Those with only a passing interesting in the great outdoors might not fully appreciate just how much effort actually goes into the running of a long-distance walking trail. Afterall, surely it’s just a case of drawing a big old line on a map and saying ‘there you go, enjoy yourselves’? Well, not quite.
Routes like the Cambrian Way, that stretches 298 miles across Wales from Cardiff in the south of the country to Conwy in the north, rely on individuals to manage, build, and ultimately maintain, fundamental aspects of the trail. Some do it as a job, some do it on a voluntary basis.
We caught up with Oliver Wicks, a Walking Spaces Officer for Ramblers Cymru, to find out about his work waymarking, upkeeping, and promoting a big Welsh walk that was first envisaged back in 1968.
What does maintaining and waymarking the Cambrian Way actually involve?
OK, so quick backstory so you know where we were when we came on board. The gentleman who designed the trail, when he passed away he left legacy money behind to start up a trust. I think the trust quite quickly realised that maintaining the route was going to be more than they could manage and so they reached out to Ramblers Cymru to see if they could use some of the legacy money for staff provision.
That’s where myself and my colleague Amanda came on board. At that stage, the route was still very much a little hidden gem that you might speak to some people about and they might be aware of. But, it had no real waymarks out there, no volunteer provision attached to it. The only waymarks you would see out there were historical ones that Tony Drake, the man who designed the route, had put out there. It’s quite cool when you see those, actually. It’s a little bit of history. I think he used some sort of stencil to make his mark.
“We had to get them to buy into the fact that we wanted to promote the route more”
Anyway, when we came on board there was nothing really except those historical ones. A big part of what we had to do was build up a recruitment programme for volunteers based around Ramblers’ members. That was to start with but, in all honesty, it was for anyone and everyone who was interested.
Another big part of it was the local authority engagement. The local authorities sort of vaguely knew about it, knew it was out there, knew people talked about it but didn’t really really know much about it. There had to be a huge stakeholder engagement side of it, to start with. We had to get them to buy into the fact that we wanted to promote the route more to people.
I think they had reservations. It’s a difficult route. They were a bit scared, I suppose, of people suddenly seeing waymarks and thinking it was must all be really straightforward if its all really well signposted. Once we’d won them over though it was all about getting out there, putting out the markers, and building that volunteer pool. That’s continuing now. That idea of finding people who want to become custodians of certain sections near where they live, getting them to go out regularly, check the markers, and feedback to us.
Tell us a bit more about Tony Drake
So, Tony Drake was a Ramblers’ life member. I think he was actually based in Gloucestershire but he loved walking in Wales. He did a lot of work on the Cotswold Way as well but, yes, he loved walking in Wales and came up with this idea of designing a route that went on the mountainous route through Wales. When he passed away, he left behind some legacy money.
How else is maintenance of the route funded?
As Ramblers Cymru have taken hold of the route we’ve also been able to get funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery. They’ve supported us. We’ve done some promotion videos with those guys where we’ve taken the, sort of, stars from their TV adverts out on the trail and broken their walking boots; got them soaking wet. They loved it.
“That funding’s enabled us to get out there and travel across Wales”
That kind of support has been big for us. It’s enabled us to do the kind of events that will, inevitably, bring more attention to the route. The staff provision has been a massive part of it as well. That funding’s enabled us to get out there and travel across Wales. Also, working on the guidebook has been a huge part of all this. Previously, the guidebook was very much a self-published thing but we did a lot of work with Cicerone to get that new, professional-looking, guidebook out there.
How much of your time is spent out on the trails, and how much of your time is spent doing the logistics side of it?
It’s a difficult one really. So logistically, in terms of where I live, I live down in South Wales, near Cardiff. That itself has its own issues when you’re working on a route that covers the whole of Wales. I think it’s up to something like 298 miles the last time it was counted so it is difficult.
A lot of my time spent is talking to local authorities, talking to volunteers. At the moment, we’re trying to get the route on OS as a green diamond recreational route. There’s a lot of admin going on with that. And the guidebook, certainly, when that was coming out took up a lot of my time.
