Last Sunday the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network held its AGM in Whitchurch, Shropshire. Whitchurch Walkers Are Welcome (WAW) did us proud, it is a fine town with plenty of excellent walking opportunities. It was a shame we did not have the time to explore them.
I had a quick look at part of the town, in the rain. St Alkmund’s church (1712-13) has the largest eighteenth-century tower in Shropshire outside Shrewsbury. It is built of red sandstone and is visible from much of the town.
No 21 High Street is now appropriately named. Pevsner says it ‘has a symmetrical timber-framed front of 1677 (much pulled about)’.
Opposite is the bank, which Pevsner observes is ‘spick-and-span timber-framed, with four gables, an imitation taller than any local original building. Well-meaning but presumptuous.’
I would have loved to have seen more, but we had a packed timetable in the Archibald Worthington Club. We had a good representation from WAW towns in England, Scotland and Wales. Over the last year the towns have been producing squares for our banner, and some of the squares were displayed.
There was a lot of discussion and swapping of ideas of how to promote walking and get the most out of the walking festivals. We had a short presentation from Otley who are preparing the Welcome Way, a 28-mile route taking in the Yorkshire WAW towns of Baildon, Burley-in-Wharfedale and Otley, with a Bingley loop. We also heard about next year’s get-together, to be organised by the three WAW towns in Lincolnshire: Caistor, Horncastle and Market Rasen. It is good that towns are working together as it increases our clout and capacity.
After lunch and before the AGM I gave a little update of our walking world.
I said that Walkers Are Welcome towns have never been more relevant. We are not just a group of walkers. We are a movement whose time has come. Everyone now is talking about the importance of walking to the economy. The recent House of Commons debate on the economic value of outdoor recreation reflects the high profile of this issue.
In that debate Walkers Are Welcome was mentioned twice, by David Rutley MP for Macclesfield who referred to Bollington and Disley in his constituency, and James Heappy, MP for Wells, who spoke of Cheddar and Burnham-on-Sea, we did not even know the latter was applying! The parliamentary under-secretary for Culture Media and Sport, Tracey Crouch, responded with some helpful statistics—people who visit England to go walking spend £1.8 billion a year.
We are all facing tough times, with drastic cuts in expenditure at government and local authority level. Walkers Are Welcome towns are campaigners, working for beneficial change for the walking public and we need to target the decision makers. They may be our county or unitary councillors who are responsible for the paths, or our MPs. It is great to get your MPs involved in your work, to invite them on walks and show them what you are achieving. Norman Lamb, MP for north Norfolk, joined the Cromer Walkers are Welcome at Erpingham church the other day, to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Agincourt.
There are some worrying things happening—the Welsh Government has recently issued a consultation paper on access and recreation in which it floats the idea of Scottish-style access in Wales (good), but then proceeds to denigrate the path network, claiming it is expensive and burdensome. What happens in Wales may happen in England later, so we need to look across our borders.
Cherish the ordinary
While our named routes are splendid, we also need to cherish the ordinary paths—the history of our landscape is written in the path network. With the likelihood that definitive maps in England and Wales will be closed on 1 January 2026 to further path claims based on historical evidence, we need to research those unrecorded ways which are not being used and ensure we have applied for their inclusion before it’s too late and they are closed for ever.
On the bright side we can applaud the extension of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks to include the land which was omitted when they were designated in the 1950s. And coastal access is being extended around England, thanks to the efforts of Natural England and Ramblers and a welcome injection of funds from the government.
We have plenty to celebrate, and we must not undersell ourselves. Walkers Are Welcome towns have a crucial role to fulfil and we deserve to be heard and respected.
Prees Heath common
I stayed at the excellent The Glas bed and breakfast at Dearnford, with Charles and Jane Bebbington in an attractive house which they built in a field eight years ago. On Sunday morning I got up early to visit Prees Heath common, a couple of miles south of Whitchurch. In my Open Spaces Society role I have been involved in battles to protect it over the years. In the 1990s there was a planning application to extract sand and gravel which was defeated.
Now it belongs to Butterfly Conservation and is well managed. Charles Bebbington is a retired local farmer, and he told me that he was called in to plough up the common, burying the top soil which had been enriched with chicken manure, to enable heather to be seeded there.
It is now home to a number of butterflies, included the Silver-studded Blue. A lovely spot, it is well worth a visit in the butterfly season or indeed at any time of year.