03 August 2020 by Oliver Wicks
Ramblers Cymru Walking Spaces Officer Olie Wicks was at a bit of a loss when he realised he wasn't going to be able to travel to go walking during lockdown, so he decided to discover his 'milltir sgwar' (local area).
"How well did I really know my local walking environment? Walking is something that I’ve long been passionate about, and I have avidly tried to walk the rights of way around my local village of Llanharan, but a global pandemic was about to open my eyes to the hidden gems that were just on my doorstep!"
There is no doubt that when Covid-19 thrust itself upon me, my thoughts turned to loved ones and family members that I wouldn’t see for some time, but also how my working life for Ramblers Cymru was going to be affected. As with many people, the thought of being contained to your house and local community at first seemed restricting, but with my hiking shoes laced, and backpack on I suddenly found myself discovering scenic hilltop views, woodland corridors, beautiful meadows, and intimate wildlife experiences.
I was aware of how lucky I was to live in a semi-rural area as I’d previously linked in with my local Community Council to discuss all things rights of way and had ventured out to walk parts of well-trodden routes such as the Glamorgan Ridgeway Walk. I had already utilised my local countryside to escape after a tough day in the office or just as an opportunity to blow the cobwebs away. This time though, as the pandemic really took hold, the countryside and rights of way were to become my daily life and having gone through this experience I can highly recommend them as companions!
The one thing I was really worried about was the monotony of my day to day life. With this in mind I set about using local walks to become part of my daily routine, but also a chance to really embed myself into my local community. What I found was that as I walked the local footpaths and bridleways, I suddenly started to chat to local people that I had never met. As I passed a local woman putting out her washing, she eyed my intent to follow the footpath across from her and suddenly I was having a great conversation about things in the village and my job role with Ramblers Cymru. The woman told me that it was wonderful to see so many people from the village walking the paths and country lanes, even if on occasion she’d had to direct a few wandering walkers in the direction of the footpath due to a lack of signage. She also told me that as she chatted with other local walkers, she was enjoying seeing how the experience of walking was uplifting for people through this difficult time. It was fascinating to see how such a tragic event like this pandemic was connecting people not only through conversation but also through their feet as they hiked across the rolling countryside.
As I continued to explore what I also found was a break in a hard-fast stereotype. The old adage of a disgruntled farmer being unhappy about walkers crossing his yard was being broken down. On several occasions as I walked through a yard being careful where I walked and what I touched (hand sanitiser was a must in the pack) no exaggerated shotguns appeared, and I was being helpfully directed to the next stile. Again, several landowners seemed only too happy to welcome walkers as they could see the benefit it was having on their wellbeing. I did wonder on a few occasions though as some of the stiles had seen better days, did the farmer feel any remorse as I balanced precariously on top as the stile wavered back and fore!?
One other major benefit of the pandemic was the effect on the Welsh wildlife. Walking my local rights of way was bringing me closer to nature in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. As I’m sure many walkers have experienced, young bullocks flocked to investigate me, and there was always that lazy lamb that just doesn’t want to move, but suddenly I was finding wildlife in Llanharan I wasn’t aware of. Red kites circled my head, seeing them this far south was really encouraging as they reintegrate themselves across Wales, but it was seeing a Hare that really stopped me in my tracks. Not only is it the first Hare I’ve seen locally but it was also the chance to see one that didn’t immediately run away. As we both stood in the meadow staring at each other, I couldn’t help but ponder how lucky I was to be having this experience but also how the circumstances of a global pandemic were possibly the causing factor.
On reflection, I think the experience of the Hare did bring some truths home about walking in my local patch though. Although I was hearing on television and reading a lot about people walking more than ever, and I had clearly spoken to local landowners who had reaffirmed this perspective, I did wonder for the most part where these people were walking. As I walked across parts of the high-level Glamorgan Ridgeway Walk there certainly were people out enjoying the expansive views but as soon as I ventured onto the more hidden and unmarked rights of way the lack of walkers was quite stark. Although I’ll admit that I did enjoy the solitude it does bring to light how the lack of signage across our rights of way does impact and restrict the audience. It would be wrong of me to totally sell my walking experiences as idyllic as I certainly had my battles with overgrown vegetation, broken stiles/gates, and just a general lack of a path in some cases!
Even though I did have my battles with finding a few paths, and my trusty secateurs definitely came in useful to clear some vegetation, my overall lockdown walking adventures were hugely worthwhile. The routine of heading out and exploring certainly gave my day a focus, and as is widely now recognised, being outdoors definitely helped with my mental well-being and general mood throughout what was and still is to some extent a difficult time for our communities.
I would highly recommend that families and individuals venture out onto their local paths, and explore the wonders that are on their doorstep. It is of course amazing to head out into our National Parks but there are hidden gems in your local community just waiting to be discovered. There is of course that chance to clear your head and protect your well-being but there is also a sensory experience to be found out in your local natural environment. Even once the lockdown restrictions are lifted, if you stay local and walk local, you won’t be disappointed.