Eden to Empire

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) is recognised as one of the greatest American landscape painters. Born at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, he emigrated with his family to America in 1818. One of the major 19th-century American painters, he is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the mid-19th century. Cole’s work is known for its romantic portrayal of the American wilderness.

'View from Mount Holyoke, 1836

Currently the National Gallery has an exhibition (it closes Sunday 7 October 2018) of his major works. The exhibition is a chronological journey. It encompasses Cole’s trips to England and Italy between 1829 and 1832 and shows works by Turner and Constable that inspired him in London.

On his return to the United States, he produced his most ambitious work. Horrified by the effects of industrialisation during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Cole painted impassioned warnings about the ecological cost of unchecked development. Indeed, it is possible to view his work as a personal manifesto offering his fears and solutions to the world around him, that thrilled and scared him in equal measure.

His paintings helped lead America to value not just its land but its landscapes, too. Within his work is the beginning of a nearly thirty-year process leading to the first federal preservation of a specific landscape—the establishment of Yosemite and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in 1864—as what we now call a national park, an idea that will spread across the United States and then the world. Cole’s body of work reveals how American art grew into an agent outside art’s own history.

Painting at the same time, albeit on a different continent were the English artists JMW Turner and John Constable and both in different ways were intrigued, curious and fearful of the consequences of a rapidly changing world as it came to terms with factory output and the growth of cities.


Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851), was an English romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist, known for his expressive colourisation, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings. Turner was born in, London, to a modest lower middle-class family. He lived in London all his life, retaining his cockney accent and assiduously avoiding the trappings of success and fame. He travelled far and wide filling voluminous sketchbooks on every journey. He adored Margate and the Isle of Thanet saying: “The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,” he wrote of the area around Margate, where he painted more than 100 oils and watercolours.


John Constable (1776 – 1837) was an English landscape painter in the naturalistic tradition. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home — now known as “Constable Country” — which he invested with an intensity of affection. “I should paint my own places best”, he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling”. His most famous paintings include Wivenhoe ParkDedham Vale of 1802 and The Hay Wain. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in British art, Constable was never financially successful.

The Thomas Cole exhibition not only contains The Oxbow (shown above) and the epic, The Course of Empire series but also, my favourite, the much more allegorical The Titan’s Goblet.


It is easy, but no less true all the same, to draw parallels between a world at the start of the 19th century struggling with nascent democracy and abuse of power by the ‘strong men’ of politics and today when nature once again faces challenges on all fronts as hard-won protections and laws are stripped away daily in the pursuit of greater per capita economic growth.


Two Ramblers Eden to Empire walks in September 2018


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Join me and Ramblers groups Metropolitan Walkers & Capital Walkers in association with the National Gallery to learn more about Thomas Cole, JMW Turner & John Constable.

Walk 1: Saturday 15 September at 11 am

Turner & Margate

Meeting point: Margate station

Distance & description: 8 mile circular around Margate and the Isle of Thanet

Finish point: Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate


Walk 2: Saturday 29 September at 11.15 am

Constable Country

Meeting point: Manningtree station

Distance & description: 8 mile circular visiting many of the locations of Constable’s famous paintings in Dedham Vale & Flatford

Finish point: Manningtree station

 These walks are FREE and open to all. There’s no need to book but if you want to tell me you’re coming along to both of either walks or would like to ask any questions please email me at walkingclasshero@gmail.com.

The pace will be leisurely and the terrain is easy so don’t be put off if you’re not an experienced walker. Bring along a packed lunch and plenty to drink. I expect I’ll have a drink locally before returning to London and you are welcome to join me.

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2 for 1 ticket offer for Ramblers members


To celebrate Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire, the National Gallery is offering 2 for 1 tickets for Ramblers members. To redeem the offer simply show a valid Ramblers Members Card at the National Gallery ticket desk.

Opening hours: Daily 10am – 6pm (Friday 10am – 9pm)

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN

national gallery


  • Offer is valid for Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire. It runs until 7 October 2018.
  • The promoters are the National Gallery, London
  • This offer is open to residents of & visitors to the British Isles, aged 16 years or over
  • One adult (or child) is admitted free of charge when accompanied by one adult who pays the full adult price. In the event of a full price and concessionary ticket being purchased together, the higher price ticket must be paid for. Only one discount may be used per two people


The walking class hero playlist:

 Long Road out of Eden – The Eagles

Take the Long Way Home – Supertramp

Show Me the Way – Peter Frampton

Follow You, Follow Me – Genesis

Fake Empire – The National

Empire – Ella Henderson


 th     Follow me @walkngclasshero


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Showing the summer some lovin’

It would be extremely churlish of me if I didn’t mention how much I loved the weather this summer. Especially as a brief look back at past summer posts finds me moaning and whining about the rain and mud that has characterised the last few years. Especially as I’ve the loved the fact that the walking this summer has been all about shorts, sandals, sunnies and spf50. Especially as our summers are often all too brief, or as Shakespeare put it: ‘And summer’s lease hath all too short a date’.

