“The ver­tig­i­nous cliffs of Shet­land’s voes (in­lets) and geos (clefts) are un­adorned with warn­ings”

STU­ART MA­CONIE

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - Stu­art Ma­conie

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.

Hear Stu­art on Rad­cliffe and Ma­conie, BBC 6 Mu­sic, 1pm to 4pm Mon­day to Fri­day.

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