I am a stravaiger. A wanderer, often aimlessly. I'm not normally one for footpaths. I like to photograph views that few others have recorded; a different take on a well-known site, perhaps, or an unusual viewpoint.
This approach is not without it's responsibilities. Earlier this year, Petra and I revisited the delights of Cwm Bychan and walked up the famous route along the so-called "Roman Steps". It was busy, even in April. It wasn't long, however, before we both saw the possibilities of a hawthorn tree above a small waterfall, some 250 yards off the main track. It was a difficult spot, certainly not somewhere to clamber down, but it made a good photograph. Or it would have done, if my camera hadn't been almost knocked from my hands by a party of ladies who brushed imperiously past me, thinking that I was selfishly blocking the path.
I realised that they had been following our steps- and others were coming, too. Honestly, sheep would have had more sense. I felt annoyed at first, but then remorse got a hold of me and I felt responsible when I saw the ladies struggling down the rocky sides of the waterfall. I guess the moral is, just don't let them see you.
Lately I have been studying Cwm Pennant. There are quarries, mines and ruins enough to keep Petra and I happy for a few months. But I couldn't plot a way to get to some of them, at least not easily, or without tramping over miles of bog. So I fell to studying the maps, and scried a network of footpaths throughout the cwm, marked on both the 1:25,000 and the 1:50,000. The 25k map is my favourite - all that delicious detail.
The paths, my reasoning argued, would give a legal method of attaining access to sites of interest. Of course, these were not places open to the public, but at least I could get up there without encountering some petty lordling with an issue over my trespass on his fiefdom. Once at the site, I would take my chances. Except that, on the ground, these paths didn't seem to exist. Well, a couple are still marked with the familiar signs, but most are obscured and obfuscated. Some lead into quagmires or nests of rusting barbed wire. Some are deliberately blocked.
I've tried a few of these paths now, in the company of my partner in crime. I probably wouldn't have the nerve to try them alone, even though I have a legal right to be there. Why is it that paths aren't marked? Do the landowners want to discourage walkers, or is it just a lack of funds and/or an overseeing body? Certainly, these days, there is precious little profit in putting up footpath signs.
Close attention to the maps is needed, because many of the the paths have all but disappeared. Yet it is very heartening when, unsure if you are on the right track, you suddenly encounter a stile, or a kissing gate, classic signs of a right of way. Every one of the paths I have "discovered" has yielded some special gem, an old ruin, perhaps a view or an intriguing geological find.
Most farmers and landowners that I have encountered are perfectly reasonable and are often very helpful in pointing out routes. These people deserve our grateful thanks. But there are others, those who obstruct the paths, who need to know that there are legal responsibilities that come with rights of way and that there is an obligation to keep them open. And despite what some people might tell you, a path does not go out of use because nobody has walked it for ten years, Or fifty years, or a hundred years, or ever. A path is for life.
I know that my views won't be popular with some folk, but I believe that we are simply the stewards of the landscape, that it is our responsibility to take care of it well, holding it in trust for future generations. None of us should own it, or have the right to keep people off it. With respect and careful measures on both sides, access can work- and footpaths are a good compromise.
I hope I can encourage people to use the footpaths more; to seek them out and find out for themselves what gems are hidden behind the rusting signs or the dilapidated stiles.
I was talking about our network of footpaths with an American friend recently and he was astonished that we were actually allowed to use them. In his country, he said, you would be liable to be shot, or crossbowed- especially in the hunting season, if you crossed private land. To an American, it would seem, private property and possession is everything.
How fortunate we are in Wales to have a network of paths, even if some of them are a little reticent and would rather not be rediscovered. Walk them, open them up again. Enjoy the wonderful landscape and the fascination that it offers. We don't want to lose this precious liberty.