Do you ever get the impression, as you’re pulling on your boots and tightening your rucksack straps that the locals are distinctly unfriendly? Do you find negotiating footpaths more of an obstacle course than a relaxing stroll? Or are you left with that uneasy feeling that the café owner would rather you’d bugger off with your muddy boots and dripping Gore-Tex?
Hebden Bridge (above) first town in Britain to get the Walkers Are Welcome accolade
Well, maybe that’s about to change, at least, if a band of activists in West Yorkshire have their way.
Hebden Bridge Walkers’ Action (HBWA) is a committed small (they’d like more help!) band of keen hikers in the picturesque Pennine town, who thought it would be a good idea to get their hometown to acknowledge the contribution the outdoor fraternity and sorority make to the wellbeing of the place and set about making it a more welcoming prospect.
So was born the Walkers Are Welcome scheme. Inspired by the Fair Trade Town ideal, to which Hebden Bridge was an early subscriber, they came up with a set of criteria to make outdoor lovers feel more at home in the town, which has long had a reputation for tolerance of alternative lifestyles.
Right: a Walkers Are Welcome sticker in local shop window
The hope is that the idea will spread throughout the country, with a network of designated walker-friendly towns and villages. Already Moffat in Dumfriesshire and Prestatyn in Denbighshire are lined up for the award, which involves satisfying six key points:
- Action to ensure rights-of-way are well maintained
- A petition involving a significant number of local residents in favour of the status
- Local council support
- Encouragement of use of public transport by walkers
- Marketing of Walkers Are Welcome by shop stickers, signs, plus at least two waymarked routes starting at the town centre
- Formation of a group to maintain the status
grough went along to the launch of Hebden Bridge’s new status. Kate Ashbrook (left), chairman of the Ramblers’ Association, was one of the speakers. She told the 100 or so gathered in the town’s Riverside School how important it was to many towns that walkers were given a warm welcome.
Kate said: “This is the opportunity to demonstrate the value of walking to the local economy.”
She commended Walkers’ Action for waymarking routes around the town. Not everyone was an expert navigator and many people wanted a gentler, less demanding route.
“One in four paths in England is not easy to use. The paths must be easy to find on the ground. 45% of paths in Calderdale are not easy to use.”
HBWA has created three waymarked routes: one is a riverside walk to the National Trust woodland at Hardcastle Crags; another climbs to the historic hilltop village of Heptonstall; the third and most strenuous leads to the commanding Napoleonic obelisk on Stoodley Pike. In its leaflet, the group also suggests the towpath of the Rochdale Canal or the gentle walk through Nutclough Woods for family strolls. There are also large expanses of right-to-roam moorland, created under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, for the more adventurous to explore.
grough joined Kate Ashbrook, Natural England board member Pam Warhurst (below right), who lives in nearby Todmorden, and walk leader Kate Berridge on a stroll around Nutclough Woods. Kate is site manager for the clough, which is only a couple of minutes walk from the centre of town.
Kate is nervous. She’s never led a walk before, but has an irrepressible enthusiasm for the wooded valley, which her group, the Friends of Nutclough Woods, are in the process of transforming from a vandal-plagued dog toilet into somewhere Hebden Bridge residents and visitors can enjoy in their lunch break or on a weekend or evening stroll.
Kate and her small team of volunteers have cleared rubbish from the site and thinned some of the beech and sycamore which was choking it and starving the area of light. They have a plan to increase biodiversity and intend to install seats so office and shop workers can watch dippers, wagtails and kingfishers while they have their lunch. That’s the office workers having lunch, not the birds, though Kate tells the twenty or so walkers following her round the site that visiting herons have acquired a taste for young ducklings. Yum, yum! Apparently it doesn’t go down well with the children.
The site is partly owned by Calderdale Council and partly by a private owner and Kate’s frustration at dealing with the red tape she needs to surmount to do even simple footpath improvements is evident. “I don’t do bureaucracy,” she says.
Left: Kate Berridge leads the group through Nutclough Woods
grough gets the feeling that Ms Berridge and her Friends won’t be easily swayed from their task. They’ve had virtually no financial help and the fact that Pam Warhurst, who also heads regeneration body Pennine Prospects, is listening to her every word makes us think it won’t be long before some grant aid finds its way to Nutclough.
Earlier, Kate Ashbrook said walkers rights had been fought for ever since the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the 1930s, and were still a campaigning issue.
She spoke about the next phase of opening up England’s forbidden areas: the miles of coastline which have no access rights at present. Acknowledging that Hebden Bridge is a long way from the coast, she nevertheless said: “We are very much hoping that Natural England will take the bold decision this week on coastal access.”
The Natural England (NE) board meets on Wednesday to consider its recommendations on coastal access. The board is being asked to approve a move to set up a corridor of access round the whole of England’s coast, which would eventually join up with the Welsh and Scottish coasts to create a round-Britain access zone.
grough asked NE board member Pam Warhurst if she thought the board would take up the recommendations, which will need a new piece of legislation.
Pam said: “I would be very surprised if Natural England board members didn’t align with our view.” She also hopes the plan will be in place before the envisaged ten years it may take to draw up the access corridor.
Above right: a visitor looks a Post-It Notes on the boards at the event
Kate Ashbrook, in a discussion on issues facing walkers, said she had been surprised at the reaction to the coastal access proposals.
She said: “Landowners have been quite old-fashioned in the way they want compensation for offering access.” She had hoped things had moved on since the implementation of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. She was also worried that the NE document puts a lot of onus on local authorities.
Ramblers’ Association national solicitor and vice-president Gerry Pearlman had plenty of advice for the group which came together to discuss walkers’ pressing issues. Walkers now had the right to serve a ‘Section 56’ notice on councils. He said: “If you get a path that is out of repair, you have a right to get the local authority to do something about it.”
This can often spur a further bout of activities on the council’s part. “The authority will be looking over its shoulder in case there is another case,” he said. “You can also take court action to make the local authority remove an obstruction.”
There was also a warning. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act has a sting in its tail. He said: “Unless you have got a footpath on to a map it will cease to exist in 2026.” He urged the gathering to check their area and make sure any paths not on the maps are included now.
There was a discussion local authorities’ Footpath Improvement Plans, which had been a great disappointment. There was merely a requirement to draw up the plans, but none to act on them. Kate Ashbrook said: “I don’t think anyone is satisfied with them. They are not required to do anything. We are not getting anything out of it.”
Andrew Bibby of the HBWA said the day had gone well. The group was now setting up an advisory group to help other towns meet the requirements and roll out the welcome mat to walkers.
Left: Hebden Royd mayor Cllr Betty Ward addresses the gathering
So, if your town seems less than inviting for walkers, get in touch with the group and start changing things.
Check out the links below for information on Walkers Are Welcome.