Why Walkers Keep Joining Shaftesbury’s Fastest Growing Community Group

Walking is one of Britain’s favourite pastimes. And since Walking For Health launched in January, dozens of locals have become fitter and have forged new friendships on the weekly walks arranged by Shaftesbury’s fastest growing community group.

ThisIsAlfred.com’s Keri Jones discovered that much of this group’s success stems from the strong sense of camaraderie between members of this free club. “We’re knocking on for a hundred people who have expressed an interest. I have about seventy people on the email that I send out,” said leader, Peter Wells.

As group members milled around outside Tesco, waiting for the walk’s 10.15am start, Peter acted like a good party host, greeting new members, making introductions and sharing pleasantries with regular walkers. Peter is justifiably proud of what his group has achieved. He’s created a regular social event, which has grown in popularity every week.

“We’ve been out walking in all weathers. The snow didn’t put us off. In the winter we had a few really wet walks but most have been all right,” said Peter. “We’re only out for between an hour and ninety minutes and we end up in cafes in town. The John Peel has been really good. They take us when we are absolutely dripping wet. In the summertime we tend to go to The Ugly Duckling, but we have been to other cafes. It is as much of a social thing as it is a healthy activity.”

Walking For Health has introduced sessions at various times, so most locals can fit walks around their work or home life commitments. There are evening rambles, daytime walks and during the summertime they’ve hosted sunrise strolls. Group member Henrietta told me that she particularly enjoyed those 6am starts. “It’s the best time of the day. I am an early riser normally so it isn’t a hardship,” she smiled.

Walking For Health has introduced two streams, because different people walk at a different pace. Members can take a gentle, short ‘stroller’ walk, or a more vigorous ‘strider’ session. “A strider tries to spend the first ten minutes getting the heart pumping,” explained walk leader April Marks. “The stroller walk is more suitable for people returning from injury operations,” added Peter.

“If you have a heart condition or you’re not so stable on your feet, it’s better to be with other people. My dad would not want to go out on a walk on his own, in case he fell over,” April said. And that brought us onto why the group was formed. It is called Walking For Health for a reason.

Peter’s team has developed a rapport with the staff at the Abbey View Medical Centre. “A month or so ago, three of us made a presentation at the patient participation group. A lot of the audience said they were interested in coming along. People give it a try and they realise there is nice atmosphere. If you are doing it on a weekly basis this is going to improve your health,” said Peter. “We’ve had a few referrals – instead of a prescription, they were given details of the walks.”

Britain is a nation of dog-lovers. Many of the walkers, including Peter, bring their pets along. Angie was leading along a black and white Collie named Ralph, someone else’s pet. “BorrowMyDoggie.com is a website you can go on if you have a dog that you cannot walk yourself,” Angie explained. “I go on it because I want to walk with a dog but can’t have one because I have two elderly cats. I walk this dog for a lady in Shaftesbury. It’s reciprocal and it works really well.”

Another British trait is our obsession with rules. Each session starts with a roll call of registered walkers. As April read out the names, some of the male walkers seemed to enjoy responding with an enthusiastic, ‘yes miss!’ Then volunteer Keith Stockley went through the health and safety rules. Keith appeared rather official, clutching a clipboard and wearing a hi-viz jacket as he pointed out potential pitfalls and problems.

“Narrow footpaths. Beware of the cars and there could be dog mess on the ground. There could be low hanging branches and nettles. There’s no real risk but we just need to make sure that people are aware,” he assured me.

After the briefing, we were ready to set off. The crowd divided into the two different walking groups, slower and faster. Each was taking a different route around the town before meeting up again for their first picnic on Castle Hill. As a strider, I strode off with that group into the town centre, then down New Road, along Yeatman’s Lane to Enmore Green and up to Bimport.

For part of the walk, I strode alongside Barry Edwards. Barry travels from Bourton for the walks, which he helps to plot. He’s devised thirty different routes so far. “We have a couple of software packages. We also use the old Ordnance Survey maps,” Barry explained. “I follow the footpaths and if it looks interesting then I take the walk and do a recce to see whether there are things which might cause a problem. A stile is good for a group like this but we try and avoid climbing over barbed wire fences,” he said.

