Businessman puts a high price on walking

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The Independent Online
Walkers are about to be invited to join an association offering healthier living and charitable goals. But it is likely to be the most expensive organisation of its type in Britain. As Stephen Goodwin discovers, serious questions need to be asked about the Serious Walkers Association.

Advertisements have been planned for outdoor magazines urging those who enjoy the "beauty and freedom of the countryside" to join the Serious Walkers Association. The title sounds like a leg-pull, conjuring up images of long-faced, cagouled figures marching along and worrying about the state of the hedgerows. But it is not.

The advertisements were placed on behalf of the SWA whose founder, Stephen Drury, a 44-year-old businessman living in Claverdon, Warwickshire, has a history of VAT fraud and bankruptcy. His aim is for the SWA to be a national body with 60,000 members by 2002.

Even before an SWA boot has taken its first public step, the association is declaring: "Every year we donate funds to many major charities". Readers are offered the prospect of "healthier living through regular walking", challenge walks and support with planning a walk anywhere in the countryside.

No membership fee is mentioned in the advertisement but walkers who request further information may be in for a shock. Individual membership is provisionally set at pounds 36 and life membership at pounds 540. Even the young persons' rate (for 16- to 21-year-olds) could be pounds 18.

By comparison, full membership of the Ramblers' Association, a charity, costs pounds 16 a year and for local walking groups subscriptions can be as low as 50p. One club official said Mr Drury may believe that walkers are an "untapped market". If they could spend pounds 200 on a waterproof jacket why not pounds 36 to join the SWA?

According to a draft business plan of August 1997, by the end of 2002, the SWA wants to be grossing pounds 2m a year and raising a further pounds 1m a year for "good causes". The objectives were "bold", Mr Drury said. The SWA would be offering members a lot more than existing clubs and would not be joining the access campaign.

"We are not about taking money off people for no return," he told The Independent. "We are in the business of letting people join an alternative to the Ramblers' which is much better organised and dedicated to good causes." Having founded the SWA, he said he would be promoting the charitable side. "I will be having nothing to do with the money," he insisted. Start- up money for the association was coming from a "very well-heeled benefactor".

Listing his own accomplishments as a walker, Mr Drury said there was no fitter 44-year-old. He had walked the Pennine Way, Land's End to John o' Groats, and across 1,000 miles of America.

But Mr Drury is also familiar with the courts. He served a prison sentence this year for threatening behaviour towards a woman after their relationship ended, and in 1995 was sentenced to three months in jail for a pounds 46,000 VAT fraud. He was ordered to pay the pounds 7,000 costs of the VAT case and to repay the sum defrauded.

A civil action is being brought against Mr Drury for rent arrears on his former home at Knowle, near Solihull. He has been granted legal aid.

Two magazines were planning to publish the SWA advertisement in January issues - The Great Outdoors and Country Walking, but TGO confirmed it had withheld the advertisement to make "further inquiries".