Everyday Heroes: 2018 Volunteer Awards

To celebrate Volunteers’ Week, we highlight the achievements of our 2018 award winners and find out what inspires them to give their time to the Ramblers

Words by Miriam Jones, illustrations by Holly Maguire

Ramblers volunteers tend to see themselves as ordinary people helping each other out. But every day, they make a huge difference to people and places across Britain that’s nothing short of heroic. By leading and organising walks, they help thousands of people stay fit and healthy while enjoying the great outdoors. And their efforts to keep rights of way open, maintain paths and campaign for walkers’ rights means everyone benefits from the wonderful walks the UK has to offer.

In fact, without our 25,000 amazing volunteers giving so much of their time and energy, the Ramblers simply wouldn’t exist. Our four National Volunteer Award winners for 2018 exemplify this contribution. Volunteers’ Week (1–7 June) is the perfect opportunity to share their stories and thank them for their dedication.

Graham Elvey

Protecting and expanding where we walk award

It’s important to keep the rights of way network open for everybody’

‘The Sussex Border Path was originated by two Ramblers in 1983, so it seemed a good idea to me to keep it going,’ says Graham Elvey, area footpath secretary at West Sussex Ramblers.

The 150-mile route follows the East and West Sussex inland boundary, from Emsworth to Rye. But with signage disappearing, and the highway authorities no longer able fund it, there was a risk it would disappear off the map. This thought spurred Graham to start work on a major four-year project to relaunch the path.

‘It seemed to me that Sussex Ramblers could take it on,’ says Graham. ‘I suggested this to our area council and we took it from there. I designed the waymarker discs, got them costed and set about organising volunteers to go and put them on the posts. Over 60 people got involved – not only from Sussex. We had help from Hampshire, Surrey and Kent Ramblers too.’

As well as waymarking the entire path, the team checked route descriptions on the ground and updated them for a revamped website. The path was relaunched at a special ceremony in September 2016 – but the work didn’t stop there. Graham has set up a team of 40 path wardens who check the route and report any problems, keeping the path open and accessible.

A keen Rambler for many years, Graham is motivated by his belief that the countryside should be open for everyone. ‘I think it’s important we do whatever we can to maintain the rights of way network; to keep it open for everybody long into the future – as there are threats to it. It’s your only access into the countryside. If you didn’t have it, you’d be kept very much on the outside.’

He credits every volunteer who gave their time to make the project a success. ‘It’s been a real team effort with around 80 people involved,’ he says. ‘It’s an award for everybody who contributed – without them it wouldn’t have been done.’

Mary Gough

Innovation award

‘My enjoyment is seeing other people enjoy themselves’

‘When I took over, I realised that a lot of the walks were longer and fast-paced,’ says Mary Gough, chair of Bicester and Kidlington Ramblers. ‘There was a need in the area for shorter walks during the week for people who had retired.’ Mary became chair in 2013. Since then, she has revitalised the group by setting up a popular range of walks and events – and attracted nearly 30 new members.

Making everyone feel welcome is at the heart of her approach. ‘I try to learn one thing about somebody when they’re new and then see if I can match them with somebody who has got similar interests,’ she says. ‘We get a lot people who’ve been recently widowed or who’ve moved to the area to be near their children. It’s important to make them feel wanted.’

Among Mary’s other innovations are open evenings for Ramblers members at local Cotswold Outdoor stores, where members can get extra discounts, and an annual themed walk in London at Christmas. ‘This came out of someone saying they would like to take photos of London at night,’ she says. ‘The Christmas lights seemed like an ideal opportunity.’

Mary also takes time to support walk leaders, organises social evenings to help them share ideas, and offers mentoring and guidance.

 ‘When I first started, I was very apprehensive about leading a walk. I was worried about getting lost. If we get a new walk leader, I make sure they’re not left by themselves until they’re confident.’

Mary is inspired by sharing her enjoyment of walking in the countryside with others. ‘I love the countryside; it’s forever changing. You can do the same walk different times of year and you see different things. Part of the enjoyment is seeing other people enjoy themselves; that’s my reward.’

John Noblet

Inspiring walkers award

‘I think we broaden people’s horizons’

According to John Noblet, Tavistock Ramblers is more than just a group of people who go walking together. ‘Tavistock Ramblers is like a family,’ he says. ‘People have found friendships and mutual support.’

In the 18 years John has volunteered with the group, he’s got involved with just about everything. His many contributions include being the group’s treasurer, co-developing its walks programme, organising holidays and training walk leaders. He also manages the group’s website and Facebook page and oversees the printing of its publicity materials.

‘It was probably a case of a job needing to be done,’ says John, talking about why he’s taken on so many different roles. ‘Nobody else was doing it and I’d think, “Well, I could do that.”’

With 180 members, the group is certainly thriving. And John and his fellow walk leaders make the most of their location on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, within reach of the Devon and Cornwall coast.

‘I think we broaden people’s horizons,’ he says. ‘With the walks I lead, I try to give folks something a bit different. For example, I’m doing a trail over a weekend called the Saints Way, which is a coast-to-coast across Cornwall.’

But it’s John’s love for Dartmoor that is reflected in the two books he’s written about walking in the area. ‘Dartmoor is one of the last great wildernesses in this country,’ he says. ‘There’s so much history up there, if you only look for it. That’s what I try to include in the guide books. It’s a lot more than just following a route. It’s about what you can see in the landscape.’

Despite all his hard work, the award came as a total surprise to John. ‘I was amazed,’ he says. ‘It never occurred to me that I’d even be nominated.’

Bury – Walk with Me

Inspiring walkers award

'It’s total job satisfaction’

Eileen Robinson, Brian Marshall and Ann Bowes are among 12 volunteers with the Bury – Walk with Me scheme. This is part of Walking for Health, the England-wide network run by Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support to help people get active.

‘The Walking for Health walks are nice and gentle and take about an hour or so,’ explains Brian. ‘It tends to be retired people who come on along. The main incentive is the friendship of the group.

‘We have some people who do struggle. But they are motivated to do it and they get quite a bit out of it. They must do, because they come back week after week.’

Over the past three years the trio has collectively spent around 600 volunteer hours leading more than 400 health walks – helping improve the health and wellbeing of over 300 walkers.

When Eileen first started volunteering, she spent a lot of time planning a range of different walks, making sure they were the right length and suitable for everybody. She now leads two walks a week.

‘It’s just so satisfying to see people enjoying it. They all say thank you at the end. I get people saying, “My blood pressure’s gone down since I started walking”. And people who were slow at the beginning manage to keep up with the group. It’s total job satisfaction.’

Ann agrees that helping people who have been unwell get back on their feet is the most rewarding part of the role. ‘People have said we’ve made a big difference,’ she says. ‘Some people have joined when they’ve been depressed – and it’s helped them make new friendships. If we have new people, I make sure that they’re not left to walk on their own. I want everybody to feel welcome.’

Step up and volunteer

Apart from their love of walking, the thing all our winners share is their ‘can-do’ attitude and willingness to give things a go. Ramblers has so many volunteering opportunities – from leading walks and maintaining footpaths to creating publicity materials and campaigning for walkers’ rights. If you want to put your skills to good use – or learn new ones – head over to our volunteer zone