The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about public access rights and responsibilities along the Trail to help us create a community Top 50!

Many people have campaigned and worked hard over the years, both outside and within government, to secure the access to the countryside that we enjoy today along The Ridgeway and across the country. Coombe Hill near Wendover in Buckinghamshire was the place of a major protest as long ago as 1906. Nearly 2,000 people marched up the hill, led by Wendover’s town crier. The community had decided to take matters into their own hands – they carried crow bars to dismantle stiles and tar to paint over notices. A postcard from the time showing the protesters (see image gallery below) is titled ‘Making History’. This was decades before the much better-known story of the Kinder Scout Trespass of 1932 which attracted broad public support for a campaign to allow the public to walk over the moorlands near Manchester and elsewhere. Read on below….

Banner image: Artwork commemorating the Kinder Scout Trespass in the window of the Peak District National Park Visitor Centre.

Newspapers from 1906 describe a ‘great public demonstration’ on Coombe Hill and policemen being put on duty day and night. The protest was about new stiles and fencing erected by the hill’s new landowner. Residents of Wendover and Aylesbury claimed, with support from Wendover parish council, that ‘the public has wandered, free and unfettered, over the hills from time immemorial’. Coombe Hill stirred up local feeling because it was of particular local importance as the location of a monument to Buckinghamshire soldiers killed in action during the Boer War – and erected by public subscription just two years earlier – and also as a fine viewpoint across the vales below. These dramatic events on the hill were brought to a close by a representative of the Aylesbury Urban District Council who asked the group to sing the National Anthem ‘to show that they were loyal subjects, even if it may be considered by some that they were at times a little disorderly’!

This story of ‘The Wendover Hills Question’ took place decades before the much better-known story of the Kinder Scout Trespass of 1932 which is considered pivotal in the development of public access to the countryside. Kinder Scout, the highest hill in the Peak District, was at that time a grouse moor heavily patrolled by gamekeepers, and walkers on these moors were trespassers on privately owned land. To protest that the public should be able to enjoy the hills, groups of people from Manchester and the surrounding area walked onto the Derbyshire moors. ‘Scuffles’ between walkers and gamekeepers ensued. Police made arrests which later led to imprisonments of some of the walkers and this drew the attention of national media and wider public sympathy.

Many make a link between the Kinder Scout Trespass and the formation of the Ramblers Association in 1935 and also the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were introduced by the 1949 Act as well as ‘long distance routes’ which are now known as National Trails. The Act reflected a vision that had been developing for several years – to conserve the ‘green and pleasant land’ that people had fought for during the World Wars and also to enable them to enjoy it on foot and horseback. The encouragement of young people to benefit from access to the countryside was a particular focus of a growing youth hosteling movement, and so the vision for National Trails was intertwined with the provision of youth hostels. The first National Trail to be created was the Pennine Way in 1965 and later the Countryside Act 1968 inserted cycling into the 1949 Act. With these access rights, the visitor’s responsibilities in the countryside were also set out with the development of the Countryside Code.

Fittingly for The Ridgeway, considering the 1906 story, Coombe Hill was the venue for its official opening ceremony as a new National Trail on 29th September 1973. Lord Nugent led the ceremony of VIPs which included Don Greswell, Vice Chair of the Chiltern Society (see image gallery above). This was decades after The Ridgeway had first been conceived as one of an original set of routes proposed by a government committee set up in 1946 (chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse).

50 years later in 2023, people gathered on Coombe Hill to commemorate the anniversary of The Ridgeway’s opening. The original vision for The Ridgeway National Trail remains true – it should be a routeway for everyone to enjoy exploring the countryside, free of charge. The Countryside Code also continues to be promoted to Trail users. Looking forward to the next 50 years, there are both challenges and opportunities to address – climate change, public health, biodiversity, development and more. For this reason, the public are invited to help by reporting problems and sharing ideas for improvements with the Ridgeway Officer to ensure the Trail is fit for the future.

Notes: More information about Coombe Hill and other viewpoints and memorials along The Ridgeway is available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

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