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The Footpath

A short story of 5000 words

It was Doreen Oldfield who first realised there was a problem.  A group of strangers was standing the other side of her garden fence staring along it towards the field.  One of them held a map in his hand.  He spotted her as she limped across her back garden towards them. 
‘Excuse me,’ he called.  ‘Where is the path?’
‘It’ s up on the far side of  the post office.’ Doreen stared beadily at them.  She didn’t smile.  She didn’t know them.
‘No.’ The man stabbed at the map with his forefinger. ‘It’s here.   I’m standing on it.’
‘Why ask then?’  She glared at him.
‘Because it’s too overgrown  to use, and I can’t see where it goes from here.  According to the map it should go straight across the field.’
Doreen sighed.  ‘’Maps!’ she said in disgust.  ‘You don’t want to pay any attention to them things.    No one uses that path  nowadays.   It’s moved.   It goes along the edge  over there.’ She waved her arm vaguely. .  ‘Has done since they had the hedges out after the war.  This one doesn’t exist any more.’
They did not listen.  Before her outraged eyes the group set off. Forcing their way through the undergrowth, they  headed out  into the middle of the field, beating a way through the lush corn with their walking sticks.
It was the first hint of the war to come.
The footpath did indeed  in theory  run between Doreen ’s cottage and the side garden at Copthorne’s.  Bordered on one side  by a magnificent laurel hedge and on the other by Doreen’s  rickety picket fence with several slats missing it was now overgrown  with brambles and nettles.    Unpopular with people in the village and seldom if ever used by any but the local  boys on their mountain bikes and the occasional horse rider,  it had all but disappeared because of the  broad pleasant track  everyone liked much better a hundred yards up the road.  That path was  a popular  route into the fields and woods   Dog walkers used it,  and local people going for an afternoon stroll,  and kids wanting to sneak into the old farm buildings behind Osbecks.  Over the years the path had moved.  It was a s simple as that.

Joe Middleton was sitting at his breakfast spooning his cornflakes into his mouth several days later with his own copy of the very same map that the strangers had used spread out on the table in front of him.  ‘The inspectors  are right.  The path has been deliberately blocked, here and here and here.’ He put down his spoon and reached for his fluorescent marker. 
His wife Maureen sighed.  ‘I think it’s a lovely walk just as it is, Joe.  It hasn’t been blocked at all.  One can walk the whole length of that path.  It is just that it has been  re-routed once or twice.  But that’s nicer.  One can see the birds and flowers in the hedges…’  She broke off almost guiltily as her husband gave an exasperated sigh. 
‘We do not go for walks to see birds and flowers,’ he said firmly.  ‘You know that.  That is the whole point of joining The Association.  We walk to make sure that rights of way are not being abused.’
‘Boring!’ She said it under her breath.  There was no point in arguing with him.  She knew that from long experience.  No point at all.
