The tweed tendency strikes out

Barbours, slacks, sensible shoes: the Ramblers used to be the last word in respectability. Not for much longer, finds Emma Cook

Sixty of us are gathered, waiting to begin a five-mile trek from Pangbourne in Berkshire along the Thames and through Mosshall Wood. It is Easter Sunday and we are deep in rambler country: respectable folk nearing retirement age, wearing an assortment of Barbours, tweeds, red socks on the outside of cord slacks, sensible walking shoes, green wellies.

Monica Hills, 63, is leading the walk. She marches ahead, knobbly stick in hand, shouting orders to the convoy. "This way, this way!" she bustles, as 60 of us slow up to get through a turnstile that leads to the river. We then make a crocodile formation and walk along a towpath, admiring the expanse of green fields and woodland ahead.

I catch up with a woman dressed smartly in a white polo neck and pearls. Louise Hill, a parish councillor in her fifties, feels strongly about preserving footpaths. "I'm constantly bothered by farmers. Why should these landowners have one set of rules for themselves?"

But when it comes to prot-esting, Mrs Hill is no Bright-lingsea radical. "Demonstrators could put back the good work that we do. Some of these people aren't very diplomatic, are they?" She frowns. "If I started bawling and throwing things, it wouldn't change a thing. One has to go about it gently and persuasively."

Today, there are more pressing concerns. We all stopto look at some local paintings exhibited at a small lock.

But Mrs Hill and friends may soon be in for a shock, for the Ramblers' Association - bastion of class harmony and polite negotiation - is a-changing.

Last April, the famously yoof-ful Janet Street-Porter was elected president. Earlier this month, Kate Ashbrook, a campaigner for ramblers' rights, became chairwoman - at 40, the youngest person to hold the post - having been elected on a platform of change. Her speech at the annual general meeting was impassioned and vociferous: "We will lead a new crackdown on those landowners who persistently and illegally block footpaths," she cried. "Either reform your ways now, or change will be imposed on you."

These are stirring words for an association whose hardcore members are typically 55 years old and above. But part of her brief is to modernise the Ramblers' antiquated image.

"I want people to associate us with something absolutely up-to-date," she explains briskly.

"We're encouraging people to be more confrontational and stand up for their rights. We've tried to negotiate gently, but you can't do that forever."

At the annual general meeting, a motion was passed calling on the Queen, no less, to allow a public right of way by the Thames at Windsor Castle.

The new approach seems to be working: the average age of members has dropped to the late forties, with many younger people joining local groups.According to the Ramblers' Association spokeswoman, Sue Bond, out of 104,000 members, 50 per cent join to enjoy the companionship of walking, but the rest are more interested in the campaigning side.

Last October, they marked their 60th birthday with a campaign aimed at recalcitrant landowners. This will include targeting 60 blocked footpaths in Bedfordshire, as well as "right to roam" demonstrations in the Pennines.

One of the new breed is 21-year-old Kevin Matthews, publicity officer for the Nottinghamshire area Ramblers and a business studies student at Trent University. "There have been many cases in the past where we've tried to negotiate and got absolutely nowhere," he says. "We're in the position now where we can do nothing else but encourage public support for demonstrations - peaceful ones, of course. I think we have to stand up for our rights."

Mr Matthews recently add-ressed the environmental wing of his student union on how the Criminal Justice Bill can affect walkers' access to land. But the new image still has some way to go. "At university, a lot of people still think of us as just a national walking club. They don't realise that we're younger and more radical these days."

Many older members, particularly in the north of England, share Mr Matthews's enthusiasm. "The last few years have seen a real shift in emphasis," says Alan Hutchinson, 46, who joined 13 years ago after a farmer tried to drive him off a public bridleway. He is secretary for the Ramblers' Darlington group and chairman of the North Yorkshire and South Durham area. At the moment, they are campaigning for public access to Mickle Fell, the highest point in County Durham.

"Ramblers are out fighting for the rights of all walkers," says Mr Hutchinson. "I see that as our primary role."

As Kate Ashbrook points out, "I made it clear what I stood for at the annual general meeting. I want us to be an effective campaigning body. All I'm saying is, why should walkers be treated as second-class citizens?"

Back in Berkshire, however, the word "campaigning" still carries vulgar connotations. "It's a sad state of affairs," says Louise Hill, "when these rent-a-crowd demonstrators turn up and start getting a bit rough."

Another lady in a silk scarf and Barbour strides ahead. Does she feel strongly about the campaigning side of the Ramblers' Association? "Yes, but I don't think I'd actually like to take part myself," says 52-year- old Yvonne Wright, a visitor from Bristol. "We have very few problems in our area, so it's not something that really concerns me."

Does she think a younger president and chairwoman is a step forward for the association? "You mean Janet Street-Porter? She's hardly the country type. I can't imagine her even being interested in outdoor pursuits," says Mrs Wright.

Her husband, Geoff, 59, joins in. "That sort seem so interested in issues and causes. The main interest is walking and we shouldn't get away from that."

A young man stands on his own, wearing Dr Martens and a green army jacket. He is the only one here who is at least suitably dressed for some direct action.But 32-year-old Toby appears to have come along under pressure from his parents. "Like a number of other people I'm just apathetic about it, really."

Meanwhile, Louise Hill'sattention wanders. She points at the ground excitedly, while her neighbour coos in appreciation. "Oh, look!" she exclaims. "A variegated clover!"

A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea