Organising travel is in Stuart’s genes!

The bulb fields near Volendam, Holland.

Stuart Wood is a second generation group travel organiser who learnt much invaluable expertise from going on trips with his  father, Jim. Val Baynton discovers how organising trips has changed in the last 50 years.

Stuart Wood is Vice-President and Life Member of Bexhill Horticultural Society and has been organising day trips and short breaks for his members since he joined the society in 1994.

For Stuart Wood, organising holidays and outings is second nature; he learnt the ‘tools of the trade’ as a young boy, accompanying his father, James (known as Jim), on the trips he organised for the Newport and County Horticultural Society in Monmouthshire in the 1950s. Now, for Bexhill Horticultural Society, he organises around eight one-day outings and one four-night break for his 450 members each year. Members of other local gardening clubs such as the Allotment Society and the Flower Arranging group, which Stuart is also involved with, often join the outings too. Whilst visiting gardens is a priority for his group, Stuart’s trips include historic properties and heritage attractions such as steam railways, and he has several tips to share with other GTOs looking to create varied and good value itineraries. For example, many horticultural societies and gardening clubs are affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), and membership brings many benefits such as special rates at RHS gardens.

Learning the ropes

After the Second World War, there was much interest in gardening as a result of the ‘Digging for Victory’ wartime effort and the Horticultural Society in Newport was well attended, says Stuart. The society had talks during the winter evenings from a variety of experts and nurseries such as Williamson Nursery in the Wye Valley (the pre-cursor of the national Wyevale Garden Centre chain). In the summer, the group would visit the places they had heard about in these talks and the trips were organised by Jim.

Jim was an assistant clerk in the goods department at the Great Western Railway and qualified for free tickets for his family for up to eight journeys a year, and discounted fares after that, so it was easy, Stuart says, ‘for dad to go to venues to check their facilities and to organise the details for the society’s visit later in the year, and I would often go along with him.’ In those days, Stuart recalls, days out took time to organise as they didn’t have a phone or a car, and so requests for information, and making and confirming bookings for coach hire and the attractions, all had to be made by letter. The society usually travelled on coaches hired from the Western Welsh Omnibus Company. He adds, ‘It was fun to go out and about, and I remember the delightful treat of being given an ice-cream during a visit to a cafe in Stratford-upon-Avon, made as part of our preparations for the society outing taking in Shakespeare attractions such as Ann Hathaway’s House.’ Gradually, throughout his childhood, Stuart learnt the ‘ins and outs’ of organising and, as a result, he says, ‘group organising is in my blood.’

Another difference Stuart singles out from organising today is the popularity of evening trips in the 1950s. Stuart explains, ‘So few people had a car and televisions were still rare in most households so people enjoyed going out mid-week on an evening coach trip.’ Popular destinations were private gardens and nurseries in the Wye Valley.

 

Beautiful blossoms at Highdown Chalk.

Stuart takes charge

Managing the Oakhaven Holiday Home in Bexhill, Stuart found he was organising many trips including theatre visits and days out at the races for his guests, who came for holidays in the seaside resort from their homes in Southwark, London. He was also involved in planning itineraries for the groups that visited Bexhill as part of the twinning towns scheme and this was how he met his first wife, Romanie. In 1976, she came to Oakhaven as the leader of a group of disabled adults from Deventer, Holland, and eventually moved to Bexhill and married Stuart. With such experience of, and passion for, organising outings, it was inevitable that when Stuart joined Bexhill Horticultural Society in 1994 – reflecting the interest in growing plants that he had developed as a boy and young man – that he began organising trips for the members, especially as this was an aspect of the society that had lapsed. He also became its Chairman, revitalised the finances and increased the membership of the group.

All in a day

The first trip Stuart arranged for the society was in 1996 to a private garden at Cobblers in Crowborough. This was very pleasant, he recalls, with ponds and herbaceous borders, and it was extremely successful with two coaches of members going along. Since then, Stuart has developed varied

­­itineraries for each year’s programme of eight trips. He works around a year ahead so the itinerary can be published in the diary at the start of each year with reminders in newsletters that are sent by email and by post to members. To add variety and to suit as many members as possible, he selects different days of the week for the trips, varies the start and finishing times and the direction of travel, and in this way the group takes in Hampshire and west of London, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Essex and London itself. In spring 2009, for example, the programme offered Highdown Chalk Pit Gardens, Worthing, in March and Athelhampton House and Garden, Dorchester, in April whilst, in May, the group visited Chichester and the private Cookscroft Garden with a stop at the nearby Aldingbourne Trust Centre.

The group explore at Marle Place in Brenchley.

Stuart generally books a 53-seater coach through Ramblers of Hastings and it is usually full. The group finds the drivers are always friendly and helpful, and the service reliable. Generally, the society travels for around two hours and then stops for refreshments before driving on to the main attraction. The journey home is also broken into two segments. ‘I plan the comfort breaks very carefully,’ Stuart explains. ‘We like to support gardens that are run by disabled groups such as the Aldingbourne Centre and these make ideal short stops as do garden centres and RSPB wildlife reserves. I try to avoid motorway service stations as I think there are so many more interesting places to see and these breaks add value to our day out.’ Other good refreshment stopovers are National Trust properties as restaurants can often be visited without paying an entrance fee (although most of the group are members of The National Trust) and gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), which open to raise funds for charity (see panel on page 42). These, Stuart notes, include Marle Place in Brenchley and are often very unusual, with surprising gardens – sometimes the group can book afternoon tea or lunches, frequently with delicious home made food. ‘Supporting charity is very important to me and it’s great that, whilst we are enjoying ourselves, we can help others.’