As she expected once he had finished his breakfast he headed for the phone.  ‘Footpath 29,’ he said urgently, into the mouthpiece.  It was like a code word, signalling the start of the D Day landings.  ‘Your inspectors were right.  I checked yesterday.  There are four deliberate obstructions, two fields with unsprayed, unmarked paths, a great deal of untidiness and a village of yokels who couldn’t care less!’ There was a pause.  Whoever was the other end of the line at headquarters in London was rustling a reciprocal map, trying to fold it open without spilling his cup of coffee or getting jam from his doughnut onto the paper.  ‘Saturday?  OK.  Perfect.   I’ll  contact everyone on my list and you bring your team.  And by the time you come I will have checked every path in the parish.’
Maureen could hear the eagerness in his voice and the excitement and, she had to admit this, the spite.
Slowly she began collecting the dishes and carrying them over to the sink.  She knew exactly what would happen next.  The group would descend on the selected footpath, they would walk, it slowly and determinedly. They would scatter little yellow arrows, hammering them  on other people’s gates and telegraph poles and trees, they would rip off private signs,  destroy all keep out notices and no trespassing signs  they came across,   whether or not they actually referred to parts of the right of way, all the time  maintaining expressions of self righteous zeal worthy of seventeenth century levellers .  Then, exhausted and much empowered by their day in the country, they would all return home to  compose letters which would flood down onto the doormats of  local Councils - county, district and parish -  and landowners, and finally, the press, local and better still, national,  and then sit back to watch the chosen community tear itself to pieces.  It was a sport to people like Joe and she hated it.  Even more so now because for the first time this was a footpath on their own doorstep. 
He was worried about that too  Embarrassed. ‘I have been too busy with other projects, Mo.’  He kept looking at the map and shaking his head.  ‘How could I have missed it?  This is my own village!  Right  on my patch.  What must the Association think of me?  I won’t be able to hold up my head when they come over.’  He sighed mournfully.  Then he glanced at her.  ‘You’ll be coming too, won’t you,  Mo.’ He walked over to the sink to begin brushing his hiking boots  even though he knew she hated him doing it over her cooking space.  ‘I thought we could have cheese and pickle sandwiches this time.  There  isn’t a pub round here that I can recommend to the members.  Not the sort of thing they’re used to, anyway.’
‘There’s a lovely pub, Joe.’ Maureen was indignant.  ‘For goodness sake.  These people are supposed to be coming out to enjoy the country, not  replicate their posh London   bistros!’   She knew it was a pointless comment.  She had learned by now that enjoying the country was not actually on these people’s agenda at all.  She heaved another deep sigh.  ‘I’m not sure if I can come.  I might go over and see the kids.  I promised our Primrose I would.’  That would take her safely out of the loop for the whole day with a bit of luck.  She glared down at the sink, now covered in a fine dust of dry earth. What she had said was  tantamount to treason and she knew it, but she had also known for a long time that she was going to have to put her foot down one day and today was as good as any to start.  One did not mess in one’s own village.  What Joe was about to get involved in was going to have repercussions.

