Back in the 1990s I once walked 20 miles in a day along the Cotswold Way. Long before I reached my B&B in the village of Birdlip, I’d begun fantasising about a steaming hot bath, a cup of tea and a slap-up breakfast the following morning. Instead, the tea and milk were of the powdered variety and the lukewarm bath water barely filled the tub a third full before turning stone cold.
To cap it all, I committed the cardinal sin of omitting to fill in my slip advising what time I wanted breakfast. After 40 minutes of being studiedly ignored the next morning, the penny dropped: the owner, who somehow made Basil Fawlty look like a shoe-in for the gold service award at the Ritz, was punishing me for failing to obey orders. A brief exchange ensued:
“You didn’t tell me when you wanted breakfast.”
“The last time I looked there were two ‘b’s in B&B”.
Departing unfed, I noted that a cursory glance at the visitors’ book would have forewarned me. ‘In the words of Groucho Marx, I’ve had a wonderful night,’ a previous inmate had written, ‘but this wasn’t it.’
Fast forward 20 years and I’m staggered by just how the whole experience of walking has improved. The change hasn’t been incremental, it’s been seismic. The outdoors will always be there for those of us who simply want to strike out in solitude and stare meaningfully into the middle distance, but now the choice is often not so much which route you’ll take up Scafell Pike, as which fine-dining experience you’ll treat yourself to afterwards. And will your boutique, walker-friendly B&B have accent or angelpoise lighting as you enjoy tea poured from a teapot designed by Sophie Conran rather than a flask?
Unless you want to be old-fashioned about it, you don’t even have to think very hard about where you walk any more. Dozens of companies can now hold your hand through the whole experience and provide self-guided, researched walks brimming with ‘did you know?’ anecdotes, while transferring your backpack or Gucci suitcase to your pre-booked accommodation. The Long Distance Walking Association (LDWA) now lists more than 90 of these companies, all linked to trails across the UK.
Pick up a brochure from many of these companies and it’s pretty clear where the market is going. Their covers feature not dramatic mountain vistas or wildlife, but images of clinking wine glasses, plumped up pillows, open fires and urns of lilies. For the companies that specialise in such walking packages, it appears they’ve simply pushed at an open door to accommodate a latent and unmet demand.
“It stared me in the face from the very beginning,” says Alison Howell, who set up Foot Trails after walking for three months across France with her future husband. “We stayed in a small two-man tent and carried a gas stove. I thought, ‘Why does it have to be like this?’ There are some people — I was one of them — who will want that experience, but other people will enjoy the walking and want somewhere comfortable to stay, which doesn’t involve a two-man tent.
“The joy I get is addressing the misconceptions about walking. Ten years ago, walking had a dreadful perception, it was slightly stereotypical and seen as something for the older generation. You seemed to have to wear knee-high socks and be a bit anoraky. There was no fun in it.”
Macs Adventure, which offers ‘in-style’ self-guided walking holidays to Cornwall, the Cotswolds, the Great Glen Way, the Loire and the High Atlas among other destinations agrees. “It’s all about offering options,” says Sally Thompson, the company’s product manager.
“Walking is going the way of glamping — and glamping was unheard of 10 years ago. It was all about walking on your own, planning everything and having your own backpack. If you walked all day, you arrived cold and hungry, and the B&B may not have been particularly welcoming. Walkers today have more disposable income, and more options are available. They still don’t mind getting muddy, but like some comfort as well.”
Macs Adventure generally lessens the walking distances to ensure that clients can strike the right balance between the outdoors and indoors element of their trip. “People are happy to walk good distances, but we tend to shorten these to 10 rather than 20 miles,” she says. “You get to the hotel in time to enjoy the spa and a glass of wine, and you’re not completely exhausted.”
A helping hand
One of the pioneers of self-guided, trail-walking packages was Inntravel, and its general manager Karl Watson acknowledges the changes. “Our first trips were quite elementary 25 years ago, compared to what we offer now. In the past five to 10 years, the level of comfort wanted by some clients has become more demanding.”
Anna Heywood of Drover Holidays, which compiles bespoke walking holidays in the Welsh Borders, has also noticed a change in the way people walk for leisure. “They don’t expect to rough it just because they’re walking,” she says. “Walking now may just be appealing to a wider range of people than used to be the case. They may have a luxurious holiday abroad and then want to come and walk some of our routes. They want a level of comfort and don’t want to camp.”
Like Macs Adventure, Drover Holidays finds that Americans are particularly attracted to the concept of guided trails. “They also really like to have someone at the end of the phone 24/7 — the reassurance of having someone to turn to if something goes wrong,” says Heywood.
