This year’s Walkers Are Welcome Towns’ get-together was in the Cumbrian market-town of Kirkby Stephen.
I travelled there on the Settle-Carlisle railway. On 15 September 1984 I went to a rally organised by the Ramblers and others in Settle to protest against the proposed closure of this crucial and spectacular route. It is well used by walkers and it would have been tragic to lose it.
On my arrival at Kirkby Stephen station I was welcomed by a banner.
The station is two miles south-west of the town, but there is a pleasant, surfaced cycle path across the fields to join the road into town at Skenkrith Bridge.
I soon found my bed and breakfast, Chapel Cottage, displaying a Walkers are Welcome sticker in the window. It was an excellent B&B and Colin Brown and Chrys Callan made me very comfortable.
The next day we held the annual get-together at the Masonic Hall in North Street. When I arrived it was a hive of activity. The banner, with squares produced by about half the 100 towns, was on display.
Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, which I helped to launch last year, had already produced its square (of Temple Island on the Thames—actually in Wokingham borough).
Thirty-two towns were represented, as well as guests from Misato in south Japan who have been developing the Walkers Are Welcome concept. It was good to meet Kosei Hamada and Ruriko Izawa again.
Our AGM started with a video from the MP for Penrith and The Border, Rory Stewart, who had recently announced that he would be standing as Mayor of London. However, in his one-minute video he extolled the value of walking and the importance of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns network.
After the AGM I said a few words, in my role as patron of the network.
I pointed out that Walkers Are Welcome is immensely relevant right now for many reasons.
1. In times of austerity we bring income to communities, as well as helping the local authorities with their path work.
2. People have never been more concerned about physical and mental health and well-being, and we demonstrate how walking helps.
3. With nature in decline (and the recent State of Nature report highlighted this anew), we show people the beauty and importance of the natural world and encourage them to want to protect it.
4. And with climate crisis at the top of the nation’s mind, what could be better than walking, the one means of transport which puts no pressure on the planet?
We achieve a great deal thanks to the innovation and hard work of our 100 towns.
I said that we keep welcoming walkers, despite everything stalling around us. The Agriculture Bill in England, which was offering public money for public goods, fell when parliament was prorogued (legally) a few days previously. We believe there will be a new Agriculture Bill in the Queen’s Speech on Monday [there was], and that it will still offer public money for public goods, but we must make that happen and for the money to be there and to be spent in the right way.
The Deregulation Act 2015 has not yet been commenced: this supposedly speeds up the process for updating the definitive map, as well as bringing in the provision which closes definitive maps on 1 January 2026 to claims based on historic evidence for certain routes. There is very little time now until 2026 (about 2,270 days—see the countdown on the Ramblers’ website) and user groups are calling for the date to be extended, which can be done under the act.
In Wales, we have heard little about the proposed access reforms beyond the statements about upgrading footpaths for use by cyclists and horse-riders, which we should not oppose automatically but need to consider carefully. The Welsh government has set up a steering group of government bodies to oversee the process with expert advisory groups on which WAW towns could be represented. What happens in Wales can become a model for England.
We need to think about extending our welcome more widely. The recently-published Glover review hit the headlines with its proposition that every child should spend a night under the stars in one of England’s special landscapes. But the review also calls for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to connect with black and minority ethnic communities and enable them to enjoy our special places. This should not just be in the top landscapes. Our towns could make contact with BAME and disadvantaged communities and encourage them to enjoy the local countryside—as Chepstow WAW is doing with refugees from Newport. We should also consider how we can be more welcoming to people with disabilities of all kinds.
So in these uncertain times there is plenty to be doing and thinking about, to make us even more relevant to modern living.
Next year the get-together is in Kington, Herefordshire, a great venue.
I agree with much of this, but would welcome a commitment to give the poorest in our communities more chance to access the countryside, the people who can’t afford cars, let alone public transport and accommodation. Folk on Universal Credit can barely afford to live, let alone go out walking. They are the most excluded minority group – and their numbers are growing with every attack by this wretched government.
I agree that WAW should do what they can about this, to enable everyone who wants to visit to be able to.
It is the poor state of public transport that’s largely the problem. As a lad, I explored Dartmoor by bus – cheap fares, frequent service. We need that back.
Sorry to have missed this WAW get together Kate as I was staying near Kirkby Stephen recently, are these events open to the all? Kirkby Stephen is a great place for walkers for amenities, location not to mention a couple of excellent fish and chip shops. I often wonder why people rush to the Lake District as there is so much to see in this area being close to the North Pennines, Yorkshire Dales and the Howgills.
They are for the Walkers Are Welcome towns and those which are provisional ones, ie working on it. In Bucks we only have Chesham so far.