IT’S one of those days when nothing goes right, when the most straightforward of plans unravels and you stand in mist and rain with water trickling down your neck, and wonder what possessed you to swing your legs out of bed at 7am on a dark winter’s morning . . .
The plan is simple enough. Drive to a quiet valley just east of Osmotherley on the North York Moors; take a track up Arnsgill Ridge to Noon Hill; then follow the crown of the moor south to the Bilsdale transmitter to photograph this 314m high (1,030ft) marvel of engineering that beams digital radio and television across the north-east of England. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
It’s a fine, crisp frosty morning with an orange sky when I pull on my boots and clump up the hill to Low Cote Farm, but passing through a turnip field (or swede field if you’re that way inclined), clouds roll over the moor from the direction of Whitby and mizzle drizzles gently like fine spray from a garden sprinkler.
The distant Bilsdale transmitter is immediately engulfed, along with the surrounding landscape, as cloud settles in a depressing wet blanket. My own personal vision is also restricted because, for the first time in many years, I’ve failed to pop in my contact lenses and my specs are subjected to a constant stream of spray. But what the hell. Would Shackleton have complained?
I pass over Noon Hill well before noon and head south. Several miles of blind walking later, I spy one of the transmitter’s double anchor cables stretching up into the impenetrable greyness like the leg of a Tripod from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. It crosses my mind that I might not be anywhere near the transmitter and this is indeed the leg of a Tripod, so I walk a little faster.
A mile or so further I emerge beneath the mist at Low Thwaites, a remote upland farm that must be one of the most isolated places in England – and one which is undergoing extensive renovation. And at this point I intend to open up a debate.
My map shows a public footpath running from the farm gate through a paddock to the corner of the farmhouse, then round the house and down the hill. But the path has been diverted, quite recently I assume, with signs pointing to a field beyond the paddock, channelling the public through open pastures and away from the occupants. Effectively, we, the ordinary men and women who keep the wheels of industry turning and wave our children off to Afghanistan to protect democracy and decency, are being nudged out of the way to increase someone’s privacy.
As it happens, it is not my intention to use this path because my route takes me south, not east through the farm. But this sort of thing really gets my back up.
Millions of householders in this country, myself included, live on public roads or streets where strangers can, quite legally, come right up to your front window and glance inside if the fancy takes them. These householders would not contemplate increasing their privacy by challenging the status quo. Privacy should not be increased by encroaching on what lies in the public domain.
So how much privacy do these country dwellers require? Is it not enough to live on a remote farm on the top of an empty moor, where one solitary walker passes along a path perhaps once a day – or the occasional family on a weekend? Is their absolute privacy so essential that they need to insulate themselves from all social contact in this antisocial manner, and at the expense of the local authorities that we the public fund?
I descend Hawnby Moor with a swarm of bees in a sodden bonnet because some antisocial landowner has effectively told me to sod off and keep my boots off his private paddock and a route that was in the public domain long before his grandfather was born. But worse is to come.
Towards the end of my walk, my blood pressure is racked up to dangerous levels when the scenario is, believe it or not, repeated. Groundhog Day has come to the North York Moors.
A path takes me unhindered through Streetgate Farm and Hagg House Farm, but at Birk Wood Farm – where my map shows the path running through the farmyard and up a track to the road – I am diverted through a swamp and a muddy hen run (white leghorns and gingernut rangers, by the look of them) to the road, ensuring the farm occupants have complete privacy at the public’s expense.
Not only that, but there’s a woman in the farmhouse garden watching me, just to make sure I adhere to the route. I give her a cheery wave, kick a hen out of the way, and slither up a muddy bank towards the road. It’s at this point I develop a completely new theory about footpath diversions.
A couple of weeks ago the Country Land and Business Association issued a press release on rural crime which appeared in The Northern Echo and, no doubt, many other papers. There was one line that leapt from the page and hit me between the eyes. I’ve highlighted the relevant section.
“Crime in rural areas takes many forms and is made easier for the perpetrator by the relative isolation of homes and businesses, a maze of county lanes unmonitored by CCTV, lack of street lighting, miles of legal public access close to properties and low visible police presence.”
We walkers are a threat. The Country Land and Business Association, which used to be called the Country Landowners Association before PR people updated its image, has linked our network of public footpaths and bridleways to a perceived increase in rural crime. Our very presence – we the public – is sufficient to raise concern among country dwellers. Paths are being diverted, not necessarily to increase privacy, but to lessen the chances of you and me stealing a quad bike or an expensive Japanese 4×4. And it must be you and me who are the threat, because real criminals do not distinguish between public and private access. They respect neither and they tread where they like.
Up on the road I pass the gate to Plane Tree Farm, where a big yellow sign proclaims: These Premises Are Monitored By CCTV.
It’s high noon in the countryside and the settlers have pulled their wagons into a circle. The threat of crime – real or perceived – has got them jumpy and the womenfolk are on lookout duty. Trouble is, me and you walking through in our muddy boots – we’re the Indians. Like it or not, Kemo-sabe.
THE last time I passed the Bilsdale transmitter it was a perfect summer’s day but I didn’t have a camera with me. If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, take a look at Sharkey’s Dream on Winter Hill and Getting About a Bit on the Cleveland Way.