Sunday, 14 February 2010

John Clare and the right to roam

clare_e IF you ever find yourself with an hour to spare near Peterborough you could do an awful lot worse than visit the new John Clare museum in the nearby village of Helpston. Clare was a poet – they call him the peasant poet – in the early nineteenth century. His deep love of the land, has made him increasingly popular in these environmentally sensitive times. He was one of the few who railed against the injustices of the enclosure system which spread rapidly across the country throughout his lifetime. As a boy he had wandered freely across field and fen; as an adult he found himself on the wrong side of the new fences and hedges. This, he felt, was an outrage. So far so nineteenth century. But the audio tour around his beautifully restored cottage made me realise that the process goes on. One of the many pleasures of writing my book has been chatting to the older generation about how things used to be. If there was a common theme, it was a regret over the ever-weakening right to roam. Octagenarian Cecil Nicholls of Loddon for example remembers taking the ferry from Langley to Cantley via a public footpath called Loades Carnser. Today the ferry is long-gone and the “Private” signs could not be larger. In fact methinks they protest too much. Sixty-something Phil Reeves from Surlingham swears there was a direct footpath to Surlingham Broad from a surviving path near Coldham Hall. There’s no sign of it now. More generally on the Wherryman’s Way we are pulled away from the river by one big house with stubbornly big grounds. But things are stirring. The government is already talking about giving us a right to walk freely along the entire British coastline. Griff Rhys Jones among others is campaigning for the right to canoe along all of our rivers. Maybe we’re starting to listen to John Clare at last.

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