A bird’s eye view of the gardens at Sissingshurst Castle, Kent.

Although Stuart ensures his itineraries always include fresh ideas, the society does have some favourite attractions such as Sissinghurst Castle, Sheffield Park and Garden and the gardens at Nymans, which are all close to Bexhill. Further afield, the beautiful chateau Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is also popular. ‘There is so much to see in the gardens and aviary, as well as a good restaurant and garden centre,’ says Stuart.

Over the years, the group has been to just about every National Trust property in the south east. Stuart states, ‘We like to combine buildings and gardens. Some houses can only be visited with a guided tour but generally I don’t book a guide so that members can go at their own pace and focus on the parts of the attraction that interest them most.’ The RHS gardens at Wisley, Rosemoor, Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr regularly feature too. The group can make a complimentary visit each year to one of the gardens as part of the benefits of membership of the RHS, and Stuart makes sure the visits are timed for different seasons so that they get to see varying aspects of the garden .

Breaks away

The group’s annual four-night break is usually in the UK, although they have visited Holland twice (where Stuart’s Dutch connections were very helpful) and Normandy. Stuart masterminded the first trip to Holland in 2002, personally booking the whole itinerary including hotels and excursions. This was a complicated undertaking, he quickly realised, and now he uses a tour operator if travelling abroad, as this helps with currency and insurance issues. The trip was very successful though and, based at the hotel Avifauna at Aplhen ann den Rijn where there’s free access to the adjacent bird park, the group visited the Floriade, which takes place every 10 years, and many gardens including Keukenhof.The second visit was a cruise through the bulb fields and was part of the society’s 80th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

The memorials and gardens at the National Memorial Arboretum touched many members’ hearts.

Stuart continues to organise the breaks within the UK himself, as this gives good value for money, and he adds in as many visits as possible to make the itinerary interesting. Breaks have included Scotland, in 2009, where the programme started in Rutland at Barnsdale Gardens before travelling to Harrogate for an overnight stay, visiting the RHS garden at Harlow Carr. The route north took the society via Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate and the Lake District. Once in Edinburgh, the Royal Yacht Britannia fascinated members and was one of many visits the group made, whilst the return journey allowed time for a call at Tatton Park near Knutsford.

In 2014, the extended break was to Derbyshire and Staffordshire with visits to Bolsover Castle, where the horse dressage was excellent, Lichfield and the National Memorial Arboretum.

The Future looks rosy

Stuart has been organising group travel for much of his life and his role looks set to continue well into the future. It’s something he really enjoys doing as, through it, he supports the local community and many charitable efforts. Sadly his wife, Romanie, died in early 2012 after a long illness but Stuart has found new happiness with Hazel, and they plan to marry soon. Hazel is an avid flower arranger and members from the local Ninfield Flower Group now join in with the Horticultural Society’s trips.

 

The National Gardens Scheme

Cookscroft Garden near Chichester has opened under the NGS scheme for 20 years.

As Stuart Wood notes, the private gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) offer GTOs opportunities for unusual visits to a range of private gardens. The small entrance fee charged is donated to charity. Groups should always pre-book.

The NGS developed from a 19th century movement to train district nurses. After the death of his wife in 1859, Liverpool merchant William Rathbone raised funds to recruit and train nurses to work in deprived areas of the city. This concept of district nursing gained the support of Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria, and it spread across the country as a voluntary organisation. In memory of its 20th century patron, Queen Alexandra, who died in 1925, a special fund was set up to support nurses who were retiring and one of the volunteer council members, Miss Elsie Wagg, suggested that money could be raised by asking people to open their gardens to visitors and charge a modest entry fee that would be donated. In 1927, the NGS was thus established with a suggested donation of a shilling (5 pence) per visitor. In the first year, 609 gardens raised over £8,000.

By 1931, over 1,000 private gardens opened nationally. Country Life magazine produced a handbook to list the open gardens and it became known as The Yellow Book because of its bright cover.

After the Second World War, the National Health Service took on the District Nursing Service but money was still needed to care for retired nurses and to invest in training. In 1980, the National Gardens Scheme Charitable Trust was established as an independent charity. During the 1980s and 1990s, charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Help the Hospices became beneficiaries of the funds raised. Since 2010, a different annual ‘guest’ charity is also supported, chosen from recommendations from NGS volunteers.

Since its foundation, the NGS has donated over £42.5 million to its beneficiary charities, of which nearly £23 million has been donated within the last 10 years.

Supporting community gardening

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is a UK charity, founded in 1804, and aims to encourage and improve the science, art and practice of horticulture in all its branches. Local horticultural societies and gardening clubs are encouraged to affiliate to the RHS to receive a range of benefits such as copies of the RHS magazine Grass Roots, to tap into resources and access a variety of support from expert speakers to insurance cover at competitive rates. Currently there are around 3,000 groups linked to the RHS.

