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