Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Public footpaths

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that one of my major obsessions is walking, usually along the UK's  fantastic network of footpaths.  This is an experience difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in other countries. Our Ordnance Survey maps are pretty darned good too!

When I first started lowland walking, as opposed to hill walking, many of the footpaths were hard to find, badly signed, or blocked by growing crops. This has improved enormously over the past twenty or thirty years, and most farmers accept that walkers have rights of way, and make the paths clear to help us keep to them.  It is not always easy, even now. Apart from the occasional bull in a field - legally with a herd of cows, apart from certain breeds, which make many of us apprehensive, some farmers fail to make the rights of way clear.  Most of them do, and I have no objection to seeing the words "Private. No public access" - this often helps to clarify the route. And believe me most of us don't enjoy getting lost and wandering through farmland randomly seeking a way through! 
Of course we as walkers have to play our part, and make sure that we close gates - sometimes with two catches if that is how we find them. We were caught out by this recently when the first walker didn't communicate with the last one through.
Fortunately the farmer concerned was happy to point this out to us, and tell us why. The cows rub against them and sometimes this opens gates with only one fastening.  He also wondered what we'd learned today, and why anyone would want to go walking through his fields at all. But all this was done in a friendly and reasonable manner - on both sides.
We had a different experience some months ago, when we couldn't find a path, although it was marked on the OS map,  and wandered into the farmyard to ask. The farmer told us we had no right to be there, and refused point blank to help us find the path. I contacted the local authority to check whether there was a right of way.  When we returned from the opposite direction a few months later,  all was clear and easy to follow.
Maybe this man had the attitude I've seen expressed on occasions - that public footpaths are an outdated survival from the times when agricultural workers had to walk to work and use the quickest route. Nowadays there is no need for them and they simply provide access for criminals and ne'er-do-wells.

A completely different problem is the way that footpaths are now frequently chopped into pieces by the modern equivalent of fast flowing rivers - major roads. Some lucky places have a tunnel or a footbridge which doesn't add too much time to the walk. it can be both annoying and unpleasant to have to take a half-mile diversion alongside a noisy road. In other places there is no alternative but to wait patiently for a break in the traffic - that's fine if you are just a small group of adults, but I wouldn't like to do it with a large group, and certainly not with children.

A side-effect of this is that certain routes are very rarely used, and stiles can be neglected, broken or overgrown - all of this is an extra disincentive to walking there. We are constantly encouraged to be more   active, and walking should be a simple way to achieve this. It shouldn't be an extreme sport of jungle-hacking, awkward stile climbing and traffic dodging.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Le Tour en Angleterre

We decided against braving the crowds around Yorkshire for the weekend of July 5th,  but got hooked on the TV watching the cyclists tearing around some familiar scenery. 
So good did everywhere look that on Monday 7th we made the journey over to Cambridgeshire - about an hour's drive - and found ourselves a spot near the village of Hinxton a few miles south of Cambridge. 

The route was full of people without being overcrowded, and we enjoyed the atmosphere as the end of the publicity 'caravane' drove by, with much hooting and bleeping.  
A flying keyring was our haul from this!  
No, not the keyring.
Next came various police motorcyclists and then the Skoda cars which we'd already spotted turning off the M11 to Cambridge. 

Lots of families with youngsters, as well as cyclists who'd travelled a few miles for a different sort of day out.
The two breakaway cyclists hurtled past, and the peloton came into view, zipping past in a whirl of colour and noise from the roadside.

After the excitement a local cycling club rolled by, a little more sedately.
Once the road was clear cyclists took advantage of the road closure for a leisurely ride on a usually busy route.
Time to go - not easy to find a decent place to eat on the route we'd chosen. The local pub was serving, but we thought they'd be too full.  The next one we found was closed - surely not a great business decision, and when we made our way to Royston, the town centre had nothing we wanted. 
Still, we had our trusty coffee making kit, and found a quiet road for a break, then headed back to the A14 and westward. 

Friday, July 04, 2014

Dorset Knob Throwing and Nettle Eating

Two peculiar customs we heard of during or shortly after our recent stay in Dorset. Neither are exactly ancient in origin . . .

The Bottle Inn in Marshwood is where they hold the Nettle Eating Championships in early June. This year we missed it by a couple of weeks! Just as well, we might have been tempted to take part - though I think not.

The contest started with a pub argument between two farmers in the late 1980s.
"My stinging nettles are longer than yours."
"Oh no they're not"
"Oh yes they are."
"I'll eat yours if they're longer than mine."
"Right you are. We'll measure them."

And the rest is history.  The contest lasts for an hour, and competitors are presented with 2-foot long stalks of stining nettles.  They have to pluck the leaves from the stalks and eat them. No one is allowed to leave the contest. No bathroom breaks or they're disqualified. After an hour the bare stalks are counted and the winner is the one with the greatest length of stalk. 

It's all done with a charity beer festival, along with plenty of live music.

The other tradition started even more recently, in 2008. The village of Cattistock, between Dorchester and Yeovil, needed to raise money for local sporting facilities, and came up with the idea.

A Dorset knob is a spherical biscuit, actually a small roll of bread dough baked three times, rather dry and crunchy, something like a rusk or French biscotte.  It shape lends itself to throwing.  The biscuit itself was first produced in about 1880, by accident, by the Moores family, whose bakery business began at Stoke Mill Bakehouse (now a lovely holiday cottage near Bridport).  The bakery business is still run from a shop in Morcombelake. 

Last May the contest and an associated food festival attracted around 5 000 people.