If it takes ten ramblers six hours to uncover a 100 yard-long ancient monument, how long would it take them to convert 34 stiles in the Loxley Valley?
Jan Randall of the Sheffield Ramblers Fixit team urged caution. “We don’t work after lunch,” she stressed. “We’re all in our 70s.”
Until earlier this year, the ancient pathway in question was hidden underground high above the River Loxley, east of Holdworth. A tip off from Sheffield Council’s rights of way unit set the rambling pensioners digging alongside council rangers, and the ancient ‘causey’ was revealed.
“We can’t be certain as to the path’s origins,” said pathway researcher and Ramblers champion Terry Howard, “but it is certainly old. And as the causey is a link between local communities and Bradfield Parish Church it seems reasonable to assume it was a ‘church way’ and possibly also a burial or coffin way on the traditional route to consecrated ground at Bradfield Church.”
The Sheffield Ramblers group have joined The Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership and Sheffield Council in the new ‘Bradfield Ancient Ways Improvements’ project.
The £15,300 initiative to improve ancient pathways in the Loxley Valley is one of the first major projects to be granted funding as part of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust’s Heritage Lottery funded initiative to conserve and celebrate the landscape, wildlife and history of north-west Sheffield’s ‘Lakeland.’
(The name of the £3.4 million four year project was inspired by Sheffield Transport Department’s ‘Sheffield Lakeland’ bus tours of the 1950s and 60s around the Peak District reservoirs near Bradfield, Oughtibridge and Stocksbridge).
“When we were working on the path, lots of people stopped and thanked us,” said Jan Randall. “It shows how more and more people are wanting to get out into this area.”
The problem, said Jan, is that older stiles and ageing pathways are no longer suitable for many walkers. Sheffield Council’s rights of way department carried out one of the project’s first improvements by replacing an old narrow ‘squeeze stile’ at Worrall (made from an old telegraph pole) with a simple gateway and steps.
“In theory two people should be able to get through together on a modern pathway,” said David Hogg. “But in this case it was half a person.”
People are bigger these days, David reflected, while contemporary ramblers often keep going well into their 80s and 90s, and carry larger backpacks.
In some cases, when faced with a high or narrow stile over a wall, less confident walkers simply have to turn round and go back, said Jan.
David Kayley regularly helps on walks with visually impaired ramblers.
“Climbing over some stiles is like stepping into the abyss for people with poor eyesight,” he said. “They can get very nervous if they don’t have something solid to step onto, and it needs to be safe for the people supporting them too.”
The Bradfield Ancient Ways Improvements project (also supported by Bradfield Parish Council, the Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust and Bradfield Walkers are Welcome) aims to help more people to access one of Sheffield’s most stunning areas of countryside, whether they’re older, less mobile or simply not quite as fit as the ancient coffin bearers, who might have taken a deceased relative on a barrow over miles of hills and fields to their burial at Bradfield.
The Ramblers Fixit team are all volunteers, and will be working with Sheffield Council to identify problematic stiles and eroded pathways, and then add features such as gates or improved stiles as appropriate. Many old stiles are historical features, said Terry Howard, and will not be removed. But simply adding a handrail to a series of steps on a towering wall can make it accessible for less confident ramblers.
Help will be needed from Outdoor Citizens, said the Fixit team, adding that tight public finances means the public, including younger people and local companies, can do a lot to conserve and improve our local countryside for everyone’s benefit.
Terry Howard said: “Volunteering really is the future.”
For more on volunteering in the Outdoor City see: http://bit.ly/volunteer-parks