Two-wheeled group travellers ride for fun together!

The first day of a cycling tour the group enjoyed with French Cycling Holidays.

The first day of a cycling tour the group enjoyed with French Cycling Holidays.

Malcolm and Gia Margolis founded the Harrogate Wheel Easy cycling group to cater for people who wanted to enjoy friendly, not competitive, cycling. Continuing our focus on highlighting ‘groups who like to be active’, Val Baynton finds out more about tourism on two wheels.

 

Malcolm and Gia Margolis began cycling as youngsters and continued to follow an active lifestyle as they became adults and parents, with Gia playing competitive tennis and Malcolm opting for squash. For nearly 30 years, they ran a sports business - Argos Sports (no connection with Argos Stores, the name was derived from Margolis!) They specialised in quality products for a wide range of sports and leisure activities, and gave excellent ‘old-fashioned’ service, which multiples couldn’t match. When they retired in 2005, they had time to take up cycling more regularly, and the following year they set up the Wheel Easy Cycling Club. Gia is currently the Chair of the group and Malcolm helps to look after publicity and the website. Gia adds,‘Our whole committee is vital to the success of the club; everyone puts in a lot of work to make sure it runs smoothly. From my point of view, it’s one of the most satisfying things I have done.’

Malcolm and Gia Margolis began cycling as youngsters and continued to follow an active lifestyle as they became adults and parents, with Gia playing competitive tennis and Malcolm opting for squash. For nearly 30 years, they ran a sports business – Argos Sports (no connection with Argos Stores, the name was derived from Margolis!) They specialised in quality products for a wide range of sports and leisure activities, and gave excellent ‘old-fashioned’ service, which multiples couldn’t match. When they retired in 2005, they had time to take up cycling more regularly, and the following year they set up the Wheel Easy Cycling Club. Gia is currently the Chair of the group and Malcolm helps to look after publicity and the website. Gia adds,‘Our whole committee is vital to the success of the club; everyone puts in a lot of work to make sure it runs smoothly. From my point of view, it’s one of the most satisfying things I have done.’

The opening three stages of the Tour de France’s 2014 visit to Yorkshire and London revealed the enthusiasm for cycling that exists in Britain, an interest that was kick-started by the London Olympics in 2012. It’s not just competitive cycling that is attracting record numbers of participants and spectators; there’s a growing trend for getting on bikes for simply social activity. Groups of enthusiasts meet up locally to enjoy outings aimed at discovering the countryside, making friends and gently increasing fitness. The Wheel Easy Cycling Club in Harrogate, established by Malcolm and Gia Margolis in 2006, is one such group and now encompasses nearly 300 members aged from their mid-twenties to 82 years, with outings for all levels of ability organised twice a week as well as overseas trips.

One of the factors in the growth of ‘pedal power’ is that the support infrastructure for cycling has developed over the last 20 years. The National Cycling Network was officially created in 1995 and has grown from 5,000 miles in 2000 to 14,700 miles today. Cycling is now actively promoted by VisitBritain, and many local tourism destinations, while specialist operators help groups plan and enjoy longer cycling breaks both within this country and around the world. See page 48 for more about all these initiatives.

Setting up Wheel Easy

Malcolm and Gia Margolis retired in 2005. Feeling that it would be more fun to explore their enthusiasm for cycling with other like-minded people, they decided to set up a group. ‘For us, cycling was, and still is, about enjoyment,’ Malcolm explains. ‘We don’t want to go fast or compete against other cyclists.’ Since they couldn’t find a local group of this sort, they contacted the Harrogate Advertiser, announcing that, on 7th May 2006, there would be an easy 10-mile cycle ride to Knaresborough and back, and inviting cyclists to come along. The route also took in the Beryl Burton Cycleway, named after the internationally renowned cyclist who was born in Leeds in 1937 and received the OBE in 1968 in recognition of her achievements. To the couple’s amazement, 35 people turned up and the group was born!

Initially rides were Sundays only but, as the weather improved in the early summer, more people joined the group and weekday rides were introduced. Longer and harder rides were also offered to cater for more experienced cyclists but the social and pleasure focus remained key. A committee of 10 people was formed, a leaflet was created – which became the basis for the website – and the name for the club, ‘Wheel Easy’, was coined. As Malcolm says, ‘It’s a very appropriate name; it is exactly what the group is about and the bonus is, when you say it, you can’t help but smile.’