It wasn’t until three days later that it began to dawn on the inhabitants of Winchmoor that they were the target of a well-orchestrated, nationally-advertised invasion.  It was Doreen who saw the first sign.  Someone had ripped out several of the sagging pickets of her fence and tossed them into her garden.  The rambling rose whose weight had caused it to collapse had been viciously hacked back and someone had nailed a small bright yellow arrow to her gate post pointing down the footpath which, from being a gentle rose-scented overgrown lane had turned since mid morning into a broad,  naked track   On the other side to her own garden Colonel Wright’s beautiful laurels had also been sliced back into a hideous  torn caricature of a hedge through which she could now see clearly right into his garden.
‘Oh my lor’!’  She stared round, her heart thudding with fear and anger.  ‘We’ve been vandalised.’  She picked up a piece of her fence.  It had been lying out across the path and she had meant to fix it sometime, but no one had ever made a fuss about it, not even the kids on their mountain bikes, so she never thought anyone minded.  And now. She surveyed the wreck of her roses in dismay and suddenly her eyes filled with tears.

Colonel Wright did not cry.  He contacted  the police.  They agreed with Doreen that it must have been vandals. Neither the local constable, nor Bill Cartright, chairman of the parish Council, had noticed the small yellow arrow and if they had they had would not have realised that it was a declaration of war.  No one did until the letters began to arrive - from all over England!   It appeared, to the amazement of the inhabitants of the village, that members of the Association, had been coming on a regular basis from every corner of the country to this particular spot and  that  they had regularly, if unnoticed, been  walking this beautiful and important track, a vital  link in the national footpath highway,  and  had suddenly found it  unacceptably and deliberately blocked..
Stung by the attack the  various Council departments went into action,  now fully  and indeed painfully aware that they had been remiss in the maintenance of several rights of way in the Winchmoor district.  First they contacted Ted Ames, the farmer.  He must spray off the cross field paths  immediately or face heavy fines.  No, they wouldn’t wait for the few short weeks until the harvest.  No they wouldn’t agree that as the villagers had walked around the field for fifty years instead of across it the path had been changed by custom.  No one had applied for a proper diversion according to the bylaws.  And that was that.  An ugly brown gash appeared across the field as the crops died.  Poison was what the enemy wanted .  Now.  Poison was what they got.
‘You know who’s behind this, don’t you.’ Sally Wright from the pub  had phoned Julie Ames the day after her husband had given up arguing in the name of common sense and sprayed the field.  ‘It’s that odious little man from Dyson’s Drive.’
‘Not Mo’s husband?’  Julie was shocked.  ‘Surely he wouldn’t do this.  Not to his own village.’
‘He would.  You know the kids have been banned from riding their bikes up the path now?  Apparently they are not allowed on the footpath as it’s only for people on foot. There’s a notice gone up.  And horses can’t go up there any more either.  They all have to go on the road through the village and you know how dangerous that is!’  She paused as they both considered the flow of lorries hurtling  off the  bypass to cut a few minutes off their journey  towards the motorway link. ‘I heard he walked straight through Bill Riley’s back garden the other day as well.  Said it was an ancient right of way and no one was going to stop him.’
‘But that’s crazy.  No one has used that path for years.  There’s a whole estate of houses built across it now.’
Sally gave a hollow laugh.  ‘Apparently he’s been on to the Parish Council and is demanding they run a path behind the whole line of houses, cutting them off from their gardens.  Either that or pull the houses down because the builder hadn’t checked properly about rights of way.’
Julie was stunned into silence for a moment.  ‘He can’t do that!’
‘He can apparently.  It only takes one person to insist on the letter of the law.’
‘What is the matter with the man?  Why would anyone want to walk up there anyway? It doesn’t go anywhere.’
‘I don’t think that’s the point.’ Julie sighed.  ‘These  people have no idea.  No idea at all. ‘

It was Colonel Wright who opened the Sunday Times first in the village, exactly two weeks later.   ‘Village torn apart by footpath row,’ he saw as the page two headline.  ‘Lone local  hero fights to  re open rights of way  against a barrage of local resentment.  Entrenched landowners determined to break the law …’   And there was a photo of Joe Middleton standing by – the  colonel squinted at the photo in astonishment and fury – it  was his own decimated laurel hedge!   He felt his blood pressure mounting dangerously high as he reached for  his  coffee cup and then put it down again untouched  His hands were shaking violently.  That was his own beautiful hedge and it had been blocking nothing!  Nothing.
Doreen surveyed the pile of timber which had been her fence.  A man from the Council had come over with a measuring tape and fussed and measured and tutted and told her that it encroached 15 centimetres onto the public right of way - the footpath.  So the whole thing  had to come down  As did the remains of the rose.  She stared at her once beautiful little garden miserably.  Completely open down its entire length it was unprotected from   children and dogs and litter..  All had done their worst.    How was she ever  going  to replace the fence? She couldn’t even afford a new rose.  Bewildered and unhappy she stood and watched as Marjorie Cockpen’s Jack Russell skipped in off the path and proceed to squat almost at her feet.  Marjory, walking along the now broad and ugly path, eyes front,  ignored  the dogs indiscretion. Doreen wasn’t to know that the old woman was as unhappy and embarrassed as her neighbour. It had never occurred to Marjory to take a bag for her dogs do-dos - hitherto deposited out of harms way in the hedge, and even if it had with her arthritis she could never have stooped to pick it up.
Crying silently Doreen turned back into her cottage and closed the door behind her.  As far as she was concerned she had just lost a friend.