A trip to Bristol to experience the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta also provided the chance for a walk round the nearby Bath skyline as well as a stroll along the Bristol Channel. (On a tangential note, am I the only one to find the increased use of fiesta as opposed to festival intriguing? I’d always associated festival with gala and fiesta collages2with feast and consequently seen the former as community based and the latter having religious overtones. But that might just be me.) Gromit was also ‘unleashed’ all over Bristol for the summer season and 80 Gromits to track down along with the ever present but often changing excellent street art made Bristol a great place for some summer urban walking.

It probably says a lot about me but I’ve always scornfully regarded Bath as the epitome of genteel. All that buttery coloured Georgian architecture on top of its Royal Charter and swanky Latin name – Aquae Sulis – not to mention its Jane Austen connections put it firmly in the top half of the premier league of quaint. So it was a bit of a surprise to encounter a rather large demonstration complaining about the closure of many of the town’s public loos. Good for the well heeled (and well groomed) citizens of Bath who had bothered to give up their time to wave placards and shout slogans I say. We could do with a bit more civic unrest against the ‘cuts’ if you ask me – especially needless ones like these born out of self serving gesture politics. I signed their petition, it was the least I could do, and you can too if you click on the link here.

I understand that the Bath Skyline is the most popular walk on the National Trust visit list and bath-skylinethat’s pretty understandable because it’s an easily accessible walk with great views and is well sign posted. (And we met a couple of extremely cheerful and helpful volunteers on the way round.) I don’t even mind that there are quite a few signs, placed on National Trust property, asking ‘if you like the walk to donate some money’. I reckon that sort of financial ask is entirely appropriate. In fact if you want to financially help an organisation that protects and preserves footpaths along with so much more you can donate online to the Ramblers here.

What I do wish though, is that the National Trust started to dedicate some of the hundreds of miles of permissive paths that they have on their numerous properties as rights of way. Then these paths would not only appear on Ordnance Survey maps they’d also be there for everybody to use forever. Furthermore this would in no way undermine the integrity of their walks database as they could still suggest you visit there attractions.

It’s been a summer for being by the seaside which highlights even more how great it would be if we had an English Coast Path. Scotland has far superior access rights and Wales has an 807 mile path round its coastline. Yet despite a pledge to set aside a corridor of land around the 2,800 mile English coast within a decade becoming law in 2009 barely 20 miles has been completed in the time it took Wales to complete theirs. Even the most optimistic estimates see only 40% completed by 2019.

I don’t mean to suggest we only have access to 20 miles of the English coast but the current arrangement is far from satisfactory when you examine how much of this access is voluntary or permissive and even small gaps can lead to lengthy and unpleasant detours. To emphasise this point as well as enjoy a relaxing coastal walk in the sun me and Clare (@innerlondonramb) decided to walk from Clevedon to Portishead. We also amused ourselves along the way by naming pop music acts – without the aid of google – named after UK towns. Or just those with UK towns in their names. like Portishead, Easterhouse, Dionne Warwick, Michael Bolton, Belinda Carlisle, Eric Clapton… Anyway you get the idea – feel free to suggest your own by adding them in the comment box below.

Clevedon is an old town – it gets a mention in the Domesday Book – cleve meaning cleft and don meaning hill. It saw a popularity surge in Victorian times, when itbutterfly built a pier but is probably most famous these days as being the setting for the immensely popular eponymously named TV drama, Broadchurch. It’s without doubt the sort of quintessential English seaside town that could only benefit from an English Coast Path. As Kate Conto, Ramblers Senior Policy Officer, says: “Our coastal communities are crying out for rejuvenation. The England Coastal Path is a low cost project which will increase tourism and boost coastal economies, as well as spurring on people to get healthy and opening up the coast for families to walk, explore and enjoy.”

It was a perfect day for a walk by the sea. Sublime sensory grammar surrounded – a hint of ozone on the breeze, azure skies, cotton wool clouds, soft sand underfoot, butterflies tumbling from plant to plant and the cadenced cries of gulls wheelingnear-portishead above our heads. After 8 or so miles the coast path peters out at Portishead. If you wanted to pick it up again past Avonmouth you need to detour over 5 miles inland and then cross the M5 a couple of times for pity’s sake.

Like Clevedon, Portishead gets a mention in the Domesday Book but there any similarity ends. Thriving docks were built in the early 19th century followed by chemical works and power stations in the 20th. All are decommissioned now, replaced by a marina bordered by colourful shiny apartment blocks and houses. It’s actually a very pleasing and sympathetic development, although it’s funny to think many of the homes have been built on the dumping ground for the industrial waste, now quaintly named Portbury Ashlands.

Easily visible across the channel, just sitting there gloating, is the Welsh coast. Here you can stick to the coast and by all accounts it’s hard to find a single person who doesn’t think their coastal path is the best thing since sliced bread. Sigh. The ice creams in Portishead, welcome as they were, offered scant consolation.


You can read more about the Ramblers Case for Coast here. If you have not already done so please sign the One Coast For All petition.

