WR Rambler Co-editor Caroline Spalding explains why she joined the Ramblers and what she feel should happen to ensure the organisation has a future:
I walked a lot as a child, and joining the Ramblers about 5 years ago has reacquainted me with my love of the great outdoors after a long period of city-dwelling! It’s led to new friends, new pastimes and a greater appreciation of the county in which we are all so lucky to live.
But I have recently been informed that the median age of West Riding Ramblers members is 70. This will be a fact unsurprising to the majority of members as we bear witness to on our walks.
But does it matter? Not for the purposes of enjoying a good ramble. It’s great for me, aged 31, to mix with people possessing life experience and interesting anecdotes stimulating fantastic conversation; but perhaps in considering the future of the Ramblers Association it does.
Young people, let’s say aged 18-35, even if they have the desire to walk, might not have the time due to work and families. They might not choose to walk with the Ramblers because they wouldn’t be surrounded by their contempories; that is if they know of Ramblers walks at all. I conducted a survey in which 47% of respondents answered that young people would definitely [29% stated ‘sometimes’] be put off joining in because many members are of an older age group. Many also stated that there are alternative groups to walk with, or done with friends and family, and why pay for membership when walking can be done for free themselves?
The fact remains that the average age of Ramblers members is increasing, and, bluntly, without new, younger members, the Association is a ticking time bomb that will witness decreasing membership and all the great work that has been achieved will be lost. I believe a key problem is that people of my generation have grown up not facing the right-to-access challenges that created the group originally. I’ve always taken for granted that should I wish to walk, I can do so, pretty much anywhere there is a public footpath. Referring to the survey mentioned above; when questioned on why they joined the RA, only 3% stated it was because they support the causes and campaigns it conducts.
That’s not to say the work of the Ramblers Association is done and dusted; as members we know exactly what the Ramblers do behind the scenes to protect our rights of way, but perhaps this message, and its importance, is no longer being conveyed to, or valued by, the general public. Whilst the Ramblers Association is primarily a campaigning body; with organised walks a secondary by-product, I truly believe that the necessary steps to attract new members would be through the organised walks, encouraging participation so that newcomers develop a passion and enthusiasm for walking which could develop into a proactive desire to campaign for continued access. 47% of the survey respondents said they joined the RA to socialise/make friends, the remaining 50% split between exploring the countryside, for exercise or a combination of both. This therefore gives a good indication of where to direct future marketing campaigns – we need to stress how fun our walks can be!
Walking as a pastime needs to be re-positioned to the younger generations. Young people follow trends online; they like to post their activities on social media and therefore, whilst there are non-Rambler walking groups for younger people; appearing with the Ramblers, unfortunately, is probably not considered ‘cool.’ And there’s another issue – the word ‘Ramble’ does not conjure up thoughts of excitement or challenge; perhaps ‘Hike’ would be a more apt phrase for the young. Certainly the ‘Take a Hike’ group for those aged 20-40 has embraced this concept.
We need to plan more walks to accommodate the young; their work, their families too. Perhaps for the summer schedule let’s have more evening walks for those who work full time and want an evening walk to detox from the workplace stresses. And maybe even walks specifically for teenagers? Should we, as an organisation, visit schools to discuss the work the Association does? Lead walks in partnership with teachers as an extra-curricular activity? Can the Ramblers Association raise awareness of its campaigns and causes to participants of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme?
There is no immediate solution, but the bottom line is that the future of the Ramblers necessitates a future generation of keen walkers, after which the underlying values and campaigns of the group can be addressed. Let us battle with the appeal of the iPhone and Instagram, and encourage our youngsters to embrace the great outdoors, before it becomes too late.
Inspiring the next generation
The big question is how to attract younger people to join us on our walks, gain interest in our walking heritage and create the desire to continue the great work the Ramblers do?
When there’s a short walk on the programme, perhaps we can invite the grandchildren to come along. Maybe next time there is a call for walk leaders, you could volunteer to lead a special childrens’ walk; where there is a competition for the silliest wellington boots, or it might be through a ‘magical’ forest where along the way you could relate stories to keep them entertained.
Whilst requiring thought, imagination and preparation, walk leaders could collaborate in planning and it would show children that entertainment does not only come from the screen of a tablet or phone.
Teenagers are different; they can be afraid to do something that isn’t currently trendy; they might be ashamed to admit to enjoying a good ramble. If you’ve a teenage son or daughter, you could ask if they’d like to go on a walk without you? Challenge them to be different. They would have a sense of doing something independently, with no pressure to converse with their elders, but with a sense of safe welcoming. If you are lucky to enjoy each other’s company, invite your kids to join you on a group walk – sell them the ‘experience’ a walk gives you. They could even bring along their own friends. If you position a walk as educational, or ‘for a good cause’ I believe that would instantly put them off; however in reality, walks can be educational; not just through learning with your own eyes, but by the stories you hear and nuggets of information you acquire. And I doubt there are many who cannot be stunned by the beauty of our Yorkshire landscape.
Future Ramblers membership depends on developing a passion for walking among younger generations. Otherwise, rambling as a pastime might really be on its last legs!
And here’s an idea to get some publicity in the media to attract younger members. Following the recent ITV programme celebrating Britain’s 100 favourite 100 walks, we’d like to ask all our members to tell us their favourite Yorkshire walks, so that so that we feature the top 20 in the West Riding Rambler. What are yours? Further details in our next issue!