Maureen was standing at her kitchen window staring out at the road.  Two reporters were there from the local paper talking to Joe by their front gate.  The whole world knew by now that this was the local HQ of the war.
‘This is the third footpath I have campaigned about.’ Joe’s words would appear on page three the following morning.  ‘The other two were in neighbouring villages and are now fully open and accessible.  They are tidy  and neat and though I say it myself would do credit to a  proper garden!’    What he didn’t expect when he proudly read the piece the next day  was the sharp little editorial two pages further on.
‘Joe Middleton is a representative of an increasing phenomenon in the countryside these days; a retired townie determined to turn the country into a mirror image of the town he has forsaken.  He appears to have no real concern for the accessibility or the beauties of the landscape, obsessed instead, in an all too familiar way, with small detail rather than the greater picture.  Interviews in the villages whose footpaths he has so proudly fought to clear all tell the same story. Neighbours once friends, now enemies, beautiful countryside fractured, hedges and trees trimmed neatly back to conform to some notional norm, while flowers and berries die,  fields blighted by the now familiar so-ugly poisoned scars which dissect them with the precision of a ruler rather than gently following ancient contours and byways - all to provide access for armies of seemingly angry walkers who, it is rumoured, actually measure the length of  grass blades to ensure that they comply with footpath regulations rather than raise their eyes to enjoy the  God-given glory of the countryside they are traversing.  Communities do exist  where members of different  countryside groups have managed to get together to settle such matters as  the rerouting of  old rights of way amicably and sensibly. Would that this could happen everywhere.  Alas, as long as  people like Joe Middleton  see it as their duty to  regard common sense as a dirty word and live by a Pooterish  insistence on the value of small print for its own sake this country will continue to slide into   a morass of red tape and mediocrity, turning its back on  the spirit of independence combined with neighbourly compromise, which once made this country great .’

‘I’d give a good deal to know who wrote that!’ Ted Ames read the leader out to his wife as she dished up the potatoes for lunch. ‘That makes me feel a whole lot better, that does!’
‘Well, you won’t when I tell you the latest thing this man wants.’  Julie sat down opposite him and shook her head.  ‘I think it’s probably the last straw.  You know where the footpath emerges from Dines Wood and crosses the heath? ‘
Ted nodded.  He picked up his knife and fork. 
‘Well, apparently  the footpath has moved a few feet from its old position.  The hedge has widened over the years and parts of the wood are bigger now.  They’ve made the whole thing into a nature reserve.  There’s a lovely old holly on the edge of the wood.  This man says it has to be cut down as it’s on the footpath.’
Ted dropped his knife and fork, his food still untouched.  ‘But can’t they go round it?’
Julie grimaced.  ‘Oh come on, Ted.  You know better than that by now.  This man won’t go round anything.  He knows his rights.  He’s obsessed!’
Ted stared up at the ceiling.  ‘What’s the Council say?’
She shrugged.  ‘No idea. They seem to be caving in to his every demand.  He’s got the law on his side,  it seems.  Colonel Wright is demanding some kind of legal enquiry about some of the things that have happened, but I don’t suppose anyone will be interested in this .  It’s right out in the country.’
Ted shook his head  ‘A holly, you say?’
She nodded.
‘Well, that’s going to  be an interesting one.’ He gave a wry grin.  ‘I’m glad it’s not on my land, that’s all I can say.’

