Benedict Southworth: Walking in partnership
Early this year Ramblers became the National Centre for Walking for Health. Working in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, we now support hundreds of local schemes providing opportunities for people to undertake walks as an entry point to improving their health.
It is clear that there is now a massive interest in walking and health and more broadly, how physical activity can help tackle chronic diseases which are predicted to be the major causes of ill health and early death in the UK. That is why, a few days ago, I found myself sat listening to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales talking about the importance of physical activity. Prince Charles made the point that when you put people at the centre of the design process, you end up with a more workable model of development.
We know that walking can be a great entry point into physical activity and that people can migrate off the sofa through walking, to other forms of physical activity or indeed to the top of the highest peaks. The Prince of Wales was talking at a conference put together by Cambridge University’s Leadership Programme and was supported by The Prince’s Trust. Delegates heard of the “major problem” of chronic diseases and that one of the key risks is physical inactivity.
The increased emphasis on how the health system needs to tackle chronic diseases was re-enforced by the Labour Shadow Health Minister, speaking at an event organised by the Sport and Recreation Alliance. He said that physical activity should be a priority for the Department of Health. I agree; Ramblers’ volunteers already play a major role in helping people get physical active. However, as I pointed out to Mr Burnham, working with voluntary organisations like the Ramblers is cheap but not free. Volunteers give tirelessly and gain a lot from their efforts, but they need the proper levels of support and training.
In a couple of weeks, my American brother-in-law and his partner will arrive for a visit to the UK. They will be spending a couple of weeks walking the North Downs Way to Dover. It’s a small example of the power of our long-distance path network; National Trails attract an estimated 12 million people a year and offer over 2000 miles of some of the best walking opportunities. This vast network will double when the English Coast Path (which was opened in its first stretch last week) is complete.
The Ramblers played a key role in establishing National Trails. Tom Stephenson, the first Ramblers Secretary, envisioned “a long green trail from the Peak to the Cheviots…which the feet of grateful pilgrims would, with the passing years, engrave on the face of the land.” The first National Trail, the Pennine Way, was opened 30 years later in 1965 and, along with the other trails, has captured the imagination of so many since.
Natural England, who currently manage and maintain National Trails, has started a discussion on a new management arrangement, proposing to give up their role of working with local authorities to manage the trail network, and to hand this power to new Local Trail Partnerships. The Ramblers is seriously concerned that government’s proposals could see a dramatic fall in the quality of National Trails. Paths could fall into disrepair, potentially obstructing access for the millions of people who enjoy the trails and who generate significant revenue for the local economy. We would like to see government rethink its plans and we are ready to work with them to take a leading role in the future support and promotion of these national treasures.
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