We are the Ramblers

Volunteers Week, from 1 to 7 June, is a chance to recognise the fantastic contribution volunteers make to charities and communities, and to say thank you. To celebrate, we brought two of the Ramblers most experienced volunteers together in conversation

Volunteer Robert Peel in front of new signage in Tonbridge he helped to install

WORDS ELYSSA CAMPBELL BARR

 

Meet the volunteers

Arron Hart is chair of Fillyaboots, Merseyside’s young Ramblers’ group for walkers in their 20s and 30s.

Robert Peel led his first Ramblers walk in his teens. A former national treasurer, he’s currently area secretary for Kent.

Eve Smillie is founder and coordinator of Inverness Young Walkers.

Mary Weston has been a Ramblers volunteer for more than 50 years. She’s currently outreach officer for Cornwall.

 

How did you fall in love with walking and get involved with the Ramblers?

MARY I came to Cornwall in 1967. A friend saw a walk by the newly established Cornwall Ramblers in the local press and we went along to the next one. I've been volunteering since 1970. They can't get rid of me!

ROBERT My father's colleague persuaded him to bring the family on a Ramblers walk. The others soon stopped, but I was hooked. At 15 I volunteered to lead a walk, which went very well (it wouldn't be allowed now).

ARRON I started when I was 21,just finishing university. There's a book called Wild by Cheryl Strayed [£9.99, Atlantic Books], made into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I was like: 'I want to do that!' So I Googled walking clubs, found Fillyaboots, attended a members' night at a local pub - and I've never looked back.

EVE I discovered walking in my early 30s, through a step-count challenge at work. My mum had retired and I said: 'Why don't you come out and help me get my miles up?' We found the Ayrshire Coastal Path, got over-excited and 10 miles later we were in Ayr looking for tea and cake. Fast -forward six years and we're both Ramblers members.

How did you get into volunteering?

EVE I got involved in delivering walk leader training for Ramblers Scotland. When the training manager found out I was moving to Inverness, he said: 'We could do with a young walkers' group there - would you be interested in launching it?' I thought: 'Why not?' I didn't have a social group up here; how else was I going to meet people?

ARRON About a year in, I decided I wanted to get involved because I've volunteered all my life. I started as new members' secretary to help people similar to myself who haven't grown up with walking. I'm currently chair, elected in November, which is very exciting.

ROBERT I attended a magistrates' court hearing on behalf of the Ramblers in March 1973, as an undergraduate. Only in 2006, having retired in 2005, did I start volunteering again, initially as area treasurer in Kent. Things snowballed after that. I'm currently Kent area secretary and I help organise footpath volunteers, edit a newsletter, organise conferences, maintain the website, do publicity, design information boards and write walking guides.

MARY I still lead a walk a month for the Ramblers, and also a couple a month for a project called HAIRE - Healthy Ageing in Rural Europe.

Man on top of mountain range

Arron at the top of the Crib Goch in Snowdon

Any special moments to share?

ARRON Last year, on one of our weekends away, we had a few people interested in doing Crib Goch on Snowdon - not an easy walk. I took on the challenge and led a group of six. To accomplish it together and see the joy on their faces was very special.

MARY There are so many special moments. I live close to Penryn campus [shared by Exeter and Falmouth universities], which is beautiful at the moment, looking up the lime walk with primroses either side, and soon it will be solid blue with bluebells.

EVE I agree - the special times are often a shared moment of appreciation. In 2021, the local council organised a fireworks display for Bonfire Night, but you weren't allowed to gather to watch. So I led the group on a Covid-compliant ramble round Ord Hill, north of Inverness. After this three-mile walk, we were at the viewpoint, with our hot drinks, looking across to Inverness as the fireworks went off. It was so lovely.

MARY This year is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the South West Coast Path. In May 1973, I was publicity officer for Cornwall Ramblers and we had more than 500 people walking the path in over 50 sections. It was a fantastic celebration. Fifty years on, it's wonderful to now have a lot of the entire England Coast Path sorted out.

What's your proudest achievement as a Ramblers volunteer?

ARRON This is one of them - being in walk is cool! Recently, I met with Liverpool City Region (LCR) Pride Foundation to talk about a collaboration through their Get Out Get Active initiative. I wear my hat as a walker proudly and my hat as a member of the LGBT+ community proudly, so giving something back to the community through something that is close to my heart makes me a bit emotional.