‘You are not seriously insisting that they cut down a tree when there is a sixty acre field  out there for people to walk in to go round it!’ Maureen was watching her husband with something like awe.  She had been listening to him lambasting  some poor man in the Council highways department over the phone.
‘It’s on the footpath, Mo.’ Joe sat back, exhausted.  ‘I don’t think you understand how important this all is.  I’m not doing this to upset people you know.  But someone has to take a stand.  These landowners think they can walk all over the rest of us just because they’ve got money and big houses.  One day all land will be accessible to everyone, but until then they have to be made to toe the line.’
‘Poor old Doreen Oldfield doesn’t have a big house or any money,’ Maureen said quietly.  ‘I was hearing at the post office that she hasn’t been seen outside her cottage in weeks.  She just sits and cries because her garden is ruined.’
‘That’s hardly my fault.’ He folded his arms across his chest.  ‘She should have checked her boundaries.  There’s nothing to stop her putting up a new fence.’
‘Except money.  And anyway, they were saying that her fence is on the old building line that goes back hundreds of years  It’s hardly her fault.’
Shrugging, he gave a testy sigh.  ‘Well, that’s not my problem.’ 
He had pinned an Ordnance Survey map to the wall now.  It was covered in highlighter and pins and flags.  Each footpath was marked and where they were blocked  or deviated by so much as a foot from the official line he had flagged the spot.  There were dozens of flags on the map.  Dozens of campaigns ready to go once this one was finished.  He gave another sigh, this time of contentment.  Just one tree and footpath 29 would be clear and neat and ready for inspection by the committee when they came down from London to admire his handiwork and pose  - this was his idea - for press photographs to celebrate yet another victory.  That unfortunate editorial had been glanced at and immediately forgotten. It had obviously been written by some romantic hayseed with no idea of the realities of country life.
Maureen however was not prepared to let that one last detail go.  ‘You are not actually going to force them to cut down a tree on the edge of a wood which is a nature reserve and standing by the side of a huge field?’
He nodded briskly.  ‘There can be no exceptions, Mo. They can always grow another tree if they want one. It’s the principle of the thing. I would have thought you would realise how important this is  by now.    We can’t make any exceptions. ‘
‘Why not?’ She stood looking at him with something like dislike.  ‘Why not, just this once, make an exception?’
‘Because it’s breaking the law.’
‘The tree is breaking the law?’
He nodded.
She took a deep breath.  ‘I gather it is a very beautiful tree, Joe.  And old.  There will be a lot of ill feeling if you insist on this.’ As if there wasn’t already.  She sighed.
‘It’s not just me.  It’s the Council.  It’s their job to enforce the law.’
‘And judging by your conversation with them just now they thought you were overstepping the mark.  This isn’t some snooty landowner, Joe’   The hated word.  Red rag to a bull.  ‘This tree belongs to a nature reserve.  It belongs to the birds.  To us all.’
‘It belongs to no one.  It’s on a public right of way.  It has to be removed just as it would be if it was a nettle or a bramble.’ He had his own secateurs for just such purposes.  They always went with him on his walks.  ‘No, Mo, I’m sorry.  You are being sentimental.  There is no place for sentiment  in this campaign. None at all.’ And he set his jaw in a way she knew well.  There would be no diverting him.

The argument on this particular tree lasted longer than most so far.  People spoke about tree preservation orders; they contacted the  tree warden , the Woodland Trust,  the RSPB and Greenpeace ;  even the local Druids, who promised to send someone to sit in the tree until they realised it was a holly,  after which they felt a magic circle around it might be more helpful. Joe would not relent and eventually the Council sent a truck laden with chain saws and two men in hard hats.  The van bounced up the footpath towards the tree and stopped. The holly was at its most glorious; laden with berries, a beacon in the dead winter landscape.  The two men climbed out and stood staring at it.  One took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair.  ‘Seems a shame.’
The other shook his head.  ‘I’m not touching that.   Not a holly.  Bad luck that.’
They nodded in unison, climbed into the truck and drove away.
A week later the Council rang Ted Ames.  ‘If one of your farm workers could take down that holly we’d much appreciate it.’  There was a loud sigh the other end of the line.  ‘It’s got to be done.  We’ll pay, of course.  We’ll never have any peace if we don’t get it sorted.’ 
But none of the farm workers would touch it.
Two lots of contracting tree surgeons from neighbouring towns found themselves too busy to do it before the spring at the earliest.  The odd job man from Dyson Drive turned down two hundred quid.  ‘Unlucky to chop down a holly, mate,’ he told a by now almost incandescent Joe.
In the village people were beginning to smile to themselves quietly. 

