Late in June I spent nearly a week near Carmarthen. I thought I'd get to know some footpaths local to where I was staying.
I was in for a rude awakening: my first serious walk had the following issues:
- First footpath, signposted from road. Disappears into someone's garden after about 50 metres. Subsequent enquiries led me to understand that this is indeed it's route, but no-one uses it, and the sign was only erected after the occupants of the house tried to have the path re-routed.
- Second footpath. Not signed, but led along a nice track along the edge of a field. On crossing a bridge it disappeared. Close consultation of the 25k map suggested it could only go through another garden. This time with a large number of barking dogs. There was someone in the neighbouring garden and I asked about the footpath. "Oh, yes someone came along three years ago looking for it". Indeed the footpath went through the garden, the owners of the house were aware of this and had let people through in the past. I opted not to bother: where would the next obstruction be.
- Third footpath. Signed from the road, an obvious path, perhaps even more of an old bridleway. In decent condition. Things looking up.
- Fourth footpath. Off the latter path. Started well going through a delightful woodland: with many coppice stools of hazel and evidence of bluebells. At the point where it should have left the wood the path petered out. There was quite a deep stream, a barbed wire fence and a dense thicket of brambles on the other side. Eventually I found a way through, but it took perhaps 20 minutes looking for a decent place. Once through I attracted the attention of horses in the field which was probably not on the footpath. There was a blocked gate which I climbed and the remaining part of the presumed line of the path was through a very rushy field overgrown with thistles. A newish barn and hard standing were located at the point where the path should have reached the road, surrounded by an electric fence.
- Fifth footpath. This was shown crossing the valley from an old farmstead. Two parallel tracks led to the farm. An ominous sign was when a middle-aged couple in a BMW asked if they could "help me". The farm had been converted to a house and several bungalows had been built on the site of the outbuildings. They were owners of the former stables, but had never heard of a footpath: and "surely if it existed their solicitor would have told them". I had a search around, and found something which looked vaguely viable at the end of a field. Extensive stands of Himalayan Balsam should have warned me that what looked like dried earth was more likely to have been some kind of slurry. I beat a retreat.
The reality is that very few people in this sort of country area use footpaths: either they have their own access to the land, or friends and neighbours might allow them such access. Even though not too far from Carmarthen there is clearly no urban demand for unblocked footpaths, and probably given the demographics of the voters little political will in the council to fulfil its legal obligations.
Another factor is that many of the footpaths don't connect: they lead to former houses of tenant farmers, or as the lady I talked to suggested represent an older network of highways superseded in the 1850s. This wouldn't have worried me: I wanted to get off the roads to look for flowers and insects. I'd have loved to have found a short stretch of footpath which I could have walked every day in both directions doing this.
The particular countryside I was in is on older Palaeozoic rocks, and it was obvious that, providing that the fields had not been improved, there was a good chance of finding some interesting things. Serendipity showed that I was right: but this had nothing to do with Carmarthenshire County Council's attitude to public rights of way.