The Lockdown Days – May the fourth be with you

“A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…”

I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan – although I am quite enjoying The Mandalorian on the Disney+ channel. But right now when we’re not engaging in working from home, or home schooling, or taking daily exercise, or reading Proust in the original French it seems everybody is binge watching TV on all the various platforms available.

Fuelled by a seemingly unquenchable desire for nostalgia the Star Wars franchise with its theme of the hero underdog overcoming impossible odds to eventually triumph is incredibly popular right now. It’s difficult to remember a time when it hasn’t been popular although it is mostly men who share this obsession in my experience.

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This got me thinking about films and particularly disaster movies. They all seem to start with a scientist – again mostly male – having a dire warning ignored and governments putting all their energies into ‘reducing panic’ or ‘minimising risk’. (Sound familiar). For example, this is an extract from an email from Dr Sarah Jarvis, Clinical Director at Patient Access sent on 1 February 2020 (my bold emphasis): 

If you’ve seen the news at all in the last fortnight, it’s likely you’ve heard of the Wuhan coronavirus. Deaths and serious illness caused by the virus have been seen across China, and now infections are being found in other countries. Understandably, lots of people are panicking. But the risk to the public in the UK remains low, and governments internationally have put measures in place to limit the spread of the virus. As individuals, it’s always a good idea to minimise your own risk of disease, and the same applies here. 

So, it’s probably necessary to mention the zombie apocalypse here. Which as we all zombieknow, is when civilization collapses due to swarms of zombies overwhelming social, law-enforcement, and military structures. Typically, only a few individuals or small bands of survivors are left of the living. In some stories, victims of zombies may become zombies themselves if they are bitten by zombies or if a zombie-creating virus infects them; in others, everyone who dies, whatever the cause, becomes one of the undead. In some cases, parasitic organisms can cause zombification by killing their hosts and reanimating their corpses. In the latter scenario zombies also prey on the living and their bite causes an infection that kills.

In either scenario, this causes the outbreak to become an exponentially growing crisis: the spreading “zombie plague” swamps law enforcement organizations, the military and health care services, leading to the panicked collapse of civil society until only isolated pockets of survivors remain. Basic services such as piped water supplies and electrical power shut down, mainstream mass media cease broadcasting, and the national government of affected countries collapses or goes into hiding. The survivors usually begin scavenging for food, weapons and other supplies in a world reduced to a mostly pre-industrial hostile wilderness. There is usually a ‘safe zone’ where the non-infected can seek refuge and begin a new era.

People, be scared, be very scared when ‘social distancing’ morphs into ‘safe zoning’. And as far as I can work out every ‘zombie apocalypse’ is preceded by a global pandemic.

Just saying…

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It’s not all doom, gloom and frantic sightings of the Four Horsemen though. Last week a 1.2-mile-wide asteroid swept by the Earth adhering to the requisite deep space social distancing. The asteroid is called 52768 (1998 OR2) – who gets to name these things and why can’t they do better? – and it was first spotted in 1998. On April 29, it passed within 3,908,791 miles of Earth, moving at 19,461 miles per hour. That’s still 16 times farther than the distance between Earth and the moon. No mention was made about whether it was wearing a face mask or even had a face to cover. Apparently, you could see this from earth with a telescope. I guess it would have to be a big telescope, and I know I’m a novice at this stargazing stuff, but I still marvel at casual observers being able to locate the space station and differentiate it from stars.

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Binge watching isn’t really doing it for me during lockdown – think I’m more of a binge walker than a binge watcher. I more often than not see the BBC’s daily coronavirus update and the other day when Boris made his return to the podiums (should that be20200503_150935 podia?) I vaguely wondered whether it would all be helped if his ‘walk on music’ was Darth Vader’s Theme from Star Wars. However, when I’m out strolling the local neighbourhood later, not only will I be trying to work out whether the majestic tree by our nearest post box is an Acer Platanoides (Crimsom King), while being confused about whether an Acer can also be a maple. All the while though, I’ll also be keeping a weather eye out for the zombie hordes.

Stay safe everyone and remember: ‘I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.’

