When Gerald Delaware received a formally typed letter from the Rittle Ramblers’ Association (RRA) inquiring about reviving a public right of way on his land, he was apoplectic. He did admit, reluctantly, to the possibility that a track had once existed; a meandering little trail running from the hamlet of Slackwater through the village of Lower Rittle and across open country – now his land – to an isolated farmhouse. But over the years, Slackwater and Lower Rittle had merged, the farmhouse had been abandoned and the path had all but disappeared. Indeed, the bit that had once run through Gerald’s estate no longer existed; it was, he said, a lost medieval rat-run that had vanished along with the wimple.
Gerald had bought the land, and large Victorian house, in the 1980s, and any remnants of this right of way had been expunged when he replanted the 70 acres of farmland to accommodate his love of shooting, and relandscaped the grounds at the back of the house into an Italianate garden, complete with grass tennis court.
The letter – from Stacey Clark, chairperson of the RRA – came out of the blue. The organisation wished to know the exact route of the old path as it planned to include it in its annual newsletter, Rittle’s Rambles. Stacey thought it would be “simply wonderful for the local community” to have access to the historic walk, and they were “sure he would agree”.
“The cheek,” fumed Gerald. He had no intention of identifying the path only to have the great unwashed tramping across his land. So he wrote in reply that no such right of way existed.
But Gerald had vastly underestimated Stacey Clark. She not only unearthed an ancient map that pinpointed the route, but had enlisted the support of both the local paper and the fearsome Ramblers’ Association. Gerald, however, continued to deny the existence of the old path.
And so Stacey called for a public meeting in Rittle Town Hall, where Gerald – a self-made financier – was vastly outnumbered and denounced as a “bigoted, upper-class toff”. The subsequent public pressure, and threat by the RRA to bring the matter to court, eventually forced him to agree to the restoration of the track.
His problem now was how to restore the genuine route, which, technically, skirted the chain-link fencing the entire length of his tennis court before cutting directly through the woods where his pheasant pens were kept. So Gerald decided to indulge in a bit of creative alteration, gently redefining the route so that it swung half a mile to the north of his house. And to make certain that the new trail was followed, he erected a series of stiles (with chicken wire at the bottom to deter dogs) labelled with the distinctive yellow footpath arrow.
This flouting of history infuriated the worthy Stacey Clark and her fellow rovers. They promptly made their point by strolling in brightly coloured anoraks, with heavy boots and unwieldy walking poles, directly through the Italian gardens. Gerald, in return, took the matter to the council, citing the case of a fellow modest and beleaguered landowner, Rolling
Stone Keith Richards, who had won his battle to have a public footpath rerouted. But Gerald’s application failed spectacularly. The doughty lawyer for the RRA said that the disputed track had actually been no mere footpath, but a bridle path that had carried horse traffic – and should be reinstated as such. Gerald was forced to clear a 2m-wide trail at his own expense and put up signs, depicting a horse and rider, to identify the route all the way through his property.
Now the Rittle Pony Club regularly trot through his back garden; the local tweens lob energy-drink cans over the tennis-court fence, while the Rittle Motocross gang not only occasionally roar – illegally – along the bridleway, but also recommend the path on bootlegbiking.com, a website that informs the law-flouting, motorcycle-riding community of the best places for night racing.
And so it is that on mild evenings, as Gerald sits in his garden nursing his third scotch to the buzz of dirt bikes and the clop-clop of metal-shod ponies, he nostalgically recalls the days when bright-red anoraks and ugly walking sticks were the biggest of his problems.