The topic of outdoor gear essentials has, in the past, been a favourite of mine. From Ten Tors kit lists to wild camping tent recommendations, I have been just as keen as the next outdoor expert to insist people need certain kit to take part in certain outdoor activities.
But this year, as I faced my first group of 2024 Duke of Edinburgh’s Award trainees, I realised how much my thoughts on the topic of essential outdoor kit have changed over the last 20 years.
I’ve spent the last twenty years encouraging and supporting people to enjoy exploring outdoors.
All of that has been made possible by the access we have to the UK’s varied and wonderful green spaces. Access that includes public rights of way, access land, common land and urban parks.
So why do I feel so uneasy about the idea of a blanket Right to Roam in England?
The article below below is my answer to that question. Hopefully it presents a fair argument, informs on the topic and busts a few myths about our Right to Roam in the UK.
It’s worth remembering the Right to Roam is an emotive issue and we’ve all had different experiences.
And not everybody is campaigning for exactly the same thing.
Myths about Right to Roam in England
Myth 1 – We don’t have a Right to Roam in England.
When people talk about a Right to Roam, they are often referring to a type of land access that allows people to roam freely across all open countryside.
Although we don’t have the same open access here in England as some other countries, we do have an established Right to Roam via the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (the CROW Act). This gives us the right to ‘enter and remain on any access land for the purpose of outdoor recreation’ but it doesn’t allow us to wander freely across all privately owned land.
Access land in England includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs as well as common land and the coastal margin around the England Coast Path (currently under establishment).
How to find access land in England
To plan a walking route across access land in England, you need a map that will show you where it is.
Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps are great for this but the information is also available on Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app.
It’s worth noting that most route planning apps fall short when it comes to showing you access land and public rights of way. You really need to look for one that will give you access to Ordnance Survey mapping.
If you find yourself walking where you shouldn’t, it may well be because you’re following an online route that hasn’t taken private land into account.
Paper or online, I would always opt for an Ordnance Survey map when planning my walking routes.
And I always check whether I’m walking across access or private land.
It gives me peace of mind.
Some people think this access land arrangement is unfair because it restricts access to the countryside, others believe it is sensible because it protects farming and landowner interests.
As I said before, a complicated and emotive subject.
Myth 2 – Most other countries have more access to land than we do.
Whilst it’s true that some countries (for example, Scotland, Norway and Sweden) give the general public the freedom to roam across uncultivated countryside, this is not the case everywhere.
Our network of public rights of way is a real (and unusual) asset.
For example, New Zealand is famous for its remote Great Walks like the Millford Track and Abel Tasman Coast tracks and has a wealth of other walking trails, but they don’t have the network of public rights of way across privately owned land that we do here in England.
We might have less land per person available for recreation but our network of public footpaths, bridleways and byways gives us access to and through the countryside, often right from the hearts of our towns and cities. Check out the Slow Ways national walking network if you want to find out more about this or even help walk and check the network.
To demonstrate my point about public rights of way, here are two farms (both private land) I have visited and walked to. The first is in England (with a right of way marked in green), the second in New Zealand (with no rights of way).
Myth 3 – In other countries people can do what they want when they visit access areas.
After the (sadly ongoing) saga of wild camping rights on Dartmoor, some of the permissible activity limitations on access land in England are more commonly known.
Countries with a wider Right to Roam aren’t necessarily open to all activities. They have restrictions too.
For example, foraging for fruit or mushrooms, gathering or burning firewood, camping, riding a bike, walking across fields, sledging, hunting, even building fences, are all examples of limited activities in countries like Norway and Scotland (which both have a more generalised Right to Roam than England).
Myth 4 – An open Right to Roam doesn’t cause problems.
In theory a wider Right to Roam gives more opportunity for people to learn about positive countryside behaviour, but this can only happen alongside education opportunities.
It’s often suggested that wider access rights bring with them knowledgeable and therefore responsible behaviour but this sadly isn’t always the case.
Here are a few examples:
Visitors leaving behind rubbish and faeces on the Lofoten Islands in Norway (where the established ‘Allemannsretten’ allows the freedom to roam on uncultivated land)
The Right to Roam movement has got some things right.
