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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Liberating the Landscape?

We began to climb. A long continuous ascent through fields of freshly mown hay, great swards of pasture that had retained the richness of their pigment and supported flocks of newly shorn sheep. If the gloom above deepened, then the light around shone with renewed growth and vigour. Up here there was an airiness, an unrestrained sensation of liberty. I suddenly thought of Simone and realised what she had been trying to explain for the sumptuous roll of the hills and the unfettered flow of form lead the heart and mind into a voluptuous, day-dreamy haze.
 María Inés de la Cruz, Our Lady of the Orchards (Liberty Press, 1996)

Although, during the past three years, I seem to have spent very little time hiking in England, amidst the simmering volcanoes of Central America, the dazzling white limestone sierra of the Cordillera Cantabrica and hot, sticky plains of the Meseta, there reamins one place, in Wessex, that is very dear to me, and for reasons I still don't understand: Castle Neroche in the Blackdown Hills (see &

The Neroche Herepath (
My visits to this sacred space normally take place in the summer but living in Bath is doing my head in so, in early February, I decided to take in a brief visit to Neroche and the Blackdowns en route to my fortnightly supervisory meeting at Exeter University. I spent much of an exhilerating but sodden and wind-blast weekend following the part of the Neroche Herepath. Depending on which version you prefer, Herepaths were either 'people's' or military tracks and date from the ninth century. The Neroche Herepath, part of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme, was opened in 2008 and comprises about 40km of trails, some of which are wheelchair accessible, that circle the Blackdown plateau and the vale of Taunton Deane below. With Liberating the Landscape as its clarion call, the Neroche project sought to enliven the landscape through a variety of local projects and workshops including art and natural history. It might have made an excellent research project but since Lottery funding came to an end in 2011 the impetus appears to have dried up (though I'm happy to be corrected if I've got this wrong). An report on the scheme, Enabling Positive Change: An Evaluation of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme, can be found here and here (shorter version). If you can cope with the ineitable jargon and frequent references to the 'Big Society' (which makes it already feel outdated), it's worth a read.
The project might have petered out but the Herepath is a great legacy and, even on a winter weekend of gales and driving rain, still attracted a good number of walkers, drew people out into the landscape. It's therefore depressing to report that a good couple of kilometres of the trail, on permissive paths rather than public rights of way have remained closed since August 2013 and, caught in a bureaucratic rights-of-way no-mans-land, show no sign of being reopened as none of the agencies involved in the Neroche Project appear prepared to stump up the necessary funding.
The problem section, near the village of Bickenhall, was constructed in 2008 from tyre-filled wire gabions to provide a safe, solid surface for walkers, horseriders and cyclists. An innovative idea but one that has ultimately proved unsatisfactory, at least in the view of Somerset County Council who have deemed it unsafe and tried to fence it off, try being the operative word.

Needless to say, for me and, apparently, a good few others, a footpath closure notice is like a red rag to a bull and, on foot, I was able to circumnavigate the obstructions with relative ease but cyclists, horseriders will find it more difficult and many less-confident ramblers will be put off. And what we have, after two and a half years is a self-fulfilling prophecy as parts of the path, particuarly along the riverbank, are becoming overgrown and, in the summer, brambles will make it nigh on impassable. The authorities will squabble and pass the buck, that much is to be expected, especially in a climate when both money and imagination are in short supply. What concerns me more is that someone from officialdom has seen fit to condemn the surface of the offending path as unsafe when to anyone with an iota of hiking experience it's clearly not. Did he/she actually put on his/her boots and walk it? Or did they just take a cursory look? Paths are, by their very nature, uneven and irregular, even, in adverse conditions, precarious. Is the protuding rubber of the exposed tyres any more of a risk to a rambler's well being than a rutted steep and stony track? 

Above and below, the 'problem' surface

I love the Neroche Herepath, it's a great concept and a great path through one of my favourite landscapes. PhD fieldwork permitting, I plan to return on a monthly basis to watch the landscape come back to life. And I love the Herepath all the more because it's the sort of project that will encourage more people out into the field; back in Bath I might be a curmudgeonly misanthrope but there's nothing I like more than not being alone in the countryside. From what I've read, I think the Neroche Project, with its focus on learning and creativity, could be construed as at least attempting to liberate the landscape from the shackles that bind it. Yet the current state - and status - of the path, troubles me, hints at something rotten within the nation's collective psyche. It speaks of a deep fear of the unforeseen and the unpredictable; it wants to pre-emept every move and govern every footstep, to account for every possible eventuality and remove from even this most mundane and quotidian of activities the pleasure of risk and uncertainty. Take, for example, the notice in the photograph below, found wherever the path encounters a road. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those obnoxious, right-wing knuckleheads who considers 'Health & Safety', alongside political correctness, migrants and the EU to be the greatest threat to human civilisation - such as it exists - but there are times when stating-the-bleeding-obvious can be not only tedious but downright dangerous.
No shit, Sherlock!
If I were an equally obnoxious conspiracy theorist I might be tempted to add 'that's exactly the point': they are trying to turn us into compliant and docile followers, always in thrall to the order and the instruction, incapable of making decisions for ourselves, without the guidance of the ubiquitous 'leader'. If they were blessed with imagination and intelligence I might be tempted to agree but I think it's more of a case of the land of the blind and the one-eyed king. 
'Liberating the Landscape'; like education and democracy it is, in theory, a great idea but in the wrong hands it's just a glib and meaningless phrase trotted out by those who wouldn't understand the notion of liberation if it stood up and punched them in the face. The sort of people who talk about 'service delivery' and 'logistical solutions'. 
Or, worse still, when it's reduced to consumerist banalities by those who desire to turn liberation in on itself, for whom it remains a dirty and dangerous world. 
Where do we go from here? Back to the Herepath, of course. Care to join me? Somebody's got to keep the paths open. 

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