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.