Tag Archives: stuart maconie

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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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

Watch:

Northern Soul – This England

 Read:

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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Here be monsters

An inscription used historically by nautical cartographers to indicate a space of uncharted water.  If the mapmakers had no information as to what might be in an area of map, they filled it with monsters; ship-devouring kraken; huge whales with sharp teeth, Neptune on the warpath, or viciously gigantic mermaids.  This practice suggests that the unknown place is both somewhere to be terrified of and also may be filled with the fantastic.

I don’t suppose any ancient maps of the Isle of Wight had the ‘here be monsters’ tag which is a shame. In fact in geological terms the Isle was linked to mainland Britain – from the Needles to Old Harry’s Rocks in Dorset – only yesterday. About 10,000 years ago sea levels started rising as the great ice sheets of the last Ice Age melted and as sea level rose higher, the Isle of Wight became separated from the mainland about 7,000 years ago. Sticking with the geological theme the Isle of Wight is made up of a wide variety of different rock types ranging from Early Cretaceous times (around 127 million years ago) to the middle of the Palaeogene (around 30 million years ago). The northern half of island is mainly made up of Tertiary clays, with the southern half formed of Cretaceous rocks (the chalk that forms the central east-west downs, as well as Upper and Lower Greensands and Wealden strata). Cretaceous rocks on the island, usually red, show that the climate was previously hot and dry.

All this adds up to a remarkably diverse landscape which often leads this diamond shaped island to be described as England in miniature. It’s one of the few places in England where the red squirrel is still flourishing and it’s certainly a wonderful place to go walking – particularly the 92 km of coastline. Well when I say 92 km you can’t actually walk all the way round the island on the coast and frankly this is both surprising and disappointing. David Howarth goes as far to say that: “Over half of our so-called coastal path doesn’t even follow the shore”. And he should know ‘cos he’s chair of the Isle of Wight Ramblers. They really seem to value their footpaths on the island – there’s plenty of ‘em, they’re well sign posted and we didn’t come across any obstructions. The main part of the coast that is restricted is around Osborne House.

Even more surprising and disappointing is that the Isle of Wight was excluded from the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act. I’m certainly in the Stuart Maconie camp of believing that: “The roots of the Ramblers are not in cream teas and stiles, but in dissent and protest”.  (Just to make it clear I haven’t got anything against cream teas and stiles and am I the only one who thinks Stuart Maconie would make a great pantomime dame? – please insert your own ‘oh no he wouldn’t’ gag here.) So to add your voice of protest please join the Ramblers in their English Coastal Path campaign and contact them to find ways you can help.

Notwithstanding this we set out from Shanklin and walked west past Ventnor until we got to St Lawrence. Then we cut inland and headed for St Boniface Down, which is, of course, a Marilyn. A Marilyn is a mountain or hill in the UK, Republic of Ireland or Isle of man with a relative height of at least 150 metres , regardless of absolute height or other merit. The name was coined as a punning contrast to the designation Munro, used of a Scottish mountain with a height of more than 3,000 feet (914.4 m), which is homophonous with (Marilyn) Monroe. It also offers glorious sea views.

Later on in the week we popped along to the Shanklin Theatre to see Rick Wakeman. These days he seems to be famous for being a contestant on Just a Minute, a Grumpy Old Man and Countdown. But old prog-rockers know him as a member of Yes and I like him for his work as session musician where he played keyboards on tracks as various as Life on Mars, Morning has Broken and Grandad (well aboy’s gotta make a living). He also recorded an album entitled The Six Wives of Henry VIII and in a case of art imitating life I think he’s up to number four himself.

The island is also famous for Victorians. The eponymous queen lived at Osborne House after Albert’s death, Dickens holidayed at Bonchurch and Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived on the west tip near the Needles. I can highly recommend another great Isle of Wight walk starting on Tennyson Down. The wind was blowing hard and the rain was sleeting down as we trudged up the down and it all added to the atmosphere. I know these days the poet is probably famous for The Charge of the Light Brigade but I always remember him for the line from In Memoriam – ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Then we walked to the Needles followed by a swift visit to Alum Chine – you know where all that coloured sand comes packaged in glass bells, cats and lighthouses. We took a slight diversion to nearby Warren Farm for some tea and cake and then pushed on for Headon Hill. A bit more coastal walking followed before we cut in country and back to Freshwater Bay. The evening was made complete with a few pints of local brewers Goddards Scrumdiggity.

It’s a shame about the coastal path but it’s hard not to warm to the Isle of Wight. There’s an understated solidity about the place. These days our monsters seem to be climatic and financial rather than kraken and Neptune but it’s not hard to imagine the Wighters facing these perils with a collective shrug of their shoulders, briefly stopping their DIY or temporarily ceasing to tend their gardens, stoically lacing up their boots, resignedly filling their rucksacks and staring them down armed with only a Mars bar. Not so much England in miniature but the spirit of England writ large if you ask me. Ah I can hear that Tennyson bloke again: ‘Was there a man (or woman) dismayed?’

Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here

Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

Jackson Browne – Running On Empty

Plastic Operator – The Long Run

More information:

OS Map used – Outdoor Leisure 29 Isle of Wight. Pay less when you order this map here.

Listen to:

David Bowie – Life On Mars?

The Bees – Go Where You Wanna Go – Single Version

The Jesus And Mary Chain – Coast To Coast

Rick Wakeman – Morning Has Broken

Clive Dunn – Grandad

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