Rambling takes a walk on the wild side

Walking charity is reaching out to young urbanites to boost its membership. Jonathan Brown reports
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The vistas afforded from the sea wall near Tilbury's Coalhouse Fort might not correspond to everyone's concept of the picturesque outdoors. Here the brown-grey mud merges seamlessly with a dirty sky, the monochrome view broken only by the ghostly emergence of the occasional ship as it plies the lower reaches of the Thames.

But the 20 members of the Ramblers Association that had decided to spend their Sunday exploring the riverside footpaths here were in agreement that despite the bleak outlook, the place had a certain austere beauty to it.

This week Britain's walking charity is to undergo a radical rebranding which will see it dump its old logo featuring green rolling hills and slim down its name to the Ramblers, as it goes in search of a younger, more urban membership. Having been formed some 74 years ago, the organisation is keen to be seen to be moving with the times – reaching out beyond the traditional boots and Thermos brigade to welcome an increasingly diverse membership capable of appreciating the spiritual, social and physical benefits of a good walk.

The eight-mile stroll through the Essex flatlands yesterday was typical of the new approach. The hike, one of hundreds taking place across the length and breadth of the country each week, was organised by the Metropolitan Walkers, a London-based Ramblers group which boasts some 800 members, an equal split of men and women all of whom are aged between 20 and their early 40s.

Walk leader Paul Hayward, a 29-year-old archivist, said the popularity of the group had soared since it was established in 2001. It was easy to see why. Within a few minutes of setting off all were chatting merrily away even though many had only known each other for the duration of the 40-minute train journey from Liverpool Street Station. "It started with a handful of people but it has gradually got bigger and bigger. There are some very strong friendships formed and even marriages," said Mr Hayward.

As well as offering two walks every weekend day – one long and one short – there are also midweek strolls, some of which you would be best advised to leave your hiking boots at home. For example, last week 70 Ramblers took part in a tour of Banksy street artworks through London's East End. There are film themes, tie-ups with the Natural History Museum and even a New Year's Eve pub walk.

Susannah Murphy, a 39-year-old massage therapist, was taking part in her first group ramble for some time. "I had an experience with the Ramblers Association perhaps 10 years ago and they really were quite old. I am not ageist and I love walking with my dad who is 78 and a lot of older people are very fit, but it is nice to be among people your own age. It is great to get a pace up – I like to get a kick out of it," she said.

For Renny Talianchich, a 35-year-old marine biologist from San Francisco, the Great British countryside was proving a somewhat tamer experience to that which she grew used to hiking in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. "The outdoors is much friendlier in Britain than it is in the United States but the problem is you can't get away from people. That is a good thing and a bad thing. At least here I don't have to worry about snakes and mountain lions," she said.

Ramblers' president, the former children's TV presenter Floella Benjamin, said walking was something that could be enjoyed by any age group and was green, cheap and healthy. "With this modern rebranding, the Ramblers is taking a fundamental step towards putting walking as a means of transport, exercise, leisure and pleasure at the heart of people's lives at a time when it is very much needed," she said. "It sends out that everyone is a walker and can enjoy walking no matter who they are, or what their ability is, or where they walk be it town or country."

The charity is currently running a project called "Get Walking Keep Walking" aimed at helping 90,000 people take up the pursuit. The association is run by 12,000 volunteers who have helped build and maintain Britain's 150,000 miles of footpaths.

Meanwhile back on the Essex marshes, Tony Smith, 41, was soaking up the atmosphere of this historic spot, once a vital point against the threat of invasion from France, and ruminating on the joys of group rambling. "It breaks down barriers between people and it is a great way to get talking and mix. There is nothing pretentious about it. It is hard to try and act cool when you are wading up to your knees in mud," he said.