EVE I've got two. The first was when I delivered walk leader training. I work in human resources and my aim was to build my confidence in training delivery. It was a new string to my bow, which helped me develop personally and professionally. The other was launching a new Ramblers group during lockdown. It was daunting because I was new to the area and having to recce the walks before leading them. I was so nervous about the launch walk. I thought: 'This is madness! Nobody's going to turn up!' But there were about 20 people and we had such a good time. We've built up a good membership. That's what I'm proudest of.

ROBERT For me, it was the work I did on the national Ramblers board. I joined at a time of financial crisis and left, after three years as honorary treasurer, with probably the soundest finances in its history. That felt very worthwhile.

MARY Volunteering has given me tremendous satisfaction. Over the years, we've seen more people coming on walks and found more routes for them to walk. In the 1960s, many inland paths were unusable. We've worked with local authorities and gradually got more and more opened up. In Cornwall, the Coast Path understandably gets prioritised because it brings a lot of money into the county. But we also have fantastic inland paths that once took people to tin mines and granite quarries. It's a wonderful heritage that we've got to protect.

Woman next to a tree in the woods

Eve on a walk in the woods

What are the biggest challenges?

ARRON Recruiting volunteers. We have loads of enthusiastic walkers, but a shortage of walk leaders. We need to remind people that Ramblers groups are volunteer-led; that members need to help us just as we help them.

EVE In some ways it was easier during lockdown because nobody had anything else to do, so they were happy to lead walks. We had a lot of walk leaders at that time; now there's just three of us. People finding the time for volunteering is the biggest challenge. Another is the skill set. In my experience, older groups are more likely to have members who can fix steps or mend a bridge. I can cut back vegetation, but haven't a clue how to do anything else!

How can we draw in new and younger volunteers?

MARY Well, we've got two young people right here! Their enthusiasm is going to take the organisation on. It's true that path maintenance can be a difficulty. If volunteers want to help, we need to not just provide tools, but also training for their use.

ARRON Some people - like me - join knowing nothing. I was fortunate to make friends who taught me how to map-read, how to lead. Now I'm always asking people: 'Have you thought about leading a walk?' It's fine to start small - my first was across Crosby Beach; another leader's was in a local park. Short walks provide invaluable experience and are often well attended.

EVE Take a look at the Out There Award, run by Ramblers Scotland. It's amazing. [The award gives young people outdoor skills training, essential equipment and a year's Ramblers membership.] We've a few group members who came into rambling that way. I believe the award is going to incorporate walk leadership in the hope that young people will then come into a Ramblers group and be able to lead walks.

ROBERT It isn't easy to recruit new volunteers. I think all we can do is keep telling people how vital volunteering is and letting them know where the vacancies are (which we do at kentramblers.org.uk/ volunteering), celebrating successes and being flexible about how we structure roles.

ARRON People always come up with excuses like: 'I'm busy with work' or 'I don't drive'. Well, I'm busy with work and I don't drive. I still lead walks!

Group of people at the iconic Land's End signpost

Mary and family at the iconic Land's End sign post

What are your hopes for the future?

ROBERT To get our membership numbers up and fill all our volunteer posts.

EVE To see the Out There Award expanding further. It's such a great initiative.

ARRON Making our group as inclusive as it can be. I want walking to be accessible to everyone. For my master's dissertation on walking and mental health, I asked people: 'What are the barriers?' and it was things like transport and skills. So we're doing walk leader workshops; we have a minibus picking walkers up from the city. Creating links with the likes of LCR Pride Foundation will also increase access. Growing up, I thought of walking as white, middle-class and not for me. But perceptions are changing: walking is for everyone, regardless of sexuality, colour or class background.

Any tips for would-be volunteers?

EVE There's free training available, online and in person. Also, current volunteers are always happy to help you.

ROBERT Whatever your skills, there's a role in the Ramblers for you. Come and talk to us. We'll see if we can modify or share a role so it meets your wishes.

EVE You can begin by shadowing someone or being a backmarker on a walk. That's a great way to get involved and take on a little bit of responsibility. My overall message is that each Ramblers group belongs to its members. We are the Ramblers. It's the volunteers that let us ramble on.

Over to you
Want to follow in the footsteps of Arron, Eve, Mary and Robert? Find out more at ramblers.org.uk/volunteers

 

volunteers with tools for path maintenance

Why volunteer

Discover how supporting the Ramblers can help achieve a future where everyone can enjoy walking outdoors.

a volunteer using a hammer to nail in a sign to a fencepost

Volunteer Opportunities

Find the right role for you and help us make a difference.

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Campaign with us - protect the places we walk

Walking is a simple pleasure that should be open to everyone, so we campaign to remove barriers to walking and we protect the places we love to wander.