Tom Stephenson

Archive image of Tom Stephenson

This former Ramblers secretary, journalist and walkers’ rights champion is credited with founding the first National Trail and much more besides. Find out more in this extract from Walking Class Heroes, in which the lives of 20 pioneers of the Right to Roam are examined. By Roly Smith.

‘Aye,’ said Tom Stephenson, a warm smile creasing his lined, weather-beaten face. ‘It’s a grand valley isn’t it?’

We were looking up Grindsbrook Clough to the rock-rimmed Upper Tor and the heights of Kinder Scout, the highest ground in the Peak District. This was where it had all begun. The Pennine Way snakes northwards for 268 miles from here to Kirk Yetholm beyond the Scottish Border, keeping to the upper vertebrae of England’s backbone all the way.

Stephenson, then a sprightly, even impish, 83 was back in Edale as a speaker at a footpath preservation conference held at the now sadly lost National Park Study Centre at Losehill Hall, Castleton in the summer of 1976. He had taken time off to see his beloved Pennine Way after an absence of about 12 months.

But when 41 years before Stephenson had first proposed in a throwaway centre-spread filler for the Daily Herald, ‘a faint line…which the feet of grateful pilgrims would engrave on the face of the land,’ he could have had no idea of what would follow.

A long green trail

The story of how the paper had received a letter from two American girls asking for advice about a walking holiday in England is now part of rambling mythology. They wondered if we had anything similar to their Appalachian Trail, which runs for 2,000 miles/3,220km from Maine to Georgia, or the John Muir Trail, running for 2,500 miles/4,020km from the Canadian border through Washington, Oregon and California. Stephenson’s seminal article in response, headed WANTED – A Long Green Trail was published on June 22, 1935 and first proposed ‘… a Pennine Way from the Peak to the Cheviots.’

Talking to Stephenson about the inception of the Pennine Way, and the setting up of the National Parks Commission, you realise how important fate plays in these things. He had been the right man in the right place at the right time. It is doubtful whether any of this important legislation by the post-war Labour Government would have passed onto the Statue Book had not all these conditions have been in place at the time.

Political lobbying

Stephenson’s face lights up and his tongue darts out mischievously as he recounted the tales of a judiciously-worded press release written with carte blanche Ministerial consent, and the publicity-seeking walks with leading Cabinet ministers along sections of his proposed Pennine Way – all arranged when he was Press Officer to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning just after the war. ‘Aye, we had some fun,’ he grins.

Archive image of an uphill walk

Tom Stephenson leading a group of MPs along the Pennine Way in 1948

Stephenson recalled that at the time the Ministry was ‘a cheerless place’ permeated with a fear of publicity. ‘John Dower was my only kindred spirit and publicising his famous National Parks Report in 1945 was one of the most satisfying tasks I ever had,’ he confessed in Forbidden Land (Manchester University Press, 1989).

Early years

It was 70 years before our first meeting that Stephenson had had his introduction to the hills. One crisp March morning when he was just 13, equipped only with his wooden clogs, he stood for the first time on a mountain summit. He climbed to the witch-haunted 1,830ft/558m summit of Pendle Hill from his home in the mill town of Whalley, in the Ribble Valley of Lancashire. The memory of that crystal-clear morning was still as fresh to Stephenson then as if it had been yesterday. ‘It was simply breathtaking,’ he recalled. ‘I saw range after range of snow-capped hills – Ingleborough, Penyghent, Whernside – all of which I didn’t know then, but which were to become old friends.’

Stephenson came from a working-class family, the eldest of nine children, and started work at the age of 13 as an apprentice block printer in the same calico printing works as his father. The nine-bob (45p) a 66-hour week apprentice printer walked the Pennines from Dovedale to Hadrian’s Wall in his days off during the next few years and got to know them intimately.

He started writing about his walks and in his spare time studied geology at evening classes at Burnley Technical School, with the ambition of winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Science in London. His hard work and determination paid off in 1915 when he won one of only two scholarships awarded nationally for geology by the Board of Education.

However, the First World War intervened, and Stephenson had opposed the war in principle from its very outbreak and he became a conscientious objector. He was arrested, forced to join the East Lancashire Regiment but court martialled and sentenced to 12 months hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs. Later, after a second court martial, he served two years in Northallerton prison, and his scholarship award was rescinded.

Justice was finally done, however, when Stephenson was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Lancaster for his services to literature and access to the countryside in 1986. One of my most treasured possessions is a photograph which Stephenson sent me of him standing proudly in his degree gown and mortar board in his living room.

Career change

He met his wife of over 50 years, Madge, shortly after the war. She became what is known in the conservation business as an ‘amenity widow’. Once when she came round in hospital after a minor operation, she found a neighbour waiting to take her home rather than Stephenson. ‘Tom would be here if I was a National Park,’ she reflected. Madge died in 1982.

In October 1919, Stephenson returned to his trade of block printing in London, and became closely involved in the Independent Labour Party, eventually becoming a part-time agent for the ILP. In 1933, on the invitation of Ernest Bevin, he became a journalist for the Daily Herald and editor of a TUC-controlled magazine called Hiker and Camper and writing about his first love of walking in the countryside.

At the same time, he first became involved with the National Council of Ramblers’ Federations, covering its annual conference at Ilkley in 1933. The following year he was invited to speak at the annual Access to Mountains rally held in The Winnats Pass outside Castleton in the Peak District.

First Ramblers secretary

Archive image of two men out walkingAfter working as press officer at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and for the Hobhouse Committee, which in 1947 produced the recommendations for National Parks following the Dower Report, Stephenson became the first full-time secretary of the Ramblers’ Association from 1948 for over 20 years, also serving on the National Parks Commission and the Gosling Committee into the development of a better system of paths and bridleways.

When the honorary secretary of the Ramblers Association resigned, Stephenson had offered to fill the post temporarily, never imagining that it would be his job for the next 20 years. ‘Crowded years they have been,’ he recalled in Forbidden Land. ‘Writing, lecturing, arguing, going on deputations to Ministers, giving evidence at public enquiries and spending innumerable hours on a multitude of committees.’

(Right) Tom speaking with Roly Smith.

His final gift to the Ramblers was that when he died at the age of 94 in 1987, he left most of what he owned to the walking charity, including a generous legacy – the largest ever received by the association at the time.

A television documentary once renamed the Pennine Way ‘Stephenson’s Way,’ and although Stephenson would never have accepted that self-aggrandising title, it seemed a fitting tribute to his imaginative concept of Britain’s first National Trail.

This excerpt is based on an interview the author did with Tom Stephenson in Peak Park News, Journal of the Peak District National Park, Autumn, 1976. 

Cover of Walking Class Heroes

Walking Class Heroes: Pioneers of the Right to Roam by Roly Smith (Signal Books, £9.99) is out now, read our review.

Magazine of the Ramblers