Listen to:

Summer Lovin’ (Original Radio Edit) by Musikk Feat. John Rock

Terry Jacks – Seasons in the Sun

Nina Nesbitt – Brit Summer – Demo

At The Edge Of The Sea by Wedding Present

Linda Ronstadt – Rock Me On The Water

Half Day Closing by Portishead, Nick Ingman

Dizzee Rascal – Bonkers


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A common treasury for all

When I’m at home it’s a rare day that I don’t walk down the Thames Path. True, more often than not, it’s the same stretch  that takes me to and from the station or Sainsburys or my local, The Boaters Inn, or sometimes all three; rather than the Simon Armitage, 268 mile Pennine Way challenge of Walking Home. Nonetheless it makes the subject of National Trails very dear to my heart. So if I didn’t exactly experience fear when I heard the government was conducting a review of England’s National Trails it wasn’t unbridled happiness either. Regular readers will know I occupy a different space on the political spectrum but after 2 years of this coalition my default reaction to almost any government initiative is to recall some lines from Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd:

As through this world I’ve rambled I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.

And if you forgive the historical anachronism not to mention the absence of rhyme I take this to include cybercrime and BlackBerry these days.

As well as thoroughly trashing the economy – who has a good word to say about Osborne now? – they keep tinkering with the environment. (And I probably don’t need to remind you what a success they made of their plan to sell off our forests.) So let me make this plain – I see the implementation of this report as it stands as a clear and present danger to the majority of walkers in England.

It is difficult to see how any of those who devised this plan have laced up boots let alone walked along any one of the thirteen English National Trails. As Roly Smith puts it so much more eloquently than me: “I was privileged to know Tom Stephenson, the creator of our first National Trail, the Pennine Way, as a friend, and I think I know what he would have said about these new proposals to create National Trail Partnerships. ‘Ee lad,’ he’d say in that warm, Lancashire burr, ‘that’s not what I had in mind at all.’ National Trails are a national, i.e. Government, responsibility – that’s after all why they are called “National” Trails. To entrust their management, protection and promotion to these proposed new voluntary bodies ignores the fact that they are a national, indeed, international, asset in our increasingly-beleaguered countryside. The Government should live up to its responsibility and not leave their management to already hard-pressed local authorities and volunteers.”

And it is the ‘National’ in National Trails that is at the heart of these dangerous proposals. Natural England, who currently manage and maintain National Trails, have begun discussions to hand this power to new Local Trail Partnerships made up of local authorities, business and volunteers. The Ramblers, who played a key role in establishing the trails, is concerned that the lack of a national champion to oversee, guide and support these Local Trail partnerships will leave them vulnerable; resulting in a fragmented network with inconsistent quality between trails and cash strapped Local Authorities unable to sustain funding.

I don’t know about you but I often struggle to articulate the joy, experience and worth of walking. As a result I often fall back on a variation of the Albert Einstein quote and end up saying: ‘Not everything of value can be counted and not everything that can be counted has value.’ Strangely in the case of the National Trails we can mount a formidable case of proven value that can be counted. Lets bullet point:

  • Over 2000 miles of National Trails in England
  • Attract over 12 million visitors each and every year
  • First (Pennine Way) developed by the Ramblers and established in 1965
  • This spans 10 local authorities, 3 national Parks & 1 Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • The South West Coast Path generates over £300 million for local communities per year
  • And supports over 7500 jobs

Or as Stuart Maconie says: “I have walked several national trails, both for recreation and as two major outside broadcasts for Radio 2 on the Jurassic Coast and Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve seen firsthand how they increase people’s enjoyment, understanding and appreciation of our countryside and how much they benefit the economy by attracting tourists from across the world. I am therefore very concerned about any moves that will affect their upkeep, access and quality. I hope Natural England will make a sensible decision with regard to this. These are precious assets hard won and we should cherish them”.

And let’s not forget these proposals also fail to incorporate plans to integrate the English Coastal Path – which will be designated a National Trail in its own right when it opens in full – this will see a doubling of the number of miles of National Trails in England.

Walkers tell me that they cherish our National Trails because they showcase much that is worth experiencing environmentally, historically and culturally, in England. They also love the fact that they can rely on the fact that these paths will be, in the main, well maintained and signposted. We often hear exotic foreign climes exalted as once in a lifetime destinations. In my experience this is far outweighed by walkers setting aside time to walk our National Trails from start to finish and achieve a lifelong dream.

The Ramblers played a pivotal role in establishing the National Trails and today is seriously concerned that government’s hastily conceived proposals could see a dramatic fall in the quality of the Trails. Paths could fall into disrepair, potentially obstructing access for the millions of people who enjoy the trails and who generate significant revenue for the local economy. They would like to see government rethink its plans and are ready to work with them to take a leading role in the future support and promotion of these national treasures.

Back in the 17th century Gerard Winstanley was expressing a much more extreme radical idea when he called for the land to be ‘a common treasury for all’ and it seems absurd that this limited, yet significant, successful application of his dream is under threat from an idiotic government that shows daily it has no concept of how normal people live and enjoy their lives. Let’s make sure that the future still sees a national body to champion our National Trails, they are after all, national treasures!

