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Clare Balding on caring for our countryside and the pleasures of rambling

Clare Balding
By Clare Balding

Broadcaster Clare Balding shares her favourite countryside walks and tells us why 2020 showed we need to rethink our whole way of life.

I’ve done a lot of walking and cycling, and travelling at that pace, you really notice the scale of things. The vastness of the landscape, the size of the sky, the changing seasons – you see those in a way you can’t when you’re whizzing by in a car. And you also have more time to process it, even when you’re just exploring your local patch.

A couple of years ago I went walking with a man who was walking from the south to the north of the country at the pace of spring. So by the time he got to Scotland, the bluebells were just coming out – as they had been when he set off on the Cotswold Way. It really makes you stop and think.

We have so much beauty here in this country

I’m very lucky to live not far from the River Thames, and walking along the river is just such a joy. I’ve decided, with a mate from university, that we’re going to do the whole Thames Path, starting at the sea and walking to the source in Gloucestershire, doing 10 miles a day, wherever we can, for however long it takes us. I want to be able to look at a map and say, ‘I did that!’

A river in winter with trees and snowy banks
Clare is looking forward to walking the length of the Thames Path through locations like Buscot in Oxfordshire | Shutterstock

I’ve done a lot of long-distance walks, like the Dales Way, the South Downs Way and St Oswald’s Way in Northumberland, and lots of other bits of paths for Ramblings on Radio 4. For the last series, I remember being up in the Mendips looking down at the Somerset Levels – it made my heart soar.

We have some really nice places to stay in this country, and this year has made us appreciate them all more – they deserve our support, when and where it’s safe to travel. I turn 50 in January, and my school friends and I all want to go walking for that, if we can. My number-one walk in the country is from Hope Cove to Salcombe in Devon.

Costal countryside with wildflowers in the foreground and a sandy beach, sea and rocky coves beyond
The view of Bolt Tail from Hope Cove on Claire’s favourite walk | Shutterstock

It’s not easy to make plans at the moment, and some routes are not possible in lockdown. But I’ve been inspired by asking people about the walking challenges they’ve been taking on recently. Some have been doing big walks in bite-sized sections; others are taking on virtual challenges, or exploring their local area. Someone was walking the Plogsland Round in Lincolnshire, which I’d never even heard of.

We need to reward the recyclers

We’ve got to get serious about insisting people take their rubbish home with them. I’ve heard so many reports of areas being ruined by masses of litter. In Dartmoor they’ve had to employ a security firm to stop people having barbecues and sleeping overnight in areas where they shouldn’t.

'Look at the success of the plastic bag charge in supermarkets – it shows we really can change behaviour.'

When did we start chucking things down and expecting somebody else to pick it up? I think either we make it quite scary and say, ‘You’re going to get a £2,000 fine if we trace this litter to you.’ Or we go the other way, and really reward people for recycling: by giving them discounts when they return packaging to be recycled, for example. Whether you reward people or punish them, they soon get into the habit. Look at the success of the plastic bag charge in supermarkets – it shows we really can change behaviour.

Learning the lessons of 2020

It still amazes me that this year has happened. Who would have thought that everyone would have to press pause? I am determined to get the best out of it that I can, and to value the things that I really enjoy, like women’s football, when they come back. I think it has made us appreciate simple pleasures more – our pets, our local green spaces, our sports – and perhaps rethink how we were living before.

Children connecting with nature, pre-lockdown, in Leicestershire’s Charnwood Forest | Alamy

It’s hugely important for children to be able to access green spaces. I see kids in our local park doing forest learning and I remember doing those challenges myself: collecting and identifying conkers, ferns or oak leaves. It’s so good to be able to identify different trees, animals or flowers. There’s a huge world out there to learn about. And you can only do that if you’re out and about in it. Every school, and every business, should think about having walking lessons or walking meetings. Getting people on the move is so valuable, mentally as well as physically.

'Every school, and every business, should think about having walking lessons or walking meetings. Getting people on the move is so valuable, mentally as well as physically.'

As the UK enters a new era in the farming world, respect and compassion for farm animals also has to be a priority. As a developed, wealthy nation, we’ve got to give ourselves standards and not drop below them. We’ve already got some fantastic growers and farmers, and I’ve met lots of agriculture students who are looking at how we can make farming – whether arable or livestock – carbon neutral, and produce meat from animals that have been well looked after, without taking a huge energy toll on the world.

Clare Balding is a bestselling author and BAFTA-winning presenter. Her latest book, Heroic Animals (John Murray, £20), celebrates 100 amazing creatures, from Greyfriars Bobby to WWI carrier pigeon Cher Ami.

A version of this article was originally published in CPRE’s award-winning magazine, Countryside Voices. You’ll have Countryside Voices sent to your door three times a year, as well as access to other benefits including discounts on attraction visits and countryside kit from major high street stores when you join as a CPRE member. Join us now.

A walker descending a hillside path in bright sunshine with snow and scree on the ground
The view of Ingleborough from Whernside highlights the joys of a winter walk among the Yorkshire Dales' Three Peaks Shutterstock

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