Save our paths

LAST UPDATED: 22 Jul, 2008 @ 11:16
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protect our paths

Andalucia has some of the best – and most scenic – walks in Spain. But hikers and families out for a countryside stroll are increasingly finding themselves penned in by gates and fences illegally erected on supposedly open land. Now the Olive Press launches a new campaign…to Save our Paths!

THE SANTA MARIA area is in a beautiful spot, minutes from Ronda just off the road to Campillos, with stunning views across the valley of Llano de la Cruz towards the Sierra de Grazalema in the distance. However, what could be an ideal bucolic oasis is anything but.

From behind locked gates, high walls and ugly fences, guard dogs patrol and bark. The streets are devoid of any life. There appears to be no sense of community. There are wonderful views, but one wonders if the area’s residents can see them from within their fenced-in compounds.

Of course, how people choose to live is up to them. Fences are hardly a new invention.

Both sides

Extravagant wrought iron gates, so beloved by Spaniards, have been around for decades. In their travel book “Spinsters in Spain!” (published 1938) Nancy Ford-Inman and Marion L. Nutting write: “It seems that, next to his house, a Spaniard loves his gate…the fact that you can walk around both sides of it and never use it at all doesn’t matter. But you must have a gate.” And still today there is a certain comic absurdity in some of the grandiose gates on view, particularly when the gateway is little more than a portal to a patch of land.

But, what is also certainly a worrying increase – at least around Ronda, where I live – is the use of fences to parcel off the countryside. And worse often illegally, as has been the case with the walk Jose Garcia Moreno has been walking for half a century.

In 2007 alone, Pasos Largos, a Ronda-based walking organisation, filed 18 denuncias (police reports) against the erection of fences across public rights of way around the Ronda area. This year it will almost certainly be a similar number. That is dozens of footpaths being blocked every year in a region known for its walks, as proven by the arrival of Conservative leader David Cameron a month ago (as reported in the Olive Press).

As well as there being numerous walking groups and companies set up to cater for hiking tourists, Spain’s best known English walking writer Guy Hunter Watts has based himself here. Last year Driving Over Lemons author Chris Stewart wrote about the celebrated Serrania de Ronda walks, while the Telegraph had a double page spread on the region only last month.

Yet Alastair Boyd, another celebrated local writer admits that these days a series of books he wrote about riding around the region (The Road from Ronda and The Sierras of the South) would now be practically impossible.

Boyd – aka Lord Kilmarnoch – spent months mapping the best rides out from the town into Cadiz and north up towards Osuna. “But now almost all my favourite old rides have been blocked by fences and gates,” he explained last year.

So what is the solution? Filing denuncias is an expensive and stressful method of dealing with the problem. Firstly they cost money if you use a lawyer and secondly involve considerable time filling out forms. Without the support of a well-structured organisation (such as The Ramblers Association in the UK) they often end up having to be issued in the names of individuals rather than in the name of the group.

Another is to lobby and complain to your local town hall and demand that they keep the footpaths open, as will hopefully be the case with the mayor of Arriate over the old mule track from Jose Garcia Moreno’s house. But don’t hold your breath, many town halls are in cahoots with owners and developers allowing footpaths to be eroded in order to increase the value of their homes perhaps with kickbacks.

It is perhaps too much to expect Ronda town hall, for example, to be overly concerned by the loss of footpaths. After all, it was the mayor Marin Lara who approved Los Merinos golf course, situated on protected land slap bang on top of the trans-European GR7 footpath to Athens, as frequently reported in the Olive Press. Initially complaining publicly that the path had to be re-opened again, mysteriously after a month he went silent, very silent, on the issue.

Another, more radical option then, and one taken by various local friends, is to simply take the law into your own hands and physically remove illegal fencing. Rumours have it that one local walker even takes a pair of boltcutters in his backpack. Symbolically protesters recently protesting against the Los Merinos scheme cut a barbed wire fence that had been erected over a second track. But however tempting this may be, it isn’t perhaps the best way of dealing with the problem.

Worse offender

The fencing of land not only prevents people from legitimately enjoying countryside walks, walks that they might have been enjoying for decades, it also hinders the movement of wildlife, and forces horses onto harder ground that they might have to share with cars. But, there is another problem associated with the proliferation of fences: they are, for the most part, so hideously ugly.

The worst offender is the aluminium wire-mesh fence which bends over at the top to contain three parallel rows of barbed wire, presumably included just in case some intruder had thought about pole vaulting over the top.

The impact of these fences is immediately hostile, and they often give the impression that they are guarding a maximum security prison.

Half the time all they are guarding is a field of olive trees or a vegetable garden. And, bizarrely, nobody that I’ve asked seems to quite know why they need to be so imposing (especially given that a pair of decent wire clippers would allow access in a matter of seconds).

On one occasion, out on a walk, I came across a friendly old boy fixing the barbed wire atop one of these monstrosities. We got talking and when I asked him why he wanted the barbed wire he paused in thought, shrugged, and said: “I don’t know. The fence comes with space for it.”

Sometimes when the local organisations do local walk maps or guides, they are merely paying lip service to the pursuit. The publication “Serrania de Ronda. A Guide to Footpaths”, despite its aerial photographs and fancy graphics, is a poorly researched publication.

Indeed, one feels that, whoever compiled it, didn’t actually bother to walk along any of the paths advocated, but just looked them up on maps.

Some paths are overgrown to the point of being impassable, others are misleadingly signposted so that getting lost is almost an inevitability.

This is all, of course, a real shame, because encouraging walking, and attracting tourists accordingly, could be a real money spinner for the whole area. It would cost almost nothing and would have no negative impacts on the countryside, unlike, say, golf courses.

Vigilence

However, the situation can be improved. Anybody finding a fence, newly erected across a public right of way, should contact their local police station and town hall. In Ronda there is what is called a Patrulla Verde which is meant to deal with these matters.

More sustained opposition to the carving up of the countryside can only be helped by joining a pressure group, such as Pasos Largos. There are local groups all around Andalucia, and many are doing things about it. They need your help. And don’t forget if there isn’t one, set one up yourself.

There is the fear that, without vigilance against fences and rights of way from being lost, we might find ourselves one day living in places like Santa Ana, whether we like it or not.

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