A footpath a day keeps the doctor away

Rapeseed yellow under a blue sky – the primary colours of a child's picture is the complexion of the English countryside in late spring. Hurtling on a fast train from London to Cornwall, a vast variety of colours and landscapes keep me sighing almost the entire journey. Lambs tumble over ridges golden with the sun, tranquil caramel-and-white patched cows barely blink at the blur of train, the sun dappled on my arm - it all adds up to an intoxicating bucolic image.

Befitting a journey to a land of myths and legend, the dreamy aspects of still water features heavily. The Somerset Levels sees land transformed into a clear sheet of water, with stranded gates and trees rising upwards and mirrored below. Then, at Exeter St David's, the train slips alongside the sea, where swans glide out to meet sailing boats and yachts and seagulls perch peremptorily atop a rusting and tilting fishing boat. Snatches of happy faces: a blur of golden hair atop a cherubic rosy-cheeked face, a dog pounding along in the surf, barks lost in the wind.

Cornwall Ramblers REACT teamThe reason I was enjoying all this scenic luxury was because I had been invited to visit the Cornwall Ramblers, joining their Ramblers Environmental Action Clearance Team (REACT). Volunteers are invited to work alongside the Ramblers and Cornwall County Council, maintaining local paths and thereby ensuring walkers can still access the wonderful places these paths lead to. The work can involve anything from waymarking, replacing signs and stiles, putting in steps and building bridges.

The path we are working on today is set in a tranquil shaded wood. We reach it via Quiet Lane, a fairy-tale country lane, the winding and dappled green tunnel sprinkled with fritillary and orchid. Despite the early Saturday morning start, we were met by the smiling faces of the other path workers, a mix of new and experienced volunteers ranging from 10 to 82 years of age, some of whom had been volunteering and walking with the Cornwall Ramblers for over thirty years.

A warm welcome - including lots of tea! - and an explanation of the day's activities followed from Graham Ronan, the Cornwall Ramblers Chair and Linda Holloway, the Rights of Way Enforcement Officer at Cornwall Council. Despite the sunshine, there was one cloud on our horizon: a rather unfriendly landowner, glaring at us from behind a locked fence. Linda began what is a regular part of her role as Enforcement Officer - informing and reassuring the landowner as to why we were there, emphasising all the good we would be doing and the benefits we would bring him and others wanting to access this beautiful area. It is understandable that a landowner might be curious about why a large group of strangers has suddenly appeared on his land, but under law, anyone can walk unimpeded on a right of way as long as they do not trespass onto private land. Additionally volunteers can upkeep that right of way, with the permission and aid of the highway authority (usually the county or district council).

Cornwall Ramblers REACT team in actionWe set off along the green, sun-speckled path, the river Kenwyn gurgling to our left, equipment stacked high on our shoulders. Tegenn, 10-year old daughter of Linda (and our youngest Ramblers member), danced along the path like a woodland sprite, jumping in the mud and brandishing her own specially-sized shovel. The path certainly needed work - the bog grasped at our wellies and threatened to suck us in entire.

First up was digging holes for the wooden boards which would make this bog an accessible path. The ground was a mix of stone and clay and as such was resistant to being moved - however we attacked the earth with vigour. I might have been keen, but I was definitely slow. Excluding two volunteers from Kernow Boots (the 20s-40s walking group in Cornwall) the other diggers were approximately double my age and double my speed. Eventually though, we had 6 deep holes, beds for the wooden posts. Next up was cementing in the posts and then erecting the side supports for the path.

Tegenn, Bob Fraser (the REACT co-ordinator) and I turned our attention to wrestling with some rusty nails from the broken bridge, before nailing in new slats. Amazingly no-one hit their thumb - though it was a close call at times! Our final task was to dig some 'grips' between the path and the river, to encourage drainage and alleviate some of the boggy conditions. I was astonished to realise it was 3.30 - the day had vanished in a flash of light and laughter. I could feel my limbs aching in that lovely way you experience after a long walk, and my mind was rested and content.

Sarah and Tegenn working with REACT to fix a bridgeIt's not news to the 17,000 Ramblers volunteers who regularly give up their free time to keep paths in top condition, but getting stuck into a project like this is incredibly rewarding. Not only are you outside, feeling healthy and happy, enjoying the fresh air, you are also doing something of benefit to the wider community. It wasn't a mystery why most of the 60 and 70-year old volunteers were much stronger than me - years of this kind of work doesn't just keep the paths in good nick.

At 4pm, equipment all packed up, everyone skipped (or hobbled in my case) home, happy and full of gratitude to the Cornwall Ramblers and Cornwall Council for facilitating another fantastic REACT day. Perhaps our happiness had also rubbed off on the landowner who grudgingly admitted the value of our efforts - though his change in attitude was mainly due to Linda's brilliant communication skills. I got a real insight into the passion and enthusiam of the REACT group and what a difference it can make when councils and Ramblers volunteers have such a positive working relationship.

As Graham remarked in his thanks to us all, "it was absolutely amazing the amount of work we got through". It's a great feeling to see a group of people from all age ranges and backgrounds coming together to help others enjoy the outdoors - it seems that this work will only get more vital as cuts to local authority spending increases. So next time you are out walking, think of the army of secret workers who have been out before you, laughing and sweating over the signs or steps which enable you to get from the A to Z of your lovely walk. For me, I can't wait for the next opportunity to get my hands dirty with the Ramblers... 

If you are interested in volunteering for the Ramblers, find out ways to get involved.