Don’t let the English National Trail network go Titanic – here’s how you can help:

  • Join the Ramblers here
  • Donate to the campaign here
  • Sign up for campaign updates here
  • Let Natural England know what you think of our National Trails here
  • Contact The Ramblers to find out more about becoming a National Trail Champion here
  • Share your National Trail photos with the Ramblers (here’s some of mine of the Thames Path)

Listen to:

Marvin Gaye – Whats Going On

Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – Pretty Boy Floyd

Gruff Rhys – Follow The Sunflower Trail (Theme Tune For a National Strike)

The National – Walk Off

Attila The Stockbrocker – March of the Levellers – The Digger´s Song – The World Turned Upside Down

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What the dickens

I can almost hear that collective groan from here – not another few hundred words about the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. Well let me own up straight away I’m a big fan but I’m aware of the Dickens fatigue that many are feeling as a result of the bicentennial birthday overload. It’s not just the books but also the exploration and exploitation of London that I love. And who couldn’t love an author who gave us Mr Toots, the Cheerybles, the Boffins and Mrs Bangham alongside the more well known Scrooge, Nancy, Micawber and Betsy Trotwood?

Dickens was also a great walker (which is a bit like saying Greece has a couple of debts) who thought nothing of walking 20 miles a day so is rarely out of place in this blog. (As I understand it Dickens was an ardent republican too, which sits well with me, though you wouldn’t have known it at the birthday celebrations last month where various royals were basking in the reflected glory. But then again this is the family who featured Milton’s poetry and Blake’s music at their most recent royal wedding.)

Anyway I digress I’m down on a soggy Hoo Peninsula battling the rain after putting the final touches to a Dickens themed walk I’m leading for the Metropolitan Walkers on Sunday 6 May. It’ll start at Higham station and meander past Gads Hill Place to Rochester. Now Rochester is definitely a place to avoid if you care little for Dickens. He spent some of his childhood just down the road in Chatham and lived in Gads Hill Place from 1856 until his death. As a result the surrounding area is well versed in seizing the commercial opportunities linked to his illustrious name. Fireplace shops named ‘Grate Expectations’ and such like.

The Hoo Peninsula is the land separating the estuaries of the Thames and Medway. And Hoo comes from the old English word meaning a spur of land – which sort of makes it the spur of land peninsula. Much of the peninsula lies in one of the Saxon divisions of England called ‘hundreds’: here it is the Hundred of Hoo and how cool does that sound? The geology is dominated by a line of sand and clay hills surrounded by an extensive area of marshland made up of alluvial silt. What this means when you’re down on the ground is that this land is rich in wildlife – particularly birds.

I’d come down from London by train to Gravesend, checked out Pocahontas’ grave, found my way to the Saxon Shore Way and then followed the route onto the North Kent Marshes which carry the many acronyms of protected areas. Under your feet you have a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA).  As if that isn’t enough, it’s also been designated as a Ramsar site which is a global marque applied to the planet’s most important wetlands. And finally on 27 February this year Caroline Spelman included the area as one of DEFRA’s newly created 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIA). If weight of alphabet was enough this would be one of the safest areas of land on the globe.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but we’re about to find out (again) because there are plans afoot to build an airport here. Back in the 1970’s when considering a site in the vale of Aylesbury for London’s 3rd airport one member of the commission suggested nearby to here, Maplin Sands instead. The project would have included not just a major airport, but a deep-water harbour suitable for the container ships then coming into use, a high-speed rail link together with the M12 and M13 motorways to London, and a new town for the accommodation of the thousands of workers who would be required. The Maplin airport project was abandoned in July 1974. The development costs were deemed unacceptable and a reappraisal of passenger projections indicated that there would be capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, aided by regional airports.

In 2002 the government identified a site at Cliffe on the peninsula as the leading contender among potential sites for a new airport for London. The proposal was for up to four runways arranged in two east-west close parallel pairs, with a possible fifth runway on a different alignment, which might be used only at night and in particular weather conditions. In December 2003 the government decided against the proposal on the grounds that the costs (detecting a theme yet?) of a coastal site were too high, that there was a significant risk that the airport would not be well used and an increased danger of aircraft being brought down by birdstrike. D’oh really?!

Now the area faces two further challenges. The Thames Hub, complete with floating runways, proposed by Foster & Partners and Shivering Sands (which sounds like something Captain Haddock would shout) that grew from a feasibility study commissioned by the Mayor of London. Even more worrying is the fact that the Chancellor has thrown his weight behind this sort of vanity project as a way of ‘growing the economy’ out of stagnation. This is just plane stupid, London’s already got 6 airports how many does one city need? And doesn’t the left hand know what the right hand’s doing in this coalition government – one part grants extra protection while another green lights development?

George Osborne made his budget statement on 21 March and lost amongst all the proper furore about granny tax and pasty vat is this government’s continuing folly to blelieve they can build their way out of recession. There is still plenty of time to tell them to put environment at the heart of the economy and ditch ridiculous schemes like the Thames Estuary airport.

