Beware of the sheep

The seafront at Brighton today. Red flags flying everywhere, to say no bathing.

Once upon a time, I used to walk on designated routes in the UK. I mostly gave that up when I lived in Sheffield and witnessed the devastation of the southern end of the Pennine Way, which I then made a point of avoiding. Well, except in about October, when I’d inevitably get caught out by rapidly approaching darkness and run to the trail for a descent into Edale that would be safe and easy in the dark.

For example, I recollect forest walks in Rothbury in Northumberland: we took the longest route, marked as 5 hours, and it was about 40 minutes leisurely walking (including throwing stick for dog). That’s fairly typical in England, so it came as a bit of a shock a few months later in Jotunheim (Norway), when I found myself taking significantly longer than the advertised times on some of the mountain routes. Maybe I could’ve traversed Glittertind in the advertised time if I hadn’t been carrying full camping gear, but it illustrates the contrast between UK bubblewrap and the real world.

Another recollection is a photo I really should scan. I was recently back from enjoying nature at its grandest in Iceland, and was now taking a week’s cycling in southwest England. This was on a touring bike, with road wheels, drop handlebars, etc, and loaded with camping gear. But I still ride it on not-too-challenging offroad trails. As I emerged from a section of the southwest coast path back onto the paved road, there was a sign saying “dangerous path” pointing the way I’d just come (on the bike ferchrissake), and another “alternative route”. I was sufficiently amused by it to photograph the absurd sign.

So today at the beach, what do I make of the flags?

Well, there was a strong wind blowing, and the waves were breaking vigorously. But nothing exceptional: certainly not like the proper autumn gales of about October. It was high tide, which means the gradient at the waterline is reasonably steep, which makes it much easier to get in and out in rough conditions than at low tide. I’ve been in from the same stretch of beach in far worse, notably back in 1998 when I lived about 3 months in Brighton after returning from Italy, and went swimming every day.

What are the risks? Big waves? Surfers love ’em. Currents? There’s usually a slight current along this beach, but I’ve never encountered one that pulls you out to sea, nor one that any confident swimmer would have trouble making headway against. And that wind was blowing from sea to land, making a doddle of bodysurfing back from anywhere to the beach.

What simple phrase summarises UK attitudes to allowing people into the Great Outdoors? “Beware of the sheep” seems like a great executive summary.

Posted on August 19, 2007, in rants, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I suggest “beware of the lawyer”. Sadly, most of this preposterous risk aversion results from the quite reasonable fear that public bodies have of being sued. The law, and the compensation industry that feeds of it like a leech, routinely take the side of the idiot. Personal responsibility and judgement don’t feature in their thinking, it seems.

  2. Its everywhere now though. Injury lawyers for you and the like are always advertising on tv. The industry is massive.

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