Off-road rage

Posted by Ed Douglas on 11/05/2012
Off-road rage? 4WD vehicles at Stanage.

The Peak District is under attack from illegal off-road driving. With outrage reaching fever pitch, is it time that off-roading became extinct? Ed Douglas gets behind the wheel.

It’s Sunday morning at the top of the Limb Valley on the outskirts of Sheffield. A rambler walking his dogs up the path towards a stile encounters a couple of mountain bikers lifting their bikes over. The rambler tells the bikers they’re on a footpath, not a bridleway, and not legally allowed to ride this trail. The mountain bikers explain – in the frankest terms – just how unconcerned they are with his opinion and ride off down the hill.

There are all kinds of reactions to this scenario, which happened, but not to me. If you’re a mountain biker, you may be frustrated by the lack of trails linking out into the Peak District and how little progress has been made in accommodating the huge growth in biking in the last ten years. You might resent how dog-owners seem to think that hanging plastic bags of shit from trees equates to responsible disposal of their mess.

You may also fume at how ramblers assume the countryside is just for them, that they tend to be older and bad-tempered and unwilling to compromise. Or you might be infuriated at how some people are quick to use the law when it defends their interest, but ignore it when it doesn’t. I can feel the resentment bubbling up. Soon it will cross the threshold of that current default mode of some parts of the public and most Daily Mail readers – outrage.

There’s a lot of outrage in the Peak District right now, a lot of tempers flaring. Trawl through online forums for various activities – actually, don’t bother because I’ve done it for you – and you get the impression temperatures are rising, even in the depths of winter. There’s been a recreation boom in the Peak District in the last twenty years. When John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher, mountain biking barely existed – ditto paragliding. Organised events and races have mushroomed. Four-wheel-drive vehicles have got cheaper. More people own horses. Trouble is, we’re having so much fun it’s starting to hurt.

The tribe under most scrutiny in the Peak District is off-road drivers – the pantomime villains of this drama. (Although be careful how you use the phrase ‘off road’ – see glossary – because they argue quite correctly that they’re on roads, just ones without tarmac.) The image you’ve got in your head right now is of a middle-aged bloke with some tats and a beer belly sat in an ageing Range Rover trundling under Stanage. Or else a biker dressed for Star Wars, spattered with mud, racing along Longstone Edge. I’m betting you’re not thinking of a woman, and you’re not thinking of someone who reads poetry.

Such clichés have an element of truth – but are often misleading. Let me give you two scenarios. A couple of years ago, just a few hundred yards from the Limb Valley on Blacka Moor, three bikers interrupted my own Sunday morning ramble, powering up a trod across the heather.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” I told them.

The leader raised his visor. Bearded, around forty years old. Not some kid out on the razz from one of Sheffield’s less-favoured neighbourhoods.

“Yeah, we’re lost. Sorry.” This was an obvious lie. There are no legal trails nearby and his number plate was obscured with carefully packed mud, a common tactic for bikers breaking the law.

“You know perfectly well where you are.” The biker’s face darkened, and I got a stream of abuse before he and his mates turned around and sped off, chewing up the ground as they went.

Then again, on a trail near Bradwell Moor, I once blocked the path of a biker, and suggested he was also breaking the law. The ‘crosser’ raised his goggles – but this time I got a smile.

“I don’t think so mate, but let’s have a look at the map.” Seriously, this man should have been working for the United Nations. Not only was he legal, he gave me a dazzling seminar on the legal status of the track we were on. I’m willing to bet he reads poetry too, although obviously the manly stuff, like Tennyson. We parted on warm terms.

It’s the former view of off-road drivers the media and some pressure groups focus on in the current debate. And without doubt those breaking the law are having a crippling effect on the prospects of legal off-road driving in the Peak District.

Yet more – most – of my encounters with bikers have been like that with the diplomat. They usually slow down, often nod a greeting and try to accommodate other users, even when those other users are hostile. And they’re not the only people out having fun and breaking the law. Even climbers do it. Should all of us be banned for the reckless actions of a few?

