LONDON -- They are everywhere in the countryside. You see them on the hills and in the moors, in the woods and along paths by flashing streams. Now and then you may spy one bolting across a highway, or invading a golf course.
Foxes? Deer? The overprotected badger? No, rather a species more numerous. One estimate puts them at over 10 million throughout Britain. Oh, how they breed.
They are the ramblers, the earnest hikers of Britain, devotees of the most popular outdoor recreation in this country.
But not all are idle strollers. Many are purposeful, determined and organized. They know their rights and intend to see them served.
That's why every autumn the Ramblers Association holds a Forbidden Britain Day. Then the hikers, all booted and sweatered, come out in their millions to walk the ancient rights-of-way, to find and point out the places where these public paths-- delineated in the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act -- have been obstructed by farmers, developers, highway builders or simply greedy landowners, of which there are more than a few in Britain.
It's not so much a clash between the private property owners and an army of fresh air fiends. Access to the countryside is fundamental to the British soul; many historical wounds have been inflicted when it has been denied.
What is a ramble, but a stroll in the countryside?
William Hazlitt, an enthusiastic 18th Century rambler, wrote: "Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours' march to dinner -- and then to thinking!"
Actually, it can be defined a little more precisely than that. Sue Larcombe, a spokesman for the Ramblers Association, says a ramble constitutes a walk of two miles or more. The definition is important, for reasons that will come later.
The Ramblers Association has 90,000 paid-up members but acts on behalf of a larger constituency, the 20 percent of the British population who regularly go walking in the countryside.
"We are a high-profile campaigning organization," says Ms. Larcombe. "We lobby the government to make changes in the law regarding access and general countryside protection."
It is an old organization, "formed out of necessity," she says, and then she gives a little history: "There have been walking clubs in Britain since the late 19th Century. It started off as a middle-class leisure, but in the 1930s more and more working-class people began getting involved. But they found themselves barred from large areas of the countryside."
To deal with this, the Ramblers Association was founded in 1935 to unite all the regional and local clubs in England, Scotland and Wales, and "to represent walkers generally and nationally."
The 1949 law mentioned above was one of their first triumphs. It brought about the registering, on definitive maps, of all the public rights-of-way throughout England and Wales. These maps are held by county councils, and are available to the public. They show 140,000 miles of public footpaths, bridle paths, and byways, roads open to both foot and motorized traffic.
But many are blocked. Roads have been run through them without pedestrian bridges to allow safe crossing; farmers have planted crops in them; landowners have fenced them; golf clubs have built over them. These are the kinds of intrusions Forbidden Britain Day calls attention to.
How bad is the situation? According to the Countryside Commission, which advises the government on rural issues, if three Ramblers each set out on a two-mile walk, two of them will not be able to complete it without encountering an obstruction.
One of the problems, according to Jim Lennon, a member of the commission, is "that the majority of the network is not used because of the obstructions. People get discouraged so they return to paths they've walked before. This kind of overuse causes erosion."
Thus, says Mr. Lennon, it would be desirable if the entire network of paths were opened up, if only to spread the traffic around.
And how much walking traffic is there? Throughout Britain, he says, "Each year there are 200 million walks of two miles or more in the countryside."
Which is to say, there's a whole lot of rambling going on.