Benedict Southworth interview: The Ramblers chief executive who may not keep rambling on

Benedict Southworth could preside over another name change for one of Britain’s best-known outdoor organisations

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The Independent Online

To ramble or not to ramble? One of Britain’s best-known outdoors organisations isn’t sure. Six years ago, the Ramblers’ Association rebranded itself as Ramblers to appeal to a younger crowd. Now it may ditch the R-word altogether.

“There was then and there always is a discussion about whether or not Ramblers should change its name because it is seen as old-fashioned,” says Benedict Southworth, the charity’s chief executive. 

He loves it though, as generations of walkers in its 80-year history have done, but Mr Southworth has to be sure it will capture future members as effectively as its instant recognition in government helps lobbying efforts. Who knows, its bobble-hatted quaintness may yet be its salvation.

“In a way, Ramblers as a word being so old-fashioned is actually now becoming potentially an asset,” explains Mr Southworth, “because you know we are interested in every aspect of walking: strolling, hiking, trekking.”

The debate is a reminder that Ramblers isn’t just a walking collective with 108,000 members, but an environmental concern besides. Its influence in setting up Britain’s national parks and campaigning for “right to roam” to be enshrined in law is being applied to another cause: the country’s dilapidated footpath network.

Its Big Pathwatch project aims to document the state of the 140,000 miles of paths in England and Wales – some of which have fallen into disrepair since councils cut maintenance budgets – using a smartphone app to report problems. Mr Southworth is hoping to get the biggest survey Ramblers has ever conducted done by Christmas.

“What we are seeing is a very mixed bag,” he  says. “People really enjoy the places they get to but there are still an enormous lot of inconvenient issues.

“If our ambition is for people to go out walking to stay healthy, setting off across the path network is not a smooth, easy experience,” he says.

Mr Southworth explains  that in the Ramblers’ last survey of members, “one of the things that came out was around confidence, skills and knowledge. People were saying we still don’t feel the public is confident about what their rights are in finding their way and what happens if they get lost.”

“Right-to-roam” legislation, a significant victory for Ramblers that gave walkers greater permission to explore wild, open countryside in England and Wales, was an “incredible achievement” he says, but administrative problems remain, as well as educating people about where they can go. Now that 15 years have passed since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gained assent, he reckons it could be time to look again.

“I think every piece of legislation could be reviewed and checked and see whether it can be simplified. But also we could say to people the law is not going to come down on your head if you can’t find the right way out of a field. I do know some people who say they are scared if they don’t think they are on the footpath; they are anxious.”

He has enjoyed the outdoors since he was a child, “partly because my mum used to kick me out and send me walking to school”. 

“I am a genuine wanderer,” he says. “I like to set off and see where the footpaths take me. One of the great delights of our footpaths is they are almost like historical transcripts in the land. You just know if you get to that church there is going to be three or four footpaths off it: one of which is going to go to the pub, one is going to the big house, one to the next village. Often those footpaths will be older than the buildings that you are walking past.”

When it comes to repairing pathways, Ramblers’  140 maintenance teams have already swung into action. The charity has a “substantial” army of more than 25,000 volunteers, but Mr Southworth would love to have 10,000 more. He is conscious that looking after the rights-of-way network is a statutory responsibility for local authorities – and doesn’t want to distinguish between the path down the road to the shops and the one that leads up the side of Snowdonia.

“We would expect them to do that job but what we recognise with funding cuts is there is a lot they would like to do better. It is a question of working out what the partnership looks like and where we do help them meet their obligations.”

The CV: Benedict Southworth

Education: Newman College in Preston, studied political theory and institutions (BA Hons) at Liverpool University. MSc in Architecture from University of East London.

Career so far: Friends of the Earth , campaign manager on Newbury bypass 1995. Moved to Australia, becoming Greenpeace climate campaign director. Became Amnesty International’s campaigns director, director of World Development Movement and chief executive of Ramblers since 2012.

Personal: Married with two daughters, aged 17 and 12. Lives on Surrey/Kent border.