Thursday, 28 July 2011

The trespasser's guide to the Conwy Valley

Harold Drasdo

After completing a second rock-climbing guidebook something said that two was enough. Lately a realisation has come that I'd enjoy writing a walker's guide to an area I know well — the valley of the Conwy and its tributaries Machno, Lledr and Llugwy. I'm thinking of a guidebook with a difference. At the same time I'm writing my will. Other projects stand in the way and if I haven't got anything going in the next three years I'd like someone else to take on this title to which I gladly relinquish copyright.

In fact I hope for more than the single volume. I imagine a handsome uniform edition of Trespasser's Guides to cover the whole of Britain. It would speed things up to have a bold and ambitious publisher step forward to announce and organise the series right away. Or the enterprise might equally be carried through by individuals, either independently or in association. The writers would have to choose their words with care. If incitement to trespass isn't a criminal offence already it will be pretty soon. In my book it's absurd to pay fines to state or landowner unless there's a bigger payoff in return. However, a little discretion and intelligence should avoid that risk.

Now I'll particularise. I'm not thinking about guides to the mountains which are fairly well served already. I envisage guides centred oil river systems rather than on summits. I'll describe the main object shortly but each book might also include excursions and notes of general interest: local history and natural history; associations and legends; local heroes, local characters, local lunatics; hazards, enemies, crime and gossip; how the valley earns a living; local power structure and who owns what; where not to buy your ethnic gifts.

I have to pick my own words with the extremest care. As it happens I'm a landowner myself with a handful of acres of woodland and marginal pasture. There's no pathway through since I can't make any connections but the alert explorer will spot a couple of stiles. (The barbed-wire fence is simply to keep animals in and to re-establish neglected hedges.) You're welcome to enter and picnic by my stream provided, of course, you observe the common sense rules of' avoiding damage, disturbance and the infringement of privacy. Even trespass has to be judged.

I live part-way up a long hill, my nearest neighbours a quarter-mile each side. From my windows I look across at Siabod, the full sweep of the Carneddau, and a number of other hills, peeping shyly over shoulders. Of all these summits I am free to choose. But I also look down on the broad floor of the Conwy and there lies my grievance. I've lived in the valley for over 20 years but it's not intended that I walk along it without consenting to be fed back at intervals to to the road.

Here I have to declare that I rate the negotiation of the Thames Path as potentially the most constructive planning development the open-air movement in Britain has yet seen. Certainly we'd have been lost without the visionary crusade of the National Trust, even though, suicidally, it has now broken its founders' mould by letting the American Air Force have a slice of its inalienably bequested land. Certainly, in a negative sense, the holding action of National Park legislation (in its fairly successful obstruction of random development) has filled an important role. Certainly the coastal paths are a splendid amenity.. But I see the Thames Path as something special. I might walk it myself.

A rough distinction, now, between two types of experience. On the one hand, the full run that seeks satisfaction artificially through the contrivance of difficulty. This way takes us to the top of Snowdon, to the Pennine Way, to the Munros, or onwards . On the other, the serious path, born of circumstance of historical necessity, searching out the easiest possible route through an unknown land. The ancestry of the journey outreaches that of the mountain ascent. There is an archetypal journey and it doesn't include any summits. It starts from a sea, follows a river to a col, and descends another river to another sea. It is a fault of the Thames Path that it satisfies only a half of the specification. The essential purpose of the Trespasser's Guides would be to effect a comprehensive survey putting on record exactly what we want.

Surely it's reasonable to expect to be able to walk the length of every valley in Britain by public footpath, crossing roads as necessary but never having to follow them. Walking is the most innocent of occupations. (But see Steiner: walking may be conductive to thinking, which can have explosive consequences.) So that what is needed here, in North Wales, is a system of uninterrupted river and valley paths allowing numerous two to four day crossings of the area from sea to sea. Conwy-Lledr-Goedol­ Dwyryd; Glaslyn-Colwyn-Gwyrfai; Seiont-Rhythallt-Gwryd­ Llugwy-Conwy; and two or three dozen others.
Those who work in access negotiations for a long time often become crippled by a debilitating pessimism. They form a sort of priesthood, they have to instruct younger people on the parts they will have to play in the consultations, committees, studies and processes that lie ahead. 'They'd rate the chances of realisation of a countrywide footpath scheme in the next 30 years with that of world disarmament.

