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On the march over rights for ramblers

By Kent and Sussex Courier  |  Posted: July 05, 2013

RIGHT TO ROAM:  For many young women, rambling brought a new sense of freedom

RIGHT TO ROAM: For many young women, rambling brought a new sense of freedom

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ON a spring day in 1932, members of the recently-formed Tunbridge Wells Rambling Club opened their newspapers to read of an astonishing spectacle: the violent invasion by hundreds of fellow walkers of grouse moors owned by the Duke of Devonshire.

As activists battled with police and outraged gamekeepers, a local parish council chairman attempted to read the Riot Act while other intruders sang the Red Flag.

It was all a far cry from the quiet trudges through fields and woods organised by the Tunbridge Wells group. However the Kinder Scout trespass, which resulted in arrest, trial and imprisonment for the leaders, was as relevant here as it was on that bleak stretch of moorland between Manchester and Sheffield.

For landowners in Kent and Sussex also liked to keep the public out. Ever since the days of enclosure, when great swathes of former common land were fenced off from public use, the landowning class had taken for granted its right to occupy huge tracts of countryside.

But as more and more people began to spend their increasing leisure hours walking and climbing, the campaign to open up the land to all was gaining momentum.

Not everyone agreed with the tactics employed at Kinder Scout, but neither were they prepared to be locked out of their own countryside.

The Ramblers' Association was formed in 1935 to bring together diverse groups across the country, and immediately took on the fight to open up the country to walkers.

At that time, public footpaths were not even shown on maps, so groups like the Tunbridge Wells ramblers had to rely on luck and local knowledge to plan their walks.

The passing of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949 was a huge triumph, not only insisting that footpaths should be recorded on maps available to everyone but also paving the way for the setting up of national parks and trails.

However not all landowners shared the ramblers' commitment to freedom to roam.

For millionaire property tycoon Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, they were "the scum of the earth", and in 1999 he put up a fence across the public footpath crossing his East Sussex property to prevent its use.

He also added a barricade of old fridges and other rubbish to reinforce the point.

Hoogstraten lost, but it took four years for ramblers to win the court battle and have the barrier taken down.

Pop star Madonna was more successful in her bid to ban walkers from her estate, although she had to concede that it was only justifiable to keep them out during the shooting season between September and February, when they would be in danger of being shot.

By the 1950s, with maps and guidebooks readily available, weekend ramblers began to pour into Kent and Sussex by train using Southern Region's "ramblers' specials".

During their journey to specially-picked beauty spots they would be given details on local walks, with Ramblers' Association guides laid on to show them the way to pretty spots and good teashops.

Clad in woolly socks and jumpers, heavy boots, scarves and all-weather hats, young women in particular relished the kind of freedom which few of their Victorian mothers or grandmothers would have enjoyed.

But for the author of Southern Rambles for Londoners, walking alone "with a shilling or two in your purse to pay the railway fare and the hungry heart of the explorer" was the best way to see the countryside.

After a day spent tramping down from Eynsford towards Tonbridge, "the loveliest part of Kent that I have seen", he finally came to Shipbourne, "a village with an ugly church and a wild gorse-common".

Walking on through Hoad Common, "a marshy place full of kingcups", he found himself looking down on "the red-roofed town of Tonbridge".

As well as detailed itineraries, the author included plenty of advice for his readers.

One, on the vagaries of the weather, is as relevant to today's ramblers as it was 60 years ago: "The official weather forecast is seldom correct. The unofficial weather forecast of the postman or farmer is equally unreliable. The English weather defies all prophecy."

In 2000, almost 70 years after the drama of Kinder Scout, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act finally secured public access to mountain, moor, heathland and downland.

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