 

The walking class hero lockdown days playlist:

 LSO – Star Wars Theme

Geek Music – The Mandalorian

Kacey Musgraves – Space Cowboy

Aphrodite’s Child – The Four Horsemen

Don Henley – They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming

King Crimsom – I Talk to the Wind

LSO – The Imperial March

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The Lockdown Days – Mayday Mayday

Introduced in 1921, ‘Mayday’ is a distress signal used internationally. Fred Stanley, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the expression “mayday” from the French m’aider (‘help me’), a shortened form of venez m’aider (‘come and help me’). Well it’s like we’re all screaming mayday but there’s no one listening or able to come to our aid.

In a world where the new normal seems to include a chief Scottish Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, resigning after twice visiting her second home in complete FB_IMG_1586257331333contravention of her own advice to avoid unnecessary travel. Do as I say not as I do. Or the UK scientific advice to control coronavirus was predicated on establishing herd immunity in the population until alternative scientific advice showed how that course of action would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths and an overwhelmed NHS. Or The leader of the ‘Free World’ advocating that taking disinfectant internally could be examined as a possible treatment for the pandemic, even though it is known to be potentially lethal. An example of the cure being worse than the disease. And, as an aside, seemed to show he doesn’t know the difference between inject and ingest. Or a leading world politician saying he didn’t want to wear a face mask because he wanted to be able to look key workers in the eye. It covers your mouth and doesn’t make you blind for pity’s sake.

Still the statement that has surprised me the most has been Rishi Sunak MP, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, repeatedly referring to the TUC as “social partners”. It’s like the consequences of Thatcherism, followed by 10 years of Tory austerity, could be wished away as if they’d never happened. But then these are the same UK politicians ostentatiously clapping key workers, who clapped and cheered in June 2017 when Parliament voted against these same health workers receiving a pay rise.

The worry is that after the disease comes the debt and it’ll be the same bunch of hypocritical second-raters worldwide trying to sort that out. Public borrowing is set to soar to levels never seen before as economies fall into ruins. The longer homes remain in20200501_160825 (1) lockdown, the more stimulus Government has to inject into the system with factories, shops and offices shut and tax revenues evaporating in front of their eyes. As if this wasn’t enough to keep you awake at night, the driest April on record in the UK reminded us that the climate crisis is worsening and isn’t some distant future episode to worry about, let alone pay for, but one that is present and correct right here, right now.

If anything can be said to be working, it’s individuals, who despite being emotionally drained, are working tirelessly together in small communities trying to solve local problems. Like getting food to your neighbours who need it the most but can’t come and get it because they’re sick or someone in their family is sick. Like care home workers moving into the care homes where they work to limit the spread of the virus. If you’re a vaccine scientist in Oxford it’s the same except you’re trying to solve a global problem with your community. (And everyone is sitting with baited breath willing you to succeed with your first tests.)

All most of us can do is try to get by day to day finding solace where we can, focussing on ourselves and our loved ones. Following the death of his wife, Iris Murdoch, the writer, John Bayley, while grieving for her loss spent a lot of time remembering his childhood. It’s quite a common pain reflex to do all you can to escape the present by living in the past. Even more so if the future looks even scarier than a fairly frightening present.

But I find it’s important that I still try to live in the moment. To take the time to go for a walk and smell the flowers and think about how the environment is going to look in the near future. To marvel at the dawn chorus (it’s International Dawn Chorus day on Sunday 3 May) in towns and cities that you’re able to hear because of the absence of traffic noise. Or go for a short run where you just concentrate on trying your hardest for a few minutes of sweat and hard breathing and ranking that alongside other runs.

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Me I do regular walking and jogging just like before but slightly modified and I’ve started to read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (I loved the first two), even though I find it hard to focus on long books right now. I’m trying, with the aid of the Star Walk 2 app and #starentine, hosted by @megoizzy, to navigate the night sky. There’s baking as well of course – big thanks to Wrights Home Baking and my Panasonic bread maker. And of course, Netflix. I missed the first series of Ricky GervaisAfter Life – it’s hilarious – and I’m enthralled by the Michael Jordan docu-seies, The Last Dance, even though I know nothing about the NBA.