If you think that it is boring walking around Shaftesbury week in, week out, you would be wrong. You’ll be led down some lanes, paths and tracks that even born and bred Shastonians have been unfamiliar with. “I led a group last week and there were two people who live in Shaftesbury who told me that they’d never been to where we were. It’s nice to go somewhere different,” explained Barry.

“There was a guy who has been living here for thirty years and hadn’t done half of the walks that we were putting on. In Shaftesbury there are just beautiful views. You have it all on your doorstep,” April said.

Barry, April and the Walking For Health organisers are continually adding new routes. Recently they walked from Shaftesbury to Ludwell, Henrietta’s home village. “It was quite a good crowd and they came to have coffee and cake,” she explained. I asked Henrietta whether it was strange to go on a walk to the place where you live. Wouldn’t that be similar to booking a mystery coach tour and ending up in your hometown? “It was easy,” she responded, “But then I had to give everybody a lift home. I enjoyed it. It was a lovely walk and I haven’t done it before.”

Janet and Bill Macintyre have also discovered new places on their doorstep. “We joined because we thought we would see a bit more of Shaftesbury that we might not have discovered otherwise. Of course, the company is nice too,” said Janet. “Today, we went down a path that I had seen many times but often wondered where it led. Now I know where it goes to and I know the other end. I had not put the two ends together,” said Bill.

The group walked off the tarmac surface of Breach Lane and tramped in single file across the gentle slope of a grassy field. Our walk leader gave warning of the only hazard we encountered en route. ‘Mind the poo!’ shouted April and her alert was repeated, like a Chinese whisper, down the line of walkers.

Many of the regulars first joined the group because they wanted to make new friends. Angie has been involved since day one in January. “I was new to the area so it was a good way to meet people primarily. There are a lot of people who have come here from other places,” Angie said. “I wanted to get out and meet people in an outdoor environment. It’s good exercise and I really enjoy it,” chipped in Julie Marie.

As I walked, I listened to the conversations between the walkers. It’s clear that firm friendships have been formed and that there is a general sense of fun. The street sign for The Butts provided an example of the humour enjoyed on these walks. Barry told me that one group had bent over in front of this sign for a group selfie, recently.

Our striders took a five-minute break in Enmore Green’s community orchard. During the pause, some members helped themselves to the tempting, red apples. I won’t call it scrumping because Bill McIntyre corrected me when I used that term. “It’s called foraging nowadays,” he smiled. “If you call it foraging, you get away with it.”

As some walkers tucked into the crisp fruit, the quips started. “What’s worse than finding a maggot in your apple? Finding half a maggot!” shouted one comedian, to some laughter and quite a few groans.

When you walk with someone for ninety minutes, you can enjoy a laugh or two. You’ll be surprised how, like the walking route, the conversation can take twists and turns. For example, as we approached Castle Hill, Peter shared a confession. “I once got on a plane and I’d had a few to drink. It was one of the very first times I’ve flown back from the United States. They give you a hot flannel in a plastic bag. They were handing them around with tongs. I was a bit sloshed and I tore it open and started to eat it. I suddenly realised it wasn’t a chapatti or a hot spring roll, but was actually a flannel!”

And all too soon, the walk was over. We emerged from a steep, mulch strewn wooded path onto the top of Bimport. Then we walked down a short path towards the expanse of green lawn at Castle Hill, ready for our picnic. We had been instructed to bring picnic rugs. I didn’t have one and I was relieved to see that I was not alone in failing to follow the emailed instruction. “I haven’t brought a rug, either,” Barry confided. “Somebody else will have a rug so I will see if I can go and jump on the corner.”

The wooden picnic benches saved me and other walkers from grass stains and damp backsides. As the group opened Tupperware, walkers shared around snacks, cakes and – surprise, surprise – freshly picked apples.

After ninety minutes with this fun and friendly crowd, I could appreciate why this group’s membership keeps growing. Medical matters motivate some of the walkers. Some seek social interaction and everyone has the chance to enjoy Shaftesbury’s stunning scenery from new, undiscovered vantage points. I’m sure it won’t be long before Peter’s email list reaches two hundred!

If you want to become the latest Walking For Health member, email peter.wells5@icloud.com.