From backpacking 270 miles up the Pennine Way trail to leisurely Sunday strolls in the country, walking is Britain's most popular sport.
But with disputes raging between walkers demanding greater freedom to roam and farmers, moorland owners, Army ranges, water boards worried about pollution and other bodies keen to keep them out, it's sometimes depicted as more like warfare."The antagonistic way in which the leaders of the Ramblers' Association are trying to whip up ill-feeling . . . demonstrates how conflict can be generated," said Sir Anthony Milbank in a letter in The Independent last September.
"I can see more years stretching ahead of unnecessary warring," he added in an interview with the same paper.
Chris Hall, president of the 82,000-member Ramblers' Association, retorted at his organization's annual conference this spring: "We are opposed to a handful of selfish people who own and manage the countryside over which we seek to roam."
Milbank is chairman of the Moorland Association whose 150 members together own 1,000 square miles, or 90 percent, of the heather moorland in England and Wales.
The moors are used for rearing and shooting grouse and other game, a sport increasingly dominated by syndicates of rich business people who want to keep walkers out.
The government's Office of Population Censuses and Surveys says 21 million Britons, 38 percent of the population, go walking, seeking access to the countryside in a crowded land where farming, forestry and other activities all compete for space.
Walking took off after World War I when townsfolk, especially workers from the grimy industrial cities of northern England, turned to the countryside for recreation.
"There was a good deal of trespassing and occasional clashes between ramblers and gamekeepers," recalled the late Tom Stephenson in his book,"The Pennine Way."
In 1932, 400 walkers staged a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, an area of then private moorland in northern England.
The trespassers clashed with police and gamekeepers and five ringleaders were jailed. But the Kinder Scout protest focused national attention on demands for wider access.
In 1935, Stephenson called for the creation of what is now the Pennine Way. It took another 30 years of arguing in Parliament and negotiating with landowners before the rugged upland trail along the Pennine hills and into Scotland was officially opened.
Britain's highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, on a lonely Yorkshire road crossing the Pennine Way at 1,732 feet (527 meters), provides a welcome stop for thirsty walkers.
Dozens of long-distance trails, negotiated like the Pennine Way, now exist to tempt readers of new magazines such as "Trail Walker," which promises "walks to make your boots beg for mercy."
Walkers continue to battle for greater access.
The Ramblers' Association estimates that 135,000 miles of footpath rights of way, some dating from medieval times, have been plowed up by farmers.
The association has also campaigned against:
- Forestry Commission sales under the government's policy of selling off state assets to private enterprise. New owners have sometimes closed woodland footpaths.
- The leasing by water boards of moorland tracts used as rain catchment areas for reservoirs to shooting syndicates. The syndicates want to ban walkers from traditional access areas.
- Moves by British Rail to close 2,000 paths that cross its tracks.
- The extension of Army training grounds and the Army's refusal to release land it no longer uses. The Defense Ministry is Britain's third-largest landowner, owning 870 square miles including large tracts of Dartmoor in southwest England and three other national parks.