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Volunteers Week: The Friendship Cafe Walk Leader

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As part of Volunteers Week 3 - 9 June we have Cotswold Voluntary Warden Walk Leader Margaret Reid sharing her inspiring experience. Margaret organises and leads walks in the Cotswolds National Landscape for people from the Friendship Cafe in Gloucester. Activities like this are made possible with funding from the BMC Mend Our Mountains project from the BMC Access & Conservation Trust (ACT) charity. Want to volunteer with the BMC? Click here. Want to support initiatives like this? Click here to donate to ACT.

Where are you from originally?

I lived in Glasgow for most of my working life, so I was a mountaineer in those days. You don't live in Glasgow and not go up the hills, do you? We moved down here to Winchcombe in Gloucestershire about 13 years ago when I retired and now we walk in the Cotswolds, which is lovely. You can have what I call a good workout down here.

How did you get involved in the Friendship Cafe?

Back in 2018 the Cotswold National Landscape Voluntary Wardens celebrated our 50 year anniversary and we were awarded the Queen’s Award by Dame Janet Trotter, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire at that time. She gave a talk about the charities and community groups that she had been involved with and one of them was the Friendship Cafe, which is a multi-ethnic community centre in Gloucester. Because I had lived in Glasgow, a place with a strong Muslim community, I understood that there were differences in the different cultures and I thought, ‘We could offer them a women-only walk,’ so I wrote to the women’s officer at the Friendship Cafe and she was absolutely brilliant and said that would be fabulous. So we set it up!

When was your first walk with the Friendship Cafe?

The first walk was in October 2018. We took the women on the bus from Stanton to Stanway, and walked with them up the Stanton High Street, which is very picturesque. The women didn’t know how long or far they would be able to walk, it was a bit of a grey day and not many of them had been into the Cotswolds, but they really enjoyed it, saying things like, “It's so lovely coming out into the countryside.” So I wrote around to a few of the other female walk leader volunteers and we now have a group of about 6 or 7 of us who are part of it. We did four walks in 2019 and it just took off from there. It has been a huge success and now we run 5-6 walks each year and have really got to know the women from the Friendship Cafe.

Outside Stanway House on the first walk, October 2018

Who comes on the walks?

The Friendship Cafe has a large, multi-ethnic community of women of different nationalities and religions, and our walkers are predominantly Muslim women. They report that they have really enjoyed us taking them to different places in the Cotswolds. So we've gone to North Cotswold, Cirencester, the Colne Valley and further south. Four miles would be our maximum, and we pay attention to the gradient too - you can't suddenly take newcomers up Cleeve Hill for example. It’s a pleasure to see them delighting in the things that we have got a bit complacent about, like a horse and rider walking past, going over the little stone bridges, walking through fields of sheep and cows, and blackberry picking. So it has been absolutely wonderful for us - the walk leaders enjoy it absolutely as much as the walkers.

What else do you share?

We talk about our lives, our families, our children and what's important to us in how we live our lives. Possibly because we're all women, we talk a lot about food! We stop for lunch after walking a few miles and they bring out all sorts of really spicy food, which is very much hotter than I would eat normally, but it’s really interesting - like samosas and all sorts of little nibbly things which are quite spicy. And of course, they've often cooked their lunch and we talk about what’s in it.

Did the women share their barriers to access?

They said they were concerned initially about looking very different. But hopefully from doing walks like this that will just become the norm, a multi-cultural outdoors. They also reported physical barriers like not knowing where to park, where to walk, if there were going to be toilets available, and they didn’t know where to start. I didn’t realise that the lack of toilets is a huge hindrance for all sorts of newcomers to the countryside. If you’re already a seasoned hill walker you wouldn't think anything of going behind a bush but some think it is dirty, embarrassing or even dangerous. So we have to plan the walks quite carefully and we always start at or near some loos. To me this isn’t a cultural thing, it’s a city thing, but it does affect women more than men, for obvious reasons.

What have you learned?

It's been a huge learning curve for us. And I do emphasise that. And it's lessons that we need when there's so much talk now about access and trying to encourage more people more people out into the countryside. It's a complicated equation really and it needs intermediaries like warden friends to just do it in small batches of people who are interested in becoming involved. You can't really take a blanket scenario and apply it to the whole of the UK. And another thing is, I think if you're going to do it, you have to do it for the long term. We are very committed to continuing our relationship with the Friendship Cafe. We also bought them some walking books and have started showing those who are interested how to map read. We didn't set out to have these aims, but one of them is that the women will feel confident enough to come out with their own families and share the experience of the countryside with them. The Friendship Café women have reported that they do this now which is very pleasing for us. Perhaps they will also lead walking groups themselves in the future too.

Why do you feel it’s so important to help support access to nature for all?

Because it's so wonderful here in the Cotswolds. But take me to the Scottish Highlands or anywhere, I love it all. The benefits are huge - good physical exercise and it’s hugely important for your mental health just being outside, especially when it’s sunny, you just feel joyous. I just love the outdoors, I suppose my ‘religion’ is being outside and being with nature and learning to understand the countryside. I'm really keen to encourage anyone and everyone to come out into the countryside. But I do understand that there are barriers. And this is just one little, tiny way of us trying to to break down those barriers.

And what's your favourite part of volunteering to lead these walks?

There's a degree of satisfaction when you take people on routes they haven’t been on before. And I like telling people about the interesting things we’re seeing along the way.

One looks for unusual information that will make people understand the Cotswolds even more and come back, with their friends, to visit places outside of the usual honeypot villages and experience the more rural aspects of the countryside.

What are your plans for 2024 with the Friendship Cafe walks?

We've got several walks planned. We received some funding from GWR (Great Western Railway) to take the walkers on the train from Gloucester to Stroud, walk around there and get the train back, a trip that shows you don't have to have a car. And we have some women who are part of the Everyone’s Evenlode project which is helping young people and members of the community to access, explore and understand their local river and its surroundings. They’re going to take a group over to the East Cotswolds and talk about river management with them. But otherwise we're just looking for different and interesting places to take people.

How would you encourage others to volunteer as a walk leader?

Aside from our partnership with the Friendship Cafe, we are always looking for more walk leaders. Men and women. When we’re out walking with people we often say, you know, have you thought of joining the wardens. So you almost have to have to do it personally, I think that's what probably works quite often. Many people will join the wardens because a neighbour has talked about it or they’ve seen a work party fixing a fence, something personal in their local area.

What I would hope is that someone will read this and think, ‘I/we could do that too in my area’. There are so many different groups who would like to come out into the countryside but are not sure where to start. As with any new activity, it helps to have someone or a group to show you the ropes.

Activities like this are made possible with funding from the BMC Mend Our Mountains project from the BMC Access & Conservation Trust (ACT) charity. Want to volunteer with the BMC? Click here. Want to support initiatives like this? Click here to donate to ACT.