Defending access to the outdoors

I can pinpoint the event which made we want to be a campaigner. It was 26 August 1971 and I was 16. I had spent the day with friends riding across Dartmoor’s magnificent landscape (I visited Dartmoor regularly, from my home in Buckinghamshire, for riding holidays). In the evening we went to nearby Princetown for a public meeting about making the Swincombe valley, a wild basin on southern Dartmoor, into a reservoir. The scheme had been defeated in parliament the previous year but the farmers were clamouring to revive it, not wanting a reservoir on what was low-grade farmland off the moor.

I sat at the back of the crowded hall, feeling increasingly angry as speaker after speaker condemned lovely Swincombe as a useless bog. Then, to the obloquy of the assembly, Lady (Sylvia) Sayer stood up and spoke with courage and eloquence about the value of wild country for our wellbeing. And I knew then I must campaign for it.

Ter Hill, Dartmoor, with Swincombe Valley in the backgroundThe following year I visited Sylvia (who was a vice-president of the Ramblers and a seasoned campaigner) and despite a 50-year age-gap we instantly became friends, a relationship which continued until she died, aged 95, in January 2000. She taught me to be tough and determined and never to start by compromising or you give away too much.

My first campaigns were for Dartmoor—against the military, reservoirs and the Okehampton bypass. Sylvia introduced me to many national figures; she helped me find my way onto national committees—the Open Spaces Society, the Ramblers and the Campaign for National Parks—a wonderful start to a campaigning career.

When in 1984 I was appointed general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, my interests spread to public paths, fighting obstructions and anti-public diversions, and campaigning for freedom to roam which was partially gained in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 in England and Wales. I love to defend the public’s rights to enjoy spaces and paths, whether against government, local authorities, landowners or thugs.

National Parks have always been immensely important to me; they are some of our finest landscapes and best walking country. They are constantly under threat. So are the National Trails, which were born from the same visionary National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. In England the trails face an uncertain future with Natural England’s overseeing role greatly reduced and new trail ‘partnerships’ forced to find much of their own funding locally. The Ramblers argue that the national trails, which should be our top routes, need and deserve a national champion.

The coastal-access programme will create a national trail right round the English coastline, This is progressing, albeit slowly, with the Ramblers recently winning a campaign success to ensure the path is not scrapped or delayed due to funding cuts. It's also been given a boost by its nomination for the Great Outdoors Award for the environmental or access initiative of the year.

Times are tough now. The government puts development above access and makes drastic cuts to public funding, ignoring the value of splendid countryside and paths to our health and wellbeing. Hard-pressed local authorities are slashing their path budgets as they myopically give them low priority.

Kate Ashbrook at the kissing gate she installed at Cobstone Hill, Turville, in the ChilternsNow, an essential part of our campaigns is to demonstrate economic benefit and we have some impressive figures for walkers’ spending on national trails and other paths: a magnificent return on the relatively small investment needed to maintain them. The Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network shows communities how, if they welcome walkers, their local businesses will benefit.

We must invoke the health benefits of walking too. The Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support have published a useful report, Walking Works, which confirms how good for us it is to walk, and that walking can save lives and keep us out of hospital and doctors’ surgeries. It would make sense for the government to put the money saved by (what remains of) the National Health Service into maintaining and improving public paths and access.

We mustn’t let austere times get us down, indeed campaigners function best when they’re up against it. We Ramblers must rally to the cause, just as Sylvia Sayer and others like her rallied in the past.

Kate Ashbrook is president of the Ramblers, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network and a trustee of the Campaign for National Parks. You can follow her on twitter @campaignerkate.

Kate has recently been nominated for outdoor personality of the year in the Great Outdoors Awards by TGO magazine. Our coastal access campaign has also been nominated for the environmental or access initiative of the year award. Voting closes on 10 November.

Blonde Two

Well I didn't know that the Swincombe valley have ever been under such a threat. Thank goodness the reservoir didn't happen - so many of our favourite treasures would have been lost. Thank you for your work!