Leading the way to health
With the Ramblers becoming the new home of Walking for Health – supporting the largest network of health-walk schemes across England – Julia Buckley investigates the powerful effect it has on people’s lives and how it fits with the charity’s vision
“During treatment, I barely had the strength to get out of bed,” recalls Ian Rigby after undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in 2003. “It was tough to deal with because I’ve always been such an active person. Thankfully, though, there were times between the sessions when I could manage short walks.”
The retired headteacher from Surrey joined a local Walking for Health (WfH) scheme, and is in no doubt of the vital role it played in his recovery. “The health walks were just what I needed,” he says. “I’m convinced the exercise helped my body fight the cancer, and the social side really helped me stay positive.”
Now well, Ian has gone on to become a walk leader for Walking for Health and urges others wanting to get more active to take up walking – particularly those affected by cancer. It’s another powerful example of the impact walking can have on people’s lives – something that’s no secret to Ramblers members, who experience the physicaland mental benefits week in, week out, walking with their groups.
So it would seem to make perfect sense that, in April,the Ramblers took over coordinating the national centre of Walking for Health from the Government, in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support. “We’re delighted to welcome the Walking for Health schemes to the Ramblers family,” says Simon Barnett, the Ramblers’ director of walking programmes and promotion. “This is a great opportunity for us to further our ‘sofa to summit’ ambition of helping people from all areas of Britain get active outdoors. We’ll be providing support such as training for WfH leaders, promoting WfH nationally and managing the scheme’s website. The WfH groups themselves will continue to be managed by their local coordinators, as they’ve always been.”
Created in 2000, the WfH scheme sees more than 75,000 people walking with one of the 650 groups across England. So, when Natural England and the Department of Health were looking to hand over the scheme to the third sector last year, the combination of Macmillan Cancer Support’s expertise in supporting people living with cancer and the Ramblers’ on-the-ground experience of running successful short walks projects – such as Get Walking Keep Walking – presented a unique opportunity to build on the success of Walking for Health.
“I very much look forward to working in partnership with the Ramblers to ensure that Walking for Health continues to grow,” says Ciarán Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support. “Together we can increase opportunities for people to become more active, whether it is because they have cancer, some other condition or just want to be healthy.”
Bridging the gap in Hereford
A group of about 30 people are gathered – somewhat ironically – outside the local chip shop when I arrive for a WfH walk in the small Herefordshire village of Ewyas Harold on a bright spring morning. I’m met with an enthusiastic welcome from the leaders and the group – who range in age from around 40 to late-70s – before we set out on their weekly two-mile stroll. “It’s a lovely route, this one,” says Anna Ward, who coordinates the WfH scheme at Herefordshire County Council. “And what a perfect day to get out for a relaxing walk.”
I have to agree. As we amble away towards the countryside and on to a field path, I’m feeling calmer by the minute. Six walk leaders in fluorescent tabards gently shepherd us along, with at least one at the front, another at the rear to ensure no one gets left behind, and the others mingling with the walkers in the middle. The pace is very relaxed and the route was specifically devised to be as flat as it could be in the hilly local landscape, with just one stile to cross. “Everyone is always well looked after, whatever their ability,” says Pat, one of the leaders. “If someone can’t complete the route and needs to go back, one of the leaders will always go with them. These walks are only a couple of miles long and everyone goes at their own pace, but when people have been ill or are recovering from an operation – or perhaps they’re just not very mobile – they might not want to do the whole lot.”
Hereford Ramblers has been working closely with Anna and the council for years to help them plan WfH walks and offer guidance to leaders such as Pat. It also offers ‘bridging walks’ as part of its programme, encouraging WfH participants to move on to Ramblers group walks once they’re more mobile. This kind of local relationship between WfH and Ramblers groups exists all over England. But in Richmond, Surrey, the relationship is even closer. Last year, local Ramblers took on coordinating the Richmond WfH scheme as something of a pilot project, adopted well before the Ramblers’ plans to take on WfH’s national centre were in place.
“The local council pulled out of WfH and put the scheme out to tender,” explains Richmond Ramblers secretary Vic Lewis, who also helps lead the health walks and tells me he’s seen lots of participants discover a love of group walking who otherwise may never have done so. It’s clear from his enthusiasm how immensely rewarding he finds being involved with WfH. “A lot of people who come to the group have done no exercise at all, but we find they soon get used to it,” he says. “They get fitter and faster surprisingly quickly – we’ve seen some really big improvements in some people in just a few weeks.” And how many actually go on to walk with Richmond Ramblers? “With our varied programme of walks, including lots of shorter distances, some people have joined us after starting out with WfH – which I’m really pleased about,” answers Vic. “But other people are not interested, and that’s fine, too. Equally, some Ramblers members used to walk more vigorously but are not as mobile now, so these health walks are the perfect thing for them.”
It’s just this kind of joined-up activity that Simon Barnett hopes will become commonplace across England as the WfH partnership with the Ramblers progresses. “We found that people who wanted to carry on walking after Get Walking Keep Walking would often go on their local WfH scheme rather than joining the Ramblers, so hopefully we can support them for the whole of their journey now,” he says. “We want to encourage Ramblers groups to consider running more ‘bridging walks’ to help people who’d like to move on from their local WfH to longer, more challenging walks.”
Scheme’s future in safe hands
As for my fellow walkers in Ewyas Harold, and the tens of thousands of others with WfH schemes across the length and breadth of the country, they’ll be pleased to hear that their walks will continue to be organised and executed in the same way without disruption. Our walk turns out to be lovely. The sun continues to shine as we pass through a field of sheep with tiny lambs, then on over a bridge across a stream and back round into the village. All the while, the group chat happily among themselves.
“The social aspect is at least as important as the exercise for a lot of the group,” says Jo Pringle, another of the group’s leaders. “A few of the ladies here are widows who live alone, so it’s really uplifting for them to get out and mix.” As we sit down for tea in the local church hall afterwards, Anna Ward explains that she tries to join her WfH groups whenever she can to make sure they’re running smoothly and have all the resources they need. “The Ramblers has been really helpful to me, as it obviously knows a lot about managing successful walking schemes,” she says, taking a sip of tea and looking at the re-energised and convivial results of her work sitting all around us. “This group has meant so much to so many people in this area; it’s nice to know WfH is in good hands.”
For more information, visit www.walkingforhealth.org.uk