After writing about the thirtieth anniversary of the Rail Ramblers in July, I realised that I had never published my tribute to Alan Howard, which I gave at his funeral in 2008. This is it (with thanks to Chris Hall,who wrote a Guardian Other Lives about him, and to Tony Clarkson) with a few additions. I am publishing it today, 1 December, which would have been Alan’s 97th birthday.
In days gone by it was not unusual to meet a group of ramblers, arriving at or leaving a railway station, led by one carrying an umbrella. This would have been Alan leading one of his rail rambles.
He firmly believed in the use of public transport for rambles, and at all times. In 1975 he helped to start the Lancashire Rail Rambles programme, and he later organised a similar programme based on Shrewsbury and using the Cambrian, Central Wales, Marches and Chester-Shrewsbury lines—a programme which today is stronger than ever.
And he would lead town trails from railway stations: if you stayed to the end of the Settle-Carlisle line you might be rewarded by Alan’s fascinating tour of Carlisle. Keen on urban walking, in 1975 he published a leaflet ‘A plea for urban footpaths’.
Alan first became involved in the Ramblers in the 1960s when his work as a graphic designer took him to Preston. He joined the Ramblers and attended his first meeting of the Preston and Fylde Group, of which he was immediately elected chairman (a familiar story for many volunteers). Thus began his long association with the Ramblers.
His skill in graphic design was a tremendous asset to the Ramblers. He produced leaflets for the Ramblers’ Forbidden Britain campaigns for the Ribble Way rally of 1986 and the River Alt rally of 1988 when the Ramblers’ sent a dummy across the river on a rope to demonstrate the need for a footbridge.
In 1982, after a long campaign to persuade Lancashire County Council to adopt the Ribble Way as a recreational footpath, he defiantly led the launch of the Interim Ribble Way and it was, again, his artwork which became the leaflet for that event and, perhaps more importantly, the logo for the Ribble Way, a neat clear design.
Eventually, the County Council adopted the Ribble Way and the official opening was at Clitheroe in 1985.
Alan went to his first national Ramblers’ AGM in 1976 where he delivered a witty speech in moving a motion calling on the government to ensure that path users were not endangered by bulls. He was subsequently elected to the executive committee. It was the first of many brilliant speeches which Alan was to make in that forum, often railing against motor vehicles. He once likened motorbikes revving up on the hills to ‘a flatulent dinosaur’.
He was always ready with a clever quip. When two members of Ramblers’ staff bumped into Alan in Penzance in August 1999 they asked if he had come to Cornwall, as they had, to witness the eclipse. ‘No’, he answered, ‘it’s here for me’.
In 1990 he became national vice-chairman and chairman of the footpath subcommittee. With his great expertise in graphic design he should really have chaired the other subcommittee, publicity and development. Instead he would ask me (who had the misfortune to be chairman of that subcommittee) about publicity material produced by the Ramblers—questions which I couldn’t really answer.
In 1993 he was elected national chairman, but resigned in 1995, before completing his three-year term, in disgust that the Ramblers had fixed up a sponsorship deal with Vauxhall cars. He was a strong advocate of public transport and thus abhorred this connivance with a car company, which he (and others) considered to be contrary to the association’s ethos.
Man of principle
This action was typical of this man of principle. Compromise was not a word in his vocabulary. He was strident in his criticism of those who stole paths and land from the public, and he set high standards for footpath volunteers in defending paths. And he was prone to resigning on principle, indeed he said that he resigned from as many organisations as he joined. But when he did so, he was careful not to publicise the fact, as he never wanted to damage the organisation with which he’d had the disagreement.
His fascination for languages, and his fluency in Welsh, led him to become deeply involved in the Ramblers in Wales, and he was ahead of his time in his enthusiasm to see devolution of the organisation in both Wales and Scotland. It was Alan who led the renaming of ‘national council’ (the AGM) to ‘general council’ and ‘national office’ in London to ‘central office’, changes which are not easy to make in an organisation which was so set in its ways as the Ramblers.
In 1994 Derrick Anderton wrote a profile of Alan in Shropshire Life after taking a walk with him (by car, not public transport). He ended: As we walk back (with slight feelings of guilt) to our mechanised transport, we straighten our shoulders and step out with a little more pride because of our chat with Alan Howard. We have learned something from this witty and unassuming man who is at once artist, campaigner, trailblazer and friend of the foot traveller.
We all learned a great deal from Alan and we miss his intelligence, wit, outspokenness, stubborn determination, and lovely twinkle.
Alan Howard, 1 December 1922 – April 2008