When Meeting Other People Was OK

Ariège, Blogging challenges, France, Walking

It’s that time of the month again, when I re-publish a post from our years in France. This one made me sad. It reminded me of times when people could simply be together enjoying each other’s company; where kindness and friendship were easy to demonstrate; and when an affectionate hug was nothing to fear. Kindred spirits. Ah well…

Walking for the Masses

October 10th, 2010

Walking near Mirepoix

The French love walking – as in hiking.  The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre is an immensely popular organisation with all age groups, and with a somewhat younger image than the British Ramblers.  The French walk alone, with friends, in groups such as ours, Les Rando del’Aubo, and …..on mega-rambles.

We first came upon the mega-ramble when our own group went along, a couple of years ago now, on a walk organised by the FF Randonnée Midi- Pyrénées group.  We and about 800 others.  It’s something of a military operation.  Breakfast is offered, refreshments along the route, which has to be signposted beforehand and cleared afterwards.  Photocopied maps are handed out, and when it’s all over, there are exhibits to mooch round, apéros to drink, trophies to award (the oldest walker, the person who’s travelled furthest to participate, that sort of thing).  There’s often a sit down meal on offer too, though not that day.

Interesting, but walking with dozens – hundreds – of others isn’t really our thing. This means we quite often sit out the Sunday walk, because these occasions happen pretty often.

The poster advertising the day

Today, I made an exception.  In France, basic health care is free, but most people chose to top up by insuring themselves with a Mutuelle, which covers all the bits the system doesn’t pay for.  To publicise themselves, and various health charities, the Mutuelles of the Ariège organised a walk near Mirepoix today, and they needed our help.

Early this morning, under the covered market hall in Mirepoix we set up tables, prepared healthy breakfasts (breads, cheese, fruit juices, dried prunes) and registered walkers.  Some people waymarked the route, others acted as marshals, and lots of us got to walk as well. Only 171 walkers today.  Why would we be so public-spirited?  Perhaps this picture tells you why.

Sitting in the main square in the sunshine, enjoying the meal we were offered as a ‘thank you’ for our work earlier. We’d have done it anyway. A good day.

Something else though.  Sitting down with everyone after it was all over, I reflected how far we’ve come.  This week, Malcolm’s been in England, so apart from exchanging English/French conversation on Tuesday for an hour, and enjoying lunch with an English friend on Friday, I’ve spent the rest of my time walking or eating with friends, shopping, singing, going to the gym and all the rest, entirely in French (well, I’ve done some hard labour at home too.  But I only had myself to talk to).  Over two years ago, when we first sat down for a communal meal, we could see people’s eyes glaze with fear as they thought they were going to be stuck with that English couple.  Could we speak French?  Well, yes actually, but both easy chit-chat, and more serious discussion were difficult for us in a noisy group situation.  Today I was happy to be the only foreigner in the group: instead of fearing me, it was ‘Is that chair next to you free?  May I sit with you?’

#Kinda Square

Six Word Saturday

The Path

Walking

 

Midday.  Aview from the path.

Midday. A view from the path.

What a difference a week makes.  This time last week, Amelia and I were ‘recce-ing’ the walk I was due to lead this Tuesday, stumbling around near Swinton trying to make sense of a map and  a warren of pathways.  Both reasonably competent map-readers, we found ourselves confronted by too many cross-paths, and too many waymarks that didn’t QUITE make things clear enough.  We got there in the end, of course, having met in the course of our journey several equally puzzled hikers turning their maps every which-way as they tried to choose the correct route.

This week, I competently led seven Ripon Ramblers on the walk and wondered why we’d found it all quite so difficult.  But it got me thinking about all those paths.  Paths are created by those who use them.  Roads were too, once upon a time, as all those single track and often ill-repaired ‘C’ roads meandering from village to village testify.

But these days, roads are planned.  It’s town planners, the Highways Agency, and whole bevies of committees who decide where roads will go, and how they will get there.  If they deem it necessary, they will flatten hillsides or even communities that stand in the way.

Usually.  There’s that famous farm in Calderdale which parts the two carriageways of the M62, the motorway which links Yorkshire with Lancashire.  Legend has it that at the planning stage, the farmer refused the blandishments of every official from the Department of Transport, every civil servant who tried to persuade him that The Road Must Go Through, till finally Officialdom gave in and built the road around his farm.  Sadly, it’s not true, and you can read about it here  Still, whatever the truth of the story, it nicely illustrates the fact that these days, road are normally built  where planners decide.

Stott Hall Farm in the middle of the M62.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Stott Hall Farm in the middle of the M62. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With paths, it’s a different story.  Those routes that we use every time we go out walking in the country were chosen by those who did the walking, often many centuries ago.  Well-trodden paths that have linked communities over the years are public rights of way that have to be kept useable and maintained by local councils in just the same way as roads must be.  Local authorities have a duty to ensure that they are useable by installing gates and stiles to enable users to, for example, cross from field to field. Landowners who wish to vary the route of a path must have good reason, and must provide for and maintain a viable alternative.

On Tuesday, we went along a whole variety of paths, as we always do when out walking.  Some were fine tracks covered in chippings and  linking farms.  One path was straight and wide with fine stone foundations: once it was a railway line built to haul goods to a reservoir under construction in the early 20th century.  But much of the time, we could pick out our routes across farmland only by observing a sinuous line of flattened grass where others had walked before us.  I enjoy knowing that most of these paths, whatever kind they are,  have often been used for decades and even centuries before.

Needs can change though.  That day when we first tried the walk Amelia and I had a dreadful time looking for a certain path.  We even ended up at a farm asking for directions.  ‘You’ll never find it’ we were told. ‘Nobody’s used it for ages, and it’s hopelessly overgrown.  You’d much best use the road’.  Well, it didn’t really suit us, but we could see why it had happened.  The road was more direct than the old path so people ‘voted with their feet’ and stopped using it.

We’re pretty lucky to have a great network of paths.  And besides that, in large areas of the country, we have ‘the right to roam’, meaning we’re free to explore the open countryside away from paths, following the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, introduced in 2000 after a 60 year campaign. I’m enjoying those paths, whether mooching, walking purposefully, exploring, or simply ‘following my nose.’

The Ramblers association does much to promote the interests of walkers and protect the walking environment.