This year’s Walkers Are Welcome towns’ annual get-together was at Cromer on the Norfolk coast. The town certainly gave us a good welcome.
We arrived on a calm sunny evening (while the west of the country was being battered by Storm Desmond) and enjoyed a reception at the Tides Restaurant on Cromer Pier.
Then the committee headed off to buy fish and chips and take them to Hilary Cox’s home for a committee meeting. Hilary is a member of North Norfolk District Council and, with Gemma Harrison, led the WalkCromer team in organising a great event.
The next day we gathered for the AGM in the august ambience of the North Norfolk District’s council chamber. Our chairman Sam Phillips sat in the big chair and had control of the microphones; he could cut anyone off if he wished. While very grand, the surroundings did not lend themselves to easy conversation, but luckily no one seemed to be deterred from contributing.
We saw an excellent video from the local Lib Dem MP, Norman Lamb, who had filmed himself. His words were really encouraging: ‘I’m a massive advocate of the joys of walking … whenever I do walk it just lifts the strains and pressures away and allows me to enjoy great scenery. … As a former minister of care and support I saw very much the incredible power of walking for people who need to keep active. Walking is critically important for our mental health, it’s not only the exercise, it’s the outdoors, witnessing and experiencing beautiful scenery and also the camaraderie of walking with groups, getting out of your home. Too many people are stuck indoors’. He described some beautiful walks in Norfolk, and ended by thanking us for ‘bringing the joys of walking to so many more people’.
I had been billed to speak before the AGM but the welcome from David Pritchard, Cromer’s Mayor, overran so I decided to wait until afterwards, and then provoke some debate.
My main message was that we must produce hard evidence of the impact we make, and publicise it. In these times of uncertainty the main certainty is that there will be continuing austerity—whatever Theresa May might say. We also know that people’s health is deteriorating: only the day before (12 October) there had been a story in the paper that four per cent of children in year 6 were dangerously overweight.
So Walkers Are Welcome has never been more relevant, and we have an opportunity, with the Agriculture Bill in Parliament, to argue for agricultural payments to be invested in more and better public access.
But it will strengthen our arguments on all fronts if we can spell out in numbers the difference we make: assisting the local authorities in maintaining paths, leading walks which help to keep paths open, and bringing visitors to the area who then spend money locally. While our survey last year showed that we have developed 1,200 walks, totalling over 6,342 miles (the distance from London to Lima), we need to be able to show how many people walk those paths, how much money they put into the community; what is the saving on the public purse of all the work we do, and what is the social benefit.
This resulted in some discussion and a helpful suggestion from New Mills in Derbyshire that we should investigate the template produced by the Association of Independent Museums for estimating the value we bring to our communities. Our committee will look into promoting this tool, to enable us to demonstrate what a difference we make.