Griff’s opening the floodgates to river anarchy
mobbsey at gn.apc.org
Mon Aug 24 18:16:37 BST 2009
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River anarchy?.... bring it on!
But seriously, the blissful access situation in Scotland needs greater
highlighting because people in England just don't know what they're missing. I
talked to a walker the other day who just refused to believe that Scottish law
now allows you to legally camp in the open countryside (OK, so I've always
done that in England anyway, but it seems that most people take land law
seriously for some reason).
Griff’s opening the floodgates to river anarchy
The Sunday Times, August 23, 2009
It is the time of year when the splash of water is blissfully refreshing in
the heat of the day and the countryside never looks lovelier than it does in
early morning or evening. Like my distant neighbour in Constable country, the
comedian and national treasure Griff Rhys Jones, I can sometimes be found
paddling up a quiet stretch of river in a canoe.
Messing about in boats and a love of the countryside being such integral parts
of the national character, the people who commissioned Griff to make a five-part
series called Rivers (the last part of which goes out on BBC1 tonight) must
have thought they couldn’t go wrong in encouraging the amiable comic to travel
the watery arteries of Britain, gamely immersing himself in winter floodwater
on the Tay, abseiling down waterfalls, bobbing through torrents and paddling
gently in his leitmotif canoe with his chocolate-coloured labrador.
What they may not have realised at first — although being the BBC they may have
known but chose to go ahead anyway — was that this beautifully filmed
travelogue would contain at its core a much harder message, a kind of
canoeists’ manifesto. Its contention, gently stated on screen but more
stridently put in articles and interviews, is that our rivers in England and
Wales are preserves of the privileged — Griff tars stockbrokers, farmers and
anglers with that brush — that could easily be opened up to all. Griff puts it
with great charm but nobody should be deceived. This is a polemic as
ideological as John Prescott on class.
Contrary to the impression Griff seeks to give, the British countryside is not
a utopia devoid of conflict. It is in fact a matrix of conflicting uses —
riders, drivers, walkers, farmers, landowners — in uneasy but rather splendid
equilibrium under the law.
It is all very well to claim, as some members of the British Canoe Union do,
that landowners have “stolen” the right to roam our rivers from the people,
who had it before 1830, but this is not quite true.
Our east of England river was developed for navigation in the 1700s. The
bargemen whom John Constable painted had strict towpaths, not a right to roam.
They crossed from one bank or another, their horses had to jump gates
separating different people’s land — hence his painting, The Leaping Horse.
The canoeists’ raised expectations are all this government’s fault — and the
fault of its devolved administrations. Labour forced through a “right to roam”
to mountain, moor, down, heath and common land. This turned out to be more
popular and less controversial than many expected, so it decided it would give
access to the coast in the Marine Bill. What has given the canoeists the whiff
of victory is the Scottish Land Reform Act of 2003 which, as well as allowing
a state-funded land-grab of estates owned by absentee landlords, set up a kind
of canoeists’ right to roam. This enables Griff to say that there is now free
access to more than 90% of waterways in Scotland, while 90% of the waterways
in England and Wales are still private property. No wonder the canoeists think
they are next in line for the trough.
As a canoeist, I happen to agree that it is awfully complicated to get the
permission of owners to carry canoes and kayaks round weirs, locks and other
obstructions in England. I am often deterred and I honestly wish these
arrangements could be improved. As the chairman of our local amenity group, I
genuinely prefer people to explore our vale using canoes rather than powered
craft. But as a member of an angling club, and as a friend of many people on
the river, I know of conflicts which would only get worse with a canoeists’
right to roam. Canoeing is more disruptive than walking. It is often an
organised, commercially run activity. Freedom for canoeists can be another
person’s freedom curtailed.
Whatever canoeists may say, their activities do disturb fish. A canoed-over
chub will not take a bait again that day. Nor will a sea trout. The salmon
angler may have paid thousands of pounds more than the canoeist for the
privilege of being on a particular river, so the appearance of a pod of
canoeists in a pool causes resentment.
Scotland may have legislated for the canoeist, but the conflicts have not been
resolved. In England, where the rivers have less water in them, we have
militant canoeing organisations who mislead their members about the law and
lead mass trespasses. One such event that happens every year on our river sees
about 300 people enjoying the water, but also picnicking on private land,
making paths where none exist and peeing in people’s gardens. Walkers are not
allowed to behave in this way under the rights this government has given them.
My view is that landowners and anglers might put up with this kind of traffic on
defined days under a negotiated agreement, but a general right to roam for that
volume of canoeists on a small, lowland river would be unfair to the majority
of other users.
Griff has created unrealistic expectations. It would have been wiser, and more
realistic, to say it is a complicated business to get access to many waterways
in England and Wales, but it is not impossible. If we truly want our rivers to
be tranquil wild places, as the Stour is today, perhaps we should leave it
"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burroughs, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')
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