Today I’m heading for the RSPB reserve Cliffe Pools with its huge flocks of wading birds and waterfowl. I don’t keep a list or anything but I have carried a small pair of binoculars with me when I’m out walking for the last 5 or 6 years. I spot some redshanks, quite a few grebe and hear a curlew or two. I was hoping to see a Goldeneye (and you just thought that was a Bond film) but didn’t have much luck although there’ve been a few reported sightings lately.

I love walks like this. There’s all the history – you wouldn’t be surprised if a Saxon came bowling along the path (well you would but you know what I mean). There’s the celebrity of someone like Dickens – I half expected Abel Magwitch to come hurtling out of the mist. And there’s the wildlife – you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the sheer scale of the bird migration in the area.

The phrase ‘What the dickens’ has nothing to with Charles. It comes from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor – Mrs Page exclaims it about Falstaff  – and it’s meant to be in puzzlement/incredulity like ‘what the devil’. I can think of a no more apt phrase when asked about the idiocy of this government’s economic policy and the lunacy of building an airport on the Hoo Peninsula.

Things to do:

Come on my 5 mile Dickens walk on Sunday 6 May – meet at Higham station at 10.50

Visit RSPB Cliffe Pools


Everything you need to know about George


Anything by Charles Dickens – for what it’s worth my favourite is Our Mutual Friend

Listen to:

Jackson Browne – Late For The Sky – LP Version Remastered

Goldfrapp – Melancholy Sky

Renée Fleming – Moonfall [The Mystery of Edwin Drood]

Bruce Springsteen – Rocky Ground

Tina Turner – Goldeneye (Single Edit)

Big Audio Dynamite – The Bottom Line – 12 inch Remix, Edit Version

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When common sense goes wrong

I don’t know about you but I’m always wary not to say down right suspicious when an organisation calls for, or praises, ‘a common sense approach’ to something. To raise even the slightest objection then seems to cast you as some gibbering, drooling, messianic zealot so far from the centre of real society that your opinion is worthless.

If I remember my Greek philosophers correctly, the phrase was first coined by Aristotle (but then he’s a fair bet to have been the originator of lots of phrases). I think he meant it as some quasi-sense organ, or inner sensation, unlike the 5 external senses. It was later redefined to be the lowest common denominator collection of beliefs, prejudices, practical know-how, unexamined intuitions, and/or guessing ability thought to be possessed in common by nearly all people. Also used as a synonym for “horse sense”, your ability to look at matters straightforwardly and not be confused by sophistry, education or advice from experts.

Today, the term has so many incompatible meanings to so many different people, and is so bound up with so many hidden agendas and conflicting broader views of cognition, that it ought to be avoided all together. Some who appeal to common sense mean to shield their favourite cultural prejudices from examination and criticism. Some who appeal to common sense are just trying to pull you back into a state where you can acknowledge what you know to be true even though it doesn’t fit into some theory you got from evidence or abstract speculation.  And some who appeal to common sense want to portray you as someone who is implacably opposed to change of any sort.

On Thursday 23 February the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) published The Right Way Forward: The CLA’s common sense approach to access in the countryside. This document is a self acknowledged call for ‘a shake-up of the access and public rights of way system. It goes on to say it is highly desirable to improve access in a way that enhances the system, boosts efficiency and gets better value for money’. Well it’d be hard to disagree with that last statement, so hard in fact, that 2 years ago the CLA joined the Ramblers and took part in the same Natural England working group that considered the future of rights of way and arrived at some jointly agreed commitments. These formed the basis of the Stepping Forward report. Even a brief scan of the CLA’s 31 page report finds them referring to this but acting as if they were someone else’s ideas entirely. An air of the haughty and detached patrician who knows best if you like.

There is also frequent recourse to the dreaded ‘common sense’ phrase – ‘The rights of way system defies common sense’, ‘An injection of common sense is required’  and ‘Simplifying the rules and applying common sense’. Maybe it’s just me but it always seems to crop up when the context is property rights and unsurprisingly the CLA favour the simplistic approach of the landowner being able to tell whoever they wish to ‘get orf their land’ for whatever reason they wish. England and Wales’ 137,000 mile network of public footpaths and bridleways might be eccentric when viewed through bureaucratic landowning eyes but it certainly doesn’t defy common sense. The right to roam legislation might seem draconian to an organisation established primarily to resist wholesale land nationalisation back in the early 20th century but it undoubtedly serves a good purpose as a way of accessing the land for the vast majority of us.

So who are the CLA? LP Hartley famously opened his novel The Go-Between with the following line: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Keep this in mind when you think of the CLA. Formed in 1907 at the junior Carlton Club by the Earl of Onslow, the Earl of Harrowby and several MP’s (large landowners naturally), it was concerned with issues like ‘Land and the Social Problem’ and their nightmare of the urban masses appropriating their land. It has constantly battled government and the public at large over land taxes, death duties and, of course, access rights. It beggars belief that an organisation that would be more at home in tweeds on an Edwardian grouse shooting party than in goretex consulting its handheld satnav should presume to lecture us on ‘common sense’.