I can’t think of another representative body more conscious of how their sport impacts the public than the Trail Riders Fellowship. Their code of conduct is exemplary. And gosh, do they know the law. The clearest explanation of the complex and sometimes dysfunctional legislation that determines the classification of rights of way in Britain is on the websites of vehicle user groups. They also rely on some of the best legal representation available.

All that muscle is necessary: vehicle user groups are locked in a kind of trench warfare in the courts over each and every trail whose status comes under scrutiny. For each one there are hundreds of pages of evidence to consider. Lake District officers produced a file 600 pages long for DEFRA to decide recently that Walna Scar Road should be confirmed as a restricted byway, closing it to motorised traffic after years of controversy.

National parks, because of their special status, have struggled to accommodate the growth of motorised recreation. They have a statutory duty to protect the parks’ cultural and natural heritage while making them accessible to the public and looking out for local communities. That poses some fundamental questions. What sort of activities should be allowed in a national park? Is motor-sport appropriate? Is it more or less appropriate than, say, grouse shooting?

The phrase ‘quiet enjoyment’ is often used in offering a definition of what’s acceptable. But it doesn’t have any legal status and, as an idea, it’s a tough one to define. Stanage can seem like Oxford Street on a summer weekend – and some might feel that climbing breaks their definition of ‘quiet enjoyment’.

There is a mechanism for deciding between conservation and recreation: the Sandford Principle. The principle is often assumed to mean that conservation trumps recreation, but that’s not quite how it stands. When the Sandford Principle was included in the 1995 Environment Act, the wording was more nuanced, stating that “greater weight” be given to” the purpose of conserving and enhancing the [park’s] natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage.”

Still, that phrase ‘cultural heritage’ is important. Some motor-sport advocates have tried to argue that since we’re dealing with roads here, albeit unsealed ones, ‘natural beauty’ doesn’t come into it. Yet, they also argue green lanes have a history stretching back hundreds of years – their claims for usage rely on them. That sounds to me like cultural heritage. The state of, for example, the Long Causeway under Stanage is a tragedy. It used to be paved with worn stones, just like the trail on the moor above, but that surface is long gone and we’re left with a rubble-strewn mess. Not only has the Peak’s cultural heritage been damaged, Derbyshire County Council’s repairs to the Causeway have proved short-lived – and weren’t of a sufficient standard to allow horse-riders to return.

The Peak District has tried hard to accommodate motorised vehicles on legal routes through education and consensus. This process was spearheaded by Operation Blackbrook – a worthy co-operation between the police, the park, residents and user groups. Other national parks have been far quicker to reach for the legal instrument of choice in banning motorised vehicles: the Traffic Regulation Order (TRO).

This is partly because the Peak District National Park Authority (PDNPA) isn’t responsible for maintaining the Peak’s roads, unlike, for example, the Yorkshire Dales. That responsibility falls to Derbyshire County Council, which has been glacially slow to respond to the growing clamour for action from other user groups.

Nevertheless, the Peak does have the authority to issue TROs under provisions in the National Environment and Rural Communities Act – and it’s come under huge pressure to use that power. Last year the authority finally issued a TRO to ban motorised vehicles from Chapel Gate, a notoriously eroded track running from Rushup Edge to Barber Booth in Edale. Yet even this toe in the water has been contentious.

TROs come in three flavours, permanent, temporary and experimental, the option chosen for Chapel Gate. Issuing them is strewn with pitfalls. Lack of maintenance isn’t a justification, and there have to be sufficient grounds or an order will be open to legal challenge.

The Trail Riders Fellowship is challenging the Chapel Gate TRO in the High Court on several grounds, not least that there wasn’t much experimenting planned by the PDNPA to find out how responsible motor vehicles are for the damage. They claim a substantial portion is caused by water erosion. The upshot is more work for lawyers funded by the taxpayer and recreational groups. This prompted one biker to suggest acidly: “Here’s a novel thought. Why not invest some resources on route maintenance and concentrate legal efforts on those breaking law?” The monster-truck-sized irony is that the DCC have actually repaired Chapel Gate at a cost of tens of thousands.

