Walking is in my genes – I recently found some old photos of my parents, one with my mum’s college rambling club and another of them newly married and out for a walk. My childhood felt like one seemingly endless walk along the Pembrokeshire coast path, until I was old enough to stay at home. But these days I love going on long walks, without whining or demanding to be carried.
I now live in another place surrounded by beautiful countryside. In Bristol, I’ve got the Mendips on one side, the Cotswolds on the other, Dartmoor 90 minutes away and the Brecon Beacons across the Severn Bridge.
After sitting at a desk all week and with spring in full swing, weekends offer ample motivation, but without someone to help me find and navigate a good route, I end up thinking about all the countryside I could be enjoying as I spend another day pottering around and watching Netflix with the cats.
Essentially, I don’t want to spend all day walking, in what may or may not be the right direction, without the guarantee of some dynamite views and a pub at the end. Surely I’m not the only one?
My solution is what people have been doing in an organised fashion since at least 1935: join a walking club. They cater for people like me who lack the knowledge and confidence to plan walks that tick all the boxes.
After a quick google I found Bristol Ramblers – one of the biggest branches of the charity, with around 800 walkers. Across the UK it has 123,000 members and boasts 2,800 walks to choose from this spring. There’s no commitment – you don’t have to tell anyone you’re coming – just look at the programme, check the forecast and show up. You can go for a few walks before you’re obliged to join, and wherever you go on holiday around the country you can explore the area with a local group.
At weekends Bristol Ramblers runs several walks each day, catering for different abilities with varying distances and terrain, from a six-mile stroll along the River Avon to 18-mile hikes on Exmoor. I chose one in the Cotswolds – an 11-mile circular route, medium ability, lots of lovely views and a pub stop halfway. Bingo.
So on a sunny Sunday morning, I set off with my walking boots to meet a bunch of strangers for car-sharing to our starting point of Painswick, an idyllic village near Stroud. I would like to tell you exactly where we walked, but part of the joy of a led walk is that you don’t have to know.
We’d already stopped for coffee a few hours later, in woodland carpeted in bluebells, before I realised I hadn’t paid any attention to where we were going. Instead I was free to drink in the scenery and chat to my fellow ramblers. It was during this break that one of the walkers whipped out an easel and pastels – while most of us welcomed the opportunity for a sit-down, he uses the walks to discover new inspiration.
Everyone is very friendly and welcoming to rambling rookies like me. One of the women I struck up a conversation with had only been on her first walk two weeks ago. As someone who works from home all week, she sought out Ramblers to have something to do at weekends.
We exchanged email addresses and agreed to meet up for a bike ride. Many of the walkers are retired or semi-retired, although I got the sense they could all out-walk me. A chap in his 80s joined Ramblers the year I was born. There might have been an age gap but we were all there for similar reasons – socialising, keeping fit and exploring the countryside.
We covered a range of topics, from the spirituality of walking, places we’ve walked around the world, homelessness, politics, families and the benefits of learning to identify birdsong (I’m not sure I convinced him).
Walking is a leveling experience, one walker tells me, and among our group of about 20 was a musician manager, someone in local government, a farmer, a teacher and a former monk – this was the painter’s calling, until reading Thomas Hardy made him have a change of heart. He promised to post me a book of literary walks after I told him about one I’ve done around Hardy’s Dorset.
As we entered Cranham Common, he informed me we were passing the trees that inspired the 20th century poet and composer Ivor Gurney. They were “the beech trees that made him sing”, he tells me. We also see masses of wild garlic, lady’s smock, horse’s tails (quite uncommon, according to a knowledgeable lady and Ramblers regular), cabbage whites and orange-tip butterflies, red kites, buzzards, cowslip, neon fields of rape seed and an optimistic sign beside a field of cows and their calves encouraging us to vote Lib Dem.
We stopped for lunch in Sheepscombe, a picturesque hamlet where we had a much-needed rest and a drink from The Butcher’s Arms to wash down our sandwiches. I’m surprised to see some of the walkers put away two pints of cider and still keep up during the second half.
After a day’s walking I’ve been for an excellent ramble, met new people and seen some breathtaking views that made us all pause and stare. There’s a number of different walking clubs all over the country, and Bristol has one for younger walkers that I plan to try.
There’s a married couple on the walk who met through Ramblers, so I might find a nature-loving walking partner among a younger demographic… Hopefully he’ll have a good sense of direction, but I definitely recommend joining a walking group for more than just the map-reading skills.
Find your local Ramblers group at http://www.ramblers.org.uk/