But let’s not be fooled by the thin veneer of reasonableness of this report. It represents a seismic shift in access policy in England and Wales and if even a few of the CLA’s immoderate recommendations were adopted it would translate to a very real difference on the ground when we’re out walking. Their proposals on Coastal Access, however they are dressed up, are nothing short of an attempt to re-write the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and stop the Coastal Path ever becoming a reality. It represents an opportunistic grab for the coalition government’s ear to uphold their specific narrow vested interest as part the red tape challenge.

Most of what I know of Britain I learnt through my feet and this includes its history and culture. And I’m definitely a member of the urban masses. Not sure whether George Alagiah falls into this category, maybe more your urbane masses, but he puts it much more eloquently: ‘Sometimes the countryside has been reduced to a leisure activity, a package deal shorn of nature’s life affirming rhythm, and cleansed of the muck and smell that is so much a part of rural life. But the real thing is there – every right-of-way is an invitation, every stile a step into somewhere gentle and generous.’

Our rights of way network is both quirky and delightful and it didn’t come about as a result of a fit for purpose efficiency study instituted by bureaucrats and accompanied by tacit if reluctant approval from landowners. Paths were forged around our landscape by people. People who needed to avoid marshy land or dense woods. People who needed to trade, people who needed to walk to work and by people eager to explore and enjoy the land. I love our footpaths and believe our rights of way network to be the envy of the world.

The most obvious instance of common sense going wrong is probably the fact that the earth isn’t flat but there are plenty of others. This document should be robustly challenged, resisted and ridiculed at every available opportunity. With this report, the upcoming results of the red tape challenge and the recent announcement from the farming minister, Jim Paice MP, that he was accepting 159 of the 220 recommendations of the Farmers Regulations Task Force make these uncertain times for walkers.

Things to do:

Celebrate the Kinder Scout 1932 Mass Trespass

Tweet @CLAtweets using #commonsense

Tweet about the issue using #commonsense

Listen to:

Orange Juice – Rip It Up

Chumbawamba – You Can (Mass Trespass, 1932)

Billy Bragg – This Land Is Your Land

Pulp – Common People – Full Length Version / Album Version

Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – 2010 mono version

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Northern Soul

In a previous job I didn’t have a desk tidy but used an empty Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls tin I’d inherited to store my biros and pencils instead. I can still picture the fire engine red tin complete with its portrait of a smiling top- hatted gent along with the legend Keep You All Aglow.  I’ve never actually eaten one of these mints but if you asked me to list 5 things about Wigan these legendary sweets would be one of them because they’ve been manufactured there since 1898. (To continue with this nostalgia for a little while longer, my tin also contained the obligatory paper clips and drawing pins but also treasury tags. Can you still get these? Are they any use any more? And as I remember they almost exclusively came in green but occasionally they were available in other colours.)

So what other things/people do I associate with Wigan? Well I can’t be the only person who’s pondered this because Wigan central library has a history of Wigan exhibition entitled something like ‘There’s more to Wigan than Pies’. And very good it is too. The World Pie Eating Championships (I kid you not) are held in Harry’s Bar on Wallgate apparently. Uncle Joe’s gets a mention or two and there’s plenty about Rugby League and some chap called Billy Boston.  Although I was always more of a Motown boy myself Wigan is synonymous to me with Northern Soul and the all nighters at the famous Wigan Casino. Check out the film – it’s all tight flares, feather cuts, tank tops and round collar shirts. And I mustn’t forget Stuart Maconie (more of him later although I could see no reference to him in the exhibition) who these days could justifiably claim to be Wigan’s most famous son. Of course, The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft might disagree about this though.

At the time of my visit Wigan is the only English town with a Premier League football club, Wigan Athletic FC and a Super League Rugby League club (I’m probably displaying my southern ignorance in expressing it like that), Wigan Warriors. But I’m guessing most people associate the town with George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.  Published in 1936 Orwell’s book paints a hellish vision of a broken Britain and today it seems curiously relevant to our own distressed times. An Old Etonian prime minister, in a cabinet stuffed with public school boys, has embarked upon the most radical reduction of public spending in generations, making cuts that have prompted robust criticism of their pace and scale. North and south are pulling apart once more – not yet to the extent where Orwell could describe his journey as if “venturing among savages”, but getting there.

If you arrive by train from the south you pitch out at Wigan North Western. (Wigan has 2 stations – Wallgate is just over the road.) The first thing you see is a sign telling you Wigan Pier is a quarter of a mile away and then you notice the dilapidated parade of shops across the road. It seems to be mostly taken up by a pawn shop but there’s also room in the row for Totally Wicked’s shop selling e-cigarettes and e-liquid. I dread to think what e-liquid is or does? But it does come in 30 different flavours and 6 different strengths.