No one had actually turned their backs on Maureen.  Most were sorry for her.  But still people stopped talking when she went into the shop.  They stood back and let her go first and waited until she had closed the door behind her  before they resumed their conversations.  It was on one such an occasion, after she had gone and the long silence was suddenly broken that Colonel Wright’s wife heard from Julie Ames about Doreen’s heartbreak.  ‘Why didn’t anyone tell us?’ she asked,  horrified.  ‘That’s awful.’
The other women in the shop shrugged.  How could they explain?  The colonel and his wife were part of the village, but not of  the inner cadres.  Their large house and their money and their   posh accents set them apart.
Two days later however the village watched with deep approval as a lorry arrived with new fence timbers to erect a smart fence on the correct line along the footpath.  This gesture was followed by the colonel’s own gardener laden with young rose bushes and a mandate to restore Doreen’s garden.   From then on the colonel and his wife became part of the village at last - a village where their ancestors had lived for two hundred years!
It was from the gardener that Doreen heard about the stand off over the holly. She smiled, by now almost restored to her former benign self.  ‘Silly man.  After all he has done, doesn’t he realise to cut down a self- sown holly is to court bad luck for the rest of his life?’
The gardener shrugged.  ‘He’s a townie, Dor.  He doesn’t care.’  He shook his head.  ‘And I don’t think he’s going to give up.’
He didn’t.  Hiring a chain saw from the tool hire company , with all the protective gear to go with it - goggles, hat, gloves, trousers, Joe took, the holly down himself four days before Christmas.  He sawed up the tree and carted loads of berried branches in his car boot back to Dyson Drive where he proceeded to sell it to all his neighbours who did not realise where it came from.
The village waited with baited breath.  The footpath was now clear over its entire route.  Not a branch, not a weed, not a blade of overlong grass obstructed it.  A drift of arrows pointed the walker from one end to the other, finger posts announced the beginning and the end  and it lay across the countryside like an  unhealed scar.  No walkers came, of course, from the town in winter, not even the committee.  They spent the cold wet months planning next year’s onslaughts and had no intention of actually setting foot in the countryside if they could help it until the spring; and they wouldn’t be returning to Winchmoor anyway.  They had no interest in the place now they had done their bit..  The locals didn’t walk it either.  Not as it was now.  It had lost its charm; and the muddy tracks across the open fields,  most now quite legally ploughed and left like that for the time being, and anyway without the shelter of the hedges which made the winter walks tolerable, were universally shunned. They followed the paths they always had and  ignored the neatened corners, the dead straight miles.   Who wanted their dog to walk over poisoned ground anyway?  So footpath 29  lay for the most part unvisited - except by Joe. 
Thus it was that he was quite alone when he strode the path two months after Christmas on a clear bright day after a week of violent February gales.  He walked slowly along the muddy  track alongside the nature reserve, admiring its neatness,  the straight  clean edges of the ditch where  someone after his own heart  had trimmed the dead wood back neatly and removed the unsaleable  remains of the holly which he had tossed over the ditch  into the wood to make sure that the path was unencumbered.  Standing under the overhanging branches of an ancient  oak, safely rooted on the far side of the ditch, he did not look up to admire its grace and stature and thus did not see the huge bough, detached by the gales, hanging precariously over his head.   That it chose just that exact moment to fall was of course complete coincidence. 
Maureen was visiting the kids that weekend so there was no one to miss him.  He came round once or twice, lying on the path, gazing up at the beauty of the huge tree under which he lay.  It swam in a mist, from time to time seeming to dance slowly in a graceful    pirouette, and from time to time he thought he saw faces peering at him from among the branches.  It grew dark early at that time of year and as the hazy sun set below the rim of the field the temperature began to drop sharply.  With a smile he closed his eyes.  In the morning he would have to see  to it that the fallen bough  was sawn  and the path tidied  otherwise someone might trip over and hurt themselves.
It was three days before they found him.  The village was sorry for Maureen of course.  One by one they called to see if they could help and almost immediately she found herself  at the  centre of conversations in the  post office.  She began to feel as though she had lived in  – and been a part of – the  village forever and at last she felt confident that she could ask people home.  When they came for coffee or tea there was no sign of any Ordnance Survey maps; no flags or pins or fluorescent pens.  Around the lawn she had planted a holly hedge and that spring, out on the fields ,  nature began to grow back.  The tree stump, in the middle of the path near the nature reserve, had already thrown out one or two small green shoots. No one would ever cut it back again.  It’s unlucky to cut down a holly.

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