Although I find it difficult to agree with everything the Right to Roam Everywhere (my word not theirs) movement says and does, I am with them on some important points.
Our access to nature isn’t equal
When you take into account the positive impact access to the outdoors has on our mental and physical health, the statistics around access to nature tell a worrying story.
(Information taken from the People and Nature Survey 2022-2023, the Active Wellbeing Study 2020 and the Office for National Statistics).
In 2020 the UK only had 32.94 square metres of green space per person. Access to this is not evenly distributed across income ranges or ethnicity.
7% of adults do not have access to a garden. In London that rises to 21%.
40% of people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds live in the most green-space deprived areas.
Only 65% of adults have green and natural spaces within easy walking distances.
People on low incomes are less likely to live within a five-minute walk of green space, or have good walking routes where they live.
Only 0.67% of the resident population of England and Wales live in a National Park.
Our freedom to roam does need to be extended and more equal
Our access to some types of landscape, including moorlands and mountains is better than our access to others such as rivers and woodland. If we want to see equality of access, this needs to change.
Many of our larger green spaces are situated some distance away from our heavily populated areas. A more equal freedom to roam would open up areas of access close to where people live, at the same time as ensuring adequate walking and cycling routes to help everybody get to them.
Our current network of public rights of way, access land and other commonly used routes does need protecting
Whilst we have a great network of footpaths and bridleways, access along these isn’t always protected in the way it should be.
Before we get too cross about this, it’s worth remembering the job of maintaining public rights of way often falls to hard-working farmers, who usually do their best to balance stock, crops and public access.
But there are incidences of incorrectly blocked public rights of way and there are also plenty popular footpaths that aren’t protected in this way.
So what can you do to help protect our network of public rights of way?
We need to work together to improve and protect access to countryside and green spaces. If we don’t, we’ll lose ground instead of gaining it.
I mentioned before that this is an emotive issue, which is perhaps why there are such diverse approaches to solving it.
The modern Right to Roam (Everywhere) movement take a radical approach that won’t suit everybody and (to my mind) could risk alienating landowners and other people we actually need to work with.
Making donations to fund future mass trespasses and pay campaign team wages
If (like me) you’re not the confrontational type, you might prefer the approach of the Ramblers, who are seeking to expand our freedom to roam and protect existing pathways without currently calling for a blanket right to roam everywhere. You can support them by.
Whether or not you choose to support those who seek to protect our access to nature is of course, up to you. I would suggest however that if you value getting out into the countryside, you keep a close eye on what is going on with the Right to Roam movement.
Welcome to Dartmoor, where the wild and mystical landscape of Devon unfolds before you. I’m Fi Darby, and I’ve been exploring these moorlands for years. With my guidance, you’ll embark on a magical journey through Dartmoor, filled with ancient legends, rugged terrain, and captivating beauty. Grab your walking boots and let’s uncover the secrets of this enchanting place.
Well? Was the above written by me or by a computer?
It’s difficult to tell isn’t it. The piece tells the truth, I have been exploring Dartmoor for years and I do think it has rugged terrain and captivating beauty.
But I didn’t write the paragraph above.
It was an excerpt from an article written by ChatGPT, at my instruction to ‘write about Dartmoor in the style of Fi Darby’.
It’s quite an impressive piece.
And includes some of my favourite outdoor advice concerning walking boots and waterproofs. It even suggests (as I often do) the correct Ordnance Survey map for Dartmoor, and advises the reader to ‘practice good navigation skills’.
So ChatGPT clearly has a picture of the type of advice I usually give.
You would too, if you had the ability to speed read all I have ever written on the topic of Dartmoor (there’s nearly 15 years worth). The bot also goes on to offer some comments on the Dartmoor landscape, even its flora and fauna but these are more in the form of general motifs rather than actual locations.
With the exception of the already over-exposed Wistman’s Wood.
Is there a style to AI generated writing?
To my mind, this ‘in the style of Fi Darby‘ piece isn’t written in my style at all but it is written in a style I recognise.