I’m here first and foremost because I’ve never been before and to do a bit of walking round the town and the surrounding country. I’m also here to see Wigan play Chelsea. It’s long long time since I’ve been to a Chelsea away game outside the capital indeed I might never have seen them play outside London since the Premiership began. It’s a Saturday evening kick-off courtesy of ESPN and as the ground is filling up I’m reminded of one of the best examples of ‘terrace’ banter in recent years. Ashley Cole is one of those players who arouses disproportionate ire amongst opposing fans and as he plays left back he spends quite a lot of the game near these fans. (I can sorta see their point of view though – after last year’s airgun escapade Coldplay’s lyric from Lost: ‘Every gun you ever held went off’ couldn’t be more appropriate.) Anyway the afore mentioned Stuart Maconie, Wigan fan, during a recent game a few years ago, is believed to have spent an entire half bellowing at Cole that he’d sold more books than him . The middle classes have truly taken over the workers’ game. The dismal 1-1 draw (Chelsea were pedestrian and unimaginative) could have done with some livening up by witty instead of inane chants.

Walking along the Leeds-Liverpool canal Orwell reported: “Terribly cold, frightful landscape of slagheaps and belching chimneys. A few rats running through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger.” The mill girls, scurrying to work in their clogs down the cobbled streets, sounded to him “like an army hurrying into battle”. The next day I’m walking alongside a snowy Leeds-Liverpool canal. There are no rats I can see and none of the chimneys are belching. I stop just past The Orwell  – a pub named in honour of the author that I’d visited the night before. I can’t help wondering what the old Etonian would have made it. I can’t help agreeing with Stuart Maconie (last mention I promise) about Wigan girls and sun bed tans. Without exception every young woman in the pub had dyed blonde hair, a tikka tinged deep tan and sounded like Victoria Wood. A visitor from out of space would be drawn irrevocably to the conclusion that the tanning process doesn’t work on men or women over the age of 25. Strange.

The place I stop at is Trencherfield Mill. A very informative display board tells me that a cotton worker in 1910 was likely to say something like this: ‘It’s hot int’ mill wi’ lots o’ noise. On a nice day we’ll take lunch ont’ towpath an’ eat snaps from’t snaps tins’. I’m able to read this just as the heavy driving rain is turning to sleet but am not any the wiser about what a ‘snap’ is. A break from both prompts a rainbow to try its luck. Today the rainbow is formed of seven shades of grey but heralds a pleasant change in the weather. I continue my walk along the canal towards Whelley and then Haigh Hall. I’m ridiculously pleased with myself in discovering this route with only my google maps android app. This smugness is helped by the sparkling beauty of the day when the rain stops. Everybody I encountered was pleasant and chatty. Willing to discuss the best route (following the canal or striking inland) or whether Roberto Martinez was really a first class football manager. (Nobody seemed to rate Chelsea’s new boy manager Andre Villas-Boas!)

On leaving Haigh Hall I headed down towards the town following the River Douglas where I could. J B Priestley, in his English Journey, has this to say about Wigan: “Between Manchester and Bolton, the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there. That is probably the secret of the Lancashire working folk.” Come on Priestley, Wallace and Gromit live there mate. But I guess if there’s anything worse than a Londoner commenting on Wigan it’s a Yorkshireman. And this Londoner thought the place was well worth a visit and was glad he had made the journey – it’s not everywhere you can get e-liquid and snaps.

Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here:

 Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

New Order – Run


Northern Soul – This England


George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier

Stuart Maconie – Pies and Prejudice

 Listen to:

The Verve – A Northern Soul

The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town

Sam Seale – Wigan Pier

Tobi Legend – Time Will Pass You By

Jimmy Radcliffe – Long After Tonight Is All Over

Dean Parrish – I’m On My Way

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Who’d’ve thought that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, was such a George Orwell fan. (Although strangely John Major was the prototype for Tory PMs when he plundered the socialist’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn for many of the middle England images that peppered his Back to Basics speech in 1993.) Our current incumbent appears mightily influenced by the dystopian world of 1984 with its Big Brother, thoughtcrime, memory holes and newspeak.

We’ve watched the comedy of the European veto that didn’t stop anything. Cringed at the farce accompanying the Big Society which despite multiple relaunches is no longer mentioned even by its main protagonist. And now we are witnessing the unfolding tragedy behind the pledge to be ‘the greenest government ever’. This hubristic claim was made way back in the euphoric early days of the coalition government on 14 May 2010 to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on a trip round Whitehall to explain the new government.

It began with him telling us that he ‘cared passionately’ about the environment and saw real possibilities in boosting initiatives in the area. Then came the ill-fated forestry sell off proposals. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible – in its own words – “for the protection and expansion of Britain’s forests and woodlands”. In England it manages 250,000 hectares comprising approximately 1,500 forests, including the Forest of Dean, the New Forest and Kielder Forest which is about 18% of the total woodland. Back in January 2011 the government pledged to sell off 15% of this holding by 2015. Cue public outrage and scathing criticism from august organisations like the National Trust, Ramblers and RSPB. Not to forget the Daily Telegraph and the Today programme. It was the making of 38 Degrees and the virtual world of groups like mumsnet were awash with scornful comments on the proposal. All swiftly followed by a rapid u-turn by the government. So far so bad and not very green.

