John Horscroft. Photo: John Coefield

John Horscroft. Photo: John Coefield

Recent changes to rights of way in the Peak District have got mountain bikers hot under the helmet.

Here, in his opinion piece, writer, climber, mountain biker and all-round outdoorsman John Horscroft takes a local authority to task for its recent work on routes in the national park.

It comes to something when a county council has the power to give a perfectly respectable word a bad name.

The word ‘improvement’ is a good sturdy, serviceable word meant to be a sign of good things to come. However, preceded by ‘rights of way’ it can take on an altogether more sinister tone.

Which is where Derbyshire County Council comes in. Over the last couple of years, DCC has carried out a number of ‘rights of way improvements’ that have caused a good deal of controversy in the outdoor community.

DCC is responsible for a variety of trails within the Peak District from footpaths and bridleways to hugely contentious byways such as Chapel Gate and Stanage Causeway.

A multi-use trail in the Peak District has to be a many splendored thing. It has to fit into the landscape, be durable enough to survive the vagaries of the British weather and still be all things to all people.

A challenging rocky trail that may gladden the heart of a mountain biker may be complete anathema to a horse rider or walker and the kind of boulder field that is a real challenge to a 4×4 driver may be pretty much impassable for everyone else.

So how does DCC attempt to square this circle? Stanage Causeway runs through a landscape that is beyond price.

To walkers, climbers, horse riders, mountain bikers and many others it is a world heritage site in all but name. The causeway is a byway open to all traffic that is currently the subject of a traffic regulation order owing to damage caused to an ancient retaining wall by the volume of 4×4 traffic.

It was undoubtedly a mess, a boulder strewn, ankle turning, bike-upending obstacle course that turned into a stream during heavy rain. While talking to an employee of the national park authority a couple of years back, I learned that they intended to do some maintenance work on the trail.

In deference to the various user groups, the idea was to create a trail that looked as natural as possible with a smooth line for walkers and horse riders and a rockier line for mountain bikers.

In April 2013 it became apparent that a cash-strapped national park had delegated the work to DCC who, in time-honoured fashion, consulted no one and simply blitzed the trail with tonnes of crushed gritstone, generating a mighty froth on outdoor websites.

Some contended that it was simply a highway authority doing its job while others bemoaned the expense, still more objected to the visual intrusion on a cherished landscape.

A few mountain bikers bemoaned the loss of a challenge and even those who felt that something needed to be done criticised the result.

Depressingly however, much of the response degenerated into internecine conflict as walkers vilified mountain bikers for erosion and poor trail etiquette and mountain bikers counter-claimed that ramblers cause erosion too, which qualifies as Olympic-standard missing the point.

Recent work on the Peak District's rights of way have caused controversy. Photo: John Horscroft

Recent work on the Peak District's rights of way have caused controversy. Photo: John Horscroft

It’s difficult to over-state just how ill-judged DCC’s repairs were on at least three counts.

At the time there were strong rumours that the national park authority was on the verge of introducing a permanent TRO banning 4×4’s from the causeway, rendering repairs on this scale redundant.

The rumours proved true and a TRO was duly implemented in September 2013. Wasting £30,000 of public money is clearly unacceptable at a time of draconian cuts in council services.

Second, the utter contempt for the landscape was breathtaking. I was informed by DCC that the superb and ancient gritstone retaining wall that supports the road was to be replaced with something more ‘engineered’.

The idea that a local authority would show such cavalier disregard for a piece of industrial heritage in the midst of land that is not only a site of special scientific interest but a special area of conservation was mystifying.

Once I’d spoken to the national park, Natural England and English Heritage all of whom expressed grave reservations about the proposed work, I was left with the distinct impression that where right-thinking people worry about the conservation of a priceless landscape, DCC merely consider it an engineering problem on which to squander incredibly scarce resources.

Finally, is it appropriate in this day and age for a local authority to carry out work on this scale and in such a valuable landscape without any kind of consultation with interested parties?

I’ve heard all the arguments from DCC, that it’s ‘not required to consult where repairing highways as part of its statutory duties’, ‘it prolongs the process’ and ‘achieves little’.

Meanwhile, all over the Peak, the Eastern Moors Partnership, the Wildlife Trusts and the Sheffield Moors Partnership now see consultation as the norm.

While it may slow the process initially, in the long term bringing user groups together encourages mutual understanding and compromise.

Far from increasing costs it has resulted, on a number of occasions, in solutions that are less intrusive than first proposed often carried out with the help of volunteers.

DCC’s reservations are therefore turned on their head – consultation fosters both conflict resolution and saves money.

Equally as relevant is the enlightened attitude of Sheffield City Council rights of way team. If a neighbouring local authority can cooperate with user groups, why can’t DCC?

Outdoor enthusiasts are asking for consultation over changes to Peak routes. Photo: John Horscroft

Outdoor enthusiasts are asking for consultation over changes to Peak routes. Photo: John Horscroft

However, DCC seem impervious to logic. The latest travesty has been perpetrated on the 800m of Wigley Lane above the village of Rowland.

In this case, it was a commonly held view that something had to be done but, true to type, DCC went for the nuclear option flattening the trail with, of all things, road planings.

As a result, the use of an inappropriate waste material of doubtful long-term suitability has already resulted in a dangerously loose top surface at an unbelievably astronomical price of £60,000.

But times are changing. Pressure is growing amongst environmental professionals for a more sympathetic attitude to the environment when rights of way are being maintained.

Surely all user groups can agree that trail maintenance should blend in with the landscape, avoid the intervention of large scale equipment and only use native materials, sourced on site wherever possible.

A well maintained trail enhances the landscape and is a pleasure to use. An ill conceived, over-engineered, proto-motorway built of tar-impregnated road planings is an affront to the principles upon which the national park was founded.

Surely we can all agree on that.

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