Escape To The Country

Originally Published: January 2016

Rights of way therapy… It’s about moving into the slow lane, forgetting about the stress of the world and just enjoying the countryside for a while. And when you get the chance to help others enjoy it too, so much the better!

When you wake in a budget hotel round the back of a service station on the M4, the concept of a day’s laning might be a grim reference to being tailgated non-stop on the motorway, or even trailing up and down every aisle in the adjacent shopping area looking for something you can eat without feeling sick. Happily, though, the laning I was going to be doing this particular Sunday was the proper kind. 

The outskirts of Bath were to be our playground for the day, but  rst I had to wait for my lift to show up. At this point I was standing rather curiously on the corner outside said budget hotel, feeling a bit conspicuous with my wellington boots on and a camera around my neck (I was wearing some clothes, too, I hasten to add). Still, I knew I wouldn’t be there for long. 

It’s not like waiting for a taxi, when every beige barge that comes round the corner could be your ride. No, the familiar boxy shape of three non-standard Land Rovers barking their way into the car park meant it was de nitely time to go, and no mistake. 

Two of the vehicles were 90s, both of them around 30 years old but going stronger than ever. Without wanting to get all political, can someone name me a hobby as kind to the environment as one that keeps manufactured goods in use for that sort of time? Thought not. Anyway, Paul Woodward was in a tidy blue hardtop rebuilt on a galvanised chassis, and Rich Armstrong was aboard a white soft-top whose black hood gave it a touch of the NAS look. 

Our third vehicle was a 100” Bowler special from 1985. Oh yes, it was. Its pilot, Dale Wyatt, is the GLASS Rights of Way Officer for the Wiltshire area and he was to be our tour guide, if you will, for a trip on some of the lanes around the very beautiful city of Bath. 

‘It’s a very nice place, Bath. I grew up here so I know the area and the lanes pretty well,’ said Dale as we searched for our first lane of the day. ‘My family still lives here, in the same house I grew up in actually; I remember you can see the countryside even if you’re in the city centre.’ 

By this point I realised that Dale’s advice was probably worth taking. He’d warned me about the accessibility of his seats compared to our companions and their comparatively luxurious 90s – bucket seats and full harnesses tied in with a heavy winter coat and a large camera still swinging from your neck can make you look the epitome of the word ‘oaf’ very quickly indeed. 

Nevertheless, our first lane approached and immediately we were transported from the rolling hills of Somerset to what felt like a rainforest. Water trickled its way over the rocky floor towards us as we progressed, the canopy of trees above allowing only the slimmest of rays to shine through on to the ferns lining either side of our trail. This was more like the Amazon, not Somerset. 

Barely a hundred metres in, we came across a fallen tree. Most likely to have come down in the recent strong winds, according to Dale, it was a complete obstacle. But here’s where being a well prepared green laner comes into its own. Dale, Paul and Rich quickly parked up, hopped out and started clearing the path ahead, not just for us but for the dirt bike riders who had obviously tried to scrape underneath already, the horse riders who would never jump this in a million years and the cyclists and walkers who were enjoying their Sunday as much as us. 

We were here for our own purposes, of course, but these three guys were providing a service to everyone. And barely two minutes later, our path was clear and the lane was usable for all. 

‘Since the NERC Act came in, some of the horse riding communities have said they’ve found some of the routes harder to pass, just because there isn’t the same presence as when we were using them,’ said Paul. After 12 years of laning, he’s got to know many of the routes around this area – and, being based in Swindon, he’s well positioned to find a slice of peace and tranquillity by pointing his Landy towards almost any point on the compass. 

‘I used to come laning regularly with the family. We had a baby seat in the truck for my Daniel and he was coming along from the age of two,’ Paul continued. 

‘Harvey started coming along with me from the age of five,’ agreed Dale. ‘But I haven’t been out laning for a while. It’s a shame because the lanes are nice around here and it’s a bit like coming home for me.’ 

‘We don’t get to do it very often at the moment. My little one has come along and this is only the second time I’ve been out laning this year,’ added Rich. Definitely a theme there, then. 

Most times, particularly with families, you’ve got to arrange things about three months in advance. But this trip was quite quickly thrown together, and kudos to Dale for organising it. 

Still, all three of the guys sounded like they’d been waiting for a good reason to go out laning and it was something they’ve missed doing. Work and other commitments can often get in the way, but it’s amazing how quickly you can forget where you are when you’re halfway down a green lane with nothing but your truck and the countryside for company. No wonder those who’ve grown up on this pastime are so immensely fond of it. 

‘I’ve been laning for 26 years and have had a whole load of Land Rovers in my time, including a Series IIA, a Lightweight and a 90,’ said Dale. ‘But I’ve had my Bowler for eight years and I’m sticking with it for now – at least till I start struggling to get in and out of it!’ 

The Bowler in question had the 4.2-litre V8 from the Range Rover LSE fitted and it did sound rather tasty, especially down the more enclosed lanes. ‘I love the V8,’ Dale continued. ‘And it’s a great laning car because it’s light, low and pretty agile. Unlike in the diesels as well, the power is always there for when you need it.’ 