It doesn’t work for me but I would imagine finishing that 1000 piece jigsaw that seemed like such a good idea to begin 4 weeks ago is important. Or maybe food and comfortFB_IMG_1586021595008 eating are the things that right now make the day worthwhile. And what about that coronavirus free zone the is The Archers? Maybe you’re doing the odd online quiz or 2 via zoom or facebook? You could give the RSPB’s Adrian Thomas a listen and don’t forget to join in some of the events during the virtual Urban Tree Festival later  this month.

If you’d like, let me know, in the ‘Leave a Reply’ section below, what’s getting you through the day.

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The walking class hero lockdown days playlist:

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The GO! Team – Mayday

Flogging Molly – The Worst Day Since Yesterday

Dixie Chicks – Something in the Air

Gary Jules – Mad World

LoneLady – Hinterland

Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life to Begin

Birdy – Fire and Rain

Jon Allen – Keep Moving On

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The Lockdown Days – Blossoms

When the nation has found the time to stop worrying whether this Government knows its arse from its elbow (Priti Patel MP, absolutely not back by popular demand, was wheeled out for the coronavirus briefing during the last weekend in April), or wondering how on earth we are going to reach the target of 100,000 covid19 tests a day, or even where exactly am I going to be able to buy flour? Some of us have been considering whether the blossom trees are the best we’ve ever seen or whether we’ve just got more time to study them right now?

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With the weather in south west London more like mid-June than late April me and Clare20200425_154322 headed for the Thames Path to walk from Kingston to Hampton Court. Although the Thames Path is exceptionally busy in many places this stretch on the north bank is very wide and lengthy stretches have the walkers and the cyclists separated. Exercising a little caution, and an excess of manners, negotiating the section where we left Kingston Bridge we were able to maintain adequate social distancing to the satisfaction of all. The ‘after you’, ‘no after you’ stutter shuffle doesn’t always do the job but worked a treat on this afternoon.

Me & Clare are more familiar with walking this part of the path the other way round. We’d occasionally meet at Hampton Court station on a Friday evening in the summer and ‘walk home’. We’d stop in The Boaters Inn, of course, for a couple of beers. Do you remember just casually dropping into pubs and drinking beer? (It’s a rhetorical question but feel free to use rhetoric to answer.) When this is all over…

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I’ve written this before and I’m sure I’ll write it again but I really don’t know as much 20200425_155112about tree recognition as I should. What I do know though, is that cherry blossom season in Japan is a major event, normally drawing visitors from around the globe to witness the petals in full bloom – London might not match Japan for sakura action, but there areblossom plenty of bloomin’ marvellous places to see the flowers. So if you live local to any of the Royal Parks, especially Greenwich Park and its candyfloss arched avenue going towards or from the Wolfe statue, pop over and see ‘em while you can.

At Hampton Court, we stopped briefly for some essential shopping and had a Magnum each, no sitting or sunbathing officer honest, just a lean on the parapet near the bridge. 20200412_160920We then headed home via Bushy Park. We Buffalo Gal’d it round the edge (“Buffalo Gals, go round the outside, round the outside..”) and re-crossed Kingston Bridge to home. The Thames Path is always a treat whatever the season but there’s something special about strolling along it in shorts, sunnies and a t-shirt in the sunshine.

Check out this walk on strava here: https://strava.app.link/505oQqsa55

The walking class hero lockdown days playlist:

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 Blossoms – If You Think This is Real Life

Deerful – Bloom

Birdy – Keeping Your Head Up

John Paul White – We’re All in this Together Now

The Staves – Sadness Don’t Own Me

Malcolm McLaren – Buffalo Gals

 

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The Lockdown Days – In praise of suburbia

I’m a Londoner born and bred. I’ve lived and worked my whole life in London. I was educated by ILEA and did both my degrees at London universities. I was born, and lived, my first 14 years in Lewisham and then have lived in various and different parts of this wonderful city, like Crayford, Enfield, Plaistow, Tottenham, Teddington and Thamesmead. I used to be scornful of suburbia but for the last 13 years me and Clare have lived in Kingston, in a terraced house with front & back gardens. And I love it…!