As an RHS Affiliated Society, a group can make an annual visit, for up to 55 members, to one of the four RHS gardens – Wisley in Surrey, Hyde Hall in Essex, Rosemoor in Devon and Harlow Carr in Harrogate. Each garden has its own character and speciality but all offer a great day out. In addition, there are extra-special group rates for affiliated societies who also want to visit any of the other RHS gardens in the same year, and for RHS flower shows, as well as extra discounts on the normal group rate at a number of partner gardens throughout the country. These offers vary from year to year and must be booked in advance with each partner.

For non-RHS affiliated groups, there are special discounts for group visits including free places for GTOs and coach drivers at the four RHS gardens. Groups can explore at their own pace or book a guided tour.

Groups that put their ‘best foot forward’!

The Exeter U3A Stride Out walking group on Dartmoor near Okehampton.

Walking for pleasure is a very group-friendly activity and combines really well with visiting lovely parts of the country in the UK and abroad. Val Baynton talks to GTOs from a range of walking groups.

Groups that go walking are on the increase, the benefits of an active lifestyle are recognised more and more, plus there is pleasure to be gained in sharing time in beautiful landscapes with others who are friends or who share a passion for enjoying rambling and hiking. Each year 300,000 people join a formally organised Ramblers-led walk in Britain and, on top of this, there are U3A walking groups, local community and youth groups, YHA Affiliated groups and many other ad-hoc walking clubs. Some walking groups have designated GTOs who have learnt the best way to organise and enjoy their outings including choice of itineraries, transport and travel, refreshments stops and overnights. Typical examples are Lesley Churchill-Birch and Dianne Ingram. People like these are happy to share their tips with those who haven’t put together walking programmes before and also some of the organisations who will help you organise walking trips in the UK and longer haul. The British Isles is good walking country but so are other countries including in Europe, Germany and Slovenia, and longer haul such as Japan and islands such as Madeira and Malta. There are even cruises that include a walking element and, for the really adventurous, walking holidays can be the first step to more challenging holidays in hill and mountainous countries like Nepal and the Himalayas and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

 

Lesley Churchill-Birch – Stride Out with the U3A!

Dianne Ingram

Dianne Ingram is committee member and Saturday Ramble secretary for the Brentwood Ramblers group. She’s been planning and organising walks for the group for more than 18 years, although she has been a member for a lot longer! She also leads trips overseas, with her first French weekend being to Boulogne in 2002.

The University of the Third Age (U3A) Stride Out walking group hales from Exeter and is relatively new, forming just 18 months ago. Group Co-ordinator, Lesley Churchill-Birch organises the programme of walks and this is a fresh activity for her, but her story of taking up the challenge as a GTO will be familiar to many readers. ‘I moved to Exeter just under two years ago and joined the U3A to meet and make new friends, and became a member of the existing walking group,’ she says. ‘However, some of the members of this group wanted to walk further than the five miles that was the norm, so I thought organising these walks couldn’t be too difficult and plunged straight in.’

Stride Out now has 50 members with around 15 to 20 being an average turn out for the monthly walks of around six to nine miles around Devon’s coast and inland ways. Lesley, or the walk leader, checks each walk first, establishing the number and gradient of hills and the level of difficulty, as well as logistics such as a pub for a lunch break and transport. The group generally travel to and from their walk by local bus services and, as most members are over 60, all can use their bus pass so this makes the days out very cost effective. Lesley notes, though, that she does sometimes feel a little embarrassed that the group is taking up so many seats on a bus leaving little space for paying passengers, and this is one of the reasons that a second Stride Out group is being formed. Stride Out Plus will undertake longer walks of 10 to 14 miles and will car share rather than use public transport services, and this will also allow a larger variety of walks to be experienced. Another issue with using bus services is that the group has to ensure that they are at the relevant bus stop to catch the last bus, and this means there is less flexibility in timings and all members of the group need to be of a similar walking ability. To ensure that all car drivers can find the start points for Stride Out Plus, Lesley is organising some map reading seminars, and these will also be helpful, she notes, for would-be walk leaders.

Lesley's group

Lesley Churchill-Birch (left) leading a walk from East Budleigh to Budleigh Salterton via Otterton.

The Exeter U3A celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and includes some 50 different groups, but the walking groups are amongst the most popular of the activities on offer. Lesley says, ‘Walking is a particularly good way to meet people and the group allows single people or individuals whose partners are unable to or do not like walking to get some great exercise.’ Now the group has established itself, Lesley is looking to encourage more members, especially men, and to consider some overnight walking breaks. She is also establishing guidelines for members – so that everyone comes wearing proper walking boots and brings sticks, especially if there are steep inclines.

 

Rambling with Brentwood – Dianne Ingram

Dianne Ingram emerging from the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex, which was included as part of a walk.

Dianne Ingram is a stalwart of the Brentwood Ramblers group, a member of the national charity, The Ramblers. The Ramblers is an association of people and groups who come together to enjoy walking and other outdoor pursuits, and is dedicated to protecting and expanding the number of places that people can go walking. In Essex alone, there are 19 Ramblers walking groups; see more about The Ramblers on page x.

