My walk of life – Dianne Maclean Whiting
Interview: Elyssa Campbell-Barr
When Dianne arrived in the UK knowing no one except her partner, the Ramblers offered the perfect way to explore her new homeland and make friends along the way
My husband, Philip, travels widely for work. We met in Australia and had been together five years when his mother, Vera, fell ill. In December 2019, he returned to London to look after her. I planned to take a sabbatical in 2020 to join him. But Covid happened, Australia locked its borders and we were separated ... for almost two years.
Vera passed in late 2020 and, still separated, the pandemic dragged on. By June, Philip was looking into marriage visas and I was eventually permitted to fly to the UK in September 2021.
Planning our wedding at his family church in New Malden, south London, I was fascinated by the hand-stitched kneelers. One said 'donated by Saint James Ramblers'. I Googled the name, clicked on the Ramblers website and saw that members can join walks across Britain - 50,000 a year - for just a small annual membership fee. I signed up there and then!
Entering my location into the Ramblers' interactive walks map, I discovered I could do a historic walk along the Thames, ramble to royal parks and palaces, and explore villages and countryside. So many choices, each with a contact number and details of where to meet. Soon I was walking two or three times a week while Philip was at work. It was my first autumn in a temperate climate and I felt an intense connection to nature watching the season unfold, as I'd only seen it on screen before.
Wherever my husband's work took us, I'd search the Ramblers website and go walking with the local group. I spent the funniest day with Liverpool Ramblers, continually joking in their delightful Scouse accent. In Teesside, I walked with local Ramblers on the Yorkshire Moors. We saw grouse, climbed Roseberry Topping and had a sprinkling of snow. Magical!
Sutton and Wandle Valley Ramblers in Surrey were a delight, helping me with everything from train travel to offering to be 'friends and family' at my wedding. Their walks took me to rural areas outside London - I loved Shere, where we visited the pub from the film The Holiday. Amid thatched cottages, I bought home-made plum jam from a farmer, feeling like I was in a movie myself.
As autumn drew on, I asked: 'What do you do in winter, when you can't walk?' They laughed. 'We walk all year round!' So I bought rain gear and thermals. Walking in snow for the first time was joyful. It brought out everyone's playful side, tumbling over or flicking branches for an icy shower.
I've spent my career in Australia's National Parks, as a ranger and a conservation officer, so I know the benefits of access to green space. Public rights of way are unique to Britain, and they're priceless. Living in England, even in London, I saw more people regularly enjoying the outdoors than anywhere else I've been. I learned that the Ramblers formed the core lobby group to maintain and expand rights of way. That's another reason I'm a huge supporter. I urge all ramblers to keep fighting for them and bring in the next generation, because they're a tremendous public asset.
My last group, Royston Ramblers in Hertfordshire, stole my heart. One of the hardest things when you don't have friends, family or colleagues is the lack of companionship and conversation. The Royston group gave me these, along with support and advice. They encouraged me to head to the Lake District, Cornwall and Wales. Rambling was an amazing way to see Britain.
I told everybody back home: 'I've found my tribe.' I'd fallen in love with rambling, knowing I could turn up anywhere, find friendly faces and feel safe. Visiting new places as a lone tourist can be draining. Rambling let me relax and enjoy the architecture, plants and birds.
Another beauty of the Ramblers model is that the responsibility for leading walks is shared by the group. It was on my bucket list to lead one myself; Royston Ramblers gave me the confidence, encouragement and maps.
I rang a local farmer and said: 'Can I drop refreshments at your shed for when the walk comes past?' He said: 'I'll put hay bales out for you as well.' So, mid-route, I announced: 'Here's our stop' and pulled out cakes and sloe gin I'd made using recipes from the group. Everyone sat on the hay to enjoy them and they made a speech, saying how wonderful it had been to welcome me to the group and see their walks through new eyes.
We're in Cyprus now and head back to Australia later this year. Friends asked: 'Will you start a rambling group when you're back?' I'd certainly like to, following the brilliant Ramblers model. Once we get going, I'll send a few photos ...