And still the Top Table Ramblers insist. Still they mechanically trumpet the message. “Volunteers are vital to our footpaths’ maintenance, security, their very existence.” Like General Kitchener – “Your Country(side) Needs YOU”. Get out and Do Your Bit. Don’t even wait to be asked. On and on they go.
So – you try. You offer your services to your council’s Countryside Dept. as a volunteer – not with the big stuff like rebuilding bridges or even stiles, just the mundane, straightforward jobs like cutting back under- and overgrowth, maybe removing dangerously placed barbed wire on stiles, certainly replacing now white and arrowless waymarks, or the broken or missing ones that abound in your parish.
And you’re told “no”. Or worse, simply ignored.
I communicate with five local Rights of Way Departments on a pretty regular basis. Over ten years Bradford has steadfastly refused to countenance using Countryside Volunteers in even the humblest of tasks. I asked for a list of times that any such volunteers had been used by said council – an email listed about half a dozen, all of which turned out to be the council helping out a small discrete local project, not really volunteers at all, certainly not at all helping with the grander scheme of, for example, ensuring a whole parish was properly signed or cleared of overgrowth throughout its footpath network. From what I was told a couple of these merely represented a Jolly for a couple of RoW officers – a chance to get out from under the Definitive Map and watch other people working in the open.
N. Yorkshire last year saw “no effective remedial RoW work carried out”. Kirklees Ramblers, by their own admission, have been “far too inactive” in this regard. Someone said “perhaps with the use of voluntary work if NYCC will allow it”, an astonishingly timid, deferential approach to departments whose substantial salaries are paid by us. These people work for us, remember.
Much – indeed more and more – needs to be done to maintain our footpaths, with dwindling resources, staff and funds. You would think that any RoW Office would leap at the chance to shorten its huge backlog of works to be done by employing as many volunteers as it could. They cost nothing, they’re keen, they’re numerous and they’re dedicated. And once trained they can be trusted to work alone.
Of the 59,000 problems reported by the 3,250 citizen surveyors who took part in the Ramblers’ Big Pathwatch, a third were for missing signposts / waymarks that can quickly turn a pleasant country stroll into an epic trudge as the detours and searches mount up. But much of the rest included overgrowth that would likely force you to abandon your walk altogether. Countryside Dept. officers regard bridges, stiles and gates as “Top Priority”. Walkers, by and large, regard an iffy plank bridge, a wobbly stile, even a locked gate as something they can usually get round or over. A bit of a nuisance most of the time, possibly a bit of a challenge. To us it’s “Low Priority”. It’s very rare that such a problem stops us from getting round our course.
What WE regard as “Top Priority” are those things on the ground which help us walkers find our way – proper signage, good clear waymarking and enough of it, and paths as free from over/undergrowth as possible. Without these we either get lost, or waste time hunting for the next stile, or have to fight through shoulder high thistles. But these are “Low Priority” to RoW. They’re hugely labour intensive, and council staff can’t spend a whole day just putting up waymarks or using secateurs, now can they?
No indeed. But volunteers can.
Both Bucks and Kent Councils, naming but two, welcome volunteers for these “lesser” but most vital tasks. Kent sends out a large number of waymark discs – and TRUSTS her volunteers to do a proper job, as well as giving them back-up and advice if required. All of 15 years ago Bucks used to send me a massive brown envelope full of these discs every spring with a note saying that if I needed any more to give them a call. They didn’t give me instructions in how or where to nail up a plastic roundel. They TRUSTED me. And no, I didn’t put them on the sides of buses, or halfway up a tree. I put them only along footpaths I knew to be marked as such on the OS map; many times I just replaced a faded marker with a new one. They’re all still there. All still doing their job. And not one complaint from any landowner – quite the contrary. Delight as at long last waymarks were appearing on their land to keep walkers on the narrow, and out of danger. They’d not seen the council in years. Like here in West Riding. Anyone surprised?
The concept of volunteers dealing with undergrowth is also seen as a massive No-No to too many Countryside officers. But Kent has embraced it big time. “Your help is invaluable in carrying out spot vegetation clearance”. Accepting that training would, for safety and legal reasons be essential, along with simple amendments to the council’s public and personal liability insurances, spot clearance of paths could be something almost entirely handed over to local walking groups. It requires only some effort of imagination from Countryside officers; but their inertia is relentless, their originality of thought zero, the accompanying waste of human resources is increasing monthly, and the paths – OUR paths – become monthly more dilapidated thanks to their lack of will to change..
Volunteers can also end number road side signposts and adjust some gates. Take a look at Countryside Access Wardens on Kent Council’s website. A county that does all the above – because it knows it can’t do it all, it invites help and gets it.
Many months ago I urged West Riding Ramblers to get chopsy about these issues, this dreadful waste of a small army of potential Mini-Countryside Officers. Since then, absolutely nothing to advance the cause of, the NEED for volunteers in W Riding has happened, or even been discussed, as far as I can tell. Worse, nothing whatsoever has happened at national level to give encouragement and impetus to establishing any kind of real volunteer groups anywhere. It’s embarrassing and frustrating locally. It’s shameful nationally. “Fine words butter no parsnips”, my nan would say to me. Say as many fine phrases as you like, they certainly don’t open any footpaths. To the Top Brass at Ramblers I say “Do what you’re paid fine salaries to do. Set the example. Get the National Volunteer Ball rolling. Put up or shut up”. I dare say the same locally. I don’t want just words. “If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go”. (F Scott Fitzgerald). Stop talking, get doing.
Or get out.