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As we enter week 6 of lockdown, I’m even more thankful that I live here. Our house is under 5 minutes from the Thames Path and about 15 minutes from Richmond Park’s Ham Gate. And those aren’t the only two opportunities to get quickly out into nature. We’ve also got spots like Ham Common, Ham Lands and Canbury Gardens right on hand. My daily exercise allowance is mostly walking with some days a run. (I used to be a ‘runner’ but am definitely a ‘jogger’ these days.)

The walks are divided loosely into two sorts – the 30 or so minute strolls around the block and the longer, more planned, let’s discover some new places, walks. Both types are usually with Clare but the shorter versions can be on my own because you won’t be surprised that I think now more than ever it’s important to get out of the house every day.

I reckon the Government, who in my opinion are making a right mess of handling this pandemic, must be pretty confused about the response to daily exercise. All previous statistics showed the UK to be an appallingly sedentary nation. About two-thirds of adults didn’t reach the pretty low threshold of 150 minutes moderate exercise a week. Now everybody and their household partner seem to be clamouring to ramble, jog and cycle for as long as possible in the wide-open green spaces. So not only is it fairly understandable we got confused messages about exercise, it looks like more people than ever are walking a couple of miles a day.

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I’m not sure it’s making a virtue of a necessity but I’m really enjoying the thrice weekly 20190430_074327‘walks round the block’. I’ve always enjoyed and, indeed, encouraged people to not only look up but to peer over walls and garden fences. The wisteria round here has busted out all over while lockdown’s been on. And who knew Kingston residents loved tamarix trees so much? Like wisteria their blooming time seems surprisingly brief but it’s absolutely20200424_175105 spectacular. A more familiar suburban south London shrub is ceanothus, or California lilac and no Kingston front garden seems complete without a red robin, or photinia x fraseri.

All this is quite literally amplified by the surrounding birdsong. You can hear sparrows chirruping in the hedges, blackbirds singing away and, round here, the cacophonous squawking of ring-necked parakeets. (on walks I still love to tell people that the ever-growing flocks of these noisy colourful birds originate from Jimi Hendrix releasing a pair of the birds in Carnaby Street in 1968.

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I remember visiting Saltaire a couple of years ago and having plenty of time to soak in David Hockney’s series of hawthorn paintings from near Rudston, Yorkshire. I think hehockney returned to the same locations year after year to sketch and paint the evolving blossom from the local hawthorns. Walking round the neighbourhood regularly over the last month has allowed me to see plants, trees and shrubs bud, sprout and bloom before my very eyes.

 

The walking class hero lockdown days playlist:

spotify 

Suburbia – Pet Shop Boys

London Boy – Taylor Swift

In the Neighbourhood – Tom Waits

LDN – Lily Allen

 

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The Lockdown Days – And then things got seriously weird…

On Saturday 7 March I led a couple of dozen people on a Hidden River walk, tracing the line of the River Peck. After arriving at its outfall in Surrey Docks some of us pushed on along the Thames Path for a couple of drinks in The Mayflower at Rotherhithe. (It’s the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower and I’m sure the Pilgrims would want us to celebrate with a couple of beers or some glasses of wine.) The coronavirus was obviously a topic of conversation but it still seemed to be a foreign thing and in the late spring sunshine outside a crowded pub, social distancing was absolutely not the order of the day.

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The following Friday, 13th March, me and Clare were all ready to head for a weekend in Ghent. It was gonna be Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate, lots of walking in the pedestrian friendly city and visiting the Van Eyck exhibition, An Optical Revolution. While listening to the Today programme we heard that Belgium, along with others in continental Europe, where planning to close, until further notice all bars, restaurants, museums and galleries from midnight that night. Instead of the Eurostar we caught a 65 bus and went to Kew Gardens.

I’d been feeling a bit achy for a couple of days but that afternoon I started running a temperature and lost my sense of taste and with it my appetite. Normally my daily 20200321_091511 (2)step count is 10000+. On Sunday I managed fewer steps than my temperature which was touching 39°C and my whole world became the bedroom, the sofa downstairs and the bathroom. I didn’t get outside the house again until Thursday 26 March. I assume I had covid-19, but, of course, like most of the UK I wasn’t tested. There was nothing mild about my symptoms but I guess I was lucky to only develop a slight cough and have a little trouble breathing for a day or two.

