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A Five Year Battle (Instalment 8)
‘Why is the railway station so far from the town?
‘Happen it needed to be near t’ railway line.’
Wharton Hall is at the heart of an extensive and busy working modern farm. The older parts are in ruins but the main house is impressively well preserved, dating from the 16th century when it was the home of Lord Thomas Wharton. The current owners kindly allowed its garden to be used as another stopping place for the annual performance walks. Consequently whenever I walk along here, my ears still resound to medieval music and the clash of lances and swords wielded by Sir Cumference and Sir Prise, two hopelessly inept knights in silver painted cardboard armour, jousting with hilarious pantomime imprecision on the lawn.
The public right of way at Wharton Hall is a designated bridleway, which used to go immediately past the house and through the farmyard but was officially diverted several years ago, ostensibly to provide a safer route to avoid the bustle of tractors and dangerous farm machinery. In fact, more pertinently from my point of view, the diversion was a vital part of a wider ranging deal I negotiated with the farmer to achieve a new public footpath, across several of his fields, which would connect with Kirkby Stephen’s isolated railway station on the Settle to Carlisle railway line.
I had long been aware of the desirability of a safe footpath between the station and the town, demonstrated on a daily basis by the hazardous progress of people having to risk their lives walking alongside the busy main road in order to use a station that is more than a mile from the town. The joke about the distance of the station from the town is usually told in relation to Dent station, which is four miles from Dent town, but to a lesser extent it also applies to Kirkby Stephen. The Settle to Carlisle Railway was built by a company called the Midland Railway, one of several railway companies constructing, maintaining and running their own lines, during the middle years of the nineteenth century, in a climate of intense rivalry. The Midland Railway’s main priority, at that time, was to provide as fast a train service as possible for passengers travelling between the middle areas of England and Scotland. Its engineers virtually drew a straight line on their map along a route which offered the least geological resistance, irrespective of where the main communities of Yorkshire and Westmorland people were living. The railway has operated continuously since then under different ownership, overcoming two threats of closure in the early 1960’s and 1980’s and being substantially upgraded with major restoration work costing millions of pounds, including repair of the magnificent Ribblehead viaduct.
From the onset of my involvement in trying to facilitate better countryside access for recreation I have been frequently frustrated by the cumbersome bureaucracy that so persistently discourages any reasonable attempts to rationalise public rights of way. We have a network of public footpaths, bridleways and byways in east Cumbria that is an amazing resource for exploring the countryside. Public Rights of Way are part of our cultural landscape heritage. They facilitate a deeper engagement with the unique territorial chemistry that defines Eden and allow us to inhabit the nooks and crannies of its landscape more intimately. Most public paths have existed for centuries and quite literally enable us to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors from travellers in the Bronze Age to the early 20th century postmen who, not so long ago, delivered mail on foot to all the outlying farmhouses. The majority of paths evolved for these specifically utilitarian purposes and I see no reason why making little adjustments to paths, where they follow illogical routes through farmyards and domestic buildings, can’t be made easier in recreational terms without compromising the heritage context. A major obstacle is the expense of the legal processes currently considered necessary. Any application for change has to be advertised in the local newspaper and there are solicitor’s costs that escalate if there are objections from any member of the public thus necessitating a public enquiry.
Crucially, the impact diverting a path will have on the public’s enjoyment has to be carefully considered as it is essential that the alternative route offered is ‘more commodious’ from the public’s point of view. The owner of Wharton Hall had expressed his concern about the risks of injury to walkers and horse riders using the bridleway through his farmyard and we discussed the relative merits of a diversion. Clearly there were mutual benefits to be gained. Here was an opportunity to enhance the prospect of successfully securing a minor path diversion on one part of a farm with the additional offer of a major, whole new and much needed path creation on another part. I’d also got in mind the extinguishment of one or two other paths, which were surplus to requirements where large fields had been created by amalgamating small ones. Having secured the farmer’s tacit agreement to my proposition, I arranged a meeting with a representative of the local Ramblers Association group, who were the likeliest objectors, to walk the various routes together. Initially he had misgivings about the fact that the bridleway diversion would take people a little further away from being within touching distance of the walls of Wharton Hall but agreed to present my proposal to his committee members. They subsequently recommended some sensible refinements to the proposed amendments and put forward the astute suggestion that an extension at the north eastern end of the station path would make a useful link with an existing path by the river. The County Council’s Rights of Way Officer did everything in her power to assist, even managing to devise a substantial reduction in the likely costs, in view of the perceived public benefits and further approval followed from the British Horse Society and Eden District Council. Everything was looking very promising when it became apparent that I had overlooked one crucial factor. To qualify as a bona fide Public Right of Way the new path would have to connect with the main road, a distance of eighty metres along the stations access road. This, according to the Railtrack representative, presented me with a problem because the access road was Railtrack property and as such, was legally protected against public acquisition of access rights. The County Solicitor successfully demolished this assertion with some nifty legal manoeuvres. Much more correspondence ensued, back and forth, at first in quite vague terms, on the subject of health and safety, liability, indemnity and on-going consultations with British Rail, the Regional Railway Company and other mysterious “authorised operators classed as Users of the Station”.
Then, like a bombshell, I received a gravely expressed pronouncement from the solicitor at Railtrack concerning his serious misgivings regarding the safety implications of encouraging pedestrians to walk across the station access road. This was extremely perplexing because it was obviously the case that pedestrians already walked on the access road between the public main road and the station. A possible solution, he suggested, might be the provision of a pavement and, in due course, his suggestion transmuted to insistence. A tarmac pavement, eighty metres long, with natural stone kerbing doesn’t come cheap so, once again, I was looking for funding and the Local Environmental Action Programme, financed by the European Union, came to my rescue.
Railtrack’s legal prevaricating continued with long-winded demands for method statements, health and safety assurances and interminable quibbles about indemnity during which time I got the pavement built. It still didn’t make any sense but I had no choice. Although the pavement provides a solid delineation of a pedestrian link between the junctions of the footpath and the road it has no relevance for the vast majority of people who are there simply because they want to use the trains and, therefore, have no option but to cross and re-cross the station access road. Railtrack had determinedly ignored the fact that the over-riding objective of the new footpath was to give train users, walking to and from the station, a safe alternative to the dangerous A685. Even when we seemed to be almost there, with the Public Path Dedication Agreement ready to be signed, Railtrack then submitted a preposterous claim to the County Council for the legal costs they themselves had stockpiled with their stubborn and protracted legal nit picking. Railtrack’s time consuming intransigence persisted for some months until the County Council and ECCP relented and reluctantly paid the bill. So, at last, the dedication of the new Public Footpath was finally agreed. It had taken five long years.
Ten years later the County Council found sufficient funding to purchase the strip of land occupied by the path, upgraded its classification to Cycleway, fenced it off from the rest of the field and surfaced it with tarmac.