Thursday 24 February 2011

Scaling New Heights

First things first: I am not – and never have been – possessed of a Whippet-like build. Nor, unlike many a mountain-goer, am I one of God’s natural athletes. Aside from walking I indulge in little regular exercise, but my outings in the hills usually keep me in trim, or thereabouts, and a week’s walking holiday often sorts out the rest. A love of food – especially of the stodgy, winter variety – frequently means the addition of a pound or two in weight over the colder months, however this usually drops off when the walking picks up again in spring.

Last week, for the first time since before Christmas, I decided to brave the scales. I casually sauntered over confident that, whatever the outcome, it would be within tolerable bounds, but stared in disbelief as the reading shot into previously uncharted territory. “Liar!” was my first thought, before the panic set in and I broke out in a cold sweat.

Frantically trying to regain control of my faculties, I did what anyone would do under the circumstances – no, not go into denial, but went for a wee, divested myself of as many layers of clothing as it is decent to do in daylight, and tried casually to lever myself against the adjacent worktop. “Phew!” I thought, as the reading settled at something closer to “too much” as opposed to “far too much”. With my heart rate dropping back towards normal I came to the realisation this was one problem I couldn’t ignore.

Apart from over the New Year weekend, most of my walks this year had been grabbed as an hour or so here and there, and I had allowed plenty of distractions – bad weather, family birthdays, home football games, etc – to get in the way of getting out and about. I needed to redress this lack of motivation and have a good, long day in the hills again. Besides everything else we had a week’s walking in Spain on a small group holiday coming up soon, and the thought of wheezing along miles behind everyone else was not at all attractive. So a bit of a fitness-boost beforehand would be no bad thing, and this last weekend provided the ideal opportunity.

Saturday was a grey, misty, drizzly day, so we wandered around town for a while, did a bit of shopping, had coffee and cake (yes, I know! I know!), and bought a few more books (do we really need any more books?). Then, in the afternoon, we went a short walk to blow the cobwebs away and work off some of that cake.

Come Sunday, the weather had not improved any but we packed kit, lunch (modest) and coffee (black, unsweetened) into the car and set off for Church Stretton to do a ten-and-a-half miler taking in the Long Mynd, Minton Batch and Little Stretton. We have done this circuit a few times before, so navigation was easy enough and, even as we dropped down into Carding Mill Valley, it was clear that we were going to have an enjoyable walk.

Encouragingly, the pull up to top passed easily enough – perhaps I am not quite as unfit as I thought – and before long we were bowling along towards the high-point of Pole Bank. Although the low cloud and mizzle put paid to the fine views that are normally to be had from the top, it didn’t matter – we were having a great time anyway. Just being out there getting some fresh air and exercise was reward enough.

Despite the conditions, it was still quite busy. At intervals, walkers and MTBers would materialise out of the gloom, exchange greetings, and fade back into the fog. Just before the airfield we swung down into Minton Batch and stopped for lunch – we had at least earned it by now. It was chilly, so we didn’t linger long, although long enough for a flurry of bikers and runners to bluster past. Then on with the return leg: through the lower half of Minton Batch – reminiscent in places of Scotland – past an unacceptably scruffy farm, and via quiet lanes to Little Stretton and the much busier hillside path back to the car; all in all about 4½ hours of really enjoyable walking, and so much better than lazing around.

Whether I am any lighter for it yet, I don’t know; but my mood certainly is. A few more outings like that should start to move things in the right direction weight-wise, too. And it was great to have resisted the lure of an easy day and a cream tea and kick-started our walking again. It may not have been the most challenging of days but at least one “boundary” is a little less pushed than 48 hours ago, for which I am thankful.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Which Way For The YHA?

Last week the YHA announced it’s 2011 Capitol Strategy programme. This outlined plans to invest some £4 million in upgrading around 11 hostels across the England and Wales. Good news, you might think, and for those hostels included it certainly is. But it comes at something of a cost: 8 other hostels are earmarked for closure this year and are to be sold off. This comes on top of the 8 hostels closed in similar circumstances last year. A list of the closures appears below.

Over the years, the YHA has provided low cost accommodation to a huge number of young people and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s holds charitable status with the objective “To help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, and appreciation of the cultural values of towns and cities, particularly by providing youth hostels or other accommodation for them in their travels, and thus to promote their health recreation and education.” As mission statements go, fairly succinct.

However, it is quite well known amongst members that the YHA has had problems in the last few years. The recent model seems not to have been financially viable with traditional hosteller numbers dwindling, so the organisation has decided to upgrade hostels and services to appeal to a new, more family-friendly customer (offering such things as smaller, family rooms for 2 – 4 people, en suite facilities, more mod cons, etc) which in turn means an expensive refurbishment programme, particularly testing in this new age of austerity when funding of all types is in short supply. On a more mundane level it could also do with resolving minor irritations such as the bedding packs and the infuriating booking situation.

So the plan appears to be to sell off some of the properties it owns – those that might realise a good income and/or which might require a significant spend to bring up to the new standard. Funds raised through the sell-off can then be used to upgrade other hostels in the network. It just seems a shame that so many of the properties up for sale are in countryside locations. Once sold off some properties may stay as hostels in the independent sector; but more will inevitably become private dwellings. Commercially it does make sense to sell off properties that can rake in the cash, but you can only sell off the family silver once, and although refurbishments, upgrades and new hostels are happening, they are often not in like-for-like places.

