Last weekend the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network’s tenth anniversary get-together was held in Hebden Bridge, Calderdale. Hebden Bridge was the first Walkers Are Welcome town, inspired by local residents Andrew Bibby and Gwen Goddard.
The event was hosted by the three Walkers Are Welcome towns in the Calder valley: Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Todmorden under the umbrella of Heart of the Pennines.
We met at the splendid Birchcliffe Centre, a former Baptist chapel.
About a quarter of the towns were represented, and the banner made of embroidered squares from some of the towns was displayed.
We were delighted to welcome three guests from Japan who are involved in the Japan Footpath Association.
The event organisers had put on a series of walks through the week preceding the conference, using public transport and exploring the magnificent moors, valleys and villages. I was sorry to have missed them, but I did enjoy a walk beside the Rochdale canal both mornings before breakfast, and the sight of two kingfishers flashing across the canal.
The first speaker at the get-together was Andrew Bibby, who created Hebden Bridge as a Walkers Are Welcome town, based on Fair Trade principles, and who inspired the network.
As patron of the network, I spoke next, (roughly) as follows.
I have a soft spot for Hebden Bridge having campaigned for access, with Mo Ludlam and Andrew on the Access to Boulsworth Campaign, and taken part in rallies and photo opportunities on the forbidden moorland around Widdop reservoir. I was here on 8 March 1999, the historic day on which Michael Meacher announced that the government would legislation for a right of access on open country.
I first came to Hebden Bridge in 1983 when I was gathering evidence to write the Ramblers’ contribution to the Countryside Commission’s Uplands Debate. Hebden Bridge was already on the map as a heritage centre, before the brown signs sprung up throughout the country; it celebrated its industrial heritage and used this to improve the local economy. That innovation has persisted ever since, and has brought us Walkers Are Welcome towns—which are now expanding internationally. We are privileged to have with us Takashi Oda, Yukiki Kamiya and Keiji Maegawa from Japan to talk about the Japan Footpath Association and their brand of Walkers Are Welcome.
The main strength of Walkers Are Welcome is to demonstrate the value of walking to the local economy and therefore the benefits of investing in paths and access. We know that it pays. The 870-mile Wales Coast Path cost £10 million to build and generated £32 million in its first year, paying for itself many times over.
Last year Prime Minister Theresa May wrote the foreword to the government’s Tourism Action Plan:
But many overseas visitors never venture beyond London, so over 50% of their spending is in the capital. While we want tourist numbers to remain high, we also want the benefits of growth to be felt across the whole of the UK. This is a beautiful country, offering so much to see and do throughout, and we must do everything we can to make sure that visitors are encouraged to explore beyond the capital.
Walkers Are Welcome towns help to spread visitor income—we are doing just what the government wants.
We know that we boost the local economies but we need facts and figures from our towns. When you fill in your annual survey please give the best information you can about the difference you have made and the amount of money you have generated.
There are plenty of access issues for us to get involved in. Natural England is making good progress with the England Coast Path and has now started work on every stretch. Volunteers can help to identify the route, study the plans and respond to the consultations. We all need to be researching our historic ways before they are lost on 1 January 2026 with the closure of the English definitive maps. In Wales the government is sensibly proposing to abandon the 2026 guillotine, and it has recently consulted on new measures for access, many of them good, some of them worrying—such as opening all footpaths to horse-riders and cyclists as a matter of course. In Scotland, where the Land Reform Act gives freedom to roam, people are now turning their attention to improving the paths.
And over and above all this looms the prospect of Brexit. Whatever we think of it, Brexit provides an opportunity to direct the £3 billion of agricultural money to more and better public access. That is something for which we must all lobby.
Walkers Are Welcome towns are unique in having such a broad base of support—walkers, businesses, councils and many other interests. This means we are well placed to influence decision makers. Locally you can put pressure on your councillors, Members of Parliament, health and wellbeing boards and others, to improve facilities for walkers. Nationally with the backing of our towns we can lobby ministers and the three parliaments.
Walkers Are Welcome is a movement whose time has come. We must gather the evidence of the difference we make and use it to influence those who take the decisions which affect us.