COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Flashback: Jack Richardson (left) and members of the Ripon Ramblers with one of the disputed signs. (S)
Flashback: Jack Richardson (left) and members of the Ripon Ramblers with one of the disputed signs. (S)

David explores the conflicts between landowners and ramblers and looks at how for 40 years the Ripon Ramblers have helped establish and keep open country footpaths around the area:

A suggestion made in this column last month that we should spend more time walking the paths close to home and ensuring that we have walked every path within a five-mile radius of our home leaves a question unanswered. How is it that these paths are available for us to walk?

You may think that a path is a path, and that if it’s there, you can use it. But, in reality, that’s not true. Paths can be private paths, and not every path – even in the countryside – is free for access. Most paths have developed as what those who study the matter call “desire lines”– a path that represents the shortest route, or at least the route that is easiest to take, between two points.

We are all aware of such paths – there’s a good example at the southeast corner of Ripon Cathedral churchyard, where the surfaced path has a right-angled bend but many feet have worn a path that cuts off the corner.

Until land that had previously been open started to be appropriated by larger landowners and enclosed with hedges, fences and ditches, paths were, mostly, open for all. But, certainly from the 18th century, things have become more difficult.

There are stories of villagers who for centuries had used particular paths being forced to go by long detours because the landowners had closed their paths.

Let’s fast forward to the 20th century. From the 1920s there was a great upsurge in walking for pleasure, particularly as factory workers were given the right to a day off. But where to walk? There was no recognised network of permitted paths, and landowners were, in effect, free to close off their acres without reference to anyone. Since that era of the mass trespass, when people took the law into their own hands, we have moved on remarkably.

Now we have definitive rights of way, which appear on Ordnance Survey’s maps; there is access land in many areas and even a “right to roam”.

These came about in different ways, but a principal role was played by the Ramblers Association, founded in 1931 as the National Council of Ramblers’ Federations.

The Ramblers Association has worked tirelessly around the country to keep footpaths open and encourage walking, one of the most popular of leisure activities. Department for Transport figures suggest that 71 per cent of adults walk for at least half an hour at least once per month.

Let us fast forward once again to 1973. In that year the Ripon group of the Ramblers Association was set up at the suggestion of Jack Richardson, then chairman of the Harrogate group.

He had seen – and attempted to navigate – many of the paths around Ripon, and found that they were often in a poor state.

He called a public meeting in January 1973 at Hugh Ripley Hall. The result was a huge response; more than 80 people attended and set up the Ripon Ramblers – a group now 40 years old.

Meetings are all very well but for the ramblers it’s boots on the ground that make the difference. The group’s first walk, led by Jack Richardson, attracted more than 50 people who were taken by coach to Markington and walked back to Ripon.

Although by this time the then West Riding County Council (WRCC) had compiled a definitive map of local footpaths, there were no copies available to the public.

Jack Richardson arranged to have two copies made and donated one to Ripon Library, so that everyone could consult it.

At much the same time, WRCC began to put up footpaths signs – and some of them led to the earliest battle of the Ripon group.

The new signs began to disappear. Signs that showed public footpaths through Spa Gill, west of Fountains Abbey, were systematically removed. It appeared that the syndicate that owned the shooting in the area did not welcome walkers.

The Ripon Ramblers attracted widespread publicity for its campaign against this unilateral action, and, apparently embarrassed into submission, the shooters stopped their campaign of removal. Walkers can now use the paths freely.

Keeping paths open and well-signed was not the only triumph of the group. For those of us who walk the local footpaths today, we have cause to thank them for keeping our feet dry in at least two places where they put up footbridges.

One is over the River Laver near Clotherholme Farm, and the other in Mackershaw Woods, over the Skell at the end of the Seven Bridges valley.

Jack Richardson recalls that although the council had bridges they could put in place, there was no available manpower.

So the Ripon Ramblers did it for them – not something, as Jack Richardson observed, that would be allowed in these days of Health and Safety. But more than 30 years on they are still there.

There have been many skirmishes over the years for the Ripon group – over the proposed Pudsey to Dishforth motorway, over gravel quarrying, over many lost or blocked rights of way, for example – and the group continues to watch, hawk-like, for any infringement of the network of public paths. Yet compared with 40 years ago, we live in halcyon days for walkers.

The Ripon Ramblers joined forces with Ripon Civic Society in 2011 to publish six new leaflets of walks in and around Ripon.

The leaflets continue to sell well and have introduced visitors and locals to some of the many fine paths in the area. And when you do walk close to home, pay tribute to the work of the Ripon Ramblers on their 40th anniversary .Without them, the route would be much more difficult to follow!