For a long time now, I’ve been able to differentiate between expert and non-expert online writing. I’ve also been able to pick out writing that has been written with the sole purpose of selling a product, idea or service.
That’s because as a copywriter I have been used to writing as a non-expert on many topics.
How to spot AI generated writing
You can spot low quality online writing in a few ways, and the same markers can help you work out whether or not you’re reading a piece of AI writing.
Remembering that the majority of online writing is generated to make money, here are a few things you might want to look out for if you prefer your outdoor advice to come from a human.
The overuse of keywords. If a set of words sounds strange in a paragraph or keeps appearing in different forms, this is because the writer (AI or human) is using keywords to attract search engine attention. For example, ChatGPT has included ‘Dartmoor letterboxing’, ‘Dartmoor National Park Authority’ and ‘Clapper Bridges’ because they are mentioned so often in other Dartmoor articles.
The avoidance of detail. Detail brings a piece of writing to life but it also offers the possibility of mistakes. Mentioning Hound Tor is easy because so many others write about it but talk about a type of lichen that can be found on the south-facing rocks or the strange shape the stones appear to make from a certain angle, and you’ll have a more interested audience. AI currently finds this as hard as writers who have never visited an area.
The absence of personal experience. Have no doubt about it, sooner rather than later AI will be able to fake personal outdoor experiences (see my AI tent review) but for now, looking for evidence of personal experience is perhaps your best clue to deciding whether or not an actual person has written the text you’re reading. For example, if I talked about clapper bridges in a Dartmoor article, I might mention the time I squatted like a troll underneath one, or the great photo I got of a sheep posing on one. Experience-based writing like this builds connections between the writer and the reader. The type of connections that AI is also looking to achieve.
Can AI write sensible walking routes?
If your usual walking route planning app isn’t already using AI in some capacity, it will be soon. But using artificial intelligence to enhance information (for example provide fly-through videos) is one thing.
But it seemed only fair to give ChatGPT a go so I asked it to find a walking route between two of my local towns, Teignmouth and Newton Abbot. If you’re interested or know the area, here’s a map I created from ChatGPT’s instructions (I used the Snap-to-Path tool in the OS Maps app).
There were several issues with ChatGPT’s route:
It crossed the river twice and didn’t mention the ferry.
It suggested a visit to the Botanical Gardens, which are up a steep hill in the wrong direction.
It suggested the South West Coast Path at Bishopsteignton, which isn’t on the coast path.
It suggested a footpath between Bishopsteignton and Newton Abbot that doesn’t exist.
All of which would be a bit of a shame if you were walking because there is a lovely foreshore route up one side of the river that ChatGPT hasn’t noticed at all. Yet!
I can only conclude that bots haven’t yet learned how to sensibly read maps.
Can AI learn to write like a human?
The difference between the algorithms we have become used to in our online lives, and artificial intelligence, is that AI uses machine learning to get better and better at tasks.
AI can learn what people like to read and what they don’t.
This means that although some AI writing is currently discernable from human writing, it is becoming more difficult for us to tell the difference.
Soon it might be impossible.
Because AI can learn really quickly. Much faster than we can. In my role as a writer I get invitations every day to use AI tools to generate copy. I don’t use them, and I don’t intend to but I do know that many other writers do.
Even writers who specialise in the outdoors.
Sooner or later I will miss out on work because of AI. I suspect I already have. But I am adaptable and a bit stubborn.
Here’s why I don’t want to join the artificial writing race.
It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between human and AI generated writing. I think this matters because the same applies to video and images. When you put together radical written ideas and deep fake images, problems with veracity are bound to follow. By using AI tools, we help them to learn. I’m not sure I want to do that. Incidentally, this AI detection tool (there are loads out there) gave the ChatGPT writing above an 81% likelihood of being human.
AI is going to make the internet more boring. To get good search engine results, there is already a tendency to write more and more copy on ‘popular’ subjects. For example, I’m more likely to get asked by a client to write about a walking route on the South West Coast Path than my recent pilgrimage in Herefordshire because more people are going to search for information about an experience they have heard of than one they haven’t. AI generated writing is going to enhance this effect.