On the other side of this very deep divide are local residents and other users whose interests have been compromised. In the last couple of years their voices have grown louder. One of the reasons so much pressure is being exerted now on the PDNPA is the recent co-ordinated action of parish councils galvanised by voters fed up with the noise and damage from motor vehicles. They have grown impatient, even angry at what they perceive is an unwillingness to grasp the nettle.

This frustration has coalesced into new or resurgent campaign groups, like the Forum for Ancient Byways, which brings together parish councils mostly in the Hope Valley, Rocking the BOAT, focussing on Longstone Edge, and most ominously of all, if you’re an off-road driver, the Peak District Green Lanes Alliance. This is modelled on its sabre-toothed big brother in the Yorkshire Dales, where the national park authority has issued many more TROs, although not always successfully.

The Green Lanes Alliance brings together local residents, conservation bodies and recreation groups. The horse-riding lobby group Peak Horse Power, formed in 2010, is particularly vocal, especially its vice-chairwoman Patricia Stubbs, whose cracks of the whip in the letters pages of the local press get an equally robust response from vehicle users.

Off-roaders say that they have as much right as anyone to enjoy the special landscape in exercising their legal rights. They point out that all kinds of recreation causes damage, including walking. If local authorities are so cash-strapped they can’t maintain their rights of way properly, then that’s a problem for all of us; vehicle users shouldn’t be criminalised for it.

I think if climbers faced the same level of opposition as off-road drivers, we’d find the experience deeply uncomfortable. Yet they must still answer some serious questions, if they’re to resist the gradual extinction of their sport.  I can understand the idea of driving green lanes being a journey, in the same way a walk or run can be. But the suspicion is that some drivers like their green lanes to have obstacles and challenges, to spice up the day.

I put this question to Richard Entwhistle from the Peak District Vehicle Users Group, an articulate spokesman for the 4WD and motorbike lobby. “There’s truth in that. Some will come and use a damaged road for the challenge. They will see it as a ‘pay and play’ venue where you don’t have to pay, and they’ll complain when the road is put right. But then again mountain bikers did that when the Houndkirk Road was fixed. They complained louder than anyone. But these are roads, not adventure playgrounds.”

Entwhistle argues that the way to solve the problem in the Peak District is to maintain unsealed roads properly, removing their appeal for those looking for some cheap trialling. He was also intimately involved in Operation Blackbrook, which has lost impetus with the retirement of the police officer who ran it, Kevin Lowe. “He was very good at banging heads together.”

What about the problem of illegal driving? “There’s only so much we can do. We can encourage people to join responsible user groups like ours, but ultimately it’s not our job to sort out those who break the law. That’s the job of the police.”

Entwhistle points out that under the Police Reform Act (2002), police have the authority to issue warnings and seize vehicles if those warnings are ignored.

The PDNPA has said it will continue to work with vehicle user groups and other interests through Local Access Forums to find compromise. But there has been a clear shift of attitude in favour of issuing more TROs. Campaign groups are waiting to see if this tough talk in the Peak District will be followed by action. There’s a new note of despair among some off-roaders that the tide has turned against them, and that with them gone other recreational users will follow.

Henry Norman of mountain-biking pressure group Ride Sheffield is not convinced his sport will be next. “An engine makes quite a difference. The noise, smell and sheer bulk of vehicles can be quite imposing.”

Despite some bad experiences with off-roaders, he doesn’t want to see them banned. “Unfortunately, it is a minority of users that do the damage, but that minority are out of reach of the responsible and organised users.”

Mountain biking also has its fringe element. Occasional hostility towards mountain bikers at Local Access Forums has persuaded some to ride where they like. But, says Norman, “mountain bikers have to try and be whiter than white, we need to show that we are willing to be able to cooperated and to be able to behave. Otherwise we will make very little positive progress.” Without a national representative body like the BMC to lobby on their behalf, and with fewer rights in law than other countryside users, mountain bikers find themselves in a weaker position than climbers.

Mountain-biking trail centres, Norman adds, are recruiting a new kind of biker, highly skilled but uncertain of their responsibilities in the countryside: “These riders, with no malice intended, don’t necessarily know where they can or can’t ride. They’re just out to have fun.”