As a child, Dianne often joined walks as her parents were inaugural members of the Brentwood group, which was founded in 1968. Even when she moved away from Essex, her visits back home always involved a walk, and when her father unexpectedly passed away, Dianne stood in as a leader for the walks he’d already arranged. Some 18 years later, she is still very much involved as a committee member and Saturday Ramble secretary, and has previously served as co-chairman for the group for three years. Diane says, ‘Walking is good for the soul and heart. It’s very flexible and works well with peoples’ busy diaries as members can dip in and out of walking much more easily than other activities such as team sports or gym membership.’

Dianne’s group of 650 members is very active with walks on five days most weeks, two long-weekend walks and a week away each year – in the year to October 2013 this amounted to 236 walks. A basic level of fitness is required by the mainly retired membership, as many walks are around 12 miles in length, and a pace of around three miles an hour is ideal.

Brentwood Ramblers walking the Welsh Coastal footpath near Cardigan.

The weekday walks take in all of Essex, although they vary in distance and starting times, and there are evening routes for the summer months. Destinations further afield over the last two years have included: Cardigan Bay, Wales; Great Ouse and Cambridgeshire; the Cotswolds; Bristol; and a walk around Lewes and Rodmell in East Sussex. The group has had trips to France with weekends walking from Boulogne, Le Touquet, Amiens and Bruges and is looking forward to a holiday in Germany in October this year. Another member, Val Hoffman, is organising this five-day trip with the help of Isle of Wight Tours and 45 members will stay in Rudesheim with walks, on three days, along the banks of the Rhine, visiting places such as the picturesque town of Boppard.

Programmes for day walks are usually planned four months or so in advance and advertised via the website and in the thrice yearly programme and newsletter, which is sent out by email or in printed form. The walk leader will do a recce beforehand, establishing the best meal stops and other points of interest or attractions that could be included enroute. Every six weeks or so, the Brentwood Ramblers take advantage of their close proximity to London, and do a walk around the city perhaps taking in an attraction as well. These are led by Brentwood’s own ‘London specialists’ who enjoy researching a theme or area for the walk and then sharing their knowledge with the group.

The Ramblers walking in Maldon.

For overnight or longer breaks the walk leader will again plan all the details for the walks but Dianne says it is useful having the expertise of a tour operator or coach company for these trips, especially for booking hotels for the 35 to 40 people who typically sign up for the breaks. In the UK, Dianne cites Best Western as a reliable provider of good value hotel accommodation for the group. ‘We prefer to stay in a hotel rather than self-catered accommodation such as a university campus, because we like a meal cooked for us in the evening, and look to pay around £40 a night for dinner, bed and breakfast.’ A weekend trip will typically comprise three different walks and, because the group has access to a coach, they don’t need to start and finish at the hotel or the same place so this allows lots of variety in the itinerary. As well as Isle of Wight Tours, Dianne has used Essex company, Phillips, which is based in South Woodham Ferrers. Phillips is competitive, price wise, and, she says, ‘the drivers are friendly and co-operative.’

Dianne gains a lot of satisfaction from organising walks for the group including the sense of achievement of both finishing the walk and seeing members enjoy themselves. She adds, ‘We are known as the friendliest walking group in Essex – for once you are a Rambler member you can join a walk run by any other group – and we welcome both casual visitors and new permanent members. There is a great camaraderie throughout the group, which is strengthened by the walks we do.’

 

Challenges for walk organisers!

  • Finding a pub or cafe for lunch halfway round a walk.
  • Planning suitable car parking provision for 10 to 15 cars at the start of a walk.
  • Recruiting more leaders for the walk – Dianne tries to support would-be leaders with a map skills and navigation course.
  • Not being able to anticipate the weather; earlier this year many routes turned into a veritable mud-bath and leaders have to be versatile and able to plot a new route if conditions dictate.

 

YHA – accommodation that’s not just for kids!

Over the last few years, the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) has been quietly undergoing a transformation and the majority of their uniquely-located hostels now offer full board and good quality accommodation that rivals a budget hotel. Many are in outstandingly beautiful spots and are within unusual buildings – from St Briavels Castle in Gloucestershire to a Victorian mansion in Ilam, Derbyshire. With modern facilities including showers, drying rooms and tailored catering packages for all dietary requirements, the hostels are ideally placed for groups who enjoy walking or other outdoor activities, or who are organising team building events or conferences. Amongst groups regularly booking are colleges, universities, sports clubs, religious groups, guides, scouts and Duke of Edinburgh groups as well as companies such as Sainsburys and EON. In addition, hostels in city locations (seven in London and others in Manchester, York and Stratford upon Avon) are particularly popular with groups visiting from overseas.

Gone are the days of large dormitories and the need to do chores; instead there are four or six-berth rooms with some single and twin bedrooms, and friendly staff who will cook you a full English or a continental breakfast, make packed lunches for your group and welcome you back with a three-course evening meal. A continuous programme of renovation ensures that high standards are maintained at England and Wales’ 200 hostels, and amongst the most recently refurbished are those in Ambleside on the shores of Lake Windermere, Malham in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Edale in Derbyshire, Pen-y-Pass at the foot of Snowdon and Cambridge.

