Now in its fourth year, Gillingham Walking Festival is really hitting its stride. Having started in 2014 as a way of uniting various perambulatory activities already under way, it has grown each year and in 2016 saw more than 400 walkers clock up some 1650 miles on 21 planned walks. The festival played a major part in Gillingham being accepted as Dorset’s sole representative in the Walkers Are Welcome scheme, a community-led nationwide initiative that promotes predominantly smaller towns and villages as ‘walker-friendly’ in a bid to bolster tourism.
That was in August 2015 and constituted a major step forward as Gillingham sought to assert itself to tourists and remind locals of its many charms. ‘Shaftesbury and Sherborne have long established traditions of tourism, but the same is not so true of Gillingham, so the Walkers Are Welcome accreditation helps boost our profile to the wider world,’ says Sheila Messer, chair of Gillingham Walkers, the local walking group that started in 2004 and has now amalgamated with Walkers Are Welcome.
‘We have a network of more than 40 km of public rights of way and even though we had to accept our footpaths were not in a very good state generally, being accepted by Walkers Are Welcome has helped us to address that and we have a very good relationship with the county council’s Countryside Rangers – we can take care of minor repairs and path conservation ourselves and inform them of bigger problems that they need to deal with.’
Walkers Are Welcome has resurrected the lapsed Adopt a Footpath scheme under which groups take on a section of footpath and agree to walk it at least once a month and keep any signs, gates and stiles clear of vegetation, reporting more significant difficulties online. ‘We were also awarded a grant to replace 30 stiles with gates’, says Sheila, ‘so we identified which stiles we thought should be replaced, then commissioned the Rangers to carry out the work.’
The festival brings together all manner of local groups including Gillingham Local History Society, the U3A Natural History Group, local churches, Dorset Wildlife Trust and Poles Ahead Nordic Walking classes. Each leads a themed walk to highlight points of local interest, to focus on improving health or simply to encourage people to get together and be sociable.
‘The walking festival actually grew out of an event called Fit Gillingham in 2013,’ says Sheila. ‘We realised that a lot of groups used walking to improve health and well-being so it seemed an obvious next step to bring them all together. Last year we focussed on farm visits, so we had walks that incorporated a cider farm – with tasting of course – a livestock farm with a cream tea and a solar farm where we learned about the wild meadow strip edgings designed to encourage wildlife.’
This year the focus is on Gillingham’s medieval royal forest, the site of an extensive hunting lodge known as King’s Court Palace. Little remains to indicate the great deer park that once flourished, but the festival has secured special permission to include a route across private land. ‘There’s a section of the boundary bank and ditch called Park Pale where there is no public right of way, but we have the consent of the landowner to walk there,’ explains Sheila. ‘When the forest was dissolved and the land shared out to the great and the good, it caused riots for years as local people lost a lot of their common rights, but that aspect of the area’s history has faded in recent times, so we’ve worked with John Porter from the local history society, who has written couple of books about it, to help bring it back to popular attention.
‘There’s also a very good display about the royal forest in Gillingham Museum.’
The festival programme includes walks for meditation, a history walk to Milton, a map-reading workshop and a circular route around Mere, but the other main highlight is the inaugural walk on the White Hart Link – the first phase in a planned 50-mile walking route to link Gillingham, Shaftesbury, Blandford, Sturminster Newton and Stalbridge and the villages in between.
‘This should be very exciting as it’s the Blackmore Vale walking route using existing rights of way and quiet lanes,’ enthuses Sheila. ‘We’ll be walking the first section to be properly waymarked, from Henstridge to Gillingham via Kington Magna, and the idea is to carry a pennant that can be presented to the Mayor of Gillingham, who will meet us. The White Hart Link is the brainchild of local artist Janet Swiss, who has a great love of the Blackmore Vale, and she has got the support of SturQuest,
Sturminster Newton’s community partnership, and the Three Rivers Partnership, which is the Gillingham area community partnership. Both have their funding under review, as does the county council of course, but I have to say that the walking festival is on very good terms with all of these bodies and there is a great deal of goodwill towards us.’
Close links have also been forged with the Blackmore Vale Community Rail Partnership that promotes the mainline stations from Tisbury to Crewkerne via Gillingham, Templecombe, Sherborne and Yeovil Junction. The festival features two railway-related walks, starting with train rides to Templecombe and Tisbury respectively, followed by journeys back to Gillingham by Shanks’s pony.
‘What I like about the walking festival is it brings all sorts of people together,’ says Sheila. ‘The health benefits are obvious, but we’ve found the thing that people are most positive about is the social side – whether it’s people who have moved here to retire looking to establish a group of friends, or those who have been here for years seeing the town and the surrounding area in a new way. Saying that though, when people go on the Chatty Walk, they can be nattering away so much they’ve no idea where they’ve been!’
Gillingham Walkers convene for short walks of about an hour every Monday, leaving Barn Surgery at 2.30. There are longer walks lasting about four hours on the first Saturday of the month. www.gillinghamwalkers.webs.com
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.