The loss of rural properties may be hard-felt by the outdoor community. Certainly some are widely used and very popular. Closure of the Derwentwater hostel is being questioned especially as it is regularly busy and seems to be more than paying it’s way. Of the 16 hostels up for closure 5 are in the Lake District. Anyone who tries to book – whether hostel, B&B, hotel, camping – anywhere in the Lakes will tell you how difficult it is to find availability, pretty much all year: so much so it would seem almost impossible not to run a profitable accommodation if it were run anything like properly. It is anomalies such as these that are making some members feel slightly uneasy; that maybe rural properties are being sacrificed in favour of city centre ones. I hope not.
I suppose this perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy facing the YHA: some hostels are good, some not so good; some are popular and some are not. It would be interesting to see whether there was any correlation between popularity and condition.

Another area that needs addressing is the pricing structure. Many hostels now are charging around £20 per person for a dormitory bed, with breakfast an addition £5. This adds up to a B&B type price without the B&B facilities (own room, often en suite, towels provided, beds made up, cleaned up after, etc, plus breakfast). I was recently offered room for two people (no en suite) for £55 – that’s £27.50 per person per night before breakfast - and it’s more for non-members. The experience will have to catch up with the price pretty quickly.

I have been a member of the YHA for several years now. Like many hostellers I meet, “youth” is something I only vaguely remember, but I enjoy the hostelling experience and always try to go at least half a dozen times a year. The camaraderie can be good, as can the option of self-catering if you want to do that. And you can usually make an early start if you do your own breakfast.

I hope the outcome of their new strategy is a positive one and that these sell-offs help to get YHA back on a more stable footing, allowing them to rejuvenate the rural part of the network in due course. If not, the loss of so many properties in such wonderful locations will be hard to bear.

The following YHA Hostels are closed or closing:

Derwentwater / Helvellyn / Hawkshead / Osmotherley / Salisbury / Arundel / Newcastle / Hunstanton / Capel Curig / Totland / Kendal / Scarborough / Grasmere Thorney Howe / River Dart / Saffron Walden.

Exeter in Devon will be on the market later next year.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Forest Grump

I’m not intending to get overly political on here, but something has recently been brought into sharp focus. I have been reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Amongst the articles is one in which he bemoans the increasing occurrence of fake science and the lack of experimental rigor applied in much research. This is how Feynman concludes a lecture on scientific integrity and the increasing prevalence of pseudoscience:

“So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a special need to maintain your position in the organisation, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.“

The integrity he refers to is the opportunity for the scientist to maintain a scrupulous honesty in his work. The argument goes something like this: decide what you want to investigate, test it using approved experimental procedures, and record accurately the results. Then publish the findings – and here is the bit where the integrity comes in – whether or not they support the initial supposition. It is OK to be wrong – you may be on the way to discovering something new instead!

What struck me today is how different the political process is from the kind of approach used in science. In politics, a problem is identified, reports are commissioned to investigate the matter – let us assume for the moment by independent, trust-worthy researchers – and the findings published. Two further processes then occur that don’t really occur in science; the findings are forced through an ideological sieve – to remove anything unpalatable – and the remainder subject to spin, before conclusions are drawn. So the results, it could be argued, may be subject to more scrutiny, but the difference is that that scrutiny is, in one way or another, biased.

So, what has this got to do with walking? Well, I have been thinking about the above and applying it to the proposed sell-offs of both the Forestry Commission woodlands and our National Nature Reserves to private owners.

Although proposals regarding a sell-off of National Nature Reserves have been ditched for the time being, those relating to the Forestry sell-off are now at the consultation stage and input about their future standing is being sought. MPs have recently voted on the issue of the Forestry sell-off and decided to proceed to consultation with an unmodified version of the proposal; this despite serious concerns voiced by experts and professionals in the field. On top of this there is a huge groundswell of public opinion against these proposals: not scientific in itself, I agree, but indicative of the general public feeling – call it a gut instinct, if you like – that it is the wrong thing to do.

But my big beef with the vote – and I appreciate this applies to many situations, not just this one - is that if you examine the results in detail you can see they are split quite obviously along party political lines. I’m not quite sure how, in the fullness of time, this approach will lead to the outcome that is best for the public, the forests or their wildlife. Whatever the results of the consultation, and however strong the public opposition, can we trust our MPs to put aside their political affiliation, judge the evidence impartially and make the correct judgement? I fear not.

There is a serious worry that private ownership will not provide the best future for those forests and will not necessarily maintain the relatively free public access to these spaces that we currently enjoy. Government officials are trying to assure us that all will be fine and that legislation will protect our woodlands, drawing comparisons with the protection we have for Rights of Way. But legislation can be changed: watered down in future parliaments. Governments often drive through unpopular measures claiming that they have a mandate from the people and it was part of their manifesto when in fact all that existed was a vague reference buried deep somewhere in the document. And, as any walker will know, RoW protection is weak – low down the list of priorities for the police and often subject to lengthy court battles by pressure groups or Councils, both of whom have few resources – either in time or money – to bring the culprits to justice.

It has also been mooted that charitable organisations, trusts and community groups might be able to take on the leases and management of these forests, but where the money for them to do that is to come from is unclear at the moment. Until that is resolved, it seems the idea offers no real prospect.

So I am in full support of the campaign. Whether or not the sell-off is halted entirely, whether it results in a re-draft of the proposal, or whether it will be pushed through unchanged despite all the concerns expressed, only time will tell. But I, for one, am hoping that a degree of common sense prevails and the judgement is made in the best interests of the forests and the public.

Go to for more information on this and to support the campaign.