06 October 2021 by Guest blogger
While many of us regularly enjoy walking the thousands of miles of paths that crisscross the UK, many may not realise the role Ramblers volunteer footpath officers play behind the scenes to protect the path network and ensure it is the best it can be for all of us who love to follow it.
There’s more to the role of footpath officer than first meets the eye too - negotiation and diplomacy skills and the ability to put yourself in the various (walking) shoes of the whole community are all vital. Not to mention tenacity! It’s something volunteer footpath officer Dave Wetton has learned over his many years with the Tonbridge and Malling Ramblers.
If you enjoy walking and are interested in OS maps and the history of how the footpath network was set down, then looking into proposed footpath diversions will probably be of interest too. Most applications for diversions aren’t made with walkers in mind, but for the benefit of property owners. That’s why it’s important that there is someone asking if the proposals are good for walkers too, making sure they are not diverted into something less convenient and less enjoyable.
I often think about the history of the Ramblers and how all those years ago people fought for the right to walk in the countryside. Those paths are ours to enjoy and they are worth fighting for - but as a footpath officer, sometimes a lighter touch is called for. There is no point in objecting to a diversion without good reason, and we will certainly always consider a decent alternative.
It’s good to talk
Investigating proposed path diversions needs good people skills and the ability to understand different points of view. We’d like to avoid paths that go through people’s gardens too where possible, so often it’s about working together to offer a good alternative. In one instance, although we didn’t manage to stop a proposed diversion, talking with the landowner did mean he agreed to cut down a hedge, so that the same views could be enjoyed from the diverted route.
It’s so important to be able to have one-on-one conversations with landowners. One of the first steps is usually to talk to them to understand why they are proposing the diversion in the first place and explain the reasons why the new path won’t be as good. Many diversions are quite simple, and the ideal solution is to find a compromise before it becomes a dispute or a costly public inquiry (always a last resort).
Part of the community
And it’s not just landowners − there are lots of people you need to talk to and getting involved in many aspects of the local community is an unexpected benefit of being a footpath officer. It’s useful to go to local parish council meetings when a diversion is proposed, to be in tune with local thinking. And public support can make all the difference as to whether a path is diverted or not – so engaging with the community and people using the paths is vital. Showing that a diversion will have a negative impact on the public’s enjoyment of it can swing a decision, so sometimes we’ll be out talking to people or posting leaflets through doors, asking them to support an objection to a diversion. I’ve even had to talk to the Water Board, to find out how likely flooding was on a proposed path.
Walker safety is another thing you need to think about − I’m always aware of the responsibility to ensure that proposed new routes are safe. In one recent case, I discovered a proposed diversion would mean having to walk through a field where cows were sometimes kept. Further detective work revealed that they were not cows that would be kept with their young (so wouldn’t pose a danger to walkers) so I agreed to the diversion.
One of my proudest successes is probably one that has only recently been resolved, after twelve years! It concerned a long overdue correction of a path alignment across a wheat field. It was a real challenge involving many conversations with the county Public Rights of Way Officer and the farmer, but he was finally persuaded to mark out the route through the field, which gives a lovely open aspect, walking through the wheat crop. I’d choose that over the a narrow path down the edge of a field, pitted by rabbit holes and hemmed in by barbed wire any day. Tenacity is also an important quality in a footpath officer and on this occasion, it definitely paid off!
Being a volunteer footpath officer with the Ramblers gives you the opportunity to make a real difference for walkers. I’d love to inspire the next generation of footpath officers, as there is so much work to be done – and it’s good to feel you can play a role in keeping the footpath network viable.
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