And yet: in this area, though nowhere fully usable, such a system almost exists already. Reaches of every river are followed by seductive rights of way and many of these are hardly used, simply because the walker is intermittently diverted to the highway. That is an unpleasant and sometimes alarming experience In the lower Conwy, like changing a wheel on the side of the motorway or strolling along the runway as the jumbos take off. These sections amount to perhaps a quarter of the required distance, the remainder being on the map already.

So what is needed to link these paths up? A similar will to that securing road re-alignments in these same valleys.

Apart from this preposterous expense another problem is that, to be realistic, the machinery seems to need a minimum of 10 to 15 years to produce a result. It may be that you can afford to choose: trespass or negotiate. But then, I think you're younger than me. Maybe in 15 years I'll still be explaining things to you. Or again ((that's life) this correspondence may have been closed. (And that's all he wrote?)
If I want to walk up my valley I have no option but trespass.

Occasionally I've argued that although unrestricted access to all wild country is desirable it might be amusing to retain in every area a single enclave of forbidden ground in order to keep alive the deep gratifications of ownership and trespass. But perhaps, ill a more civilised society, we might simply commemorate these in a game, Squires and Trespassers, to be enacted by young and old in every parish once a year as a village pageant. Trespass: nowadays usually taken to mean the simple act of crossing anothers' land, though the secondary meaning of invading his premises has lately been re-established.

Except in narrow medical and legal senses trespass against the person has been abandoned in favour of more specific terms. When you come to think about it you see that a history of human societies might be written, not from the chicken-and-egg viewpoints of law (expression of might) or ethics (assertion of right) but focused on the central and dramatic act of trespass. It's surprising that we don't have 100 titles on this theme - rich anthologies of trespass as comedy, The Art of Trespass, A Trespasser's Manual, The Trespasser as Folk Hero, A Short Walk in Buckingham Palace, and so on. Maybe I'll write a history of trespass myself, handling the subject in a bold general sense: A Grammar of Trespasses.

The boss kicked my grandfather and his wife off the tied property. Interesting and touching now, she must have been a lively girl when she was young. I wish I could have seen her as she was then. Apparently she'd been scrumping apples in a private part of the garden. They finished up in all inner city slum. But the boss is dead and a new generation wants visas for Eden. Prometheus ducked under the fence and grabbed what we needed but somebody spotted him and the establishment came down on him like a ton of bricks. (Note that in each case element of petty theft is involved, though only of renewable resources. Also possible to treat these episodes as early industrial espionage or as first shots in Class War?) They are our heroes, they made us what we are, we mustn't forget their courage, example and sufferings. New people have claimed title to the estate so it looks as though we've all got to go through the wire again.

Or pull down the fence? Sometimes nothing less will do. I recall a rally at the Cow and Calf just after the war. It was organised to muster public support for the idea of creating National Parks and Tom Stephenson was one of the speakers. Behind us stretched the wide expanse of Ilkley Moor, a War Department Firing Range, its perimeter lined with orders to keep out. It was known to have been cleared but the military had declined to release the area, apparently having plans for future use. Stephenson had another plan and — I wish I could remember how he phrased it now —said that the signs shouldn't really be there, that somebody ought to do something about them.Clusters of somebodies began to separate themselves from his audience which grew leaner by the minute. Perhaps he had to wind up more abruptly than he intended in order to participate in whatever was about to happen. I still remember the satisfaction of wrestling my first sign out while a nervous companion did an agitation dance nearby. Before night fell parties had tramped the moor from end to end. Of the millions who enjoy it now I wonder how many have heard of that sunny afternoon. Forgive us our trespasses.

I'm not going to select from the numerous justifications of trespass or of disobedience — philosophical, moral, political — already available. In fact my purpose now is to counsel you strongly against the practice of' trespass. I must say, though, that the way you live dismays me. I find the abstemiousness of your demands astonishing. That you should be content to stay inside the reservation for the rest of your life. I might count it as modesty, often an admirable virtue, if it weren't that-you like to play with your toys and say you want more. Decidedly, you'll be happier where you are. The trespasser finds himself at odds with the state and sometimes at odds with society, a more distressing position. He risks embarrassment or conflict, even the force of the law. You do well to refuse all this hassle and to negotiate the path ahead as best you may.