YHA offers a dedicated groups booking team to make sure GTOs get the package required – whether it’s full catering or sole usage of the hostel, and there’s a group membership fee that covers all the party for the stay (so individual members do not have to each join the YHA). Security and safety of groups, especially youth groups, is of paramount concern. Facilities vary between hostels but the majority are accessible by coach and it is also possible to have exclusive hire and be responsible for your own catering. This option is popular with extended groups of family and friends who want to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries.  YHA staff will be on hand to greet your group on arrival and many hostels have live-in staff too; in addition, if you need advice about your itinerary or walks, the manager will have many helpful suggestions about timings for walks and how best to maximise your groups’ time in the locality.

The YHA is affiliated to Hostelling International and this offers over 4,000 hostels in 60 different countries. Whilst facilities will vary between countries, there are certain quality standards that are common to all such as the welcome, comfort and cleanliness. YHA Affiliate Groups (there are some 40 throughout the UK) meet regularly to enjoy youth hostelling trips and other social activities.

 

Accessing the countryside.

Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, The National Trust cares for 250,000 hectares of land (the same size as Derbyshire) and 742 miles of coastline. The National Trust recognises that in the UK there is a real passion and interest in the natural world and at the heart of much of its activity is the goal of connecting and reconnecting people to wildlife wherever they live.

With every kind of habitat within its care – from Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, one of the first places acquired by the Trust in 1899 and home to 8,500 different species, to the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast and England’s largest seabird colony – managing these varied and diverse open spaces and conserving wildlife as well as encouraging public access is a constant challenge for the Trust.

The inaugural State of Nature report, commissioned by 25 of the UK’s leading nature and wildlife organisations (including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Bat Conservation Trust) and published in May 2013, found that 60% of species have declined in recent decades and one in ten species are at risk of disappearing all together from the country. The National Trust recently joined the State of Nature Coalition, and will bring its experience as major landowners and as naturalists to the partnership, working to protect and bring back nature where it has been lost as well as connecting and reconnecting people to wildlife wherever they live.

People walking at Great Langdale, Cumbria.

Campaigns run by The National Trust that have recently come to fruition include an appeal to raise £1.2 million to acquire a stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover coastline. The money was required to safeguard the remaining five-mile stretch of this iconic coastline, and the Trust’s visitor centre and the South Foreland Lighthouse are now connected. Working with the Woodland Trust, £3.8 million has been raised to protect the 825-acre site of Fingle Woods, ancient woodland on the edge of Dartmoor. This was a landmark project between the two conservation organisations and signals the start of further partnerships to stem the decline in biodiversity. The charities marked the milestone with a public open day, giving visitors the chance to explore the site in a Land Rover, take part in bush craft activity, build dormouse boxes and see heavy horses at work. The two charities need to raise a further £1.2 million for restoration work over coming years to ensure the survival of this precious ancient woodland and to encourage a greater variety of wildlife to make their homes within Fingle Woods.

Minister of State Ed Vaizey announced in early July that the Lake District, with its miles and miles of pathways enjoyed by 15 million people every year, will be bidding for World Heritage Site status in 2016. The National Trust has been nurturing both the natural environment and the cultural heritage of the Lake District for over 100 years. It cares for more than 20% of the Lake District National Park, including England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, its deepest lake, Wastwater, and 90 tenanted farms. In addition, the Trust cares for 24 lakes and tarns, as well as the legacy of Beatrix Potter, who gifted 14 farms to The National Trust.

Many walking groups already regularly walk over National Trust land as part of their itineraries and the Trust encourages more walkers in many ways. By visiting the website, GTOs can access over 1,500 walking routes or events across England, Wales and Northern Ireland merely by entering a postcode, city, town or National Trust location into the search bar. Walks are given a difficulty rating, an estimate of time for completion and key sights to spot along the way. In addition, many individual historic house properties, often standing within extensive estates, offer guided walks around the grounds. The type of walk varies from place to place; at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, for example, there are park walks led by volunteer guides running weekly and monthly walks led by the property’s Ranger. The Trust’s Rangers are in the frontline of caring for and protecting habitats in many locations and also liaise with visitors, sharing their extensive knowledge. Ranger-led walks are also on offer at many National Trust managed National Nature Reserves (NNRs are managed by a variety of organisations many by Natural England, others by Forestry Commission, RSPB etc) such as the remote shingle spit of Orford Ness in Suffolk and the 5,000 acres of wild moors at Marsden Moor in Yorkshire. Generally, groups should pre-book if they wish to join such a walk. Details can be found on the National Trust website for each property or reserve.

Every year, The National Trust runs a Great British Walk festival to encourage exploration of the places the Trust looks after, and this year the theme is Autumn Colour. Running from 8th September to 24th October, the festival will highlight locations where nature’s beautiful colours, from purple clad hills to meandering blue rivers, can be best admired. Details of previous Great British Walks such as last year’s Top Ten Secret Trails can still be accessed on the website.

 

A spectacular view of the Kumano Nachi Tashi shrine and waterfall, which features on a Walk Japan tour.

Walking holidays for all!

You do not need to be a specialist walking group to enjoy a walking-based holiday – whether in the UK or in one of the numerous overseas destinations such as Austria, Germany, Malta or Madeira – as there are many companies who will help arrange a break for you. Typically, they will take care of the whole trip including transport, accommodation and routes, and will provide expert guides to lead each walk and to help you gain the best experiences from each destination.

Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (RWH) has specialised in walking holidays, for a range of abilities, across the world for over 60 years and recognising the importance of the groups market, a new groups sales manager has just been appointed. As well as trekking and special interest holidays, RWH offers more leisurely Adagio holidays comprising relaxed walks and strolls. RWH’s Cruise and Walk holidays are organised with cruise line Fred.Olsen and these offer a walking programme at each port of call. Holiday leaders are on hand to re-arrange plans to take account of varying weather conditions or changed arrival or departure times and often a local guide is booked as well. RHW has also established the Walking Partnership to raise funds for walking and conservation charities.

Another long established company that helps people enjoy the outdoors is HF Holidays (HFH), which can trace its history back 100 years. HFH has a dedicated groups team that works with GTOs to make sure holidays are tailor-made; this can include stays at HFH’s own country house hotels in the UK such as at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. This year, HFH, which is a consumer co-operative owned by 34,000 members, is working in partnership with the Ramblers charity.

Footpath Holidays organises bespoke holidays in the UK for clubs and groups and will help with booking accommodation, airport transfers for incoming groups, expert guides and themed trips.

Secret Hills Walking Holidays is another specialist walking holiday provider arranging trips in Europe as well as the UK, taking care of accommodation, meals, guided walk leaders and transport.

Walking tours in Europe are increasingly popular with destinations in Poland, Slovenia and Sweden, as well as Germany, much in demand by Walk2Walk customers. Based in Manchester, Walk2Walk, a new division of Sports Tours International, specialises in providing walking holidays in Europe and welcomes enquiries from groups.

Adventurous groups might want to consider specialist Walk Japan, a pioneer of small-group walking and cultural tours in Japan. A key part of these walking tours is simple overnight accommodation in Japanese inns, known as ryokans, some of which have been run by many generations of families for hundreds of years. Providing an insight into Japanese life, guest rooms at the inns are carved out by sliding panels made of wood and rice paper, and beds are made out of futon cushions spread on tatami matting. No shoes are allowed indoors, and there are special plastic slippers for use only in the bathrooms. Guests must wash before soaking in baths made of aromatic cypress wood and dress in yukata robes for dinner, which is an altogether Japanese affair as guests sit at a knee-high communal table to tuck into an evening meal of Japanese cuisine. Operating for nearly 25 years, the tours are led by highly-educated, English-speaking tour leaders and amongst new tours planned are some with a fashion and style focus.

 

Britain’s Walking Charity panel

The Ramblers was founded in 1935 although its roots go back to local rambling groups that emerged in the late 19th century. There are now over 500 groups across the country and, as well as walks, the Ramblers get involved with local walking festivals and many groups get involved with footpath maintenance. Groups are usually defined by a geographical area and some specialise in shorter or family-friendly walks or specific age groups such as 20s to 30s or 40s. The membership fees paid by members go towards Ramblers projects such as securing a continuous coastal path around England.

‘Walking For Health’ is one way the Ramblers help to encourage new walkers. The scheme operates across England and is run by the Ramblers in association with Macmillan Cancer Support. Currently around 3,400 walks in over 600 areas take place in communities each week, and the short, local and free walks are aimed at encouraging people to discover the joys and health benefits of walking.

 

Managing Open Spaces panel

Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, The National Trust cares for 250,000 hectares of land (the same size as Derbyshire) and 742 miles of coastline. With every kind of habitat within its care – from Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, one of the first places acquired by the Trust in 1899 and home to 8,500 different species, to the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast and England’s largest seabird colony – managing these varied and diverse open spaces and conserving wildlife as well as encouraging public access is a constant challenge for the Trust.

The inaugural State of Nature report, commissioned by 25 of the UK’s leading nature and wildlife organisations (including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Bat Conservation Trust) and published in May 2013, found that 60% of species have declined in recent decades and one in ten species are at risk of disappearing all together from the country. The National Trust recently joined the State of Nature Coalition, and will bring its experience as major landowners and as naturalists to the partnership, working to protect and bring back nature where it has been lost as well as connecting and reconnecting people to wildlife wherever they live.

Campaigns run by The National Trust that have recently come to fruition include an appeal to raise £1.2 million to acquire a stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover coastline. The money was required to safeguard the remaining five-mile stretch of this iconic coastline, and the Trust’s visitor centre and the South Foreland Lighthouse are now connected. Working with the Woodland Trust, £3.8 million has been raised to protect the 825-acre site of Fingle Woods, ancient woodland on the edge of Dartmoor. This was a landmark project between the two conservation organisations and signals the start of further partnerships to stem the decline in biodiversity. The charities marked the milestone with a public open day, giving visitors the chance to explore the site in a Land Rover, take part in bush craft activity, build dormouse boxes and see heavy horses at work. The two charities need to raise a further £1.2 million for restoration work over coming years to ensure the survival of this precious ancient woodland and to encourage a greater variety of wildlife to make their homes within Fingle Woods.

Minister of State Ed Vaizey announced in early July that the Lake District, with its miles and miles of pathways enjoyed by 15 million people every year, will be bidding for World Heritage Site status in 2016. The National Trust has been nurturing both the natural environment and the cultural heritage of the Lake District for over 100 years. It cares for more than 20% of the Lake District National Park, including England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, its deepest lake, Wastwater, and 90 tenanted farms. In addition, the Trust cares for 24 lakes and tarns, as well as the legacy of Beatrix Potter, who gifted 14 farms to The National Trust.

