The Wealdway - One small idea and 40 years of volunteering

The Wealdway is an 82-mile route from Gravesend to Eastbourne, running from the Thames down to the English Channel. It is a route that has been developed, protected, maintained, promoted and championed by the Ramblers.

As it celebrates its 40 year anniversary, Nicola Brown from Tonbridge & Malling Ramblers tells us the story of the path, and the people who made it.

North West Kent Ramblers descending the Wealdway through vineyards near Luddesdown on their Wealdway40 festival walk in September 2021. Photo by Jack Yan, North West Kent Ramblers

Back in the early 1970s, Jim Carley of Meopham & District Footpaths Group - a walking group affiliated to the Ramblers - had the idea of a long-distance path stretching from the River Thames to the English Channel. Jim’s group devised the first section from Gravesend to Tonbridge and then approached Tunbridge Wells Ramblers to plan the next section.

Always relishing a challenge, the late Geoff King, a former military cartographer and member of Tunbridge Wells Ramblers, volunteered to take on the task of establishing the route as a whole and the Wealdway project was born. The full 82-mile route through Kent and East Sussex was finally completed in 1981, with distinctive waymarking along the route, including oak carved posts across Ashdown Forest, an ancient area of open heathland occupying the sandy ridge-top of the High Weald. Geoff’s intricate line drawn maps featured in the first and subsequent editions of the Wealdway guide booklet, published jointly by Kent and Sussex Ramblers.

On 27 September 1981, 500 walkers and representatives of walking organisations from 17 European countries, gathered for the Wealdway opening ceremony at Camp Hill in Ashdown Forest. The late Lord Derek Barber of Tewkesbury, chairman of the Countryside Commission (now Natural England) declared the Wealdway open to all.

The Wealdway at Luddesdown. Photo by Robert Peel

Safeguarding the Wealdway

Over the next 25 years, Geoff King and other Steering Group volunteers from Kent and Sussex continued their work to safeguard the Wealdway until all responsibility passed to the respective county councils. An early challenge was the ‘Battle of Luddesdown’. In 1982, the Ministry of Defence purchased a chunk of land, threatening to turn the lovely ‘Bowling Alley’ valley into an Army mine laying range. The Ramblers and other conservationist groups, joined forces to save the valley. After a ministerial enquiry refused planning permission, the MoD had to sell the land and it returned to private ownership. This is one of the loveliest sections of the Wealdway and today the slopes of the valley are home to recently planted vineyards.

Subsequent issues for the Steering Group included a five-year obstruction of the Wealdway at Horsebridge, which was eventually resolved by a diversion and a public enquiry. This involved a lot of Ramblers' volunteers' time, as has the ongoing development over the route west of Hailsham. Malcolm McDonnell, ex-Area Footpath Secretary and Ramblers trustee, recalls that Kent Area were keen to alter the route to bypass this area. Malcolm convened a Working Group to consider the options. “We concluded that any diversion would take the route away from historic landmarks such as Horselunges Manor and Michelham Priory, so we decided to leave things as they were,” says Malcolm. “Sadly, development continues and there are now plans to build adjacent to the Priory. And sections south of Uckfield are also threatened by developments. We continue to object where appropriate.”

Caring for our footpaths

In East Sussex, the Wealdway crosses the areas of three Ramblers groups: High Weald Walkers, Heathfield and District Ramblers and Beachy Head Ramblers. “We encourage the relevant Local Footpath Wardens to monitor the route through their parishes,” says Malcolm McDonnell. “Withyham parish council and Ramblers volunteers recently cleared a badly overgrown section of the Wealdway near the River Medway, and Ramblers volunteers replaced old signage across Ashdown Forest. New waymarks were designed and paid for by Kent and Sussex Ramblers, and new posts were provided by East Sussex County Council,” added Malcolm.

On the Wealdway between Tonbridge and Hadlow. Photo by Roger Spencer

Dartford & Gravesham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Malling and Tunbridge Wells are the four Ramblers groups whose footpath teams keep an eye on the Kent sections of the Wealdway which pass through their areas. Other Kent groups such as Meopham & District Footpaths Group, also play their part, supported by Kent County Council. Kent Area Secretary, Robert Peel, says “During 2021 I’ve been surveying the Wealdway in order to produce an updated route guide. I’m pleased to say that, on the whole, the paths are in reasonable condition and the waymarking quite good.” Kent Ramblers is also liaising with Kent County Council to replace and update the Wealdway public information boards sited at Gravesend Pier and by Tonbridge Castle.

A festival in the making

The death of Geoff ‘King of the Wealdway’ in 2020, prompted June Hammond of Tonbridge & Malling Ramblers to write a tribute in Rambers’ South East Walker magazine. Reading this, Nicola Brown, the group’s publicity volunteer, felt it would be fitting to mark the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Wealdway, which has given such pleasure to so many walkers over the years. Perhaps a baton relay walk starting at Gravesend and finishing at Eastbourne? Perhaps concurrent walks covering the Wealdway in its entirety on a single day? Or… an initiative involving as many groups as possible whose walking territory is close to the Wealdway? The aim was to ensure that the special anniversary was known and celebrated. So, the 40th anniversary ideas were put to Kent Ramblers group chairs, gaining their support and a small budget. “Little did I imagine that the initiative would be so well supported that it would morph into the ‘Wealdway40’ walking festival!” said Nicola.

