Last Saturday I had the delightful double duty of launching Gillingham as a Walkers Are Welcome Town—the first in Dorset—and opening its week-long walking festival.
Gillingham achieved Walkers Are Welcome (WAW) status on 10 August. This means that it has fulfilled the six criteria necessary for acceptance: it has demonstrated local support, gained acceptance from the town council, made a commitment to ensure the local path network is in order, guaranteed adequate marketing of WAW status, shown how use of public transport will be encouraged, and demonstrated how the status will be maintained in future, with broadbased support.
North Dorset, where Gillingham is situated, is the less celebrated part of the county. WAW status and the walking festival will encourage people to explore this undersung but very attractive area. The local committee has worked extremely hard to get everything ready for the launch.
We met at 9.45 in Town Meadow, where Sheila Messer, chairman of the organising committee, gave us a warm welcome, and I spoke of the benefits of WAW status and what it means to be part of a national movement. I then presented the certificate to the Mayor, David Walsh, and we released a bag of environmentally-friendly balloons.
There were two walks on this first day of the festival, one of 20 miles, to Wincanton, the other, which I joined, of about five miles to Wyndham’s Oak at Silton. The route was marked with blue waymarks.
Part of it is on the Stour Valley Way. There was rather more road-walking than is desirable and some bad stiles, but the WAW team is determined to get all these things sorted.
There is a volunteer team doing practical path work in conjunction with Dorset County Council’s Countryside Rangers.
Sheila Messer was our walk leader and imparted some interesting information. For example this region of Dorset is a stronghold for the relatively rare Small Teasel (Dipsacus pilosus).
We reached Silton, the furthest point on the walk, and joined hands around the 1,000-year old Wyndham’s Oak. It took 12 people to surround it, totalling about 18 metres circumference.
A plaque at the site tells its history, so far as it is known.
We returned to Gillingham via Whistley Farm and fields with straw bales awaiting collection, a sure sign of early autumn.
Soon there will be a WAW plaque at Gillingham station with walking routes to link to the promoted paths. The town itself has some interesting features and is well worth exploring. It was visited by Constable, as the sign on the Town Bridge explains. One of the walks in the festival programme, promoted by red waymarks, is ‘in the footsteps of Constable’. It takes in three views which he painted when staying in Gillingham. Since he was born on the River Stour in Suffolk, perhaps he was intrigued to visit another River Stour in Dorset.
Some towns which join the WAW scheme are already popular destinations for walkers, with well-walked paths. Gillingham is less publicised, with paths which need attention. Its new status as a Walkers Are Welcome town will help it to achieve this and to attract people to this pleasant rolling countryside. I wish the energetic Gillingham WAW committee the best of luck in furthering the town’s potential.