Dale, who was leading the way on this trip, had recently converted from paper maps to running GPS on an iPad. ‘It is a lot easier with this, especially now I’m older. I don’t need to put my glasses on to read it!’ 

So, we’d had the mandatory morning tea break and were away again, winding towards Bathampton and taking in green lanes where we could in a sort of mega dot to dot game. Imagine how good it would be if the rights of way network was so extensive that you could drive to work in the morning just using byways. You might not still have a job by the time you get there, but think of the fun you’d have! 

I had decided to sit in with Paul for a bit in his hard-top 90, which (no offence, Dale) was a bit more civilised than that Bowler! Despite being on a B-plate, it was a 300Tdi, and the engine was mated to an auto box – which did no harm to the smoothness of the experience. 

‘I don’t use this on the road much at all to be honest,’ explained Paul. ‘The gear change is a little too sluggish. But on the lanes it’s great – the only drawback is there isn’t quite as much engine breaking as you’d like. My daily drive is a P38 V8 with the gas conversion.’ 

We made our way over the toll bridge past The Old Mill in Bathampton, a very quaint part of the world that certainly wasn’t designed for the traffic of the 21st century. Having spent some time around Chippenham in the early part of the day, our afternoon routes would be on the south side of Bath. 

Most of these lanes are quite a contrast to Wiltshire, which is relatively flat. Around Bath, the trails are tight and twisty – great fun, and they definitely keep you busy. 

If you come in the week, you won’t have the Sunday traffic around the neighbouring villages. We had that to contend with, but it just shows you the draw of the countryside. We saw countless walkers, with a few cyclists and horse riders thrown in. It really is for everyone. 

There’s something about being in a convoy, too. ‘When one of you goes past, no-one really gives you a look,’ said Paul. ‘But when there are three of you, they’ll all stop and stare!’ 

He’s right, too. We trundled past some walkers on our way through a ford not long afterwards, and you can tell they were looking at the vehicles with admiration. I hope that’s what it was, anyway – there’s always one, but the only people who fail to appreciate the simple beauty of these vehicles are those who’ve had an agenda planted in their heads by professional haters, and as always the overwhelming majority are happy to share. 

Paul told me about a couple of the vehicles he used to own, which included an old Series III V8. It was when his friends started making lanes look easy in their Discoverys, while Paul was forever getting stuck, that he knew it was time to switch to something more modern.

' I used to go away for weekends with some work friends at Easter and other holidays. There are still places I’d like to go – the Yorkshire Dales, the Lakes and so on. But you forget how much organising is involved.’ 

At least these days with the code of conduct from GLASS, you have some guidelines to prepare trips around. You know how many vehicles can be in each party (four to six depending on the area) and whether that will involve splitting into groups. Resources such as Trailwise provide up to date information on the status and condition of the rights of way, again something you must consider when planning your route. 

Dale mentioned earlier in the day that perhaps a permit system could provide an answer to the usage of lanes. If councils were to allocate so many permits per year, they could not complain about over-usage. 

As the day wore on towards its close, I hopped into Rich’s vehicle and we headed on to some of the muddier lanes in the route. They weren’t just muddy, either – they were scratchy. We found some of the day’s more technical lanes here, too. 

Rich had told me earlier in the day about his love of getting out in the country – and not just in his Land Rover, either. ‘I do everything in the countryside – walking, cycling, off-roading. I was part of GLEAM (the Green Lane Environmental Action Movement, which campaigns ferociously against motor vehicle use) for a while, as a cyclist – I didn’t realise they were so anti-4x4 for some time. They found out after a while that I had a Land Rover – I soon left the organisation... 

‘The problem is, once they stop 4x4s, what will it be next?’ 

Happily, we weren’t discussing this topic all afternoon, though there is no doubt that you could. It was one of those days where everything was flowing rather quickly, partly because Rich and I had managed to go off on to a whole load of topics… which started with him picking up on my ever-so-slight Black Country twang. Rich was born and raised in Dudley, and we quickly moved on to the important matters of the day like the current Wolves football team and whether or not Suzi Perry is a good presenter (and, of course, if she still has it…) 

We discussed Rich’s career, my career, his Volkswagen camper, his move from Dudley to Newbury and loads more. All this while enjoying a drive in the country in a wonderful old 4x4. Isn’t that what it’s all about? 

The pair of us were so deep in conversation, actually, that we managed to lose Dale for a brief moment. This was after our final lane, where the Bowler had really come into its own. Trees overhanging, barely enough space for a Defender to squeeze through, two wheels significantly higher than the other two… I even had to rescue the top of Rich’s snorkel. 

As the convoy escorted me back to my starting point, the sun lowering itself out of the sky, we’d all had a brilliant day. There had been laughs, chatter and debate. We’d seen a chunk of the country from the inside. And we’d cleared a path for others to see it, too. 

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday, you’ve got to say. If your average day on the lanes is the kind I was talking about earlier, on a bleak motorway or traipsing up and down the aisles of some godforsaken shop or other, it’s time to point your 4x4 at the countryside. Whatever stresses of everyday life you might be under, rights of way therapy is a great answer! 

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