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Give Us The Freedom To Roam
by Linda Mondoux
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Linda Mondoux has more than 28 years experience in the word business as a writer and editor, becoming a full-time freelancer in 2007. She has worked for several daily newspapers, most recently with The Ottawa Citizen, where she was a copy editor and a city columnist.

By Linda Mondoux

If you’ve ever been jolted out of a reverie by the harsh ring of bells, followed by cyclists zooming by within a hair of your walking stick, you can appreciate the efforts of the Ramblers’ Association. And if you’ve ever jumped into a ditch when a car traveling at the speed of sound appears to be coming straight at you, you can understand why North America desperately needs its own version of the British group that has transformed a nation into a walking culture.

Oh sure, there are plenty of communities with trails and pathways where a walker might step without fear of being run over by a bicycle, all-terrain vehicle or a menacing SUV. But try distance walking and see how far you get before you meet fenced property marked No Trespassing, Keep Out and Private Land. And it’s not unusual for a trail to suddenly take you out of the woods for a dusty detour up a busy highway. Not pleasant.

A serious walker in Britain would never have to endure such obstacles. That’s because in Britain, walkers are king (and queen). And it’s all entrenched into law under the romantic title “freedom to roam.” In fact, giving walkers — or ramblers as they are called there — access to even more private and government land over which to explore was part of Tony Blair’s Labour party manifesto in 1997. Once elected prime minister, he kept his promise. The result is the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, which opened up access on foot to four million acres of “uncultivated countryside” in England and Wales. There are millions more to go, but it’s a healthy start.

Can you imagine “access rights for walkers” ever cracking the Top 5 priorities list of a president or prime minister on this side of the pond?

Maybe we could start small. Like one state in the U.S. and one province in Canada. How about New York and Ontario? After all, walkers’ rights in Britain didn’t happen overnight. According to the Ramblers’ Association, MP James Bryce first introduced a bill for freedom to roam in 1884. But things didn’t really start opening up for walkers in the countryside until 1949, helped along the way by pressure and a publicity campaign that featured a “mass protest trespass” in the Peak District that sent six people to jail in 1932.

Maybe we can convince New York Gov. David Paterson and Premier Dalton McGuinty in Ontario that freedom to roam should form part of their election platforms. I know I’d vote for whoever made it more enjoyable for me to walk North America’s most scenic locations without being pushed onto the roadway by fenced, uncultivated land with signs warning me to Keep Out.

Surely the property owners won’t mind if the occasional long-distance walker is given the right to sit on a tree stump in their empty field, nibbling on a piece of cheese while admiring the countryside and listening to the birds? After all, on my organized walk in the Lake District in Britain a few years ago, our group of ramblers got to march right through working farms, chickens scattering around our feet — even through backyards with pretty flower gardens. All we had to do was make sure we closed the gates behind us. How civilized!

Alas, I have a feeling North Americans, with their love of property rights, are not yet ready for freedom to roam. But maybe the politicians can try anyway. In a decade or two, perhaps after our own “mass protest trespass” — perhaps at the U.S.-Canada border crossing at Niagara Falls — walkers will win the day. Until then, we ramblers will have to take our walking holidays in Britain. Pity.

Published: Aug 27,2008 17:26
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