In those 2 weeks the whole world got turned upside down. Most of continental Europe, 20200421_122318_2learning lessons from Italy, locked down on Saturday 14th March or even before. The UK dragged its heels and only took this step on March 23rd. Now any trip outside the front door whether for essential shopping or government sanctioned exercise is a challenge as we first put on face masks (if we have them) and then when we’re out try to modify an awkward version of the danse macabre that we’ve all adopted in various degrees to be able to safely social distance in the outdoors.

Counter intuitively everyone from park managers through government ministers to environmental charities prays for rain instead of sunny weather. This means we have organisations who now spend all their time and resources understandably discouraging people from leaving their homes to help stop the spread of coronavirus and protect our NHS.

These are often the same organisations whose major mission is to promote leisure use of city, town and countryside. And I have to say from where I’m sitting I think they are mostly doing a marvellous job in very trying and scary circumstances.

The Ramblers, under the hashtag #RoamSweetHome, has consistently emphasised exercising within the government guidelines. At the same time, it has had to take the extremely painful decision of suspending our amazingly successful group walks programmes, revise the business strategy and furlough about a third of its staff.

Here in London, the Royal Parks, became the poster child for overcrowding and were 20200421_123011_2plastered all over TV, radio, newspapers and social media platforms as the country started to demonise cyclists, sunbathers and picnic’ers. In truth, it would have been easier for them to try and close their parks, as some London boroughs did. Instead they worked extremely hard in a thankless situation to try and find some accommodation that allowed the parks to stay open. Where they could they shut the parks to cars and gave the car parks over to key workers/NHS staff, instituted a No Cycling policy (except for key workers/NHS staff) and re-deployed their own staff to emphasise the social distancing regulations. So that’s a big ‘hats off’ to all Royal Parks staff and a plea for them to consider a permanent ban on motorised traffic in Richmond Park going forward.

The Thames Path National Trail, over 300 miles of trail on both banks of the river and just one trail manager, resorted to social media to cajole and plead with walkers and riders to avoid congested areas along parts of the route that it was impossible to practice social distancing on. In some places they resorted to hi-vis tabard wearing marshals asking folk not to jog or cycle or a timetable restricting cyclists, walkers and joggers to specific separate times to maximise use and maintain social distancing.

CPRE London, along with Paul Wood (aka @thestreettree), rather than postpone or cancel, elected to move the Urban Tree Festival to the virtual universe. Unfortunately, the evening walk in the City of London I was scheduled to lead Wednesday 20 May will have to remain in the physical world and I plan to re-arrange as soon as is possible under relaxed regulations.

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The Canal and River Trust who possibly have a harder challenge to avoid congestion took a similar approach. TfL kept at it and made sure walkers knew that the Capital Ring and London Loop were still open and ready for use and have begun investigating the possibility of ‘cone-ing off’ some roads to reduce motorised traffic and give this over to walkers, joggers and cyclists. And we certainly know, just anecdotally so far, that the number of people walking in London has increased dramatically.

With ‘lockdown’ regulations looking set to continue in their current guise until June, and no hint of what the world will look like afterwards, perhaps we could hope TfL put into action more plans to close roads to traffic, or make some routes one way, or examine how quiet ways might be made over to just walking and cycling. And perhaps all the environmental, health & wellbeing and community groups in London could convene a meeting of all the stakeholders in London interested in active travel to find out exactly what we all want in this brave new world that will eventually emerge.

**** If you want to learn more about my Hidden Rivers walks just send me an email to walkingclasshero@gmail.com with “#HiddenRivers in the subject line ****

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The walking class hero ‘Lockdown Days’ playlist:

Innocent Times – Eric Clapton featuring Marcy Levy

I Wish it would Rain – Faces

The End of the Innocence – Don Henley

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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T&C’s

  • 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

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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.

OneCoastForAllLogoHorizontalLarge

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

Watch:

Everything you need to know about George

Read:

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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