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Early Rambling Days

March 12, 2011

I suppose I have always had this need to roam.

I was brought up in the Midlands, in the remnants of what had once been considerable countryside, interrupted now and again by the relics of the Industrial Revolution. Not far away, certainly within walking distance, was the Black Country – in those days a extensive manufacturing district where the smog would linger in the air for days on end, giving the clouds a colouring as grey as iron. Though born in a hospital that had once been part of the workhouse of one of the Black Country towns, I was soon transported to what was essentially an idyllic rural landscape.

I was scarcely crawling before I attempted to seek out the fields behind the house, always to be dragged back. As I grew into childhood I explored further and further, always happier to be out of the house than in. I suppose that even then there was not much actual countryside left; but it seemed a wilderness to me and it never failed to tempt me out into a wonder land of hedgerows, wide fields and rough ground. Occasionally, a tramp would knock the door to ask for hot water for a drum up of tea. I found these strange wanderers mysterious, and envied them as they set out on a journey into the land beyond the distant horizon.

The immediate geography of a child is fixed and it is human nature to push out those boundaries. As I grew older I walked further and further discovering the secrets of every hedgerow, the size and crops of each field. A river ran not far from the house and I followed its banks for many miles. I had an uncle. Not a real uncle but a former neighbour of my grandparents. He had the lust for exploration too and each Sunday he would call for me and we would go off together on longer walks. There were no hills or mountains such as the ones I read about so avidly, but there were the giant slag heaps of abandoned mines, steep and ash-grey, often smoking out obnoxious gases like angry volcanoes.

He first introduced me to the land beyond the canal embankment, the boundary of my early travelling. It was a stranger land than ours, countryside but with more industry. Narrow boats still worked the Cut trailing behind them buttie boats full of coal. He knew a great many of the boatmen and would get us lifts on our journeys. He was very much a collector of people and would stop to talk to every passing tramp and be welcomed into the encampments where the last Black Country Gypsies clung on to an existence. I envied all of these people their wilder lifestyle and longed to join them.

Sometimes we would journey out to places like Kinver, where it was possible to walk on rock, seek modest precipices and scramble up cliffs. This was my first taste of wilder countryside. It made the fields nearer to home seem very tame. Longer expeditions took me to the hills and vales of the Peak District, my first taste of high hills.

Then childhood holidays brought me to Dartmoor, the first great area of wilderness that I came to know really well. In all of these places I wandered where I liked, having little regard for whether or not I was on a right of way. Boys in my time were trespassers by nature. It simply didn’t occur to me that people could own vast tracts of countryside to the exclusion of all others. I roamed the fields, climbed the hills and sat by the river banks without a notion of what the word trespass meant.

In later years I came to have a contempt for trespass notices.

My vagabonding adventures have recognised few exclusion zones. As a boy I brushed aside the No Trespassing notices as though they were not there, not really understanding what the words meant. Now I understand so very well but apply my own discretion as to whether or not I have a right to roam.

I was not conscious as to whether any of my boyhood routes were public rights of way, for there were no such things then as signposts or waymarked paths in my neck of the woods. I did not know what a footpath or bridleway was. I had no map. I learned the landscape by repeated experience. Sometimes I would see a farmer or his labourers harvesting a field close to home, but they seemed friendly folk and never objected to me being there. I never walked through their growing crops, but only on fallow ground, field boundaries and existing tracks. The farmer and his workers would wave, stop for a yarn and let me help on harvest days. I lived for the weekends when I might walk and explore from dawn to dusk, edging ever further out like a wild animal seeking to find a break in an obstructing perimeter fence.

I think I was probably twelve before I realised that some landowners didn’t want people on their land. I walked the four miles to school through unfamiliar territory, along tracks and paths that wound under the canal and into untended fields, meant even then for development and urban sprawl. It was a land unloved and I felt uneasy as I climbed the long slope that led to the school lane. There was a rackety old farmhouse, its roof tumbled and many of the windows boarded up. I had passed it many times before and always shuddered at the sight of so much dereliction. It seemed uninhabited, despite the occasional pathetic wisp of smoke coming from its chimney.

This time I noticed the man leaning against a wall that had once bounded the farmyard. A little man, with a battered felt hat and grubby jacket, his trousers held up by string.

I thought, as I walked past, that he wouldn’t speak. I had almost reached the gate into the lane, before he leapt out, furiously waving his stick and yelling something unintelligible. He ran after me, his words becoming understandable: “Get off my land,” his hat flying off to reveal grey straggly hair and a forehead covered in warts. I paused for a moment and faced him. He stopped and held the stick over his head. “This is private! This is my land! Get off!” He advanced again, waving the stick in front of him, a fierce look on his face.

“Get out! Get out!”  Like some fierce old bird uttering a warning cry.

“But I always come this way,” I replied.

“Get out! Get out!”

He darted forward and crashed the stick down on my shoulder, almost screaming the words “now get out!”  He pushed me backwards on to the lane. He turned away and walked back towards the ruin without a further word, as though the business between us was concluded. I staggered towards the school, my uniform askew. This was my first encounter with a hostile landowner. It was not to be my last, though in my long years of tramping I found that I was more often welcomed than deterred, for many people are anxious to share the land that is theirs.

Such early experiences fed my desire for exploration. Childhood journeyings showed me the sheer variety of landscape in my native land. Mountains and lowlands, forests and marsh, all there to be discovered and added to the memory. With adulthood, horizons widened. I have stood on many a mountain top and watched the mountain ranges unfold, aware that I could not climb all of those summits in a dozen lifetimes.

Some of the places I walked through were vast in extent, many more contained in scope, but charming for all that. In the course of my adventures I sampled the best that Britain has to offer from the crags of Scotland to the flatlands of East Anglia, from the downlands and hangers of the south country, to the rugged moors of the north.

My favourite places were very diverse. I came to love the quiet parklands of settled southern England in much the same way as I became besotted with the hills of Scotland and the Lake District and Pennine fells. I vagabonded in all weathers too, for you cannot get a feel of the real Britain unless you have been rain-lashed on its moors, navigated mountains in the thickest cloud, or tramped the downs on hot sunny days, when all is clear and the blue of the English Channel might be seen in the distance.

My vagabonding which started in those Midlands fields has allowed me to seek out the far-flung horizons and I am not done yet.

I have remained an inveterate trespasser.

I believe that the land is the common heritage of us all. Our countryside should be accessible without unreasonable restrictions. I have walked where I like, but always with reverence and care. I need the countryside and walking for me is not just the outward experience of exploration, but an inward journey into the mind that perceives the joyful scene all around.

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