The unpalatable truth is that these tensions around recreational use of the national parks are set to grow. In an era of austerity, rights-of-way budgets look horribly vulnerable. Things are going to get worse, not better. The Roych, one of the most heavily-used vehicle tracks in the Peak District, is regularly maintained as part of the Pennine Bridleway. Yet that could soon be lost in the next round of cuts.

It seems ludicrous – and bitterly ironic in this Olympic year – that the nation’s rights of way network, a critical part of our infrastructure, should be so undervalued even as the Government frets about declining participation in sport and obesity. If different user groups are going to co-exist in something like harmony, it will take more money and a change in attitude.

We’ll need a greater focus on responsibilities rather than rights, on consideration for others rather than blind prejudice. So, next time you’re in the Peak, try smiling more. And in the meantime, give quiet thanks climbing was recognised in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.


BMC member Ed Douglas is a freelance journalist. When not researching arcane off-road terminology, he’s often found smiling in the Peak.


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Anonymous User
Heard of the Blue Ribbon Coalition in the US? Check out:

The BlueRibbon Coalition is a national non-profit organization dedicated to protecting responsible recreational access to public lands and waters. We want to keep your land open for use, whether you recreate on a mountain bike, snowmobile, motorcycle, personal watercraft, ATV, four-wheel drive, horse, or your hiking boots.

Funded by Yamaha, Suzuki at all


Anonymous User
Thanks for the first sensible and open analysis of the situation facing vehicular users of the unsurfaced network that I have read outside of the motorised community. The use of the label "Offroader" to incorrectly blame vehicle users for all the ills of the countryside is particularly galling to those of us responsible vehicle users. The term is designed and banded about by a very small number of narrow-minded bigots whose only satisfaction in life seems to be to stop other peoples' enjoyment of the countryside in their own way. I am a TRF member and Peak District resident and abide by the Code of Conduct when riding. Meeting other countryside users is almost always amicable and enjoyable but, unfortunately, these bigots are hell bent on demonising my passion and turn a normal, tax-paying and law-abiding citizen into a despised criminal. I have health problems that restrict the distance I can walk or cycle significantly so access to the countryside by motorcycle is both enjoyable and a valuable source of physical exercise.
Their influence with local authorities and the PDNPA is staggeringly out of proportion to their numbers. I estimate that there are less than 100 people involved in the anti-vehicular movement yet they manage to get both local and national legislation enacted and constantly nag at the authorities to impose restrictions via TROs until the authorities ignore their legal duties to uphold the rights of all rights of way users just to get them to go away. A perfect example has happened today where this discriminatory pressure has caused the PDNPA to adopt a formal consultation on imposing TROs on Long Causeway and Roych Clough.
The intentions of these campaigners would be completely outside the law if they were directed against a racial, gender or religious group but by the propagation of several "Rural Myths" such as damage to routes being all down to vehicular use and that there was no vehicular use of unsurfaced roads prior to 2004 in the Peak District are designed to make them seem legitimate. My personal experience of riding Chapel Gate regularly dates from the late 1970s leaves me with no doubt that 20 years without a scrap of maintenance is the primary reason why the route deteriorated so badly from rain damage. Following the destructive tarmacing of the route in 1991 that stopped the natural drainage of the route, progressively frequent heavy rain over the intervening years simply washed the whole route away. Anyone visiting the route recently since vehicles have been excluded will see that the same process is happening again despite the recent repairs so vehicles cannot be blamed for this.
Be in no doubt, once routes are closed to motorised vehicles other user groups will come into these bigots' cross-hairs. Cyclists are blamed by horse riders for being too fast and silent on approach resulting in the spooking of unschooled mounts so they should be banned from Bridleways on safety grounds. Unlikely? Watch this space
Anonymous User
Good read! Im from Bradwell, born and lived in the park all my life, I walk all over the place, I mountain bike, and im also an offroader. I completely agree with what you say with regards to illegal offroaders, I to would go out of the way to stop them. Personally I think there are a few problems. Uneducated offroaders, uneducated walkers that most of the time don't even live here. And the biggest problem are the useless local police force whom equally don't know enough to combat the problem, let alone the enthusiasm.
Anonymous User
People must never forget that mountain bikes are akin to motorized dirt bikes/motorcycles (without the motor -- unless they are equipped with a silent electric motor). Mountain bikes can do quite a bit of damage because so many people are led, falsely, to believe that they are benign. Motors bad, pedals good.
Mountain bikers' usual ploy is to go ahead and ride and build on a trail and off-trail (that they are not supposed to be on) -- then to ask permission later. They have gained a lot of inroads because they have been so good at fooling people like Ed Douglas and other landowners by telling them they are just out for a nice bike ride in the woods, and care about the environment. Don't mind the motorcycle-like full-face helmet, nor the full body armour many mountain bikers wear. They are just "bikes", after all. The knobby fat wheels, dual suspension, and disc brakes don't do any damage at all. Really? If you don't like the motorized crowd, why would you wish to give into the mountain bikers? There really isn't that much difference between the two off-road enthusiasts. One mountain bikers take over a trail, hikers will need eyes in the back of their heads and be ready to jump out of the way when encountering smiling mountain bikers who will "own" the woods. Give them an inch and they will ride miles over you. "Responsible" motorized vehicle users and mountain bikers do not ride on forested and natural park trails. Wheels belong on the road. Period.
Anonymous User
A very good, independent, and well researched article which goes some way to understanding the views of people who enjoy the tranquility of the Peak, whether on two legs or two wheels. I am a member of both the BMC and the TRF. I live in the Peak and over the last ten years have enjoyed walking, climbing, running and motorcycling in the area. Before I took up motorcycling, I was certainly one of those who growled in disdain at the site of trail bikes and 4x4s. While I still don't really get the 4x4 thing, I do respect the right of others to enjoy the countryside in different ways, provided they are legal, responsible, and considerate of the lansdcape and other users. It makes me very sad when I hear bigots on both sides slagging off ramblers/off-roaders. I have friends in climbing circles who are pretty unforgiving when it comes to trail bikes, but I have to say it's the most enjoyable activity I have ever taken part in, in the Peak. It's phsically and mentally demanding, and requires a high degree of skill. I have also discovered places I never came across as a walker or climber. I much prefer exploring trails quietly on my own, rather than riding in big groups, and always slow down for horses and walkers. And I'm not clogging up the roadside verges with gas guzzling cars. It's a real shame that so much biterness and hostility has been generated in such a beautiful area. More understanding and tolerance is needed on all sides.
An excellent article. It's so refreshing to read something with some balance to it, rather than a certain user group forcing their agenda upon another whilst remaining deaf.

