass – Nick Hayes
    Who Owns England – Guy Shrubsole
    Who Owns Scotland -Andy Wightman (written 1996 so predates the Land Reform Act 2003)

    Living in Scotland so not too worried about access but recent experience suggests that many landowners only pay lip service to public access.

    I’ve taken to this approach over the last decade or so. My general feeling is that of “do less damage”, so not riding anywhere I’ll rip up the trail – be that BW, FP, byway or whatever. I’ve had a few interesting conversations, both positive and negative, with walkers when my approach has been “why?” Then followed up with discussions about responsible riding and the idea that walking access only came about because of trespass and what’s the difference between a bike and a Zimmer frame/walking stick anyway?

    One I agree with here – notably there is a creeping change locally (South Devon) where bridleways and green lanes are gradually having their signs changed and they are all being labeled as public footpaths. Inevitably leading to conflict between long time local riders and recent walkers. I have taken to carrying the OS map to show people but this sort of thong really does not help!

    The other key point for me is that many landowners rely on subsidies, so effectively I am my tax paying them (via my taxes) to deny me access to the land.
    I’ve also noticed the creep of footpath signs where there are Bridleways on the South Downs.

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