Path guardians

Over 140,000 miles of path run through England and Wales. These paths are used by thousands of people every day – from the useful little cut-through that saves you time on your walk to work to the mighty Pennine Way which brings in walkers from around the world who want to tackle it.

BRamblers and Anastasia repairing a popular pathOur paths aren’t just good for the walker’s soul; they’re good for the nation. Walkers staying in local bed and breakfasts, eating at local cafes and drinking in local pubs spend money that helps support ailing rural communities. In Shropshire, walkers using their footpaths bring in £65million for the economy.

Recent government guidelines have shown that physical inactivity is killing more people than smoking and getting more people walking is vital to fix this problem. Our paths are the first place people turn to go walking. Despite this, funding for our footpaths has been cut again and again.

We revealed in November that 70% of councils have cut their budget for footpaths. As budgets are announced in April, it’s likely that money for our precious footpaths is set to decrease yet again. We can (and will) campaign against these cuts, but what’s happening in places that have slashed their budgets? I visited two of our biggest “councils of concern” to see how Ramblers are working with councils to minimise the impact for walkers.

On a snowy day in Warwickshire, the BRamblers (aka Solihull Ramblers, genius name!) are hard at work. Ignoring the cold, they’re wheeling wheelbarrows, laying down gravel and having a great time. As dog walkers and local residents walk past, thanking us for the work, it’s clear that we’re doing something special. The group’s Nick Hillier explained to me how Warwickshire Ramblers shifted from footpath campaigners to footpath conservers. “It all came about from our petition to Warwickshire Council. We were worried about plans to cut the budget for footpaths by 45% so we gathered a petition of 1000+ signatures to the Council. Sadly the cuts still happened, but the Councillors wanted to ensure that footpaths were protected, so put two members of staff in to manage volunteer teams”.

BRamblers, Birmingham Rambler path maintenance teamThe BRamblers is one of 30 volunteer groups (including 3 other Ramblers groups) that work with Warwickshire County Council to repair broken bridges, clip back vegetation and survey footpaths, saving the council tens of thousands of pounds that they would otherwise have spent on private contractors. Keith Davenport, Head of Transport Planning tells me, “everyone’s winning really”.

Over in Hertfordshire, I learnt that the vast majority of a footpath officer’s time isn’t spent on brambles and blockages but on negotiating changes to footpaths with landowners and users (like the Ramblers – we check every change to a footpath in the country, and we’re not afraid to object if we don’t like it). It’s a difficult job, and one I wouldn’t want to do, however as Richard Cuthbert, Head of Countryside Services at Hertfordshire County Council confides, “we get into it because we enjoy walking and the countryside and we soon find it’s not that easy”.

Can we help ease the strain of their work? As a vested interest, we probably can’t help the council with the negotiations, but nor should we just sit back and accept a change to a path if we don’t like it. Kate Ashbrook, Ramblers President argued passionately against a diversion of a path we visited going through a field, declaring, “it’s been like this for hundreds of years, the public have a right to use it for another hundred”.

BRamblers repairing a popular pathDespite this, we have been working with groups representing everyone who has a stake in our path network, including landowners, horse-riders, farmers and footpath officers, to put together a package of proposals to make it easier to claim new paths and remove some of the steps that often delay and rack up the costs of path changes. Fingers crossed these proposals will become law sometime this year or next.

It is fascinating to see the work that goes into making sure that our favourite footpaths are open and enjoyable. Many of the paths that we walk have been walked for hundreds of years. Our paths are steeped in as much history as our oldest buildings and most famous monuments – used for thousands of years for pilgrimages, trips to market and for droving. Long before we had the M1, we had the Ridgeway. In this climate of cuts to all budgets, through rolling up our sleeves, shouting out or working with others, the Ramblers is here to ensure that paths can be walked for another thousand.