Walking Class Hero: something in the air

These days winter for me is touring the country talking at Ramblers Area AGMs and it’s great to get out and meet old friends as well as making new ones. Walking and talking – what better way to spend your weekends?

You’ve got to hand it to walk
magazine, it always comes up trumps when recommending quirky, unusual, out of the way places, you can take a good walk. The winter 2014 issue is no exception and in my case it arrived with a timely suggestion for the Gloucestershire area – the Ships’ Graveyard at Purton.

I had been invited by the Gloucestershire Ramblers to speak at their area AGM on the first weekend in December. More of the meeting later but when I get asked to attend these gatherings I always take the opportunity to not only go walking with the local Ramblers before or after the meeting but also, when possible, to do a little independent walking of my own in the vicinity.

These days I usually rummage through Ramblers Routes or if I’m feeling a bit old school I ask around, but I always flick through (literally) copies of walk. This time it was @innerlondramb (who were coming down for the weekend with me) that spotted the entry in Christopher Somerville’s Mystery Tours Abandoned Treasures article.

Looking at the view

Saturday dawned with crystal clear blue skies, the day all gilded round the edges, the sun a radiant overlay, crunchy groundfrost underfoot and steaming breath in front of your face. The de-icing of the car windscreen quickly stripped away the poetical veneer from the morning but, all in all, it was one of those days where you were glad you’d got up bright and early. The drive to Woodmancote was painless and the 50 odd local Ramblers in the village hall were friendly and welcoming – just as I have come to expect. There is invariably a good deal of passion and heartfelt views expressed at these get togethers but in my experience it’s nearly always laced with good humour and an amiable and polite disposition.

They combine the local – ‘despite numerous complaints, footpath x is still knee-deep in mud’' sort of thing – with the national. And this year the national was all about the proposals for a new vision for the Ramblers and the ongoing governance review. As one Gloucestershire contributor put it: “It’s not every membership organisation that gives you the opportunity to voice your opinion in the shaping of its future and that’s what the Ramblers is doing not once but twice”. It would be fair to say that opinion is divided about the way forward but, so far, most people seem to accept the need for change.

The short walk following the meeting was excellent and I can confirm that many of the paths in Gloucestershire are probably muddier than usual. Seriously speaking, drainage does seem to be a huge issue in the area and one, I guess, that causes certain well loved routes to be abandoned at this time of the year.

Sunday was another clear crisp day but as long as you were wearing enough layers, an ideal day for walking. And the Purton Hulks were everything, and more than, promised, a surprising delight. They’re tucked away between the River Severn and the Gloucester Canal and their ghostly, eerie shapes are, at once, both natural and other worldly. There is definitely something of the Saxon about their beached skeletons. This ship graveyard was created deliberately between 1909 and 1963 and over 80 ships have been run aground purposefully to try and solve erosion concerns in the vicinity.

Abandoned boat 

It worked brilliantly. What was once a narrow bank is now a broad, cliff-like expanse of grassland. Not only that, its vast array of old working boats has become a magnet for marine archaeologists, historians, boat fanatics and walkers. There is, however, an unmistakeable air of sadness about so many old relics, whose usefulness is over, being abandoned in one haunting out of the way place.

The rest of the walk down to Sharpness and then circling back was a relaxed stroll with plenty of time for chatting while taking in the views of the gentle rolling countryside of Gloucestershire and Wales across the river. A perfect walk for these short winter days.

It was a weekend that couldn’t help but get you thinking about how important the outdoors and nature is to our wellbeing. As a walker I guess I’m guilty of too often taking it all for granted. But nature is in trouble. Our wildlife is decreasing at an alarming rate and it is not just our rarest species and habitats.

Years of accumulated dash for growth policies have seen once common species populations like sparrows and starlings plummet. And what’s worse is that even the flimsy barrier that our existing laws provide to the environment is under threat from the continued passage of the Deregulation Bill through Parliament. That’s why the Ramblers have collaborated with Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, League Against Cruel Sports, the Mammal Society and Butterfly Conservation and supported the Rally for Nature.

It must be something in the air but it seems to me it’s definitely a time to stand up and be counted. A time, with a general election looming, to lobby decision makers. All across England we’re experiencing footpaths and access under threat as the current Coalition Government’s austerity cuts are biting.

And we’re seeing Ramblers members grappling with the difficult decisions of how to make our organisation more adaptable, flexible and relevant to countering these threats. Where we are mindful of our past but not rooted in it. Plenty of opinion has been expressed in the surveys but one point to note is the overwhelming support for ‘one member one vote’ – with only about 12% saying ‘no’.

For a more detailed explanation of the Ramblers visiongovernance and one member one vote’ proposals please visit the Ramblers website.

Walking class hero’s playlist:

Wooden Ships – Crosby, Stills & Nash

Severn River – Sara Beck

Sharpness Sensation – Plyashe

Drifting Away – Bella Hardy

Something In The Air - 1993 Greatest Hits Version – Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

This Is Why We Fight – The Decemberists


Walking Class Hero is a regular blog contributor. Find out more about him, including his previous blog posts, and follow him on twitter @walkngclasshero.