Worldwide trips for the Exmoor Extroverts

One of Sue’s groups visiting San Gimignano in Italy.

Sue Shapland

During the 1980s, Sue Shapland ran a hotel in the Cotswolds before selling up and moving to Somerset. This has proved helpful experience when negotiating bookings with hotels. The name for the group – Exmoor Extroverts – was suggested by her second husband, Howard, because of the view over Exmoor from their former home. Now a widow, Sue continues to organise holidays and outings because she understands how difficult it is to go away on your own when your spouse has died. She is inspired to continue by the wonderful letters of appreciation she receives from members after a trip.

Sue Shapland became a GTO after joining the West Somerset National Trust Association in 1994, and she still organises several day trips a year for them. She ran their first holiday in 1996 and now organises four holidays of varying lengths for the West Somerset and neighbouring Quantock Association. But this was not enough for her incredible appetite for travel so she set up the Exmoor Extroverts in 1999 and focused initially on theatre trips, festivals and events, rather than the historic properties and gardens that are the mainstay of the National Trust programmes. On average, she now organises 50 day trips to a diverse range of attractions and 15 ‘stay-aways’ or holidays a year for the group, which has some 900 members.

Exmoor Extroverts began after Sue suggested to the chairman of the National Trust Association that members might like to go to the Bristol Hippodrome to see the Phantom of the Opera. This was such a success that she was asked to run other outings and, as Sue says, ‘The group has since grown like topsy from these humble beginnings. I think Exmoor Extroverts is popular because it’s run as a not for profit organisation so the prices for each trip are very reasonable, and people like the idea of going away with others as part of a big family.’ For the last two years, Sue has had help in organising the trips from Vickie Hickman, who, Sue notes, ‘has taken to the challenges of group organising like a duck to water’.

 

FROM THEATRE OUTINGS…

The programme includes a broad selection of day trips to local theatre such as the Hippodrome in Bristol, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Millennium Centre in Cardiff for musicals, dance and opera. Garden visits and trips to racing stables and racecourses are also popular, and there are several two-night weekend stays to London as well. For these trips, the group usually stays outside of the capital – at the Walton Cottage Hotel in Maidenhead – allowing a visit to the Mill at Sonning on the first evening, before venturing into the city the next day. In March, the London programme included a performance of Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn at the Mill, with a trip to the Tower of London on Saturday. Sue adds, ‘It was 15 years since most of us had visited this popular London attraction, and there was so much new to enjoy and see.’ The highlight of the trip was dinner at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by a performance of La Boheme, as Sue explains, ‘The show more than lived up to expectations – the set included a railway platform complete with restaurants and 100 performers in the centre of the hall – it was spectacular and difficult to take it all in.’ On the way back to Somerset, the group called at The Vyne, a National Trust property dating back to the 16th century, close to Basingstoke.

La Boheme was the fourth of the Raymond Gubbay operas the group has seen at the Royal Albert Hall and Sue has already booked for Madame Butterfly next March, and this is in addition to a booking in November for the Classical Spectacular, which Sue is offering as an alternative to the Christmas Spectacular at Thursford.

Like many GTOs, Sue works months, if not years, ahead in planning her trips. She says, ‘Theatres and venues such as the Royal Albert Hall will hold reservations for a few weeks, just long enough to allow me to inform the group, but generally seats have to be paid for well ahead of the trip. For example, in September, our visit to London will take in Buckingham Palace, The Shard, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Gielgud Theatre and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, but tickets had to be confirmed and paid for by 10th April.’

 

…TO ‘EXTROVERT’ HOLIDAYS

Husky Homesteade

The Exmoor Extroverts getting ‘hands-on’ with the puppies at Husky Homestead.

After 15 years, Sue has found interest in joining her group remains as strong as ever. She does not advertise but new members frequently contact her to request to join the group. Sue has considered a cap on membership but when she receives an email from a recently bereaved person asking to join the group, she realises that this is not something she can do. However, she admits it’s a challenge to find enough good outings to satisfy the demand because expectations are now so high. This was one of the reasons she started to offer longer holidays. These vary from UK destinations such as Lincoln to further afield. In May, Sue took 79 members for a ‘Springtime Garden Cruise’ with Cruise and Maritime Voyages of Essex. Starting in Bristol, they visited Cork, St Mary’s, Jersey and Honfleur with an excursion to Monet’s Garden being a particular highlight. As well as France, the Exmoor Extroverts have travelled to Holland, Austria and Italy, with the most ambitious tour being to Alaska last year.

For these overseas breaks, Sue always works with a tour operator and finds The Travel Adventure in East Sussex a very good partner (see page 30). She finds the company understands the needs of the group and can come up with interesting itineraries and suggestions to complement her own proposals. For the Alaskan trip, she wanted to offer an alternative to a cruise following a trip she had done three years previously. Travelling by ferries, trains and coaches, 28 members took part in this trip of a lifetime. The 18-day holiday included Fairbanks, Mount McKinley and the Denali National Park with the chance to see grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves and Dall sheep, and a visit to Husky Homestead, where puppies are reared by Iditarod racing sled champion, Jeff King. Anchorage, Juneau and Skagway with excursions to Prince William Sound and the Mendenhall Glacier were also on the itinerary and there were optional helicopter flights to the ice-fields for dog sledding. A highlight was the breathtaking journey on the White Pass and Yukon Railway, travelling over immense gorges. The holiday ended with four nights in Vancouver.

