The WI celebrates the 70th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act

Fiona Hughes, National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI), takes a look through the WI's history of protecting and preserving the countryside, and their current campaigns to protect our landscapes for future generations

Eastgate WI members in 1940s

The WI's long history of protecting and preserving the countryside

The WI is proud to be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, legislation that led to the creation of National Parks, AONBs, National Trails, the definitive map in both England and Wales, and National Nature Reserves across Great Britain.

The WI has a long history of protecting and preserving the countryside. In 1915 the organisation was set up in Britain to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then, WI members have proposed and supported numerous environmental campaigns to maintain the beautiful rural landscapes of England and Wales. 

This famous ‘please take litter home’ image has been recreated by many modern WIs!

One of the most memorable and longstanding WI initiatives stems from a resolution calling for a campaign to ‘preserve the countryside against desecration by litter.’ This resolution, passed in 1954, led to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, now an independent charity. The 1958 Litter Act was attributed largely to Keep Britain Tidy, and MPs thanked the WI for the role it played in transforming litter policy.

Every year hundreds of WIs support Keep Britain Tidy’s ‘Great British Spring Clean’ campaign to clean up the environment, organising litter picks in parks, schools and beaches. This goes hand in hand with WI members’ commitment to tackling the scourge of plastic pollution, an issue which has been a concern for the WI for several decades. 

Lifton WI members in Devon litter pick for the 2019 Great British Spring Clean

Climate change is firmly on the WI agenda 

In 2006, the WI caused a stir when hundreds of members visited their local supermarket en masse to leave excessive packaging at the tills. Recently, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) has teamed up with Friends of the Earth to draw up ‘drastic on plastic’ proposals asking the Government to prevent plastic pollution of the environment by 2042 and end the use of non-essential single use plastics by 2025.

For a number of years, climate change has been firmly on the WI agenda. In 2016 the NFWI began to recruit WI Climate Ambassadors who promote the climate change campaign in their community and have built support for tougher action on climate change with their MPs and AMs and educated their members on how to reduce their carbon footprint. There are now 170 dedicated Climate Ambassadors.

The importance of walking and access to to wild spaces

As well as campaigning to protect the environment, WI members have also benefited greatly from having access to wild spaces. Rambling through rural areas is a popular activity for many WIs and is an effective way to combat loneliness and promote health and well-being.

Some WIs have even started walking sub-groups, which are smaller breakaway groups from their main WI. One example is the Amersham Angels WI Walking Group based near the beautiful Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire. Members meet on Sunday mornings and are spoiled for choice in fabulous walks to choose from. Often the walks end with tea and cake in true WI style!

Amersham Angels WI Walking sub-group

It is important that we continue to protect our landscapes for future generations, and celebrate the legacy of those campaigners who passionately fought for the countryside to be accessible to all. Encouraging people to walk and make the most of the beautiful green spaces across the UK will have endless benefits, from personal health and wellbeing, to reducing social isolation, something that is at the very heart of the WI’s ethos.

To find out more about the WI’s environmental campaigns, please visit: thewi.org.uk/campaigns

Keep on Rambling

This year is the 70th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, legislation that led to the creation of National Parks, National Trails, the definitive map in both England and Wales, and National Nature Reserves across Great Britain. 

With growing issues around mental health, well-being, loneliness and obesity, our ability to access nature, and open, wild spaces is more important than ever. 

By keeping alive the ambitions of the 1949 act, we can ensure more people become happier and healthier because they ramble. 

That’s why our growing Ramblers movement is going to #KeepOnRambling

Download our limited-edition poster commemorating the 70th anniversary and hear all the latest news about our campaigns and find out more about what we’ve achieved then and how we’re continuing to campaign today.