I’ve found my dream job – thanks to that nasty fall into wild garlic | Adrian Chiles

Nothing could be more fulfilling than making the countryside safe for walkers. No one should have to risk their neck on a rickety stile

I know what my dream job is, partly thanks to something I once wrote here about a nasty fall I had one Easter Sunday. A riveting piece, which you doubtless remember. It was on Gower, during a long walk, when a knackered old stile by a patch of wild garlic proved no match for my bulk. I still sport the scar. Two years on from this unhappy incident I was stopped while out shopping in Sketty, a suburb of Swansea. This nice woman told me that her husband, being in charge of paths for Swansea council, had read the piece, worked out where the now-destroyed stile was, and got it fixed.

I expressed my gratitude, but my first, thrilling thought was this: there is a head of paths? That’s an actual thing? How wonderful. I want that job. I want to get up every morning, sift through reports of poor signage, overgrown-ness and death-trap stiles, consult my maps and then go out and rectify. I believe I have also written about an encounter with some path-clearers. I’m serious about this. I left the woman my number for the path man to call me so we could talk for hours, but he didn’t. If he was worried I’d want his job off him, he was on the right, well, track.

Then last month I met a bloke outside a pub in a small town somewhere who told me he was path officer for that rural council. I yelped in delight, but it quickly turned into one of the most dispiriting conversations I’ve had in a while. He said the only thing he liked about his job was that he could sit around drinking tea doing nothing most days. He said he had next to no budget to do anything about any paths.

Fair enough, that’s annoying, but I discerned no sign that this was a source of regret to him. He said incomers were the problem. He said these people had “unrealistic expectations” of paths. He said they turned up, got their maps out, looked up footpaths, and expected them to be walkable. Idiots. I ventured to say that, to be fair, that’s not the most unreasonable of expectations. He said nothing to this. Instead, in support of his general thrust, he said a lot of paths were overgrown because “no one had walked on them for 20 years”. Idiots. I suggested, as tentatively as I might negotiate a decayed stile, that he could be confusing cause and effect here. Might walkers have not walked the path for the very reason that it was overgrown? He shrugged. Got no budget.

We were back where we started. I had one last question for him. If he hadn’t the means (or, I wasn’t brave enough to add, the inclination) to fix anything, what did he do all day apart from drink tea? He said he mainly answered emails saying he’d be looking into stuff that he knew full well he couldn’t/wouldn’t be looking into. I wondered what this path officer would have done if he’d read in the Guardian about me falling off a stile on his patch. I had a strong image of him driving a six-inch nail into my forehead. Now it’s his job I want; not the Gower bloke’s, who had shown signs of wanting to do at least a bit of what must have been in the job description.

By way of contrast to this unhappy encounter, earlier in the deep midwinter, I was in a pub chatting to a woman with whom I am acquainted. I didn’t know a lot about her, other than she works as a prison officer in a men’s prison. She was just back from two weeks’ holiday somewhere in the Caribbean. I said to her, all ironic like, that she must be really looking forward to getting back to work in that prison of hers. “Oh no,” she replied, as unironically as you like. “I can’t wait to go back in; I really love my job.” I felt embarrassed to have apparently made the lazy assumption that she wouldn’t. I probably didn’t help myself by then coming out with something patronising along the lines of, “That’s so refreshing to hear.”

In my defence, however, “I really love my job” is something you hear so rarely that it’s easy to assume the opposite is true. I can count the occasions I’ve heard these words on the fingers of one hand. The woman in the post office in West Sussex; the nurse in Worcester; the barrister in Buckinghamshire; the Amazon driver in Swansea. That these happy campers stick in my memory tells its own story. Sometimes people will speak with feeling of their loathing for their work. Sometimes, as above, it’s implied.

Sometimes, encouragingly, you come across people obviously enjoying their work, happy to be of service to you. This is nice, for all concerned. But too often you get a shrug that indicates the shrugger’s job is merely tolerable, a necessary evil. If that’s how it feels, then I am in no place to judge them, not least because the work I do is, frankly, often some combination of well-rewarded, rewarding, exhilarating, fascinating and even glamorous. And also because, disgracefully, I do a fair amount of moaning myself.

Still, I can’t bear to think of so many of us, in the UK and elsewhere, existing like this. I veer between thinking it’s because people are generally poorly paid, badly managed and ill-equipped in terms of resources and training. Or because, as a species, we’re disinclined to work if we can possibly avoid it and tend to resent being told what to do by anyone for anyone.

In the meantime, before I’m too old to walk all day, wield a strimmer, or learn how to mend a stile, I’m determined to make one of those path officer jobs my own. I’ll supply my own strimmer if necessary. And I’ll power it down to tell any passing walkers how happy I am in my work.

  • Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist


Adrian Chiles

The GuardianTramp

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