Twenty years ago, a controversial law fifteen years in the making was finally passed in parliament: The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. While not everyone celebrated the change, walkers say it has given them the chance to enjoy more of the countryside they love.
Sport England, a national funding body responsible for encouraging Britons to take up more exercise, say more than 19 million people in the UK enjoy walking for leisure. For these people, the so-called ‘right to roam’ law allowed free roaming over mountains and common land without having to stay on paths or ask permissions.
The National Ramblers Association say they were the driving force behind the right to roam law. An organisation made up of more than 100,000 walking enthusiasts, they formed a pressure campaign named ‘Forbidden Britain’ that advocated for the rights of walkers throughout England and Wales.
Founded in 1934, the group turn 85 this year. As members prepare to celebrate this anniversary, a question looms over the occasion: why, after walkers have won legal rights, do we still need an organised rambler’s association?
Stuart Parker joined the national rambler’s association in 1975, aged just 16. Now the area secretary of the rambler’s Lincolnshire faction, he says the group remains vital to protecting people like him: “It makes sure some-one is looking out for walkers.
“If we see a path that is blocked, or anything that isn’t right, we tell the relevant body and ask them to sort it out. It’s up to us to make sure that the people who want to enjoy the countryside get to without worrying about their path being blocked.”
The Lincolnshire Ramblers make up one of 500 groups nationally, collectively promoting more than 50,000 walks a year. Each group plans walks according to the terrain their members live in. In Lincolnshire, walkers flock to the flatlands and coastal scenery. In surrounding areas, town walks and cityscapes make up the views for those interested in getting involved.
Ann Ransome, 70, has been part of the Lincolnshire ramblers for 25 years. She says the Lincolnshire Wolds are her favourite place to trek: “The Wolds are beautiful, and so unique to the area. Lots of people think walking in this county is boring to walk in because it is so flat, but that is simply not the case.”
She walks weekly, travelling thousands of miles in the pursuit of the sport she loves doing. This is not uncommon for a member of the rambler’s association, she says that they are a group that champion walking as a way to see their world in a new light. This passion, it seems, has not changed in their near century of active service.
The law will not protect the rights of walkers indefinitely, Mr. Parker adds. As funding cuts for non-necessary maintenance hit every part of society, local councils are set to allocate less and less to maintaining pathways for walkers, despite what local rambling groups ask for.
So, as some less used pathways close and walkers begin to notice the impact of austerity in perhaps unusual places, are there any other reasons the national rambler’s association remains a popular pastime for thousands of Britons?
Sophia Kahn, speaking on behalf of the National Rambler’s Association, said: “At a time when people are leading busy, stressful lives, being able to get out in the countryside and enjoy the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of walking in nature is more important than ever.
“Many of the members of our growing number of younger groups (for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s) tell us this is one of the most important elements of walking for them.”
The younger groups, an ever-popular addition to the rambler’s repertoire, were first founded in 2004. They are an example of a response to the ongoing struggle of the rambler’s association; how to stay relevant, while still offering what it has always promised to offer.
Local walkers remain, it seems, ever-more staunchly in favour of the work the ramblers continue to do, standing behind the therapeutic benefits of group walking. Ann Ransome said: “We still need groups like this to remind people that walking is the greatest exercise in the world, and it’s completely free!”
Stuart Parker has spent his life creating walks, joining group expeditions and advocating for the rights of Britons increasingly invested, he says, in being able to traverse their surroundings with freedom.
More information on the ramblers can be found on their website https://www.ramblers.org.uk/.