AI generated writing has enormous potential to mislead. We’re already seeing the disturbing impacts of fake online information but imagine that impact multiplied exponentially by a tool that can keep generating writing on the same topic for as long as is necessary to persuade everyone it is right. This obviously has some pretty big implications but it has smaller ones too. Read what the UN has to say on the topic of disinformation.
AI presents massive copyright issues. All that perceived artificially intelligent cleverness doesn’t come from a vacuum. AI bots mine information at a super-fast rate from online texts that have been (for the most part) written by hard-working human writers. Then they learn from that information and pump out a version of it, without indicating any sources. Read what the Writers Guild has to say about the use of AI tools in writing.
Should I be concerned about the use of AI in outdoor writing?
Whether you trust AI generated information or not is up to you. There’s plenty of human-generated, ill-informed nonsense already out there. I plan to spend my time reading from trusted sources who have developed their opinions and thoughts through years of experience but you might enjoy something new.
There are times however when intelligence (especially the artificial kind) is no substitute for experience.
Who would you trust to guide you up (and more importantly back down) a mountain? A bot that’s re-churning any old information it found online? Or a local expert who’s done the job many times before?
These walking boots were given to me in return for an honest review here on my blog and on social media.
Description: The KEEN women’s Zionic waterproof hiking boot is a lighter-weight walking boot that is as comfortable and attractive as trainers but has the technical features to take you as far off-track as you would like to go.
Stars: 4 ****
Very lightweight and flexible
Brightly coloured and attractive
Waterproof and breathable
No PFAS (‘forever’ chemicals)
Slightly slim for wider feet
Shorter tongue bellow
This is a lightweight walking and hiking boot that bridges the gap between a trainer and a more substantial leather walking boot. With a flexibility of use that is lacking in some more traditional boots, the KEEN Zionic hiking boot will take you happily from town pavement to muddy field footpath but perhaps not through winter upland bogs.
If you answered yes to the above, you were probably thinking of the Camino de Santiago, which is a collection of routes that cross France and Spain to meet at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Like me, you might have first heard of the Camino de Santiago whilst watching Emilio Estevez’s pilgrimage movie ‘The Way’.
If you did watch the film, you might have resolved, also like me, to one day walk the Camino de Santiago yourself (although probably not in sandals).
Once again like me, you probably haven’t found the time, the inclination or the right footwear in which to do so. Some people are obviously more committed to the idea however; according to Statista in 2022 around 439,000 pilgrims finished this particular pilgrimage.
For those of us who didn’t even start it, the good news is that we have a wealth of UK pilgrimage routes just waiting on our doorsteps for us to discover.
And no, I’m not talking about Pizza Pilgrims here, although I do love their story of driving a three-wheeled Piaggio Ape van back from south Italy, learning about pizzas as they went.
Which brings me to my second piece of surprising pilgrimage news.
If you know how to use the OS Maps app to plan a walking route, you’ve probably already used the snap-to-path feature. It’s a useful tool that can take some of the time (and clicks) out of creating an online route by automatically aligning it with existing roads, paths and tracks.
If you love seafood, it’s time to get planning. Down here on Devon’s lovely English Riviera we’ll be closing down summer by celebrating our fantastic seafood culture and delicious menus with the England Seafood Feast.
I first heard the term ‘grockles’ from my Guernsey aunty. Visiting from land-locked Malvern, I did my very best to avoid being seen as one but of course, as anyone living in a seaside town will tell you,
If you’re not a local, you must be something else.
If you look at an older Ordnance Survey map of the UK (a most rewarding hobby) you might, like me, be surprised to see how many train lines we have lost since the motor car gained popularity in the 1950s.
Back in 2019 Nike caused a stir in the sports gear and fashion worlds by placing plus size mannequins front and centre of their flagship London store.
Well done Nike.
Plus-size walking trousers
Three years earlier in 2016, over on the Two Blondes Walking blog, I challenged Cotswold Outdoor to find me a pair of walking trousers that fitted my larger (but actually average) size. At the time they rose to the challenge and helped me to understand some of the issues surrounding plus size outdoor gear.