Now I'll introduce an incidental but very important reason for promoting the idea of a comprehensive system of valley walks. The debate on erosion and stabilisation of mountain paths has been running for quite a few years. Walking up Snowdon on Christmas Day my friends put down my silence to the penalties of Christmas Eve. Really, I was seething with anger at what was happening to the path. (Anger is an unfamiliar companion on a mountain walk.) But the Park Authority has borrowed from its cousins the engineering expertise of Highways, the crowd systems of the Police, the social sanctions of Parks and Gardens. So we get walkways built to uniform widths; also gabions, culverts, revetments, diversion fences, wardens and neat boulder kerbs to mark the true edge of the herbaceous border. An apparatus of  work gangs, Land Rovers, shelters, helicopter drops, even of trade union and professional interests is in operation and this engine won't be easy to knock off.

For myself, I happen to believe that the protection of flora, fauna and landscape depends mainly on the conservation within ourselves of' a complex of' feelings or sensibilities difficult to describe briefly with any precision. These sensibilities underpin any appropriate responses to the natural world. Actually, they can tolerate litter. They can tolerate small-scale, mindless, unorganised damage. They can tolerate collapsing screen and muddy swathes up the hillside. But they are mortally wounded by a sense of ongoing human design, telling us that even here the agencies of the state have nature and ourselves under Surveillance and protection.

Of all the traces men leave in wild country a naturally developed footpath is the most acceptable. It's tempting to see it, not for what it is (it is a tape encoding generalised information about the minds of men) but as if it were imbued with a discrimination of its own. Hill paths strike varieties of subtle accommodations between economy of effort and impatience of aim, between wayward curiosity and prudent calculation. They make aesthetic choices and they yield to risk-taking impulses. They have second thoughts. Every step is different but they talk to us non­stop, quietly, soothingly, in all idiom, a body language, as natural as our mother tongue.
But these built footpaths are bored stiff, they drag their feet, their eyes are oil the ground and their hearts are somewhere else. They are utilities. They're constructed to allow very large numbers of personnel to reach the summit as quickly, safely, easily and gormlessly as possible.

As Paul Goodman would have said, they represent the psychology of unemployment that goes with the economy of unemployment. They are a sort of treadmill. Their style is duty. Curiously, they bring to lily mind two memorable ascents, the great stairways from the monasteries of Santa Katerina and Montserrat to the summits of Mt. Sinai and S. Jeromi: magnificent excursions through their associations and the strangeness and grandeur of their surroundings but inappropriate models for the hills of North Wales.

If we had what is needed, all immediate ten-year moratorium on this work, how could we limit further erosion? The planners will tell you that they've 'identified' the problem: too many people. I've identified it differently: too few paths. True, attempts have been made to draw off pressure through Country Parks and the 13 existing long-distance footpaths. But this is pitiful, it simply causes problems, the scale is a thousand times too small, the machinery a thousand times too slow and cumbersome.

The only way to alleviate the so-called overuse (overuse: rate of use greater than when the speaker first arrived at the site) is to permit choice from a huge proliferation of river paths. It's worth noting that these would be comparatively resistant to erosion which is considerably reduced on less steep ground. They would be easier to maintain by virtue of their accessibility and their less extreme environment. Remedial work conspicuous on the mountains would not be out of place in these pastoral landscapes where the variety of terrain — riverside, woodland, drovers' lane, rock gorge, col — suggests a variety of approach and where walls, fences, hedges, stiles and bridges are essential elements in the scene. The work gangs could work for ever and even retreat to a hostelry for lunch. The paths would offer local economic benefits.

The Conwy, unlike the Thames, is already well provided with strategically placed youth hostels, guest houses, pubs, cafes and shops. The planning of' these routes to avoid interference with farming would be a worthy enterprise for the landscape architects of the Park Authority. And then, perhaps, a day might come when the climber on less crowded hills wouldn't be abused if, occasionally, he stepped on to the grass.

This is a political broadcast. Probably you recognised the tone of voice from the beginning. I haven't left myself the space to survey even briefly the enticements of my adopted valley or to select from many entertaining adventures. I could tell you some stories. However, I must say something about realisation and about impediments.

