Sign of the Times was published in Australia’s Great Walks magazine (Feb/Mar 2015)
Britain’s countryside offers some fantastic walking experiences, but in the past a wander through the great British outdoors could sometimes be spoilt by a hostile pub landlord, or an antagonistic landowner. Being told to, “Get your muddy boots out of my pub,” or finding the path purposefully blocked by rubbish and barbed wire can ruin what was, until that point, an enjoyable day out. And if you’ve travelled half way round the world an experience like this could spoil your entire break. Thankfully, things are changing. A scheme launched into 2007 to make walkers feel more welcome has picked up its pace and is now marching across the country. With some careful planning, your next walking trip in Britain could be the most enjoyable yet, and it could also take you to some of the quieter, yet just as outstandingly, scenic areas you may not have considered visiting.
The small town of Hebden Bridge, in the Yorkshire Pennines, declared itself Britain’s first Walkers Are Welcome town in February 2007. The idea was simple: welcome walkers to the area and word will spread. It’s working. Many Walkers are Welcome towns are noting an increase in visitor numbers. Sheila Talbot, Chair of the Winchcombe Walkers are Welcome says, “Although in the Cotswolds, Winchcombe was always overshadowed by places such as Broadway, Bourton on the Water, and Stow on the Wold. Winchcombe joined Walkers are Welcome in 2009. In 2008 there were eight empty shops, now there are none. B&Bs are reporting much higher occupancy rates; pubs are reporting more customers, especially walkers stopping for lunch; the revenue for car parking on Sundays has risen sharply, and most are visiting walkers.”
So what can walkers expect when they visit a town that is part of this scheme?
- The yellow-against-black bootprint logo sticker in the windows of local businesses, such as pubs, cafes, and accommodation establishments signals that walkers are welcomed, no matter how muddy their boots!
- The economic credit crunch has hit British public finances hard. Local authorities have made huge cuts to their budgets, including footpath and rights of way maintenance. However, Walkers are Welcome towns have volunteers who regularly check paths to ensure they’re passable and not overgrown. They also identify and carry out any maintenance work required. This means that you’re more likely to have a trouble-free walk within the area.
- Walkers are Welcome towns produce information leaflets and guides to help visitors explore the local area and get the most from their visit. These can be found in the local tourist information centre, retail businesses, and some accommodation establishments, helping you to explore the new area with confidence.
- Many towns organise an annual walking festival. Join in and you won’t have to worry about map-reading. Instead, you can enjoy being led round by a knowledgeable local, while taking in the views.
The scheme benefits everyone: walkers, local businesses, and even the locals, who benefit from better maintained footpaths. As a result, there are now over 110 Walkers are Welcome towns across Britain, stretching from the most south-westerly, Hayle, in Cornwall to the most northerly, Unst in the Shetland Islands. Unst joined the scheme in 2011, and according to Chas Hollis of Unst Walkers are Welcome, they’ve already seen benefits. “Walkers are coming in greater numbers, as visitors go back to their walking clubs and spread the word.” Unst is the northernmost island in the Shetlands, and its tourist season is short: May to September. Embracing new visitors is vital for improving the community’s economic survival.
The scheme is successful is because it is community led. Communities who want to get involved have to demonstrate to the Walkers Are Welcome national scheme there is sufficient local support. Once a community has expressed an interest, a mentor is allocated, to help steer them through the initial process of establishing themselves as a Walkers are Welcome town.
Only those communities who can offer great walking opportunities can apply. That means that when you visit a Walkers are Welcome town you can be assured of some great scenery. This illustrates another benefit. Britain is blessed with some fantastic national parks, which offer wonderful walking opportunities. However, the businesses and rights of way network within the national parks are already geared up to catering for walkers, so there’s little need for the scheme in the national parks (although any town can apply, if they meet the criteria, no matter where they are located). However, as a result, it’s the towns and communities outside of the national parks that are keen to join. Therefore, visit a Walkers are Welcome town, and you’ll be exploring some of the quieter, lesser-known, but just as scenically beautiful, areas of Britain.
One of the newest scheme members is Ironbridge, a World Heritage Site that is recognised as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Set in the tight valley of the River Severn, Britain’s longest river, it’s also a fantastic area to explore on foot, yet as the birthplace of modern industry it’s not a place walkers automatically think of visiting. So Ironbridge has developed a walking festival to help them show visitors that it’s an amazing walking destination too
In Shropshire there are seven Walkers are Welcome towns dotted in or around the South Shropshire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, making it an excellent walking destination. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation means it is just as scenically outstanding as any of Britain’s national parks, yet despite this many British walkers couldn’t pinpoint Shropshire on a map! The county’s towns hope the Walkers are Welcome scheme will change this.
Britain can offer a diverse range of landscapes through which to walk. By all means, check out our stunning national parks, but schedule some time to visit some of our Walkers are Welcome towns, for they too can give you some incredible walking experiences. It’ll be a step in the right direction for a memorable walking trip in the UK. And when you arrive you’ll know you’ll be guaranteed a warm welcome.
Visit http://www.walkersarewelcome.org.uk/waw-towns/ to view a map with all the member towns identified. For further information click on a town for details about the area with links to accommodation providers, walking information and festival details.
© Simon Whaley