An important ethos guiding the group has been the principle of ‘looking after the slowest rider’ and this spirit has encouraged a lot of new or returning cyclists to join, and is particularly attractive to women. ‘Members really do look after each other,’ Gia adds. ‘A lot of new friendship groups have been created and the ethos has sustained the group. Over the last eight years, some members have suffered bereavements, illnesses and undergone replacement hips or knees, yet the caring philosophy has encouraged individuals to get back on the saddle, knowing the support from the club is there.’

New cyclists join the group each week, learning about it from word of mouth and also from the weekly article in the local newspaper’s ‘clubs and societies’ section. Gia notes that in the last year more women in their 30s and 40s have taken up membership. Annual membership is £5, the club has insurance from CTC (the Cycling Touring Club, which dates back to 1878 and is now also the national cycling charity) and members are encouraged to take out personal insurance from CTC too.

Members went on a short ride in Yorkshire to look at some of the decorations organised for the Tour de France including the Dotty House.

Members went on a short ride in Yorkshire to look at some of the decorations organised for the Tour de France including the Dotty House.

Typical Rides

Rides now take place every Sunday and Wednesday, with cyclists meeting at Hornbeam Park Railway Halt, Harrogate, for departure at 9.30am, and there’s a choice of routes from 25 miles to 100 miles or more, with beginners’ rides of around 15 miles also taking place on Sundays. Return time is usually by 3.00pm. Routes are detailed in advance on the website and confirmed on the day, dependent on the number of members and their abilities.

Each ride is led by one of the club’s 40 ride leaders, who has researched the route. The Wheel Easy committee encourage members to observe basic rules, as framed by the CTC, covering equipment, the Highway Code and safety and etiquette. To ensure safety, especially on road routes, members are usually split into groups of around eight cyclists, taking slightly different routes with rendezvous points. ‘Cafe stops are an important part of every ride, as is chatting!’ laughs Gia.

Exploring Yorkshire

Setting off for Blubberhouses!

Setting off for Blubberhouses!

Routes take members all over Yorkshire and favourite stopping places include Fountains Abbey, Studley Royal Deer Park, Ripley Castle and Beningbrough Hall Gardens, as well as a host of cafes enroute such as Oliver’s Pantry in Ripon.

Over the last seven years, Malcolm has been involved with the development of the Nidderdale Greenway – a former railway line – connecting Harrogate to Ripley, which has brought back into use the Grade II listed, seven-arch Nidd Gorge Viaduct and provided a new safe crossing of the A61 near Ripley. ‘We’ve worked with the transport charity Sustrans in developing the route, and it has made a fantastic difference to off-road cycling,’ says Malcolm. ‘We are trying to extend the route to take it into the heart of Nidderdale.’

Occasionally, the club takes in a cultural visit or annual events such as Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival in August or the Masham Steam Rally in July. The Yorkshire Stages of the Tour de France were on the group’s programme – with ringside spots in Harrogate for the final sprint on the first day, 5th July. The next day, eight members rode to the Cote de Blubberhouses to enjoy the carnival atmosphere and to watch the professionals speed past.

There’s also a varied social programme with different members organising activities within the group such as theatre trips and visits to the Velodrome at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, as well as inspiring talks from members about overseas rides.

Pedalling further afield

Terry Wadkin (second right) and the Wheel Easy Group enjoy some sightseeing whilst on tour with Simply Cycling Slovenia.

Terry Wadkin (second right) and the Wheel Easy Group enjoy some sightseeing whilst on tour with Simply Cycling Slovenia.

Each year, members of Wheel Easy organise longer trips, which any member of the club can join. They’ve taken the train to Edinburgh and over four days cycled back to Harrogate. Other journeys have taken coast to coast paths such as the Ways of the Roses from Morecombe to Bridlington and the Sea to Sea route from Whitehaven to Sunderland. Generally, members carry all their luggage on these rides, staying in pubs or small hotels enroute.

