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March 2001

A Letter from Foot and Mouth Country

Now let's get one thing straight at the start; I am not a teacher.

Beryl, who knows about these things, says that I would make a rotten teacher (too intolerant of slow learners). She was quite shocked recently when I returned from a course and told her that I'd done a psychological test which said I had a teacher's approach to work. She had less problem agreeing with another part of the analysis, namely that some people might find me pedantic.

So, having clarified that, just remember that I'm not your stereotypal whingeing teacher. I am however going to have a whinge about the Teachers Pensions Agency, which is on my Pet Hates list, a candidate for my personal Room 101. There is a national system for administering teachers' pensions which used to be run by civil servants in the Department of Education. The system worked and teachers approaching retirement were, for the most part, dealt with decently. Then some bright spark decided that civil servants are inherently inefficient and that it ought to be privatised, which lead to the creation of the Teachers Pensions Agency. In my book efficiency means getting the same results more economically. Efficiency in the TPA's book seems to mean reducing the benefits available and/or changing all the definitions so that it's harder to get at the pension payments. Now, rather like my favourite estate, there's nothing illegal about this. It's the ethics I question.

But it then adds insult to injury. It changes its name to Teachers Pensions (probably having spent large sums on market research) No doubt Teachers Pension Agency was considered too large, too impersonal, too bureaucratic. The new name is meant to be trustworthy, to be warm-and-cuddly, to be the teachers' friend. All of this served to disguise the reality that it is a cold, calculating organisation whose main aim seems to be to cap payments to ensure it makes a profit.

But, you are wondering, what is all this doing in a website on walking and mountains.

You must remember my antipathy towards Teachers Pension when I say that I didn't like it when the Ramblers Association changed its name to the Ramblers. It's exactly the same sort of touchy-feely thing. How can you stand up as the voice of authority unless you're just a bit authoritarian. Speaking as a history graduate, I never liked the benevolent despots of the eighteenth century. What's the point of being a despot if you're not despotic?

There's another reason why I don't like the change. It sounds as though they include all ramblers. Strictly speaking the title ought to be "The Ramblers who stump up their 20 quid a year". I know that there's an argument that all ramblers ought to be members, in the same way that I believe that everyone at work should belong to a recognised union. However, they don't all belong and (given that I don't believe in the closed shop) I don't believe it should be compulsory. So the Ramblers Association should not intimate that it covers all ramblers.

So having had a go at the RA (as I shall always think of it) let me congratulate them on getting one thing spot on. That is their stance on the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. They moved very quickly to recommend that all walkers restrict their enjoyment of the countryside, even before footpaths were closed by law. Now I don't understand all the scientific arguments about how FMD does and doesn't spread. I'm a trusting soul in these matters and tend to believe what experts say. What I am convinced of is that (whatever our legal rights) our access to and enjoyment of the countryside is best served when we are able to work in partnership when landowners and farmers. FMD is clearly a major threat to them and all walkers should be sensitive at this time. 

However I do have one hope from this: that the farming community might reciprocate when things are back to normal. For example, by co-operating with, rather than obstructing, the registration of land under the Right to Roam legislation. Wishful thinking? Possibly. Sadly some of the publicity being put out before the FMD outbreak by the Country Landowners Association (which I applaud for keeping the "Association" in its name) was not encouraging; horror stories about ramblers trespassing on private land because they thought that the legislation gave them the right. Not the type of walkers that the access legislation was intended to help, I suspect.

In the meantime we face several weekends of inactivity. The web sites that I look at for inspiration have little new on them. Even Ann Bowker (doyenne of walking site authors) has been reduced to photos of bike rides around Keswick. Perhaps they need to start adding accounts of the extreme measures taken to remain sane and avoid trips to B&Q. A sort of "What did you do during the Foot & Mouth Crisis, Daddy?"

Note: the title of this page is a small tribute to Alistair Cooke's "Letter from America". One of the things I admire about it is how he moves effortlessly from a personal or inconsequential event, often in the distant past, to give an insight into the big news story of the week. Hence my attempt to move from not being a teacher into the FMD outbreak.


bulletNear here every footpath leaving a road seems to have a notice on it prohibiting entry. Given the manpower which must have gone into this it makes you wonder why it takes so long to get obstructions removed (or even to get finger posts on the roads. 
bulletLike many tragedies, FMD has spawned its own brand of black humour. The one I like was on the uk.rec.walkers newsgroup. It simply said that the newsgroup had been closed down temporarily to prevent the spread of the disease.
bulletI've just been looking at the list of countryside attractions that are open in Staffordshire. This is where I start getting cynical. If you have to pay to get in, they seem to be open. If they are free, they are closed.

 Postscript (September)

Well I did say that perhaps the farming community would be better disposed towards walkers afterwards. Not much sign of that.

There is a farm just up the lane from here where they've never been keen on us. They are still displaying Keep Out signs (although fortunately that bit of path can be easily bypassed)

I just been down by another one. I'm glad I took my wooden pole with me because it was a great help in hacking down the nettles. Here is an example which was far from the worst (you can see the Footpath Open notice


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