As you might already know, we had some disappointing news recently. The Welsh government looked like it was about to follow Scotland in opening up access to its amazing countryside for many more potential users. But then it quietly buried any proposals for reform. It’s not known for sure what caused them to get cold feet – some people have assumed that they caved in under strong opposition from pressure groups, while others have pointed to the general post-EU referendum uncertainty that seems to have gripped many branches of government.
This isn’t the first time that moves have started to reform Welsh access, only to be quietly dropped. We do know that the government’s consultation generated one of the largest responses ever, mostly from mountain bikers, so I’m going to assume that the problem wasn’t cyclists being shouted down. It’s that many people (including the Welsh government) simply don’t understand why the current rights of way system is bad for anyone on two wheels.
The nightclub metaphor
For anyone not familiar with the land access situation in England and Wales, try this metaphor. Imagine you’ve heard about this really fun nightclub with a great atmosphere, so you go along with your mates to try and get in. Obviously, you’re all going to be on your best behaviour and not start any fights – that goes without saying. You’ve also put on your smart shoes. But the doorman won’t let you into the main bit of the club – you can only go in the small back room. He also makes you limbo under the velvet rope on your way in, because he likes being an awkward git.
Of course you could sneak into the big room, but if you get caught you might be barred permanently, and your mates too. Other people in the club might realise you’ve not paid to come in, and kick off. By this time, you’re starting to lose interest. The other club up Scotland Street, the one without a dress code, starts to look more interesting. You’ve also got the mobile number of a mate who’s organising an illegal free party in a field somewhere, which sounds a lot more exciting.
So it is with mountain biking, where in England and Wales we have a system of access that wasn’t really designed with cyclists in mind. We’re an afterthought, allowed to slip in after some very prescient lobbying by the Cyclists Touring Club, more or less exactly half a century ago. We got the right to ride on bridleways and byways, which was much better than nothing. In fact there are areas of the country where it works brilliantly – places like the Lakes, where a history of pack horses plodding their way up to mines has left us with a lot of classic mountain bike routes. But there are also parts of the country where you’d be better off trying to find some good natural ice skating. It’s not just that there are fewer legal routes, it’s that once you take out all the ones which are miles from the next one, cut off by scary busy roads, or overgrown bogs even at the height of summer, often there isn’t a lot to go at. Some legal mountain bike routes even turn into footpaths half way along – funny how that works, eh?
Road to nowhere
You might assume, looking at a dotted line on a map, that it corresponds to a path on the ground, and indeed they often do. But technically, a right of way is, as the name suggests, a right, not a route. You might have lawful permission to walk or ride along this line, but the state of it on the ground might make that impossible. I’ve encountered rights of way that have been washed away by floods, chopped in half by motorways, or simply neglected to the point where there’s no longer any sign of their existence. And there’s no accepted definition of a bridleway or a footpath – a soft peaty track across a fragile moor can easily be a bridleway, while a footpath can be stone or tarmac. In theory there are resources to maintain local routes, in practice your local rights of way department probably has one or two members of full time staff and a budget that wouldn’t be enough to replace the street light bulbs that popped in a year, let alone manage and maintain hundreds of miles of paths.
Even when paths get maintained, it can still create problems. The bridleway network is really important for another group of users, and the clue is in the name. While horses and bikes don’t always mix well, the real issue is that bridleways have to be kept in passable condition by equestrian traffic. In practice, this can mean a heavy level of interference in the sort of tracks that many mountain bikers would prefer to be kept natural and challenging. We’ve all seen photos of nice rocky descents that have been hastily buried in building materials like an unfortunate Mafia victim. Whether such acts of sanitisation are down to the wishes of equestrians or just a local council’s interpretation of them is open to debate. But it’s another recurring tension with the current system which shows no signs of going away.
I’ve had more than one person tell me that the UK’s rights of way system is the envy of the world. But given that the distribution of access is random at best, the network is scattered and scrappy, and we can’t even have legal routes maintained how we would like, it’s starting to feel long past its best before date.
So what’s next? For most riders, nothing. The rights of way system ignores them, so they ignore the rights of way system. Footpaths continue to be covertly ridden, or new unofficial trails are built to satisfy the demand for places to ride. That can create bad feeling towards mountain bikers, as we’re seen to be breaking the law (although that’s rarely the case – see here for an excellent explanation why). It means that many places to ride can’t be publicised openly. I’ve seen route guides that deliberately take you on tarmac roads and past fun, well-established trails. This this isn’t the fault of the people who are trying to do things by the book – like professional guides, tourism initiatives, or this magazine. It’s just that the current system puts them in a disadvantaged position, compared to those who don’t pay attention to the legal status of a track.
Another option is to work within the system. Footpaths can be upgraded to bridleways, responsible access can be negotiated with landowners, and gradually an improved network could emerge. The legal machinery is already in place to do this, but it’s an approach that demands substantial amounts of time and patience. In addition, when it comes to upgrades, the system is still very much in favour of landowners rather than land users. Any dispute over the right to ride on a path can be enough to stop a claim, or turn it from a straightforward process into a drawn-out, expensive legal battle.
and another thing..
There’s another option: a sweeping reform of English and Welsh law that actually recognises the needs of users on two wheels. This seems so near (literally – you can see it in action just by driving north of Gretna Green) and yet so far. I’ve heard time and again that it’s only empty countries which have fully open access laws, that powerful vested interests will combine to stop it happening here, and that there’s no political will to make it happen. And right now, it does seem a long way off. But is it less realistic than trying to work within a system that barely acknowledges off-road cycling exists?
Perhaps a good first step would be for us to start talking about the issue of access, and how even in a country with a well-developed rights of way system, it’s still possible for two-wheeled users to be overlooked. Because at the moment we seem to be in denial about the fact that we’re stuck with a stop-gap solution from 50 years ago. It dictates where we can ride (and race), and it’s arguably defined the shape of off-road cycling in the UK. But it’s still treated as mountain biking’s dirty secret.