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Britain's roaming rights transform fences into doorways

A “stile” on Moel Famau, a peak in northern Wales, allows access to a footpath.

DAN DEWITT | Times

A “stile” on Moel Famau, a peak in northern Wales, allows access to a footpath.

London

After three weeks in a country littered with amazing structures — a place where castles and ancient churches show up on the horizon so often that you barely give them a second look — a humble kind of edifice strikes me as the most remarkable of all.

It's called a stile — a ladder- or stair-like attachment to a fence or gate. Sometimes stiles take the form of a foothold or two in a stone wall. Sometimes they are wooden planks jutting from fence posts.

While we Americans think of walls and fences as existing solely to keep people out of private spaces, stiles are designed specifically to let people in — into pastures, orchards, churchyards and even alongside tiny, tidy British backyard gardens.

And they don't just grant access to a selected few but to anybody wanting to venture into the countryside.

Even more stunning, the folks on foot do not have to maintain the stiles. It's up to landowners to allow access to traditional, established footpaths on their property and maintain the means of access.

This is all part of what the British call the "right to roam," which is about as sacred to them as the right to bear arms is to us, even though the idea behind it is the opposite — trust of your neighbors versus reflexive suspicion, a requirement to welcome rather than permission to threaten.

Yes, it's a radical notion. During the Depression, while our leftists were singing "This land is your land," British activists started to hold protests to put the idea into practice. It became national law in 2000, and now, as far as I can tell, nobody thinks it's a problem.

It's one of those rules about land use that we tend to hate, but that has allowed Wales and England to maintain more scenic views and more access to them than Florida, despite having nearly three times as many people crammed into roughly the same amount of land.

Last week, my family set out on a public footpath that runs down the driveway of my in-laws' Welsh home (another stunning, ancient structure), past other rural houses, over stone and barbed-wire fences with the help of stiles and through wheat fields, sheep pastures and expanses of heather and gorse.

The path was neat and narrow, meaning that preceding walkers had been careful not to stray from it and disturb fields. There was so little litter that I could feasibly commit to picking up every piece I saw, and I had collected a total of one empty cigarette pack and two plastic water bottle lids by the time we reached our destination.

The destination, by the way, was a peak called Moel Famau, which despite topping out at a modest 1,818 feet and being closer to Liverpool than Wesley Chapel is to downtown Tampa, seemed as if it had been transported straight from a remote part of the Scottish Highlands.

Pretty amazing.

Britain's roaming rights transform fences into doorways 08/05/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 5, 2013 11:17pm]
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