Tonbridge & Malling Ramblers at Camp Hill in Ashdown Forest, the site of the original opening of the Wealdway in 1981. Photo by Nicola Brown

23 walk leaders from ten Ramblers groups, and the Meopham & District Footpaths Group, volunteered to lead a total of 26 ‘Wealdway40’ walks in September 2021. The Ramblers host groups were: Beachy Head Ramblers, Bromley Ramblers, High Weald Walkers, Maidstone Ramblers, Medway Ramblers, North West Kent Ramblers, Sevenoaks Ramblers, Tonbridge & Malling Ramblers, Tunbridge Wells Ramblers and West Kent Walking Group. Each walk included a section of the Wealdway and walk distances ranged from a 1.5-mile stroll around Tonbridge Park to a 15-mile strenuous walk from Tonbridge to Groombridge and back to Tunbridge Wells. The walks were open to everyone and publicised to Kent and Sussex Ramblers members, in local magazines, in social media and online, and in leaflets distributed by Ramblers volunteers.

The Wealdway40 project team consisted of Nicola (publicity and ceremony event), Neil Whittall, chair of Tonbridge & Malling Ramblers, who co-ordinated the walks, and Robert Peel, secretary of Kent Ramblers, whose experience and advice was invaluable, and who also published the Wealdway40 pages on the Kent Ramblers website. Other volunteers helped with promotion of the walks via Ramblers group and area websites and leaflet distribution. Nicola and West Kent Walking Group Chair, Mark Lavenstein, were interviewed on BBC Radio Kent on the day before the first festival walk.

Over the five weeks of the Wealdway40 festival, 388 walkers clocked up 1,800 miles on the Wealdway – and walked many more miles on other paths. In addition, four intrepid members of Maidstone Ramblers – Giles Day, Les Holmans, Des Relf and Chris Spicer – decided to take on the challenge of walking the whole 82-mile trail over six days, arriving at Eastbourne Pier on 10 September.

(L to R) Mel Collins with Giles Day, Des Relf, Chris Spicer and Les Holmans at the end of their 82-mile Wealdway walk. Photo: Tony Bushe

40th anniversary ceremony at Tonbridge Castle

The highlight of the festival was the anniversary ceremony on 26 September in Tonbridge, where the Wealdway meets the Medway Valley Walk and the Eden Valley Walk. The Mayor of Tonbridge, Councillor Roger Roud, told the story of the Wealdway and its significance to Tonbridge and the surrounding area. Later, the Mayor joined one of the three festival walks which set off from Tonbridge Castle after the ceremony. Ramblers trustee, Malcolm McDonnell, spoke about the importance of protecting public rights of way and thanked Ramblers volunteers for their contributions to maintaining the extensive footpath network in Kent and East Sussex.

Malcolm McDonnell, Ramblers national trustee, speaking a the Wealdway 40th anniversary ceremony by Tonbridge Castle. Photo by Scott Wishart

Neil Whittall, Chairman of Tonbridge & Malling Ramblers, is confident that the Wealdway40 festival has encouraged new and returning walkers to enjoy a ramble in the wonderful Kent and Sussex countryside. “We were delighted with the enthusiastic response from the volunteers who planned and led the 26 walks”, said Neil. “For Ramblers members, it was an opportunity to discover footpaths beyond their usual walking routes – and to make new friends. For non-members, it was an opportunity to enjoy the camaraderie of walking with a group, and we look forward to welcoming new members as a result of our ‘flying the flag’ for the Wealdway.”

Colin Saunders

Congratulations to The Wealdway from its shorter but slightly older sibling and friendly rival, the Vanguard Way (66 miles from Croydon to Newhaven), 40 years old on 3rd May 2021.

Colin Saunders

Congratulations to The Wealdway from its shorter but slightly older sibling and friendly rival, the Vanguard Way (66 miles from Croydon to Newhaven), 40 years old on 3rd May 2021.

Colin Saunders

Congratulations to The Wealdway from its shorter but slightly older sibling and friendly rival, the Vanguard Way (66 miles from Croydon to Newhaven), 40 years old on 3rd May 2021.

Frances Bailess

Back in 2005 we lived in Kent. We loved walking with local groups, with Ramblers or other walking holidays abroad, or just alone with map and compass. When my husband suggested that we plan for the Coast to Coast, I said: 'Hold it right there. We have never walked daily for more than a week. Let's walk the local Wealdway first, without support, to test the water.' So that Spring we did. We booked the lodgings one by one, packed the absolute minimum in our rucksacs, and set off from the Thames at Gravesend, reading the guidebook backwards as it started at Eastbourne. Once out of Gravesend we loved it, learning so much. By Tonbridge I realised that my rucksac was not ideal so bought a sturdier one in Millets, donating my old one to the charity shop next door. A pub marked on the OS map will not always be open, or serve food, and village shops are rare, so carry some lunch at all times, rather than just emergency snacks. We reached Beachy Head in the rain, but well-clad, we made it to the Pier and fish and chips. Then lots of training walks on the scarp of the North Downs and the Coast to Coast followed the next year, self-led but supported I have to say. It was worth it. Many more followed, but the Wealdway remains as a gem of a hike. Do it if you can.

Neil Whittall

Thanks to Colin for his comment. I'm in the process of 'conquering' the Vanguard Way in the company of walkers from Kings Hill U3A. I was pleasantly surprised how the route quickly wound its way through wooded corridors in the built-up areas of Croydon into rolling hills with pretty good waymarking all the way so far.