Walks guru Colin Speakman urges us to walk to the shops as well as in the Dales
PUBLISHED: 09:52 06 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:00 20 February 2013
Rocketing petrol prices and soaring insurance premiums could be the catalyst for a renaissance of practical walking and a healthier way of life. Terry Fletcher reports
England had just won the World Cup when Colin Speakman sat down to write his first walking book. That was back in 1967 and since then another 50 odd have followed. In fact few people know more about walking in the Yorkshire Dales than he does. He is chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Society and the originator of the Dales Way, now one of our most popular long distance paths, stretching more than 80 miles from Windermere in the Lake District almost to his front door in Ilkley.
England had just won the World Cup when Colin Speakman sat down to write his first walking book. That was back in 1967 and since then another 50 odd have followed.
In fact few people know more about walking in the Yorkshire Dales than he does. He is chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Society and the originator of the Dales Way, now one of our most popular long distance paths, stretching more than 80 miles from Windermere in the Lake District almost to his front door in Ilkley.
Yet he admits he is perplexed by what is happening to his favourite hobby. Leisure walking has never been more popular but, at the same time, as a nation we are walking less and less. While more of us than ever before pull on our boots each weekend to explore the fields, fells and valleys, what Colin calls utilitarian walking the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other to get to work, to school or the shops - is dying out and our towns and cities are being surrendered to the motor car, he says.
According to the most recent national travel survey the number of local walking trips declined between 1993 and 2003 by an astonishing 20 per cent, mostly replaced by car journeys. Rising living standards may have brought convenience and the phenomenon of the two - or more - car family but it has done so at a cost to our physical health and even mental well-being, he says. But things could be about to change. Rocketing petrol prices and soaring insurance premiums linked to wider economic woes could be the catalyst for a renaissance of practical walking, he argues in his latest book Walk!
It is described as a celebration of striding out, covering the rise of the Romantic Movement, the battle for access to wild places and the creation of national parks and long distance trails, but it might just as easily be called a battle cry for the pedestrian.Walking has been in decline for decades because we have organised our society around our four-wheeled friend, the car. Statistics show that as soon as you get a car in a household the distance walked, even for short trips, diminishes dramatically. These days walking is seen almost as eccentric, he says.
But I think we are going through a seismic shift in attitudes, albeit forced on us by economics rather than driven by ideology. Fuel prices are going up and young people leaving university with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debts struggle to afford a car in the way their predecessors couldonly a few years ago. The trouble is that our cities are organised for cars with things like out-of-town shopping centres and big supermarkets in places it can be hard to reach by bus so it will need changes in organisation and lifestyles if it is going to happen.
And he should know. It is 18 years since he and his wife, Fleur, gave up their own car. Or more accurately it gave up on us. It died and we thought wed try to do without one for a while. The first six months were the worst but then we got used to it and now we dont really miss it. And I think we are healthier because of the exercise we get just walking instead of driving for every day things. It does mean changes. For example we cant do a big weekly shop because we cant carry it all at once so we probably shop three or four times a week. If that became widespread it could revive the High Street and local shops.
It probably helps that Colin, a native of Salford who discovered the Dales through cycling over the Pennines, is also a transport expert and campaigner with a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of networks and timetables and with an evangelists zeal for public transport. One recent project involved devising a series of walks using buses in Lower Nidderdale. It has been credited with increasing passenger numbers by 20pc and helping to safeguard an important rural service. A similar scheme using buses on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border has just been launched.
However, the next major step, he says, is to reclaim towns and cities for the pedestrian. Some, such as York, as already well advanced with a network of walker and cyclist-friendly routes, often running along the riverbank or through parks where users are segregated from motor traffic.
Even Leeds, which once styled itself as the Motorway City with its Inner Ring Road scything Los Angeles-style through the centre has some surprising green corridors such as the Meanwood Valley and the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool canal which is used by strollers and commuting cyclists. Elsewhere in Yorkshire other once-derelict canals are becoming green corridors for pedestrians.
The potential is there for some lovely green ways and we should make more use of them and the old walking routes. We ought to celebrate walking, rather than looking down on it. In many places at the moment as a pedestrian you are treated almost as the lowest of the low, always forced to make way for the car. There is at last some evidence that lifestyles are changing and places like York show what can be done if there is a will.
There are paths in the Dales that were almost impossible to find on the ground when I first walked them in my twenties. Now they are one metre wide, thanks to the increased numbers of walkers. If that can happen in the Dales I see no reason why walking cant be restored to our towns and cities, he says.
Walk! By Colin Speakman is published by Great Northern 15.99 ISBN 978 1 905080 861
The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Yorkshire Life
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