Well, if you live in the UK there probably is. Our cities and towns are criss-crossed with greenways, be they along riverbanks, canal tow paths or disused railways. They can be hard to pick out on maps, and to be fair, many of the people asking the question are not necessarily map readers.
The circular walks around two of my local lakes, Llyn Geirionydd and Llyn Crafnant are very popular. People do travel considerable distances to undertake them. They are lovely walks, but that really isn’t to say there aren’t some lovely walks nearer to where they live. At Plas y Brenin a surprising number of people would visit reception and ask the question “is there anywhere to walk around here?” I’ve heard the same question asked in café and shops around Snowdonia too. As you can imagine this leaves whoever is on reception that day with a bit of a conundrum. If the asker of the question comes with a map in hand it wasn’t too difficult to help, but if they just wanted a ‘walk’ of the type around Llyn Crafnant then it was really difficult to help them. Thing is, you see, a ‘walk’ means different things to different people. We, as ‘walkers’, usually go hillwalking and, even for us the discovery of woodland walks or coastal walks isn’t always the most obvious thing to do, but at least we can look at a map and find somewhere to walk. There is a whole other group of people who don’t know how to do this.
We can help in two ways. We need to recognise the need for obvious walks. Ones with car parks and a clear to follow all abilities circular route. We have some, we need more. The other way is offer help. I’m not quite sure how we do this, but it is within our gift to be able to open up eyes to what is there to be had. I enjoyed a great walk from Old Colwyn not long since, two friends of ours guided us. When I showed them where we were on Viewranger, on my mobile phone, they were amazed. Amazed that this could be done, amazed it could be done on a phone, amazed at the details to be seen on an OS map. It turned out they had pieced this walk together over a period of years, each time out following a new path and linking styles and signposts, each trip an exploratory one. I applaud this sense of adventure, and the results were there to be enjoyed. It isn’t an efficient way of finding routes, but it doesn’t come with a hint of adventure.
Could we open the joys of OS maps to more people to find ways from where they live? With a little help from local dogwalkers, who always know the way to the nearest green spots, with some appreciation of a map, and maybe an aerial photograph we could do so much more. Should our councils, or local voluntary groups, be encouraged to signpost local ways? How do we get the people walking, without the need to drive?
Just the other day one of our local farmers complained about 12 walkers climbing over fences to get to a gate into another field. We find this hard to understand and feel tarred by the same brush, why didn’t they read a map and follow a path? Why did they think it was OK to walk anywhere in the countryside? What information do they need and how do we get it to them? Of course, it’s one thing in England and Wales to have public rights of way everywhere, how does this manifest itself in Scotland, with their different access laws?
Signed and clearly marked ways are a good start. Maybe you could do something to raise their profile locally. It’s amazing how many cities do have marked trails and even long distant paths through them. The Dales Way starts in Bradford, the Trans Pennine Trail links Hull, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, Nottingham has the Trent Valley Way and the Robin Hood Way. In Derby there is a Bonnie Prince Charlie Walk, in Bristol the River Avon Trail whilst if you are in London check out the Capital Ring and the Thames Path. One other key access corridor in the urban areas are canals. Most of the canals in London, Birmingham and Manchester have good canal paths alongside them and can make great waterside walking routes right through the city. Examples are the Regent’s Canal Walk in London or the Ashton Canal in Manchester. Canal boaters use the Nicholson Guides to waterways, they’re great for walkers and cyclists too.
Would some time spent locally, opening up local routes, guiding people towards them benefit us all? Could we teach the ethos of the countryside code, the techniques of map reading and how to follow rights of way on the ground more locally? Does walking always have to take place in the national parks? How much better prepared for the bigger walks in the hills might people be who have learned to walk nearer home?
There has never been a better time to time work with local groups, maybe ramblers, maybe the countryside team of your local council maybe just your own private enterprise than now. There has never been a greater need to get people out and about walking, in the fresh air, exercising in a gentle sustainable way than now. How can we, as mountain leaders and mountaineering instructors do better?