A letter arrived from Hampshire County Council the other day, pointing out that, according to a member of the public, footpath No. 9 appeared to be blocked.
I was cross, but not surprised. I was cross because I am a great fan of footpaths. At boarding school, a fierce geography master sternly lectured us on the historic significance of the phrase ‘Right of Way’ on an OS map. And then spending two years in a terrace house in the suburbs of Newcastle upon Tyne reinforced my affection for them.
My early years on the farm were spent arguing with my father about footpaths. His theory was that they should be self-maintaining: if they are used enough, they are automatically kept clear, if they are not used they vanish. A passable theory for the early 1980s, but not these days.
I wasn’t surprised to see the letter because I had seen a fellow striding militantly across the farm, and I’d seen him pause at the top of my winter beans, and stare angrily across them. And I suppose that if he hadn’t looked closely enough, he may have missed the tractor wheel mark I’d left to show the route of the path – the beans had just done their usual trick of going from three inches to three feet in a matter of minutes. Something told me what he was thinking and planning.
The letter also made me cross because sometimes it seems we can’t win when it comes to footpaths. It seems that not everyone had the same fierce geography teacher, and the general consensus among some of the supposedly well-educated people of central Hampshire is that a field is for public access, and the more they paid to live in their idyllic rural village, the more right they have to go where they please.
Every time Hazel and I discuss the long-term plan to step up beef production, the thorny subject of gates near footpaths comes up; we still haven’t come up with a solution.
I did take quiet satisfaction from the fact that I had actually preempted Capt Rambler’s complaint to the council. I’d had a very long and challenging afternoon driving the ride-on mower through the crop, clearing out the full 42″ strip through the beans. If you’d been travelling on the A272 that day, you may well have been treated to the sight of a large farmer trying to lift a large garden tractor out of a rut at the edge of the field – mulched up beans and lawn tyres aren’t a recipe for great grip.
There was one pleasant surprise – the tone of the letter itself. It was the most beautifully written and considerate official letter I’ve ever seen.
The erudite Mr Marriott (Senior Countryside Access Ranger (Central Hampshire – East Area)) was writing as ‘a reminder’ of our management responsibilities. Our ‘co-operation’ in keeping the footpaths ‘well looked after, despite the recent weather’ had been noted by him and the Council. The whole epistle had a feel of “Yes, we know it’s a bit of a nuisance, but if you get the chance, and you’ve probably done it already, could you pop out and sort it for us? Cheers.” He included a leaflet to illustrate some of the legal aspects, and it, too was well written, obviously by someone who knew about farming.
Not sure that Capt Rambler would have approved, but it certainly cheered me up.
Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust, farming 380ha at Hinton Ampner, in Hampshire.