“I’m ticking off another section this summer, that I’ve never actually walked across”
I’m not out on the trails as much as I’d like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very lucky and privileged to be able to travel about all over the place and I’ve got a trip coming up where I’ll be getting up to North Wales. Being totally honest with you, there’s still bits of the route I’ve still not walked.
When I started working on this, the big push was on waymarking and the guidebook. Now, there’s certain sections we can’t put waymarks on. Purely because they’re big, wild, open areas where the local authorities don’t want waymarking posts. It means there isn’t anything to put the actual waymarks on.
So, anyway, there’s certain sections I’ve never actually walked because there was no reason for me to actually get out on them. I’m ticking off another section this summer, that I’ve never actually walked across. Always keen to get out because, as you can imagine, I’m very keen to tick it all off and walk the whole thing.
Do you think that a year and a bit of everyone being locked inside will, in the long run, benefit long-distance walking trails like the Cambrian Way? Lots of people with lots of bottled up energy looking to get out and challenge themselves in the outdoors, surely?
Yes, yes, I totally get where you’re coming from. We’ve got a reasonable social media presence although I can’t say we’re tearing it up and dominating the world of social media for long-distance walking routes. But from where we’ve come from, where we had social media accounts with no interest and we weren’t really posting anything them, we’re now at the stage where we’ve definitely noticed more and more people tagging us on stuff and talking about how they’re going to get on the route or how they’ve started the route and want to go out and do more of it. We’ve had people posting videos about their trek on it. That side of things is definitely ramping up for us. Someone’s even started up a dedicated Facebook group for the route.
“People are more ready than ever to be let off the leash and go for it”
The interest is definitely out there, and it’s definitely growing, because people are more ready than ever to be let off the leash and go for it. The interest has definitely grown. The audience is definitely looking at it as something special to do, now that they’ve been stuck inside for a while. The appetitie is certainly there.
And that, to be honest, is why it’s so important that we’re getting on it with the waymarking and that side of things. It’d be foolish of us to raise the profile of the route, with the new guidebook and all that, if we weren’t going to help people take it on. The waymarking is a welcome and reassuring prescence on long-distance walking trails. That’s how I’d describe it.
What are the biggest challenges and hurdles when it comes to managing the Cambrian Way?
In terms of the human impact on the route, a lot of it is not particularly down to the Cambrian Way. It’s down to the fact that the route inevitably goes through these ‘honeypot’ sites which are busy. Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is a classic one. That’s a busy section so the human footprint on the mountain, unfortunately, is difficult to manage. And, of course, a few sections of Snowdonia are very busy as well; especially around Snowdon.
I think the major challenge for us though is managing people’s expectations. We want to bring the route to a wider audience, we want people to buy the guidebook, we want people to see the waymarking. What we don’t want is people being lulled into a false sense of security. I think the biggest challenge for us is sending out a positive message about how great the route is but with that caveat of ‘it’s difficult’; don’t just go out and have a crack at it. Or, if you are going to ‘have a crack at it’ make sure you’re prepared. Make sure you’ve got all the information possible.
“The biggest challenge for us is sending out a positive message about how great the route is but with that caveat of ‘it’s difficult’”
Some of the South Wales bits from the Cardiff stretch to The Valleys area, there is definitely some places there where people can go, challenge themselves, and experiment. Go and do a bit of basic navigation and have a go at some challenging hillwalking. What we don’t want to do though is get people travelling out into the mid-Wales Cambrian section, or going into Snowdonia, completely unprepared. That’s the challenge for us. Trying to be careful about how we promote it.
We’re in the process actually, as part of the OS mapping project, of making up some signs with the Adventure Smart lot in certain areas that will be a reassuring presence for us. They’ll be a reminder for people to not step out into the wide, open-access, areas without doing some very important checks first. We want people to enjoy the route and have fun, of course we do, but we want them to be smart about it.
For more from our Wales Issue