Then there’s the solar panel fiasco. The government is committed to increasing the amount of energy generated from renewable sources. Back in 2010 before a subsidy was introduced for those generating power from solar panels we created a derisory 30 megawatts. In October 2011 we had increased this to a much better figure of 321 megawatts (an impressive tenfold increase.) Over 90,000 homes, including me, had carried out installation. This not only sounds like a success but is a success. So what does DECC do – with effect from 12 December it slashes the tariff rate from 43p per kilowatt hour to 21p a full 5 months ahead of schedule and 2 weeks before it’s own consultation period considering the issue was due to close. This prompted successful legal action by Friends of the Earth challenging the legitimacy of this decision and a whole industry warning it was close to collapse meaning the possible loss of over 15,000 jobs. The courts ruled the government’s tariff change illegal and their whole policy is left in disarray – sound familiar?

What about the Green Investment Bank I hear you ask. Frequently trotted out by ministers wishing to establish their green credentials it will not be able to borrow money for years. Fuel duty was reduced in the budget and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suffered savage cuts. Local councils are laying off rights of way staff left, right and centre and Greg Clark, the Planning minister, proposed planning reforms that would have seen our current 1,000+ pages of policy reduced to just 52. One wonders what they’ve filled out the 52 with because the new policy appears to be ‘build where you bloody well like’ at the same time as completely scrapping the equally important environmental and social elements of the system. Conflating ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainable economic growth’ has meant, according to the Commons select committee responsible for reviewing the reforms, the strong possibility that there will be more legal actions challenging proposals not less.

But the final nail in the ‘greenest government ever’ coffin came in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. “We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers. All we will be doing is exporting valuable jobs out of Britain” announced George Osborne in promising amongst other things an airport, at great environmental cost, in the Thames estuary that no one wants or needs.  Incidentally he seemed to be harking back to an industrial old Britain redolent of Orwell’s novels. In addition to this support for heavy industry, he spoke of the “ridiculous cost” that EU initiatives on the environment were imposing on firms, and emphasised the burden that green policies were placing on the economy. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Environment Secretary, is said to be furious, having not been consulted.

So the journey from the noble aspiration of being ‘the greenest government ever’ to becoming the most environmentally destructive government to hold power in this country since the modern environmental movement was born is complete. At the heart of the problem is not just austerity, but the perception in government that pursuing green policies is an inconvenient burden on the economy rather than a necessity and an opportunity.

After all that national gloom let’s take a quick look at some local disquiet. Those of you familiar with the Capital Ring will remember that the route takes you through the grounds of the unbelievably posh, public Harrow School as part of one stretch. Up until 8 years ago I understand it followed the route of a 19th century footpath. I am familiar with the route – known as Footpath 57 to the local authority – and have always enjoyed it for the marvellous vista of London as you walk down from Harrow on the Hill.

A few years ago the school wanted to further develop the grounds and 2 more all-weather pitches were proposed to be built on top of the right of way. I say more because if you visit this part of London it seems to have more pitches than Hackney Marshes. As I understand it the local Ramblers, being a co-operative bunch, agreed as long as an alternative route was created. The path you walk today is clearly signed as permissive and Harrow School swiftly built the pitches but as yet have not confirmed the other route as a path that would be available as a right for everyone to walk for ever.

Not only that but they are now threatening to shut the permissive path as a part of their ‘developing anti-trespass policy’. This policy seems to be ‘developing’ along standard class warfare lines. They’re rich and arrogant and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. They think that just because they charge £30,000 a year per student and a couple of their ex-pupils were Prime Minister they can do what they like. Their attitude has always been one of sufferance. Go along and walk this part of the Capital Ring and you’ll notice numerous large signs telling you where you can’t walk in contrast to the smaller fingerposts showing you the correct route. I found the atmosphere is unwelcoming and hostile, while for others I’ve spoken to the route is confusing which leads to a wandering about looking for the right path.

As I understand it the local council, are supporting North West London Ramblers in their struggle with Harrow School. As local councillor Sue Anderson (Labour, Greenhill) said: “I think the area should be open as it is a right of way and you can’t just fence that off”. And Gareth Thomas (Labour), Harrow West MP, has added: “The route has been here for decades and it’s not right to block the footpath. I hope the school will listen to the public who use the path.”  It is to be hoped that common sense prevails and this doesn’t end up in the courts because the school should not get away with their selfish decision to make this area even more exclusive. Why not add your weight to this argument and let the school know you want to use the path.

George Orwell described doublethink as the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Put into practice nationally and locally it’s enough to make this grown man cry.

Things to do instead of/as well as crying:

Join The Ramblers

Fit solar panels

Oppose the Thames Estuary airport

Contact Harrow Council about Rights of Way

Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here:

Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Walk Don’t Run

Pink Floyd – Run Like Hell

Listen to:

Stonestorm – Doublethink

British Sea Power – Who’s In Control

Ry Cooder – No Banker Left Behind

Eurythmics – Doubleplusgood

Build Buildings – A Solar Panel

Billy Bragg – We’re Following The Wrong Star

Steve Harley – Harrow On The Hill

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