Of course, the main appeal of a self-guided package is its convenience — to have someone go out and tramp the ground beforehand so that you don’t have to. They allow us to simply slip the leash of everyday life, argues Watson. “It’s an opportunity, just for a period, to get away from the pressure — it offers a chance to escape and enjoy what you see.
“A lot of it is down to people being time-poor. One of the big trends in travel is ticking off experiences. There’s just so much out there that you can do and enjoy, so maybe you don’t want to dedicate seven days to walking. Instead, we walk in bite-sized chunks and it becomes part of a wider holiday.” Rather than walk the entire circuit of Mont Blanc, says Watson, clients may gravitate to walking for three days and then enjoy some R&R on the Côte D’Azur.
However, the merit of self-guided walks extends beyond the safety net and hand-holding they offer. Howell believes her specialist knowledge can benefit clients, and be advantageous to local communities, too.
“I used to feel frustrated by the portrayal of rural England; the experiences weren’t showing off the great joys of the countryside we walk through. We try and show what’s so good about these areas. In Somerset we’ll get guests to stay at an inn, drink local cider, eat vegetables from the local village and give them a strong and positive sense of Somerset. You don’t get that if you stay at an international chain.”
Instead, Howell believes her service can offer even experienced walkers insights they’d easily miss. “At Foot Trails we don’t detract from the true nature of what walking is about. It’s about going outside, seeing amazing things and having nice food along the way. We just make it a bit easier for people to do it.
“A lot of people think that walking, by definition, is very green, but there’s a greater responsibility than that. If you’re going to encourage people to walk, do you really want 50 people suddenly descending on a small village? I don’t always believe that national trails offer the best route or experience. Some of them have a very high volume of walkers.
“We use our local knowledge to take people off the beaten track. The South West Coast Path gets 800,000 walkers a year. That’s very successful, but that’s an awful lot of people going down one path. I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought that by growing Foot Trails I was destroying the thing I know and love.”
A lost art
These two sides of the walker’s psyche — the urges for unfettered freedom and pampered comfort — appear to rub along together successfully. I’ve done the Calor gas, soggy tent thing often enough, but I’m far from immune to the charms of a top-end country house or inn after a day in the dales.
I suspect that somewhere, possibly on top of a Munroe in the Cuillin on Skye, Bearded Mountain Man is looking down on this trend and snorting like a red stag with contempt. Aren’t we becoming a nation of walking softies? “I could never have someone carry my pack. I just like to be self-powered,” says Daniel Neilson, acting editor of The Great Outdoors magazine, whose audience is independent backpackers and camping hikers. “I love camping out, but I love a bit of luxury now and then as much as the next person. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”
But I still wonder whether we’re at risk of losing something. I’m not suggesting we return to the hair shirt penance of historical pilgrimages, but I get wistful when I think that I once walked the Pennine Way with a rain-soaked one-man tent and that after just three hours on the first day I was lost in mist on Kinder Scout with blisters the size of kiwi fruit.
“There can be a bit too much hand-holding, and we’re in danger of losing the key navigation skills,” says Neilson. “But [guided walks] are often people’s first experiences and we all needed help the first time we used a compass. I’d hope that they would eventually graduate to walk independently. You have much more adventure when you plan things yourself. There’s nothing better than camping out and waking up on a summit to a beautiful view.”
Heywood adds, “Some might say it’s something of a softie’s option, but many of our clients are regular walkers. We’ve got older couples who’ve walked all their lives, but who now struggle with a backpack. Our luggage transport service makes all the difference to them. If that helps me walk in the countryside when I’m 80, I’ll be delighted.”
Watson suspects that some of the new generation of comfort-oriented walkers risk placing too much emphasis on the appeal of being pampered. “There are clearly some people who just don’t get going — they don’t realise that walking is actually about the walk, which can sometimes be a more incidental part of the holiday than it used to be.”
“But, these companies tend to be at the high-price end,” observes Paul Lawrence of the LDWA. “What’s more difficult for independent walkers on a budget is to find and string together suitable accommodation, near a trail, with availability on the right days. It would be misrepresenting the market if the impression was given that trail users are a small and wealthy minority group using up-market services and walking on a small range of routes.”
With this in mind, the LDWA recently launched an online service with an accommodation list of 4,000 properties, as well as 800 budget hostels and barns across the UK.
I ask Watson whether even well-intentioned companies such as Inntravel are inadvertently complicit in the dismantling of the survival skills we relied on to evolve as a species. “I do wonder where the advance of technology puts us all in 20 years,” he muses. “The fundamental element of walking is timeless. The sense of space, soaking up the sounds and the smells around you, they won’t change, but the way we deliver it will.
“I’ll be interested to see if, in 20 years, people can still read maps. That’s not a skill that a lot of people have any more. There’s a risk that in some areas we are losing our self-reliance.”
Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)