Trips to Europe include a memorable break in Slovenia in 2013. This was organised by Paul Wadkin of Simply Cycling Slovenia (SCS), whose father, Terry, is a member of the Wheel Easy Club. Eight members flew to Ljubljana in Slovenia from Stansted with easyJet and SCS organised transport to their first hotel near Ljutomer in the Pomurje region of north east Slovenia. The week-long tour gave members an insight into the beautiful landscape of the region, and they crossed borders cycling into Hungary, Croatia and Austria too. Around 50 miles were covered each day, with time to visit local landmarks. Highlights included relaxing in the thermal baths at the hotels, being together and socialising as a team. The last day was spent exploring Ljubljana’s castle and trying out the funicular railway. Luggage was transported between hotels by SCS and Wheel Easy members used SCS’s bikes – it is usual to hire bikes locally for overseas tours, although it’s possible to pack a bike in a special box for transport by the airline. To ensure members don’t get lost, mobile phones and sat navs are essential equipment, especially in countries where little English is spoken. A number of countries are ideal for European cycling tours (see below).

 

European wide cycling

Canadians riding in support of the Wounded Warriors charity pedal  away during their tour around Canadian War Memorials in Northern France.

Canadians riding in support of the Wounded Warriors charity pedal away during their tour around Canadian War Memorials in Northern France.

The National Cycling Network is a series of safe, traffic-free lanes and quiet on-road routes that connect to every major city and now stretches for 14,700 miles across the UK. The concept began in Bristol in 1977 with a campaign to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists in the city. The first success was the opening in 1984 of the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, a 17-mile traffic-free trail along a disused railway. The charity Sustrans continued to develop the idea and routes elsewhere in the country opened, with the overall network being established in 1995 with a grant from the National Lottery, and officially opened in June 2000 when 5,000 miles had been completed.

The network links into the European Cycle Network, known as EuroVelo, and one third of a projected 37,000 miles of cycle paths are already open in countries including Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the UK. EuroVelo routes in the UK include the Atlantic Coast Route stretching from Plymouth to Aberdeen and the Capital Route starting at Holyhead, travelling through Snowdonia to Cardiff, visiting Bristol, Bath, and London, and finally travelling north to Harwich. The North Sea Route starts in Harwich and travels north through Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland to Edinburgh and the Shetland Islands. In development is a route linking Devon and Cornwall with Brittany and Normandy. To find out more about both networks visit www.sustrans.org.uk.

 

Ways to get you Cycling at home…

Going for a ride away from home can be a challenge to plan but there is plenty of advice to help groups spread their wings. VisitBritain has put together its favourite 10 routes around the UK, with distances varying from under 10 to over 100 miles, and covering both hilly and flat terrain. Choose from beautiful countryside, such as a circuit of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and the Millennium Coastal Path in Llanelli, Wales, to the foodie-themed Chocolate Tour around the canals of Birmingham, and the Crab and Winkle Way linking Canterbury with Whitstable Harbour. Many regional tourist destinations such as the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley or Visit Kent give details about local cycle trails, and where to hire bikes, on their websites. London-based cycling specialists include Mind the Gap, which organises small group cycle rides from London to Windsor, led by guides who recount interesting histories and anecdotes enroute. Discovery Richmond’s expert guides lead a tour around the town taking in a short part of the route used in the 2012 Olympics. Admission to Strawberry Hill House – one-time home of the 18th century politician, Horace Walpole – is included in the price. Both companies include hire of the bike, so this is a good option for a non-cycling group looking to try a new activity.

…and away

There are plenty of options in Europe too. In Germany, there are 200 long-distance cycle paths following rivers, and linking historic towns, coastal routes and mountain scenery. The German National Tourist Office website, www.germany.travel/cycling, has helpful advice about where to go and how to plan your cycle route with online interactive maps, as well as hotel listings including over 5,400 ‘Bed & Bike’ accommodation offers, which cater specifically for cyclists with lockable and sheltered racks, and drying rooms. French Cycling Holidays offers a complete solution to a cycling break in France. Fully tailored cycling tours can be arranged – whether a tour of the World War One Battlefields, as recently booked by a 100-strong Canadian group supporting the charity Wounded Warriors (similar to the UK’s Help for Heroes), or an energetic ride over the Alps! There are many other options too, but beautiful views, charming hotels and fine regional cuisine are always part of the package! Meanwhile, for trips further afield, gadventures organises bespoke international cycling tours for private groups to places like Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, Cuba and India, tailoring each adventure to take in specific needs and budgets. Meanwhile, Exodus has 12 new cycling itineraries for 2015. Half of these are road cycling tours, reflecting the growing popularity of Exodus’ cultural road trips. Farflung destinations include Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Mekong Delta.

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.