For ten years I have lived in a rural area. However I consider nature to be boring: hedgerows and fields are unremittingly green with little variety. Moreover the local weather is often cold and damp; I have noticed that this to be a particular characteristic of wintertime. Despite all this I am a regular walker and most days will cover several miles around our local footpath, Swans Croft Lane. I undertake this daily walk for health reasons and to manage my weight.
I have probably expended as much energy in disputes surrounding my right to walk unimpeded on this footpath as I have in the exercise itself. In part this is due to resentment from local villagers. However the main reason is that the damage done to local government through austerity economics means that the preservation of basic amenities has become an ongoing battle.
Two problems have arisen. The first, which cannot be blamed on government cuts, concerns the behaviour of a local dog – or more precisely the behaviour of a local dog owner. Here I must admit to a prejudice on my part. While riding my bike on our council estate as a seven-year old I was bitten on the leg by an out-of-control puppy. I can’t say that I still bear the scars literally but I do in a metaphorical sense. Ever since then I have disliked dogs, a concept that most dog owners seem incapable of understanding.
One such dog-owner lived in isolation at the remote end of the lane and allowed her dog to run free in her garden and the footpath. Whenever a stranger appeared the dog would emerge, yap and generally challenge the intruder. In fairness it did not bite. An initial polite request to the owner was answered with, amongst other responses, the following questions: “Couldn’t you find somewhere else to walk?” and “Are you a country person?” Since the answer to both questions was no, I escalated the matter through a formal complaint to the Parish Council, copied in to to the owner. Her response was to ring our churchwarden and enquire what sort of person I was. Specifically was I ‘a good egg?’ (not an expression that featured much on the council estate where I grew up).
Once it was established that I was indeed a good egg the saintly and long-suffering churchwarden was asked to arrange a bonding session between the dog and myself. This took place in our local churchyard and involved me patting the animal and feeding it with chews while being patronised by its owner. Subsequently the owner has taken steps to introduce fencing to keep the dog on the premises so, apart from noisy yapping, the problem has been resolved.
On-going maintenance of the footpath has proved more intractable. Grass, trees, brambles and hedges grow and this seems to take place on an annual cycle, an insight I have acquired as a result of my country walks. Without any remedial action the footpath becomes impassible by the autumn. This is where the unremitting cuts in local authority expenditure have had their impact. Investigations have shown that, in the case of ‘soft roads’ like Swans Croft Lane, the County Council has the ultimate responsibility for ensuring reasonable access. However most of the County Council’s resources are placed on the major tourist paths in the county. Moreover in the first instance they insist that the local landowner cuts back the hedgerows before the track itself is trimmed. I have no complaint about the Council Officers who are doing their best under frustrating circumstances. The problem is our unwillingness as a society to invest in public infrastructure and to try to do things on the cheap.
Norfolk County Council has introduced an on-line notification form when paths are obstructed. My practice is to use this form together with a letter to my Parish Council and my District and County Councillors. My August 2015 notification had two effects: one good one bad. First the path was cleared and became passable. Secondly I was subjected to an unpleasant outburst from our local tenant farmer who started by asking sarcastically if the path had been cleared to my satisfaction and then informing me that it had cost him time and money to cut the hedges. I don’t think that he considers me to be a good egg.