PUBLISHED: 12:59 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013
It's all you ever wanted to know about footpaths but didn't dare to ask, as Katie Jarvis meets the man responsible for looking after the South Cotswolds network
THE FIRST vital lesson to learn about footpaths is that, whenever there's been rain anywhere near them, take your wellies.
Mike Barton and I look - somewhat nervously - from the deep sticky mud to my rather stylish shoes, and back again.
"It's OK," I say, bravely. "I'm game."
Well, I'd be foolish not to be. Mike is Area Rights of Way Officer for the South Cotswolds (that's footpaths and bridleways to you and me), and you couldn't meet anyone more dedicated to, or knowledgeable about, his job. For 30 years, he was an officer in Gloucestershire Police, ending up as a chief inspector in Cheltenham, trained for hostage negotiations. One of his last tasks was to help persuade a desperate father to return the week-old baby daughter he'd snatched.
When Mike retired from the police four years ago, he took on his current role with the Public Rights of Way department of Gloucestershire County Council. Unlike his previous job, he knows footpaths aren't a case of life and death; but that doesn't stop him being just as passionately committed. "I'm mindful of an interview with a top footballer the other day who was asked if he gets nervous before a match. He replied, 'I'm not in Afghanistan; this is just a game of football!' The work I do now is very different from what I did before, but I absolutely love it. I think I've got the best job in the world," he says.
And under an early summer sun, in the village of Sapperton, it's hard to disagree. As we start following a steep lane down beside the church, he tells me how, last year, he walked all 470 miles of footpaths in his area. It took him nine months and a whole lot of boot leather.
"Of all the footpaths I walked, I think my favourite stretches have to be in Kingscote and Ozleworth..." he says, "apart from the fact that I sprained my ankle while I was walking there! They're beautiful areas: you can hear the birds singing; you've got the valleys rising up on either side; and in Kingscote, particularly, there's a lovely wooded area that gives you about an hour's circular walk."
Today, we're in another wood: Dorval, on the Bathurst Estate, where all you can hear are the calls of birds and the burbling of the River Frome as it splashes a path through the fern-covered banks. Here, under the green-tinged coolness of the canopy, the tall trees look as if they're cascading down the steep-sided valley. The river might seem playful today; last summer, after those infamous rains, it told a different story. Then, swollen and raging, it had crashed down this same path, taking with it huge chunks of a Victorian stone bridge that once led workers from the village to the local mill.
Nowadays, it's walkers - enjoying a leisurely stroll in the countryside - who use that bridge. And it's Mike's job to make sure that essential features like this are kept in good repair. "We've had to divert the Frome into the old mill leet temporarily so we can work on the bridge," he says.
To the workers' surprise, when they started to pump water out, they discovered around 40 brown trout (alongside a whole load of less-traditional American crayfish) that no one knew were there. The fish were safely put back again.
"We've managed to recycle a lot of the stone, some of which was carried 100 metres away; but we've also had to bring in some new," Mike says. "It's costing 22,000, which isn't far off my whole budget for the year. But thanks to a grant from Severn Trent, this will be a beautiful job when it's finished; this is a lovely area, and features like this add to it."
One of his main aims is to preserve these traditional, and often historic, features of footpaths and bridleways in the countryside. Gates, stiles and bridges over ditches (though not over running water) are actually the responsibility of landowners, though there is a 25 percent grant available to help if they need replacing.
But often it's the simpler side of keeping footpaths open and usable that causes problems for Mike. "In my area, the number of difficult landowners is very, very small compared to those who work with me, though there are times when you feel like really having a go - but, of course, you can't. I need to listen and talk to people, and to understand their point of view.