Mount Denali

The spectacular views at Mount Denali, Alaska.

Sue recalls, ‘Alaska was really special and The Travel Adventure did us proud with all the arrangements. The most incredible thing was the weather; at11.30pm the sun was still shining and it was 80˚F!’ The holiday was voted an outstanding success by members, with Sue and Vickie’s hard work praised.

Forthcoming holidays for 2015 include an anniversary Waterloo and Flanders tour planned for June, a Fred. Olsen Baltic Cruise for July (with over 30 members already booked), and a two-week trip to Canada, travelling cross country from Vancouver to Toronto in late September.

 

PLANNING MATTERS

With so many day trips and longer breaks in the diary, Sue has evolved some efficient administrative techniques. She advertises trips in a newsletter, which is sent to members every two months for a £10 annual fee, alternatively it can be e-mailed, and booking forms for upcoming trips are handed out by Vickie during each trip. The website is also regularly updated with information.

Nowadays, Vickie looks after all the bookings so this frees Sue up for planning! Sue joins familiarisations visits so that she can experience an attraction or destination at first hand. She joined the ‘In Search of the Northern Lights’ familiarisation visit offered by Wiltshire-based Holidays & Cruises for You back in March. Having experienced the trip, which involved a four-hour round flight from East Midlands Airport to north of the Shetland Islands where the plane made circuits so that passengers could see and admire the incredible Northern Lights display, Sue will be including the trip in her itinerary for next winter. ‘It’s great to have an interesting outing in January and, even if the aurora is not on display, we will be guaranteed a brilliant view of the stars along with interesting insights and explanations from the on-board astronomers.’

Sue thinks attention to detail is very important so either she or Vickie phones everyone who has booked on a trip 48 hours before it departs to remind them of the details such as departure place and times. Sue explains why, ‘This saves embarrassed faces all round, and it means if someone has booked and they don’t hear from me, they know to get in touch as it may mean their original booking form has gone astray. This has happened very occasionally but, when it does, I book extra tickets and meals enroute and take care not to let the individual know.’

Sue has usually got her laptop with her so she can plan ahead and also reschedule excursions if an emergency occurs and something needs to be changed at the last minute. ‘I hate to cancel a trip,’ she says, ‘so I will pull out all the stops to come up with a new plan if an arrangement falls through.’

 

TRANSPORT CHOICES

Sue uses local coach company, Ridlers Coaches, from Dulverton in Somerset, for her day trips and, like many GTOs, she and the group have some favourite coach drivers. Ridlers Coaches is a family business dating back to 1945; it prides itself on its luxury coaches but also its personal service. In May, Sue organised a meal at the Hobby Horse in Minehead to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Exmoor Extroverts, and two of the drivers, the owner and manager and wives were invited along as VIP guests. Sue adds, ‘I wanted to include Ridlers in our celebration; the drivers have been so much a part of our trips over the years and, without doubt, their help and friendly nature has added to the success and enjoyment of our days out.’

If not many people sign up for a trip, then Sue suggests travelling with cars rather than hiring a coach, and this is the case with this year’s visit to the Three Choirs Festival, taking place in Worcester from 30th July to 3rd August. The festival celebrates the choral music of the choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals and has been running for 299 years. Themes inspiring music in 2014 include the centenary of World War I and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

 

UNDERSTANDING TRAVEL

Jane Kerr and Frans Leenaars

Jayne Kerr, from The Travel Adventure, receiving the award for sales growth from Frans Leenaars of Disneyland Paris.

Established for over 20 years, The Travel Adventure – one of Sue Shapland’s favoured partners for extended holidays with her group the Exmoor Extroverts – is an award-winning group tour operator and a regular finalist and winner at the Group Travel Awards.

Founder and managing director Ian Kerr explains that the vision for the company ‘has always been to ensure customers are treated with personal care, respect and attention. This has meant that many of our travellers come back to us again and again, and we continue to build on our strong working relationships. No two trips are the same and we are very able to tailor travel programmes to suit each group’s needs. Our guiding principle is big enough to operate – small enough to care.’

The Travel Adventure works with adult travel groups, schools and colleges, and their experience means they can create programmes covering every kind of break in the UK, Europe and further afield. ‘The trip to Alaska for the Exmoor Extroverts was an interesting one to arrange, requiring lots of research,’ says Jayne Kerr, Sales Director. ‘We are delighted to learn that the holiday was so successful and pleased to be working with Sue again on her forthcoming holidays.’

From an initial enquiry through to the return home, The Travel Adventure offers help and assistance whilst providing a competitive and reliable service. Each member of the team has a valuable travel sector background – Ian has an incredible 50 years of experience in the industry – which sets them apart from other tour operators.

Of particular importance is a strong working relationship with Disneyland Paris and, every year, The Travel Adventure takes many groups to the resort. In addition, for almost 20 years, the company has offered a resort-based College Convention, for students undertaking Travel & Tourism and Marketing courses. The convention allows the students to understand, at first hand, the sales, marketing and human resources aspects of the travel industry by getting valuable input from Disney professionals. In 2012, the company was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by the resort, and last year they received another award for sales growth.