I feel that, in order to make even a little progress, responsible, decent green laners (note I do not use the label 'off roaders'), instead of fighting against all other user groups, we should instead do all we can to concentrate our attention on those who choose to act irresponsibly. If we self-police, and are seen to do so, I suspect that hostility towards us will ease somewhat. So if you catch someone behaving irresponsibly or illegally (anywhere, not just the Peak District) collect as much evidence as you can and report it to the police. Further, if you find a lane has been damaged through overuse, or has become overgrown or litter-strewn, get out and sort it! The more responsible we are, the more we can only aid our case. But by doing nothing, or expecting others to do it for you, I hold little hope for the future of our chosen leisure pursuits.
Anonymous User
I have a disability due to an accident. I can't walk far and I can't ride a bicycle. I used to hike and mountain bike and now I can't. I grew up in the countryside and I'm passionate about it. After my accident I went out and bought an old Land Rover. I love to use it on legal byways and I treat hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders with absolute respect. It makes me furious if I ever see off readers being used illegally or inconsiderately. But the number of legal byways is being heavily reduced after campaigning from militant hikers and mountain bikers. Should I just accept that I should be banned from the countryside because I have no other way of accessing it or should I choose to ignore the closures and use them illegally? The law should punish the lawless and the inconsiderate, not just treat everybody as if they are a criminal and discriminate against them.
Anonymous User
What a fantastic and well written article.

There really is room for all of us who want to enjoy the great outdoors.

If I wanted to avoid motorised vehicles I'd keep away from byways!

However, if I was a horse rider or using motorised transport I could not guarantee walkers wouldn't be using the routes I had chosen!

