There has always been plenty of grumbling from mountain bikers about the poor state of access laws in the UK, and it’s a safe bet that most discussions (whether in the pub or on the internet) see somebody mentioning the famous mass trespass by ramblers in the Peak District all the way back in 1932.
And it’s not unusual for someone to pipe up and suggest that mountain bikers need to do something similar to get our cause on the political agenda.
Take a moment to think about it though and it becomes clear that this is a terrible idea and it’d be the total opposite of the kind of “responsible access” that we’d like to achieve – and which the Scottish parliament has already granted its lucky citizens.
In the age of social media and Daily Mail miserabilism there would be far more focus on the inevitable trail damage than on the actual aims and principles behind such an event.
But it’s also totally unnecessary for another, more important, reason: Because it’s already happening all over England, Wales and Northern Ireland every day of the year.
When I started mountain biking back at the arse end of the 1980s, my friends and I were hapless teenagers with only the vaguest awareness of our rights of access – and the typical teenage disregard for doing what we were told. So we were quite happy to slip and slide around the (very extensive) local woods on our high-maintenance steel steeds.
Getting challenged, told off or even shouted at by walkers was something we expected on every ride – and we soon learned that the best approach was to feign ignorance and act apologetic.
Some of you will probably be getting all nostalgic for the early days of your MTB life now, while younger riders or more recent converts might think I’m exaggerating a bit.
That’s how it was though – and it’s a marked contrast to now, quarter of a century later, when most of our rides pass with only cheery hellos and perhaps a chat about the weather with walkers sharing the same trails.
Nothing has changed about our right to cycle on most of these trails, but we’ve been there every week for 25 years and people have got used to us. Many of them have probably got a mountain bike at home or have a friend or relative who is a rider.
Yes we still meet the odd Mr Angry (it’s usually a man of retirement age) who is furious that we’d dare trespass on someone else’s land in open countryside – and I’ve never met one of these people who was willing to consider our case for the defence. They’ve already made up their minds.
Personally my own position on riding “cheeky” trails has become significantly more militant since Scotland’s enviable Land Reform Act was passed. I used to be happy to ride my local footpaths but shied away from riding footpaths in National Parks like the Lake District.
However after riding with Lakes locals it became clear that, if anything, riding on footpaths was more sustainable there because of the rocky nature of many of the trails. And it was just as rare to be given any grief by walkers as on my local trails.
I’ve started to believe that the old cliché about “possession is nine tenths of the law” could be applicable to trail access.
Scotland has already proved that a law of responsible access does not lead to anarchy, mayhem and the downfall of society. Remember Scotland isn’t all remote glens and mountains – the law equally applies around the heavily populated central belt cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
And there’s also been an important shift in outdoor leisure administration towards recognising and engaging user groups – even (shock horror) encouraging more people to enjoy the great outdoors.
Be the change you want to see
I might be naïve, but I prefer to think I’m older and wiser and understand a bit more about how the world works now – so I think that if we act as though we already have the law that we want, we’re more likely to get it.
Don’t feel bad or apologise about riding footpaths (unless you’ve just done a big skid) – instead consider whether it’s right that our access to open countryside should be restricted for archaic reasons.
And you probably already realise that riding on footpaths is not “illegal” in itself, but merely a form of civil trespass which doesn’t hurt anybody or damage anything of significance.
Wales now has a progressive government which is also considering overhauling its access laws to reflect modern usage and needs – perhaps realising that the potential benefits in economic, health and social terms far outweigh a few landowners’ self-serving objections.
Once that’s done and dusted (fingers crossed) the emphasis will be firmly on England (and Northern Ireland) not to get left behind.
Just remember to keep in mind the motto I’m told they use in Hebden Bridge and “don’t be a dick”.
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