I have been walking in Britain for over 50 years. Many things have changed but I strongly believe that the key factors about walking in the outdoors have not. It is a place to enjoy, a place to explore and a place to learn about our heritage.
Never has it been more important for people to get outside and enjoy the countryside. Fresh air, exercise, mental and physical well being the most obvious. Anyone who goes for a walk (short or long) knows they feel so much better afterwards. Walking happens to be my thing but it matters not a jot if you are out cycling, running, nordic walking, messing about on the water. Exercise and fresh air is beneficial.
To get the most out of the outdoors follow the following principles:
Explore, Educate and Enjoy.
I am often told walking is boring. Well that can be true if everyone sticks to the easy routes to the popular attractions. Chains of walkers trekking up to Malham Cove is boring for many, at least it is after the first time. Even some of the hills and mountains are a bit predictable, anyone following the crowds up Mam Tor will testify to this.
The challenge is therefore to exercise the mind as well as the body and explore the countryside away from the obvious routes. The most enjoyable walks are those that leave the paths and explore the area around it. The thrill of being away from others and relying on your own abilities to reach somewhere far outweighs a short easy walk with 100s of others or somewhere very familiar.
There are a number of reasons why people do not take the next step and go further afield.
The simple answer is to learn how to read a map and plan your own walks. I do not like prescribed routes. Following a gps route/guidebook is more like building an Ikea wardrobe ie: a concentration on the instructions to the elimination of anything else. It feels like school.
However if you can read a map the landscape comes alive. Plan your walk based on what you can see on a map (paper or on line). Estimate the distance, check a rough time, look at the contours to see how much climbing is involved and most importantly look for potentially ‘interesting’ things on the walk.
What is ‘interesting’ can vary from person to person. The most common challenge is a summit, either for a tick on a list or because it is likely to have striking views. However ‘interesting’ may also be a lovely river, a small village, an historical site or just a landscape feature. It may also be a heron gracefully leaving a river, a kingfisher or surprising a herd of deer. Alternatively it may simply be a walk in an area that you are not familiar with. Some people walk with a purpose in mind, others just for enjoyment. The principle of both however is to explore the unknown, both very worthy.
Whilst looking at a map and planning a walk the most natural thing is to play safe and stick to paths. However the best walks often leave paths and head ‘off piste’. I am always amazed how few people on my courses or guiding days have ever even heard of Access Land and the Right to Roam. They assume they must stick to paths, even in the upland areas. Access Land is best described in an earlier blog but in essence it gives people the right to wander off paths in most of our upland areas (and lower in Scotland). It opens up all kinds of possibilities.
Incidently when I refer to planning a walk and therefore Exploring our outdoors I refer to both paper maps and mapping software. Spreading out a paper the night before a walk is my way of finding a good walk but pull up an O/S map on line and it is just as effective. You can even take the very good O/S app on your phone but bear in mind you may lose reception or battery. The important thing is that an understanding of maps and relating it to the area you are going to walk in brings confidence and greater enjoyment.
Finally do not believe that our outdoors is crowded, it simply isn’t…if you know where to look.
I like to split ‘education’ in to two distinct areas.
Education can only come from schools. The Glover Report advocated a night under the stars for all secondary age children. An excellent recommendation. However it needs to be supplemented by a few days a year of ‘Geography Plus’. The Geography syllabus should include some map reading sessions and rural life sessions to complement the night out. I, for one, and many others remember this from our Geography lessons. The Countryside Code can be blended in to the lessons, but only as an aid to understanding how to behave.
Who for example knows the difference between a right of way and a path on the ground? Which can you use when. Who knows what ‘dogs under control’ actually means? Who knows when signposting is used, in Britain it is very different to Europe? There are so many questions that have easy answers and make walking so much less stressful. Children should learn about the outdoors and experience it.
The lack of understanding of many who live in cities and towns to rural life and the real outdoors puts them off visiting. However if they start to understand the countryside and how it ‘works’ then many more will come and experience it. Some still take the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, I just wish more did. It is an opportunity missed.
There are a great deal of unsuitably dressed people heading out on the mountains and hills. Again this comes down to lack of education but also experience. First off check the weather, this does not mean the BBC Weather forecast but a specialist mountain forecasting service. The best is the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) as this reports on mountain conditions not those in a village, low down and miles from where you want. However if you are taking a pleasant low level walk the MWIS is not suitable.
Once you have a weather forecast then you can decide what to bring in terms of clothes and other kit. Good walking shoes or boots (in winter) are essential as is a waterproof. Without getting in to specific details (I will do this another time) what to bring depends on the walk you are doing, the weather and what you feel you need. The latter only comes with experience so over prepare at first, then whittle it down to what you need. Again though, the D of E programme (or similar school trips) is so important to find out what suits you.
