WE’RE going to try something different today. I’m off for a short run across the hills above Richmond, North Yorkshire, because it’s time I knocked myself back into a semblance of fitness – but this post is all about ethics and our place in the countryside. It concerns rights of way, highways and byways, rich and poor, perceptions and prejudices. I shall offer you a few multiple-choice questions as we proceed and include a scoreboard. It’s hard work because I’m running while I’m typing . . .
I park the van at Beacon Plantation above Richmond and jog to the entrance of Feldom Ranges military base, then puff and pant across fields to Whitcliffe Scar, which is very famous in this area for reasons I shall disclose later, then trudge through a bog while a thin winter wind cuts across a late afternoon Pennine landscape. Let me tell you about what happened last week in a lay-by near Barnard Castle. This is where you need to pay attention.
We’ve arrived at the multi-choice ethical test. Two days before Christmas I park my van at the side of a road near Wycliffe Hall, on the banks of the river Tees, go for a run, and return to discover a man taking pictures of the van’s registration plate. He’s stopped his car in the middle of the road and is holding a camera phone out of his window. He hasn’t spotted me yet because I’m approaching his car from the rear. I jog up to his window and confront him. What do I say? Or what would you say in this situation?
A) Oi, mate. What the effin’ hell are you up to?
B) Wow, is that an iPhone 6 Plus featuring an A8 chip, Touch ID, faster LTE wireless, a new 8MP iSight camera with Focus Pixels, and iOS 8?
C) Excuse me. Can I help you?
I’ll just veer off at an angle for a second. I am reminded of a radio discussion I heard many years ago while driving down the M6 to Wrexham with my father. Broadcaster Laurie Taylor was recounting an incident in which he was robbed in the street. As he chased the thug, the only words he could summon were the extremely lame: “Stop thief”. He was laughing about his reaction because “Stop thief” is what comic-book characters and actors in Ealing comedy films shout. But it was the only thing that came into his mind. And I feel the same now because I stick my head through this chap’s window, and despite racking my brain to come up with something original and vaguely spirited, say: “Excuse me. Can I help you?” So ten points if you said a very civilised C. Five points for a spirited A. Minus fifty if you said anything remotely like B.
So this guy, who is very well turned out, it must be said, says my van is parked illegally on private land, and that’s why he is taking pictures. I point out that my van is parked on the verge, and the verge is part of the public highway. But is it part of the highway? Here’s your choice.
A) The public highway is only the metalled surface of a road.
B) The public highway is a fixed measurement depending on the classification of the road.
C) The public highway includes the verge and extends to the bordering walls, hedges or fences.
Ten points if your answer is C, although different rules might apply in other countries. No points for A or B. I’m feeling more assertive now because I’m sure I’m in the right. The man changes his argument – a sign of weakness – and says crime is a problem in this area, with landowners being targeted and sheep rustled, and unfamiliar vehicles are all suspect. That’s another reason why he’s taking pictures.
This is an interesting point. Crime is a problem in many areas, but in the extremely affluent countryside along the County Durham and North Yorkshire border it’s a damned sight less of a problem than it is a few dozen miles to the south in Leeds, to the east on Teesside, and to the north on Wearside and Tyneside. So here’s the next question.
Put yourself in the place of the well-turned-out guy with the camera. You’ve driven a few hundred metres from your front gate and you spot an old white van parked beneath trees in a place where vehicles don’t usually park. You take pictures, just to be on the safe side. Would you have stopped to take pictures if the vehicle was:
A) A brand new Nissan Navara 4×4?
B) An unfamiliar van parked among local fox hunting vehicles, which park wherever the silly pillocks driving them decide to park, irrespective of land ownership, public safety or where the sherry-soaked riders happen to be trampling down crops and hedges in their crazed lust to murder wildlife?
C) A yellow Citroen 2CV with a big purple dinosaur sitting in the rear window?
Trick question – no points for any answer. But here’s another take on the same theme. You live on a council estate in a nearby town. You leave your house and spot an unfamiliar van parked at the side of the road. What do you do?
A) Find a brick and toss it through the windscreen just out of badness?
B) Peer through the window to see if the owner’s left any power tools inside?
C) Totally ignore it because you and your neighbours are ordinary people and the world is full of unfamiliar vehicles and only a very small minority are driven by criminals – and a fair percentage of those criminals are bankers, financiers and people who move in the highest circles of society?
Ten points for answering C, nothing for A or B. At this point the chap with the camera changes course again and says my van shouldn’t be parked on the verge because it makes the countryside untidy, and people in this area are very particular about their verges. My van is actually parked on firm bare earth. It’s one of those unofficial lay-bys that enhance our rich and varied countryside and provide a haven for picnickers and Sunday drivers out on a jaunt. Because he’s being so insolent, do you:
A) Reach into the car and twist his nose between finger and thumb through sheer exasperation?
B) Launch into a rant about the wealthy commandeering the countryside for their exclusive pleasures while they condemn the poor to lives of misery in rat-infested tenement buildings?
C) Wish you had the energy to pursue B but just stand there in silence?
Ten points if you said C. Actually, ten points for A and B as well. The man is about to drive away. I get the impression he has conceded defeat in this battle of words and silences, but as a parting shot he declares his intention to post the van registration number on the Farm Watch website. Then off he goes. What do you do?
A) Hurl a rock at his disappearing car?
B) Shout: “Do what you effing well want you effing Tory t**t.”?
C) Rush home and fire an email to Durham Police imploring them to charge the “arrogant sod” with harassment and wasting police time if he circulates the registration number?
Ten points for C, another ten for B, nothing for A. Twenty points if you would have done B and C.
So that was last week. If you scored sixty points then you’re a decent person and of a high moral standard, though you do need to curb your language in heated situations. A score of fifty points puts you on a level with Ghandi and Wat Tyler. With forty or thirty points you’re in the couldn’t care less bracket. Twenty points to zero means you watch too many episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Come Dine with Me and Real Housewives of Melbourne (that’s a bit of prejudice on my part). A minus score means you’ve read this far because you are expecting me to reveal the camera phone specifications.
On today’s run along Whitcliffe Scar I pass a memorial to one Richard Willance, a Richmond draper, who in 1606 was out hunting in swirling mist and had the misfortune to fall from his horse and break a leg. The horse died in the incident. Willance was alone, and fearing gangrene would set in if the leg wasn’t kept warm, he slit open the horse’s belly and thrust his broken leg into the entrails.
He was eventually rescued, but not before the townsfolk of Richmond insisted he remove the dead horse from the verge because it was making the place untidy. Sorry, made that bit up. Happy new year.
AND FINALLY . . . TALLY HO NO YOU DON’T
PHOTOGRAPHER Paul Kingston, of North News and Pictures, has managed to capture in one splendid image an attitude it has taken me nearly 1,500 words to parody. This is the Zetland Hunt at Greta Bridge, about two miles from where I had my run-in with the chap in the car. The picture appeared in several national newspapers today. The sign says NO DOGS. One rule for us . . . etc, etc . . .
La lucha continua. No pasaran!