We are only on this planet a few short years. Let's all be tolerant of each other and show respect.
We can all enjoy these routes in harmony.
Anonymous User
The sensational opening sentence about the Peal District being 'under attack from illegal off-roading' is misleading. The campaigns to ban recreational vehicles from public byways are not provoked by the actions of a thoughtless or illegal minority of these 'off-roaders'. Rather it is the increase in the number of participants in greenlaning since the mid 1990s that has caused the value of these roads as an amenity for walkers. cyclists and horseriders to decrease and with this has come attempts to restore their value as amenity for these groups by banning the drivers. The national park authorities themselves pursue this policy under the pretext of conserving and enhancing the [park’s] natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. This policy is enshrined in section 67 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities act which gives the national park authorities to make TROs in sub C class roads, which are the one's used for recreation. The national park authority that lobbied most vigorously for this law is also the most belligerent towards the greenlaners due to an unfortunate accident of history and geography that made a third of the the sub C class public roads in the Yorkshire Dales have vehicle rights. This makes the issue of sharing there particularly fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. This national park authority devised the procedure called 'vulnerability mapping' which is supposed to identify the precious aspects of the countryside threatened by the vehicle traffic on public byways that make TROs imperative. The fact that this 'vulnerability mapping' is only applied to BOATs and UCRs and not to A, B and C class roads suggests that it is a pretext for excluding drivers from these minor roads to enhance or preserve their value as an amenity for walkers, cyclists and horse riders who are deemed to have a greater right to use these roads. In other words the NPA is trying to alter the proportion of vehicle to non vehicle recreational routes in favour of non vehicle users. Exactly the same thing is happening in the Peak District. The Friends of the Peak District and their allies Peak Horsepower have stated that they want to reduce the proportion of sub C class roads open to vehicles so that horseriders in particular can enjoy more vehicle free routes because sharing is intolerable.

We should not forget that as one poster pointed out these people are a tiny number of fanatical activists who claim to be acting on behalf of the majority. For instance Joyce Poulter's 'Rocking the Boat' campaign only attracted about 15 people to it's inaugural meeting in a village of 980 people. Despite their small numbers the antis are allowed to hold meetings with officials where they present their demands for particular lanes to be closed to vehicles and harangue and browbeat officials.
Anonymous User
Great and well balanced article, and some excellent and informed comments with a few exceptions, notably the vitriol about 'wheels belong on the road. Period.' aimed at mountainbikers.

There are many responsible users of all forms of enjoyment of our countryside, and plenty if walkers drop rubbish if we're going to get personal.

There's a concept of 'shared use' and in places even 'shared ownership'.

Education and cooperation gets results. Being bloody minded and hating everyone that wants to do something different is not likely to enhance the well being of yourself or those around you, and scarcely brings real results, even if it does occasionally bring a paper victory.

It's not too late for all user groups to get together in a sane manner for the benefit of our green spaces and actually do something positive instead of throwing rocks at each other.
Anonymous User
People walk in the countryside to avoid noisy, smelly urban tanks and 'hair driers'. We don't want to have to make way for stuff driven and ridden by people who act like spoilt children with not enough to do in their lives. What a god-awful occupation which off-roaders try to excuse as some kind of constructive and environmental occupation. It hardly surprises me that you rush to say the wonderful Prince Edward supports you. He is hardly any kind of example by which to excuse a mindless activity.


The future of Stanage: have your say

A public consultation is currently running to gather views on the future management of the North Lees Estate which contains a large section of the iconic Stanage Edge. The BMC is responding to this consultation but we are encouraging individual climbers and walkers who are passionate about this landscape to respond too. We have written this article to give some background and context for those who are not familiar with the situation the estate finds itself in.
Read more »

Bill 'Mr Stanage' Gordon awarded a BEM

The face of Stanage, Bill Gordon, was awarded a British Empire Medal in the Queen's birthday honours list for services to Wildlife, particularly the Protection of the Ring Ouzel.
Read more »

Prince Edward recognises BMC efforts in the Peak District

The sterling efforts of BMC Peak District volunteers in sticking up for Stanage Edge were recognised by royalty this weekend.
Read more »

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