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July 2014: The path of most resistance

July 15, 2014

One of the first things my partner Mike and I did after buying our house on Gabriola was investigate the trails and paths near our home. A lot of them were dead ends, which was fine, but eventually we discovered three incredibly useful trails.

The first got us to either a beach or (bit more of a hike) a pub. The second, which began right across the road from our house, allowed us to walk to the ferry in half an hour. Even better, as further investigation revealed, the two trails actually linked up in what made a perfect loop for Mike’s morning jog.

Both these trails were, we surmised, on private land, but the number of people we met on them made it clear they were commonly used by humans as well as deer (and one wild boar).

A long time ago there weren’t many perks for the rural poor in Britain. In fact, there was probably only one: if the most direct from your collective of hovels to church on Sunday (or market on Wednesday) was across the lord of the manor’s land, you were entitled to take it. As a result, hundreds of years later, the English, Scottish and Welsh countryside is crisscrossed with public footpaths, including many on country estates. (For fans of Downton Abbey, there are three public footpaths at Highclere Castle.)


It was a simple covenant: landowners were expected to signpost, maintain keep the footpaths open to the public while walkers were expected to stay on the path, keep dogs on leashes and not litter.

This covenant wasn’t actually enshrined in law in England and Wales until the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This legislation followed complaints from the Ramblers Association that footpaths were being blocked by many new landowners. Apparently the nouveau riche didn’t have as much noblesse oblige as the landed gentry.

A notable example was Madonna who was very annoyed to discover the existence of public footpaths on Ashcombe, the £9 million Wiltshire estate she’d purchased with then husband Guy Richie. Claiming that public access to her property was a violation of her human rights, the pop diva unsuccessfully attempted to bar all uninvited access. (The only thing that annoyed Lady Madonna more than oiks on her estate was the UK tabloids dubbing her Madge.)

But I digress. As much as I may wish Scottish law prevailed here (a right of way is automatically granted to any path the public have continually used for 20 years), it doesn’t. Either someone bought the land on which these trails existed and were used or the owners eventually decided to develop it. Paths blocked. No more jogs in the woods for Mike.

Then there was the third trail we discovered, the one that led from the end of our road to the village. It was beautiful. A forest canopy, ground carpeted with ferns. I am not the least bit fanciful, but even I could imagine fairies living in that forest. One of the things Mike and I loved to do on a Sunday was walk down that trail to have brunch and listen to some jazz at Raspberries. Hell, we didn’t need an excuse. We loved walking in those woods.

And then one day the chainsaws came. Had we failed to pay attention? Had there been an attempted blockade against this clearcut? Apparently not. It wasn’t an old growth forest, just a beautiful forest.

For months I put off walking to the end of the road and when I finally did, the sight of the moonscape that had once been so beautiful actually made me weep. (Usually it’s only animals doing brave things in films that get my tear ducts going.)


A decade would go by before I could face it again. The beautiful canopy was obviously no more and there weren’t many ferns to be seen. Things have grown back – as they do – but it was still gutting. On the plus side (if it can be called that), I can now walk to a doctor’s appointment almost as quickly as I can drive.

Which brings me to my point. (Ha! You didn’t think I had one, did you?) I’m all rural, me. I understand the controversy surrounding amenity zoning. And I truly, truly believe that bad behaviour should never, ever be rewarded. (And destroying that beautiful forest was definitely bad behaviour.)

That said, something good could come out of it. Emergency service vehicles could reach my area in a minute, instead of 10 or more. Trees falling across Berry Point would no longer make emergency service access impossible, as it did after a windstorm in the 1990s.

This month’s Flying Shingle webpoll asks if “fire lane/secondary emergency accesses to Whalebone and Phase Four” should “be a priority on Gabriola for the highways department?”

And my answer is yes. (Feel free to vote with me.) Why should anyone on Gabriola have their lives or homes put at added risk by what feels to me to be politics?

I want fire chief Rick Jackson to be wrong when he suggests, as he has done many times, that someone is going to have to die before we get these roads.

From → Columns

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