14 April 2014 by Helen Todd
You’d think that working for the Ramblers would mean I spend most of my days walking up hills with the wind in my hair – checking out access problems, joining groups to explore new places and travelling around the country to assess new long distance routes. I wish! Like most people, I spend the majority of my time behind a computer screen in the office.
So it was with great excitement that an invitation arrived for me to represent Ramblers Scotland at a European Ramblers’ Association (ERA) meeting in Copenhagen.
It’s good to be reminded from time to time that the Ramblers family spreads far beyond the UK. The ERA is an umbrella organisation, with 59 separate ramblers’ organisations from 34 different states, ranging from Ireland to Cyprus, Finland to Morocco, all under its wing, representing 3 million organised walkers.
So what does the ERA do? Having just one part-time member of staff, it is very much run by volunteers, in the Ramblers tradition.
Even though these volunteers may work for their own national walking organisations, capacity at a European level is obviously restricted. Therefore, the ERA has historically concentrated on building relationships by the development of pan-European walking routes (E-trails) which enable people to walk from one side of the continent to the other, and organising the Eurorando rally every 5 years. But the current President, Lis Nielsen from Denmark, is slowly succeeding in turning the ERA into a more pro-active organisation with a range of interesting initiatives.
The Copenhagen meeting was attended by organisations from Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and northern Germany. While we have much in common, there is also a great diversity amongst us. For example, the Danish organisation, Dansk Vandrelaug, has around 7,000 members, exists to organise led walks and holidays, and is totally run by volunteers, whereas the DNT in Norway is a strong lobbying organisation with 250,000 members – not bad for a country with a population of 5 million! The DNT and the Swedish STF are also both responsible for looking after the country’s mountain huts, something which is far removed from our work in Britain.
The weekend meeting was based in a very comfortable youth hostel on the outskirts of Copenhagen and was run at a fast northern-European pace, from the first evening’s after-dinner session right through to the post-breakfast session on the third day. In between, we spent Saturday at a nature reserve which included a site visit with the ranger to learn how urban-dwellers are encouraged to enjoy the nature on their doorstep.
Topics covered included the ERA’s development of a training programme for walk leaders, an update on the development of E-trails and the rollout of a system to grade trails and check their quality against specific criteria, the Leading Quality Trails initiative.
Despite our organisations’ apparent differences, there was also a lot of common ground between countries and the issues which concern us all.
These included the growing recognition of the role of walking in tackling health problems, how to deal with threats to public access, and the issues arising from the fact that our volunteers and members are ageing - without a cohort of younger recruits coming forward to take their place. The health walk schemes being run by Ramblers in England and Wales, and Ramblers Scotland’s efforts to work with local health walks to move participants across to Ramblers groups attracted much interest.
By contrast, I was particularly keen to learn how the Norwegian DNT had found that the key to maintaining its membership was to invest time and effort into setting up walking groups for families and younger people. These younger members often then stay with the organisation for the rest of their lives, while new young groups are continually formed to come along behind them.
In Scotland we have come to similar conclusions regarding the need to focus on younger members, and are in the process of setting up a new group for people in their 20-30s in Tayside, while we also have various initiatives which involve pilot projects working in primary and secondary schools to embed walking into the school curriculum.
It’s true that the ERA has traditionally lacked the political clout of other international environmental organisations, such as Birdlife International, or Friends of the Earth Europe, but it is a useful forum to advance ideas of mutual interest. We discussed the potential for future involvement in EU discussions relating to agricultural funding and how this could be influenced to better support investment in path development and other walking initiatives for public benefit. Since the latest agricultural scheme runs till 2020 we still have time to work out how to influence the next scheme.
And how was the weekend in Copenhagen? Well, of course the whole city provides a perfect model of how we can all leave the car behind and safely travel for short journeys by bike or on foot, even in a strong, chilly March wind. My English colleagues and I could only look on enviously as families on different-sized bicycles and groups of elderly ladies chatting to each other passed by on segregated cycle lanes.
On the downside, the vegetarian option for Saturday lunch, consisting of smoked salmon, rollmop herring and a piece of breaded fish was a bit of a challenge! But we all perked up for the ‘Copenhagen by night’ part of the programme, which ended up in the wood-pannelled room of a city centre pub, drinking strong local beer and swapping walking stories.
The conclusion? It’s good to get out of the office, and I must do it more often!
Helen Todd is the campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. Read more about Helen's adventures or follow her @helenrambler.