"Not long after I started, I had a call about horses in a field being a bit nippy. I rang the landowner - almost an Emmerdale type - and he and his wife started shouting at me down the phone: 'There's nothing wrong with those horses!' Finally, I got them to agree to meet me, and things were pretty hostile at first. But I explained I was trying to work with them and that, if anything happened to a member of the public, they could be liable. We talked about putting up 'waymark' signs and asking people to stick to the path. By the time I was ready to leave, that farmer had shaken my hand and apologised. Compared to 30 years of dealing with people as a police officer, these are a much more reasonable set of clientele!"
If anything, it can be the public who are more difficult. Mike is dealing with an incident at the moment where a rider on a bridleway left a gate open, allowing cattle to wander onto the A417. "The landowner is tearing his hair out."
Inconsiderate 4x4 owners who drive their vehicles illegally on bridleways are another big headache, as are out-of-control dogs. "If the animals are made to stay on the line of the path, that's fine; but so many farmers tell me about the abuse they get when they ask owners to keep their dogs under control."
Other problems can be caused by the natural world itself. When badger setts block paths, Mike and the team have to get permission to work on them from Natural England. Often, this will involve a simple intervention such as constructing a new passageway underneath. "Up at Cerney Wick, we had an elderly gentleman who climbed over a stile, put his foot down a badger hole and broke his leg. He was an extremely nice chap. Contrary to the current litigious culture, he told me, 'It was my own stupid fault - I knew it was there'."
By now, we've left woods behind and are walking through cow parsley-lined paths bordered by open fields, filled with buttercups. The fact that I'm knee-deep in mud - shoes barely visible - is amply made up for by the view and the clean, fresh air. As we progress through a sturdy five-barred gate, the path - only discernible by the down-trodden grass - runs through a field, with old oak trees, ash, hawthorn and blackberry bushes proliferating.
Perhaps, as we walk through landscapes such as this, we can spare a thought for some of our ancestors who fought for the right to wander through our countryside. It's well documented that, in 1932, there was a mass trespass on Kinder Scout by ramblers angry at their lack of rights. What is less well known is that Cheltenham had a similar outbreak of 'lawlessness' back in 1906 when landowner Henry Dale - of Dale forte piano fame - tried to block public access to Leckhampton Hill where he was quarrying.
"I give a lot of talks to interested groups, and this is one of the facts I unearthed while doing some research," Mike says. "The main protagonists were called the Leckhampton Stalwarts, and they gained huge support from the community, including local magistrates and Dorothea Beale, headmistress of the Ladies' College. In fact, Miss Beale withdrew all the school pianos in protest."
Public pressure won the day, to the extent that Cheltenham Borough Council finally bought the land themselves and ensured public access for perpetuity.
Footpaths and bridleways, as established rights of way, became formalised in the 1950s when county councils drew up a definitive map. Since then, the importance of these access routes has grown enormously. Ten years ago, there were three people in the county doing the same job as Mike; today, there are eight. (Interestingly, five of them are ex-policemen, though no one's 100 percent sure why!)
"Sometimes," Mike says, "I sit down with my lunch, and have a deer appearing just beside me. I've got a fantastic picture of a hare from when I was out at Eastleach, sitting right by me and taking not a blind bit of notice."
His job is to ensure other people enjoy those sorts of experiences too. "This is a way to rediscover the countryside people think we've lost," he says. "We haven't - it's still out there. On Thursday, I was out at Eastleach, walking across rolling fields, with the Coln in the valley below. I came across a shepherd with his five dogs, out tending his flock. He stopped and had a chat with me."
But, he says, there is still a huge amount of ignorance out there about footpaths. "Often, when I do my talks, people will say they had no idea who to complain to when paths were blocked or obstructed, and at other times they'll ask me about pavements, which is not my job!
"My main advice is for people to go out there, enjoy the footpaths, and use them.
"And," he says, looking at my mud-soaked shoes, "don't forget your wellies."
Right. Thanks, Mike.
To report a problem with footpaths or bridleways, or to find out more, contact the Public Rights of Way department of Gloucestershire County Council on 01452 425577; or log onto their page on the website, which includes maps of rights of way in the county: www.gloucestershire.gov.uk