However we should also be teaching children (and adults) about our countryside heritage. It is not just a place to visit but a living environment. Although the present work of farmers is important, the past is more interesting. Who would believe the scale and beauty of the Settle Carlisle Railway, the lead mines of Swaledale, the poets of the Lake District or even that Keswick was the home of the first pencil! However it is only when visiting the rural (and coastal) areas that these and many other interesting facts comes alive.
In addition to an improvement in the present curriculum for schools there requires an educational programme put out via the media for all ages. The message on the promotion/advertising should be positive, attracting visitors to the countryside with spectacular visuals, interesting stories of things to do with an underlying educational message. It has to be government funded. At the moment the messages from the media and in particular social media are simply putting potential visitors off.
And please can we not call a UK holiday a ‘staycation’, it is a ‘holiday in the UK’.
I am sometimes horrified by messages I receive or see on social media from people reprimanding fellow walkers for their behaviour. ‘The outdoors is not a playground’, ‘That path is slippy and dangerous, you should not use it’ , ‘Keep to the paths’, ‘Too young to be on Helvellyn’ is a small sample I have received. Frankly these type of messages come from at best patronising, at worst unpleasant, busy bodies. Sadly such vitriol will put many off visiting the area. It kills the prospect of enjoying the trip. For those who have never walked in the countryside accessing the area just seems to fraught and troublesome. They may be scared to come but more likely simply cannot be bothered with the hassle.
There are also too many rules which are pushed down our throat. When you are walking in the outdoors take responsibility for yourselves (should be the message). I may be an exception (doing what I do) but my younger daughter climbed Scafell Pike at 6, both have been in backpacks on the mountains and (scarily) they have been scrambling around rocky areas. I also like to push anyone I am with to move out of their comfort zone. As an example, the 3 Peaks in 3 Days (Yorkshire) guided trips I run, pushes many beyond what they would normally do. As a result they enjoy it so much more.
I was recently up Pavey Ark in the Lake District and summoning up the courage to climb the boulder in Easy Gully when I was joined by 3 young chaps. They were in the mountains for the first time, chosen Langdale as a base and set off from Stickle Barn to climb the nearest mountain. Many will think that is irresponsible. I do not. They were having the time of their life, young, fearless and after an adventure. They had not stuck to the rules, if they had they would never have come to Easy Gully. On scrambling over the boulder and reaching the summit I was chatting to them. One said he would take a map next time but would be back. They all agreed that the day was great fun and much better that they had ever thought. The immortal line ‘I thought walking was boring’ was uttered.
On the same walk I saw a dad and his children heading up towards Stickle Tarn. Those who do not know the route it is steep and rocky. The two children (primary age I would guess) seemed to be given a free reign. They were leaping round the sides of the path, scrambling over the rocks and thoroughly enjoying themselves. The dad had a wary eye on them but was letting them have their fun. Good on him, those children will return.
There are far too many rules on walking and walks today. My generation tend to forget how they started. The gear was worse, the maps largely useless, compasses never used and moaning certainly not tolerated. However we learnt to understand the outdoors, feel confident in the mountains and as a result how to enjoy being there. That does not mean we were daft.
We must never underestimate the value of having fun.
PS: We recently had our lovely border collie Mist put to sleep after a short illness. Very sad but she had a wonderful life and added so much to ours.
Great article Jonathan. I love how you write about the outdoors with such passion and knowledge. Keep up the good work and no doubt will see you next year. So sad to hear of your recent loss.
So very sorry to read about your beautiful Border Collie. I know she will leave a hole in your hearts. She must have had a perfect life with all those long distance rambles.
Best wishes from Vivien Fisher and my Border Collie, Shanti.
Hi J its Mike Wilson (Mountain Mike) I see from your pictures most people are wearing trainers,I was on Esk Pike and Seathwaite Fell two weekends ago on the tops the conditions were atrociuos.I would say seventy five per cent of walkers were wearing trainers,shorts and gym leggings,I spoke to a few people but in the end decided that education was required before and not after the horse has bolted.These people were not dressed for the Fells and most who I spoke to were on their way to Scafell Pike,I hope they made it?.Conditions were that bad I came down from Styhead Tarn cutting my day short moral of the story get the right gear otherwise stay on the lower Fells.
Hi Mike, totally agree with you. The issue is actually a lack of preparation (see weather comments above) and education. It all come back to ignorance and education. To be fair though it has always been the case, through the ages, its just more people are on the hills this (and last) year, many newbies as well.
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