The pinstripes of the City may be more glamorous than a cagoule, but for Nicky Warden, campaigning for the Ramblers' Association is far more fun than pensions law. Jennifer Currie meets the lawyer who just didn't want to earn those fees
Nicky Warden knew she wasn't destined to be a solicitor by the end of her training contract at City firm Taylor Joynson Garrett. “I don't think I had thought through exactly what I wanted to do and I didn't choose the right firm,” recalls Warden, who is now spearheading one of the Ramblers' Association's most important national campaigns. “I mean, the idea of target-setting and being called a fee-earner,” she adds incredulously. “I just didn't fit in with the whole commercial ethos of the firm.”
Life as a trainee was not really how Warden imagined either. “I think I drew the short straw,” she says. “I started off on pensions and I wasn't particularly enthralled by that. My next six months were in conveyancing, which was alright, and after that it was litigation. But the partner I was working for was involved in a massive case with a whole room filled with files so my role was basically just photocopying. The final six months spent in intellectual property were actually really interesting and I started to think maybe I could really get into it. But it was too late as I had already been put off, so I left the firm and went travelling instead.”
Upon her return to the UK, Warden was still intent on working as a solicitor, but planned to apply for jobs in different areas of the profession.
“In the meantime, I did some voluntary work for Amnesty International UK,” she says. “I had never worked for a non-governmental organisation before and I started to really get into the campaigning work.”
Warden's next move, to the Ramblers' Association, coincided with the Labour Party's general election victory in 1997.
“When they were in opposition, the Labour Party had promised the Ramblers they would introduce the right to roam on open country once they were in office,” Warden recalls. “After they were elected, Labour launched a consultation period to decide whether freedom to roam should be encouraged by voluntary means or by legislation. But we argued that history showed the voluntary approach would not work and that only legislation could provide the clarity and certainty required for walkers and landowners on this issue.”
Thanks to constant lobbying by Warden's team and intense pressure from thousands of passionate walkers across the nation, the Countryside and Rights of Way (Crow) Act was finally passed through Parliament during 2000 and is due to swing into motion by 2005.
“I had to sit through lots of committee meetings and sessions in the House of Lords and the Commons,” Warden recalls. “We basically wanted to try and defend the legislation from attack and some of the suggested amendments would have weakened it terribly. We had to make sure that the Government did not back down.”
Between now and 2005, the Coun-tryside Agency has been charged with remapping every inch of land that will be affected by the new right to roam laws.
“The freedom to roam will apply to mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land and the Government estimates that these areas cover around 10 per cent of England and Wales or 4.5 million acres,” says Warden. “Some of this land is already accessible, but much of it is not. These new laws will basically change the presumption that you can't go anywhere without the express permission from the landowner first. Although there will always be some types of land we cannot walk on for good reason, such as areas of conservation, it is still a major step forward.”
Despite her years of legal training and her current role in driving forward this massive piece of legislation, Warden claims she has never had to put her solicitor's skills to the test.
“I do think it helps to have had that training. But I would not say I was hired because I have a law qualification,” she says firmly. “Although, saying that, some people do seem to be impressed by it. But it's not directly relevant and I don't need to have had that training to do my job.”
While Warden readily admits that access to the countryside is an issue guaranteed to stir up controversy whenever and wherever it raises its head, she hopes that attitudes will change when the new legislation finally rolls out across the country.
“There has always been some kind of hostility [between landowners and walkers]. Our members often come to us to report difficulties, such as obstructed pathways, or even someone telling them they cannot go onto the land. There is a lot of fear out there among landowners about what is going to happen but I really don't think that there will be any trouble or mischief-making.”
'I would not say I was hired because I have a law qualification. Although, saying that, some people do seem to be impressed by it'
While some landowners may be kept awake by visions of the General Public streaming ten abreast across their property, Warden predicts that life will actually get better for those on both sides of the fence.
“For a start there are going to be more places open to walkers so that's a good thing. Secondly, it's not everyone who wants to walk at the weekends.”
In fact, even Warden admits that she is not a rambler by choice and emphasises that outdoor pursuits are not a compulsory part of her job.
“But I have certainly done a lot more walking since I started working at the Ramblers' Association, and I do enjoy it,” says Warden, who took a group of politicians out for a stroll during the most recent Labour party conference in Blackpool as part of an awareness-raising exercise.
What with the advent of Crow and the Ramblers' Association's plans to boost its membership and profile by revamping its cagoule 'n' thermos image, Warden is perfectly happy not being a lawyer.
“I have never regretted leaving the law,” she says happily. “Although I suppose I have regretted that I went into an environment that was not suited to me. But here the nature of my job is always changing. There is a long way to go and it is never going to get dull.”