In 1992, when the Thames Path is opened, there's going to be a colossal amount of publicity and back-slapping. The path was to have finished at Westminster, where all the Dick Whittingtons might knock oil doors; but East London heard about it and felt left out so now it has to stagger on to the Thames Barrier. Suddenly, everybody will want one. For all I know the Severn, the Dee or the Trent may be on the drawing board already. Unfortunately, this may canalise public demand towards the creation of a few big river paths through the lowland counties and distract attention from any movement towards the intricate web of paths tip the mountain rivers that I'd like to see.

Here, I pass over considerations of appropriate strategies, structures and organisations. But it wouldn't cost much to connect Conwy to Porthinadog by three or four routes since the missing links aren't extensive. I wonder if I'm too pessimistic about an initiative from the Local Authority? I wonder if I could stir up a race?

(Dach chi'n gwrando arnaf i, fancw, yn Neuadd Sir? Peidiwch A gadael i'r buggers Lundain yna gael popeth yn gyntaf. Dach chi'n medru eu curo nhw. Dan ni'n gallu ffordio y I,Iwybr Conwy. Mi fydd y pobl Parc
Cenedlaethol Eryri eich helpu chi. Gwnewch o rwan, cyn y Llwybr Tafwys — i Gyrnru, i Wynedd, i'ch plant!)

So I arrive at the obstacles and ought to be naming names, indicating hard and soft targets. In fact I can't talk about the farmers in this valley. Amongst those of my acquaintance generalisation is imposible since their situations are so various (from subsistence smallholder to wealthy landlord) and their characters so diverse (from the most truly civilised people I've ever met to dangerous psychopaths). And all, without exception, fascinating to talk to. In a sense, land can't be owned, neither by Australians or Aborigines. Go back far enough and all our titles are legal fictions grounded in squatters' rights. But we call judge the ways in which men use land as we can judge whether or not there is interference with their enterprises. Nothing call be more admirable than to work in the production of food and, certainly, food producers have their problems here. It's widely accepted locally that our lamb and trout has been irradiated since long before Chernobyl. It still tastes delicious.

I have the impression that anglers would resist- the negotiation of a river path much more strongly than farmers. They have to be sorted anyway into trout and salmon. The trout species call be difficult enough at particular sites. But I notice that wherever water is bounded by a right of way they've adapted themselves to what they would assert to be a nuisance if public access were being newly threatened.
The same can't always be said of salmon fishermen. They mean big money and the explorer is bound to come up against their exclusion signs. (I puzzle myself over the tricky question of whether one bank might be reserved for anglers, the other for walkers. It would be preferable to have a path on either side so that it were possible to make day excursions with a different route to return to the starting point. Of course, a path with any taste will leave the river at intervals to switch the sound off and to award itself the pleasure of re-encounter.)

It must be understood, incidentally, that though some hotels own extensive stretches of river-bank, the activity doesn't rely on rich English visitors. In fact fishing (and poaching) are the local ethnic sports, as natural as the shooting of small birds by Mediterranean peasants. Possibly salmon fishermen constitute a sort of local mafia with its affairs ably handled by solicitors and land agents. Of course hostility is chiefly directed towards the poacher rather than the casual trespasser.
A few years ago a young poacher equipped himself as a skin-diver and armed with a spear-gun took an initially productive midnight cruise in the river at Betws-y-Coed. He found himself surprised and surrounded and in a scene reminiscent of The Graduate he stubbornly declined to surface to meet the reception party. Constables and bailiffs clambered around the pool, shining torches into the inky water and dropping rocks in to depth-charge the submariner into surrender. He stuck it out for the best part of an hour. Subsequently a local magistrate ordered that the sum realised by the confiscated salmon be paid to the local angling club. Then he ordered that the diving equipment be sold and the money paid to the anglers. Then he fined him a thousand pounds. He warned him that he would go to prison for several years if he repeated the offence. And in an extraordinary speech he berated him about the extreme cruelty of this method of procuring salmon.
I'm sorry. I just can't resist it. I'm going to Samuel Butler him.

