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Access walking in the North Pennines
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in walk magazine, 2006
I met them approaching the trig point on Cold Fell, eight or ten walkers striding over the hilltop. We're the Wednesday walking group from Haltwhistle, they said. We go out every Wednesday whatever the weather. “Not that it ever rains on Wednesdays,” one of them added. It started spitting Cumbrian drizzle a few minutes later.
It didn't matter. Cold Fell is where the Pennines finish, where the land plunges down towards the valleys of the Tyne and the Irthing, and - before the clouds blew in - we'd all been enjoying the superb views: the Solway Firth, the hills of Kielder Forest and, far away to the north-west, the mountains of Galloway.
I'd arrived at Cold Fell after several days spent walking in the North Pennines . In particular, I'd been following the escarpment edge, now becoming known as the Cumbrian Ridge walk. From Great Knipe in the south through Cross Fell, Knapside, Fiends Fell and Black Fell, I'd been watching the views subtly changing, particularly the long view westwards beyond the beautiful Eden river valley to the ragged horizon of the Lakeland fells.
If the names of some of those Pennine hills don't immediately register with you, that's because much of this watershed route wasn't ours to enjoy – or, at least, to enjoy legally – until about eighteen months ago. Open access has potentially transformed the walking opportunities in the North Pennines . It's not just the legal situation which has changed: it's good to be able to use new gates and stiles put in the fell walls and fences, for example, constructed as a result of access management grants. It's encouraging to see, too, that the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty team has a new leaflet just out promoting use of access land in their area.
But is the word about all this getting out to walkers? The Haltwhistle group told me their visit to Cold Fell was the result of a conscious decision to head for access land – though they admitted they'd wanted the reassurance of seeing the walk's route described in print first. A few miles to the south of Cold Fell at the Hartside Top café – the highest café in England , and high in the home-made cakes league table, too – the staff told me that they'd noticed the number of walkers increase significantly now that the land beyond the café car park was legally available for walks.
But even so there are clearly many keen walkers who haven't yet ventured, as it were, off-piste. Sometimes there are problems on the ground to overcome: a member of the Ramblers in West Yorkshire told me of his frustration at Grimwith reservoir in the Yorkshire Dales, where use of a private farm track to bridge a fifty-metre ‘ransom' gap on to open country is currently being barred to walkers. Instead, you have the legal right to shin over the farmer's wall. It seems a pretty idiotic arrangement.
And now there's a new problem. Defra's current acute financial crisis has meant a cut-back to Natural England's budget, and this in turn has meant a stop on many new access management grants. In the North Pennines , local authorities had already had verbal agreement to go ahead with a second year of work on improving access facilities before news of the budget crisis came through. These plans have now been put on ice.
It's a similar story elsewhere. One particularly frustrating example comes from the other end of the country, from the Isle of Wight, where the Ramblers have been working very hard with the Local Access Forum and the Island 's AONB team to improve access. Significant amounts of time and efforts have gone into working out ways of creating new paths through to the ‘islands' of access land now available. Everyone has been enthusiastic and keen to proceed – but now the news has come through from the highway authority that the funds to do the work have been frozen.
But let's not be down-hearted. The access right to open country is a long-term gain, and some short-term teething problems are to be expected. Instead, let's take a lead from the Haltwhistle Wednesday group and begin to exercise that hard-won right – whether it's raining or not.
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