Walk and Talk with Colin Speakman

The academic, writer and broadcaster on a strong incentive to keep walking and how the loss of biodiversity could be halted.

By Andrew Mccloy

Man with folded arms leans on his walking stick and looks into the distance, outside.

How did you develop a lifelong love of walking and exploring the outdoors by public transport?

Growing up as a teenager in smoky Salford, I escaped by cycling into the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, and was immediately captivated by the Pennine landscape. I continued exploring the Dales, but now also on foot, first as a student at Leeds University and then later a teacher and college lecturer in the city. I went on to work for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and later the Countryside Commission on groundbreaking rural transport and sustainable tourism initiatives. I helped set up the Yorkshire Dales Society (now Friends of the Dales) in 1981 to campaign for the protection of the Dales and help promote this special place. And now, even after all these years, I still get out on foot at every opportunity. We’re lucky enough in West Yorkshire to have the wonderful DalesBus network (dalesbus.org), which makes it easy to enjoy some of the most magnificent walking country in Britain, including opportunities for linear and cross-Dales routes, which are impossible if you are restricted to circular walks by car.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Dales Way. What role did the Ramblers play in its development?

In 1968 I was access secretary (and later area secretary) for West Riding Ramblers and we realised that the newly passed Countryside Act, which gave local authorities powers to create public access to riversides, provided a great opportunity to create a continuous walking trail through the Dales. It also allowed us to try to fill in some gaps and omissions on the Definitive Map – which the Ramblers had spent so much time providing evidence for – and improve the overall rights of way network. We plotted a route through the Dales from Ilkley to the source of the River Wharfe, 
and from there over the watershed to Dent and on to the Lakes. We reckoned about 
16km/10 miles of new riverside paths would need to be created to complete the route, but it took plenty of perseverance and negotiation to finally achieve it. 

What’s particularly special about the Dales Way?

It’s a true people’s path, which succeeded thanks to the people who walked it and cared for it. We always envisaged the Dales Way as an attractive low-level route – not a testing upland trail like the Pennine Way, which is more suited to hillwalkers; nor has it been hijacked as a ‘challenge walk’ like the Yorkshire Three Peaks route. Instead, it’s used by people of all ages and abilities, at almost any time of year, who continue to enjoy a leisurely walk of 129km/80 miles from Ilkley to Windermere through such superb scenery as Wharfedale, Langstrothdale, Ribblehead, Dentdale and Lunedale. New linking sections have been developed from the centres of Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate, so that the Dales Way now provides a walking link from major northern towns and cities into the heart of two of England’s premier national parks. What other British walking trail offers that?
What are the benefits of these long-distance paths?
This summer, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, we re-enacted the very first group walk along part of what would become the final route, which my co-creator of the Dales Way, the late Tom Wilcock, and I led back on 23 March 1969. It reminded me of the rich cultural experience of walking through the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales and interacting with its villages (and pubs!), sharing good company along the way, and the simple measured and rhythmic pleasure of a long walk. The Dales Way has encouraged so many people to discover and enjoy the national park on foot, but in doing so it’s also brought huge economic benefit to the rural communities it passes through. On average, a couple taking a week to walk the Dales Way will spend around £1,000, and with up to 4,000 people a year completing it, that’s a massive boost to the local economy. In 1991, together with colleagues from the Ramblers and Lakeland Tourist Association, we founded the Dales Way Association (dalesway.org), which is still underpinned by walkers and local businesses, and raises funds for improvement projects along the path. 

Why are you so enthusiastic about public transport in the countryside?

Although I can drive and have owned a car in the past, I’ve chosen to live near a railway station and on a good bus route, so I can get everywhere I want using public transport. I find that not having a car makes me walk more and keeps me fit; and allows me to meet people and take in more of my surroundings when I travel. I campaigned to keep open the Settle-Carlisle railway line when it was threatened with closure in the 1970s and 80s and set up the DalesRail initiative as a result. I also helped establish the Dales and Bowland Community Interest Company, which organises weekend bus services across the Dales, including a bus-based guided walks programme. I feel that a properly funded, integrated and promoted public transport system is the only way to solve the traffic and air pollution problems blighting popular national parks.

You’ve written almost 60 books. What’s the inspiration?

I guess writing is in my DNA. I enjoy being a wordsmith and the creative satisfaction of ordering a jumble of thoughts and crafting a good story. Writing a successful book is like devising the perfect walk – it needs to have a clear start, defined middle and a satisfying end. Above all, it needs to take you on a journey. Over the years, I’ve written walking and history books, transport guides, biographies, poems and fiction. I continue to get huge pleasure in the simple art of communicating with other people. The real joy is meeting people who tell you how much they have enjoyed and been influenced by your writing – even in some cases becoming as passionate about walking and the countryside as I have been and remain to this day.