Ruth Somerville: Kicking up a fuss
“Kick up a fuss, and keep the pressure up. That’s the best way walkers can support their Council.” (Pendle Council Countryside Access Officer, Tom Partridge )
My boot is raised. Around me lies a typical South Pennines scene; ahead Herder’s Common’s high escarpment tumbles prettily away into a tiny wooded valley; drystone walls spool out to the left and right like triceratops spines, dividing up the countryside into tiny fields filled with sheepies. And underfoot? A noxious gauntlet of mud and cowpat, which runs for 100m between me and the next gate, which I just can’t get my feet through. I take a step and receive another delightful bootful.
About a month ago I receive an e-mail from Burnley and Pendle Ramblers’ footpath officer Mark Chung. It begins (along the lines of) ‘I’d like to nominate Pendle council footpath team for doing an absolutely exemplary job’ and ends ‘…however they are constantly under threat from budget cuts’. So, being nosy I travel to his patch to fill in the gaps.
I meet Countryside Access Officer, Tom Partridge, over a leaflet-strewn table in Pendle Council’s HQ, the morning after the nine day Pendle Walking Festival has just turned in (we suspect) one of its highest visitor numbers ever. And what a tough patch this is.
With 604 KM of rights way on their doorstep, Tom’s tiny team – him and Countryside Ranger, Chris Chapman – are torn between, on the one hand, the needs of an ever increasing number of walkers who flock to Pendle for ancient footpaths and a skyline that is never free of three mighty peaks, and, on the other, sheep farmers who have literally shaped the county since they deforested its slopes and created the moors in Neolithic times.
And then, of course, there’s the waterlogging of everywhere that occurs as the county’s impenetrable gritstone bedrock receives a daily dousing from near-constant rain.
‘Balance’, he says, when I ask him how his team copes.
“Chris is out and about all day talking to landowners and looking at issues on the ground. I’m more tied to a desk sorting out the legal aspects, such as paths being illegally blocked or closed. Chris is ex agricultural, I’m interested in rights of way. So when we make site visits we have the two different points of view – what we come up with together works well.
“Still”, he says, “We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of stiles alone to look after – never mind the case work. It’s never ending; by the time you’ve repaired one, the first one’s broken again….”
That afternoon Mark, who has been working with the team to survey the county’s footpaths, takes me on a 3 mile circuit in the fields around Trawden, to show off Chris and Tom’s handiwork. The evidence is clear from the moment we climb up from Trawden’s terraces ( “fixed a dodgy step there”) to the pastures above the town (“Kids turned the signpost around the wrong way here) where little grey walls make fields of the moor, and Weets and Pendle Hill rear up from the east and lie like long brown bones across the horizon.
A small gate snaps robustly shut behind me, and Mark turns.
“Tom put that in,” he says, “the stile here was knackered, so he replaced it with a lambing gate. In fact, he’s put them up all over the county they’ve basically opened up the countryside for people with disabilities, and the farmers like them because the sheep don’t get out.”
A yellow slab of moor – Herder’s Common – appears in the distance, cutting away to a seam of trees into which Wycoller Village is tucked. The ground becomes wetter, wiry pasture gives ways to nose-high tufts of sedge and we pass an actual purple spearmint-lined bog in the corner of one field. The gateposts at the next – each marooned in its own small lake – give onto a sea of mud churned so deeply by cattle hooves that algae has formed in the dips.
We clear it (finally) and Mark says: “ I’ll be reporting that.”
“Why?” I ask, “The farmer can’t help the weather.”
“No, but they can put up a fence to keep the cattle off – it’s a right of way.”
We cross Wycoller Beck on the age-grooved flagstones of its 15th Century packhorse bridge, then pass up onto the lower slopes of Boulsworth Hill, with the ancient coaching route scored into the valley wall behind us in the shadowy lines of a wall and road.
By now the field boundaries are high as a barricade, the stiles actual staircases, and the ground…
Well, it’s so boggy that, at a farm outside Trawden, water audibly rushes through a field. I walk towards the mini marsh, preparing for another bootful, when a tiny bridge pops into view.
“That appeared six months ago.” Mark says, “ I only reported a leaning fence, and when I came back three days later they’d put that in. I didn’t even ask!”
And that, it seems, is the Pendle Countryside Access team’s way. It’s threatened next year by the budget cuts the council are expected to make. One money saving proposal will see countryside access handed over to Lancashire County Council, where Pendle will sit within many boroughs.
With the fine balance and minute local knowledge that this complex area requires, I can’t see this working for walkers or farmers.