Unlocking access for all to the countryside this summer

Families of all ages and abilities have easier access to hundreds of acres of open Oxfordshire countryside this summer, thanks to an ongoing initiative to replace old-fashioned stiles with gates.

Across the county, a series of conservation and volunteer groups, backed by funding from groups including the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE2) have been working hard to make rights of way easier and safer to explore on foot, by bicycle and on horseback.

SCPMV volunteers installing a wooden kissing gate at Woodcote
Work on some of the most successful schemes has been undertaken by the South Chilterns Path Maintenance Volunteers (SCPMVs), part of the Chilterns Society, which this month (June) celebrates having replaced 200 stiles with gates, alongside its other work of the installation of waymark posts and path clearance programmes.
SCPMV volunteers hard at work in Goring

Having taken a couple of years to complete because the need to tailor work to that of farmers and landowners, one of the SCPMV’s biggest projects has been the installation of 23 gates to replace stiles on a route from Goring via Checkendon village to Ipsden and beyond – meaning it is now fully accessible to people with minor walking disabilities and those with little or no sight.

Elsewhere in Oxfordshire, a separate project undertaken by Grove Parish Council was in Grove, where funding was provided for the installation of 16 gates and three footbridges, including replacing more than a dozen stiles along a three mile circular route from the village.

TOE2 provided almost £5,000 towards each scheme, with much of the funding coming from Grundon Waste Management through the Landfill Communities Fund. Director Fiona Danks, says more money is available for grants and the charity is keen to hear from other organisations who want to promote access and encourage walking.

“The beauty of the Oxfordshire countryside is there to be enjoyed by everyone, not just those who are physically fit and able,” she said. “Installing gates instead of stiles means so many more people can take advantage of the wide open spaces, whether they are families with pushchairs, those in wheelchairs, or people with other physical impairments.”

Howard Dell, the Chiltern Society’s SCPMV facilitator, said: “We know from the numerous unprompted comments we receive from walkers we meet while working on the paths, how much the replacement of stiles by gates is appreciated by all ages.

“We are deeply grateful for all the help and support we have had organisations such as TOE2, Grundon Waste Management and Oxfordshire County Council, as well as others such as the parish councils and local landowners, who have helped us in our endeavours to improve accessibility for the less able to Oxfordshire’s countryside.”

Digging in – SCPMV voulnteers install a gate at MapleDurham

Overall, since 2011, TOE2 and Grundon have awarded more than £17,000 to the South Chiltern’s group and, applauding their work, Fiona continued: “SCPMV has been fantastically successful because of the deep commitment and extremely high standard of work shown by its members and we are grateful for what they have done to help their local communities.

“These are exactly the type of schemes we want to support and TOE2 would love to see similar projects happening elsewhere in the county.”

TOE2 works with Oxfordshire County Council’s Rights of Way Improvement Plan (ROWIP) and the Oxfordshire County Council Countryside Access Team, and Fiona says it is particularly looking for schemes which fulfil at least one of four different access criteria:

  • Improving access for all – which includes installation of easy-to-use gates and better surfaces for those with difficulty walking or who use wheelchairs
  • Strategic routes – opening up footpaths which link with well-known paths such as the Ridgeway or Thames Path, or which create circular routes
  • Projects which encourage people to be more active – for example linking two parts of a parish which might be split by open countryside
  • Improvements which support sustainable healthcare – such as improving footpath surfaces so more parents walk their children to school rather than taking the car

Other successful access projects have included the Northend Connection project, transforming a footpath on the edge of Watlington which is an important link between the Chiltern Way, the Oxfordshire Way and the Ridgeway. There, within a few hundred metres, walkers had to clamber over five increasingly dilapidated stiles, but thanks to the work of the volunteers, these have now been replaced by wooden kissing gates.

Elsewhere, £4,000 of funding from TOE2 and Grundon recently enabled the resurfacing of Chalgrove’s Mill Lane footpath. This means villagers can enjoy year-round access to the recreation ground and open countryside instead of having to cope with a very muddy path which became inaccessible during winter months.

Toni Robinson, Grundon’s compliance manager and TOE2 representative, said: “All these fantastic projects are a great example of what can be achieved when local communities work together for the benefit of everyone and we’re proud to support such sterling work.”

The Landfill Communities Fund helps benefit the lives of people who live close to landfill sites by awarding grants for environmental, heritage and community projects

To find out how to apply for a TOE2 grant, visit www.trustforoxfordshire.org.uk

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