“The vertiginous cliffs of Shetland’s voes (inlets) and geos (clefts) are unadorned with warnings”
IN OCTOBER 2015, 42 traffic lights in the East Yorkshire town of Beverley failed simultaneously in one of the town’s busiest traffic areas. They were off for a long time after a huge power failure. A catastrophe? No. Actually, accidents went down and traffic moved more far smoothly in the wake of the failure.
In Portishead, a traffic campaigner called Martin Cassini reduced traffic jams by half after persuading the council to turn the town’s traffic lights off. They’ve stayed off permanently.
The notion of ‘naked streets’ was developed by the late Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. He believed that streets and roads were much safer when stripped and cleared of undue signage, clutter and street furniture. His innovations have been adopted in some 400 towns across Europe and have starkly reduced accident rates. We in the UK have been slow to pick up on this, even though research has found that, for instance, removing white lines from the middle of roads makes drivers concentrate more, reduces accidents and saves lives. According to Monderman, signs, lights and warnings all serve to reduce our awareness of our surroundings. When we’re ‘not sure’, we’re on our mettle.
So, after ‘naked streets’, how about ‘naked hills’ ? I thought about this recently when I travelled from Shetland to the Lake District, walking in each lovely place on successive days. What struck me was an increase in the amount and frequency and assertiveness of signs and signage I encountered.
This is partly due to Scotland’s attitude to open access. When I asked at the Visit Scotland desk in Shetland for the OS Maps of the islands, I was told: “You don’t really need them, you know. You can go pretty much anywhere if you follow the Country Code.” Shetland is blissfully free of the Keep Outs, No Right of Ways and Private Properties that you grow used to in the English outdoors. I’m sure these are sometimes very necessary, but it does seem a bum note to hit when you’re out in the wilds; unwelcome rules and regulations.
The sheer drops and vertiginous cliffs of Shetland’s voes (inlets) and geos (clefts) are – as are the rugged coastal cliffs of Pembrokeshire – blissfully unadorned with warnings and admonitions. If you’ll forgive the phrase, we should tread carefully here. Whilst Wainwright was very much of the opinion that too many cairns were worse than too few and made navigation confusing and difficult, I was always dubious about the ‘cairn destroyer’ movement. We should make the hills as welcoming as possible without taming their wildness, even if that does mean that some macho types have their exclusive and purist vision of the great outdoors compromised.
But I can see that we don’t need the rash of signs that blight many Cumbrian hillsides. But I suppose if there’s a sign that walkers would cheerfully never see again, it must be those which appeared in 2001. One spring day that year, we were returning from Whitewater Dash, the falls hidden away ‘Back o’Skiddaw’. As we reached the road and crossed the stile, there was a sign on the fence we had just crossed. It said that due to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth, there would be no access here ‘until further notice’.
In days, the signs appeared everywhere. It was a year, a long year of exile from the places we loved, before they came down. We understood why they had to be there, but for the nation as a whole, they spelt out a tragedy. It’s my hope that no farmer has to write them again, nor any walker to read them.
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