Trials for trails

This article was published in the guest column, The Extra Mile, in The Great Outdoors, November 2012.

Kate Ashbrook, President of the Ramblers and Patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network, argues that we can’t afford to drop investment in our paths and trails.

On 24 April 1965 I was carried by train around the north side of Dartmoor, and deposited at Tavistock station for my first visit to a national park and the start of a lifetime of campaigning for the countryside and access to it.

I did not then know that, as the train bore me westwards on that special day, the Pennine Way, the first of the official long-distance paths, was being opened at Malham Moor.  Conceived by Tom Stephenson, former secretary of the Ramblers, as a ‘long green trail’, this was 30 years in the making, but now there are 15 national trails extending to 4,000 kilometres in England and Wales, with more in Scotland, and they are the crown jewels of our path network.  They pass through outstanding countryside and are well maintained and signposted.  Every one of them guarantees a walk to remember.

The Edale valley, near the southern end of the Pennine Way.

In England, these routes are largely funded by central government through Natural England.  In 1968 the Countryside Commission, predecessor of Natural England, rebranded the long-distance paths as ‘national trails’, arguing that ‘national better reflects their status, their character and their attraction to the public as a whole’.  But now the government wants to denationalise them, handing them over to ‘trail partnerships’ who may not even continue to employ a national trail officer.

The upshot will be that, with reduced central government funding for national trails, a greater burden will fall on the local authorities many of which have already had to slash their path budgets.  If they have to take on the national trails as well then all the other, equally important but unsung, paths will suffer.  The trails are complex, they go through rugged and remote countryside, across blanket bogs, along cliff sides.  They are heavily used, by walkers, riders and cyclists, and need constant skilled maintenance.  They should be promoted and managed as a family.

Brilliant investment

National trails are undeniably a brilliant investment.  Studies by academics and the tourism industry show that the South West Coast Path generates £307 million a year for the regional economy, supporting over 7,500 jobs.  Over a quarter of all visitors come solely to walk the trail, spending £136 million a year, while local people take 23 million walks along the path annually, spending £116 million—and this in a region not short of rival attractions.  The cost of maintaining the path is around £500,000 a year.  On the Hadrian’s Wall Path, the West Highland Way and many others similar gains have been made.  What other investment gives a 600 per cent return?  The trails’ friends must unite to persuade the government to see sense.

South West Coast Path near Bude, Cornwall.

With walking, riding and cycling providing so much income as well as benefits to health and wellbeing, we can’t afford to drop investment in our path network.  Highway authorities should stop and think.  Why cut the very thing which brings in money?  If the path network is in poor shape, people will be deterred from visiting the area and will spend elsewhere, possibly overseas.

That’s the practical thinking behind the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network—towns throughout England, Scotland and Wales which recognise the benefits to their local economies of attracting walkers by enabling them to find good paths and access, good food, accommodation and gear.  The first was Hebden Bridge, Calderdale, in 2007, and there are now over 90, from Newport, Pembrokeshire, to Swaffham, Norfolk and from Unst, Shetland to Hayle, Cornwall.  They are not all in obvious beauty spots; they include places which see walking as part of their regeneration, like Kilsyth in Lanarkshire and Corby in Northamptonshire.

Walkers near Market Weighton, a WAW town in East Yorkshire.

To qualify for the network, a member town must demonstrate that the concept has popular support, a commitment to getting and keeping the local paths in good order, encouragement of public-transport use for walking, publicity throughout the town with window-stickers, banners and leaflets, and on a town website and—most important—a mechanism to maintain the status.  The enthusiasm for the project must endure changes in town councillors or loss of regeneration funding.  The towns benefit from use of the WaW badge and national promotion, the ability to swap ideas with other towns, an annual conference and reduced insurance for walks and events.

Five of the WaW towns in Shropshire—Bishop’s Castle, Church Stretton, Cleobury Mortimer, Much Wenlock and Wellington—are co-operating to boost and improve walking in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; similar work is going ahead in the Brecon Beacons, with Ruth Coulthard, funding development manager for the national park authority, encouraging towns to apply for WaW status.

Launch of Church Stretton as the first WAW town in the Midlands, June 2008.

Ideally the WaW towns will work with the highway authorities to promote the economic benefits of walking.  Elected councillors—desperate for savings—must learn that when they cut path funding they are shooting themselves in the foot.

The Long Mynd, Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

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About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Access, AONB, National trail, Natural England, Public paths, Ramblers, Uncategorized, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Trials for trails

  1. Philip Lawson says:

    I agree entirely with your article. It would be a very poor decision to cut funding for such a positive element within our economy. I recently completed the Cotswold Way and the guest books in the B&B’s along the trail were filled with positive comments from visitors from many different countries – all bringing their foreign spending power to Britain. National Trails are a great British export!

  2. Mrs Mary Jessop says:

    I was Just reading about the Hydroelectric dam discussion being built in a disused quarry in North Wales, and people are up in arms about it, how it will spoil the look of the countryside, but I don’t hear any protest about the Japanese buying the Nuclear Plant on Anglesey!!!!! The Japanese have neglected their own diaster and left thousands, perhaps millions of people who were exposed to the fallout from the nuclear plant that got wreaked in the earthquake in Japan.
    If they cannot look after their own what chance have we got who live on and around Anglesey if and when they do something wrong, and they will, and then they will walk away from us too just like they have done with their own poeple, they have moved them all into Ghost Towns, Yes Thats right, Ghost towns, whole towns that have all the houses for them to live in, but no one did live in them, I wonder why?? is it that they were built just in case something like this did happen???
    I for one don’t want to live near a Nuclear Plant, for a start, where will they dump the waste?????? does any one ask anymore???? or is no one interested???????? well if the people who are worried about a dam being built and that it might take away some of the beauty of our countryside, they should also be worried, no! correction on that, not worried, scared to death at the thought of what and how the Japanese will do to it and to us!!!!!!!!!!

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