"The prisoner will stand to receive sentence."
(Prisoner is hauled to his feet.)
"The court has listened to the evidence and has heard your plea in mitigation. But it has no recourse other than to find you guilty on the very grave charge of intolerable hypocrisy. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?"
(Prisoner remains silent.)
"Very well. It is now my painful and solemn duty to pronounce sentence of death. However, in accordance with the liberal customs of this land I am permitted to offer you a choice of the method of your execution. You have 24 hours in which to arrive at a decision. At the close of that period you will be taken from this place to the bridge known as Pont-y-Pair and there you will be shot through the head with a spear-gun. Or, should you select, you will swallow, on the bank by that same bridge, a Cumberland sausage in which is concealed a sharp barb attached to a stout nylon rope. By that rope you will be drawn down the slope, into the water, and to the bottom of that pool, there to wriggle on the hook until you drown. And may God have mercy on your soul. Take the prisoner to his cell. The court is dismissed."
Well, that's got rid of him. Where was I?"

The territorial behaviour of farmers and fishermen is easy to understand. At least they haven't paid for their property with your money, though you pay for farming grants and you pay for the policing of fisheries. The
Forestry Commission, the Water Authorities and the CEGB have done just that and each has a presence in the valley. You might assume, as financial sponsor of these enterprises, that your ideas would be listened to with the most anxious concentration. That isn't always the case and I've formed the impression that the response depends more upon personality than upon instructions from Head Office. I'd like to immortalise one or two of my own conversations but it's advisable to keep oneself up to date. I'd just finished pinning Dr. Mayhead, the District Forest Officer,to this page when someone told me that he'd gone away and the situation needs re-appraisal.

I've tried a wide range of approaches with these people. Here I'll mention only the most direct, in the field, and the most devious, in the office. For the former it's convenient to save space with a man good at that, John Seymour (the true heir of William Cobbett), in Keep It Simple:
I remember being accosted by an 'officer' of the Forestry Commission while I was out walking in my forest one day and he ordered me out! I roared with laughter at him. My servant, whom I pay, dressed in a smart green suit paid for by my money, ordering me out of my forest! Like hell!

In the office you may be at a disadvantage since you arrive as petitioner while the administrator sits behind his desk in his more comfortable chair. If you go on about the chain of command that plunges vertiginously downward from yourself as tax-payer and voter to Parliament, to the Government, to the Authority, right down to the comfortable chair, well then, his eyes will slide around for help, he will check out the escape routes from his own office, his ears will plead for* the interruption of telephone or secretary with important business. He'll talk about policy, legal liability, or orders from above.
However, I believe you have a chance. He may, in fact, be quite happy to provide facilities for the public. He can get points for for that. Car-parks, nature trails, orienteering courses and bird-watching hides spring up before they are called for. But it has to be a project, it has to cost money. If you've climbed on a crag within his boundaries for 30 years and need nothing from him at all you may be seen as a nuisance, a puzzle and viewed with suspicion. He may want to exclude you or to sell you a permit. But if you complain angrily that there are no picnic tables underneath your crag he may be seized with enthusiasm. He can provide and he can write it up in his annual report.

It's quite possible that the two most popular excursions in the whole of the Convey Valley are the route through the Penmachno Mine (on, or under, Forestry Commission land) and the Dolgarrog Gorge (on CEGB land, the outfall from reservoirs apparently being its responsibility). The climber who's never spent an evening in either doesn't know the rocks of North Wales — though the potential hazards, in each case, may arise from water conditions rather than from the rock itself. These two excursions have been enjoyed by many tens of thousands of children from Outdoor Pursuits Centres, followed in recent years by successive waves of junior leaders, police cadets, prison warders, servicemen and the SAS, all sweating a bit more than the kids but just as happy and excited. The legal status of these expeditions is dubious.

To wind up with a general view, many of those who've fought so gallantly for access to the countryside must see a depressing future ahead. Everything is to be privatised, everything with any scrap value or any investment value.
Of course, this same prospect is wide with promise for the trespasser. Vast areas of woodland, water catchment, even of nature reserve are to be set aside for his use.You might think him a contented man. In fact he nurses a spark of anger. All this fuss about a walk in the country. All this expense of spirit which might otherwise be employed more productively. To have to travel forever an outlaw in one's own country, when life is so short. I refer you to a seamless little poem by Housman and to its irrefutable conclusion.
The trespasser may not eroticise the presences of nature as Housman does. He may be disconcerted by the poet's arrogation of the scene — unfairly turning around, to reject me, the word I've been using so freely. Probably, though, he'll admit that what is most remote and inhuman can come. to seem close and precious as it dawns on us that we only get one shot.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger's feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.

Harold Drasdo: First published in High 67