WHEN man first arrived on this earth, he had to walk everywhere, and for thousands of years, that was how he travelled until he discovered some form of transport.

Now, in the 21st century, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council is trying to get people to return to walking. They have established a “Walking for Health” campaign in which local folk are invited to meet at various places in the town and walk as a group for up to two miles along various routes which last about an hour.

Every week on Mondays and Thursdays, people of all ages and abilities have been enjoying gentle walks around the town’s more scenic areas.

Basingstoke Gazette: Robert Steel completes his long trek in 1967

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The Monday walk starts at the Eastrop Park boathouse at 11am, while the Thursday one begins at the Walled Garden car park at Down Grange, off Pack Lane, Kempshott, at 11am. From Friday, February 13, a new walk will take place weekly from the Popley Fields Community Centre at 11am.

Strong shoes and comfortable clothes are advised for these treks, which are suitable for all ages, as the pace is not rushed in any way.

A drink may also be useful. 

There are many footpaths through this part of Hampshire, including the Basingstoke Canal Heritage footpath which leads from the town centre out to the Basing House area; while the nature trail is a woodland walk across the Basingstoke Common from Eastrop, passing the Black Dam pond and its nature reserve on its way back to the War Memorial Park.

These walks are seen as a way to cut down on heart disease and other health problems. Exercise outdoors in the fresh air is far better for the body than most indoor means of keeping fit, the Medical Protection Society stated in September 2001 in their leaflet Walking the way to Health.

It was way back in the early 19th century that walking long distances was found to be enjoyable by one particular man in Basingstoke. His name was Charles Spier, and he lived in lower Church Street and was clerk to St Michael’s Church for 47 years.

He enjoyed the open air so much that he would walk up to 20 miles without any bother at all and still be fit enough to walk back. His trusted position at the church and his ability to travel long distances by foot brought tradesmen to his door asking him to deliver messages or money to various places.

On one occasion he set off for Salisbury by foot just as the stagecoach left the town for that destination, and arrived before the coach did, due to the bad state of the road.

It was pupils’ and students’ prolonged periods of sitting down while at lessons that gave a German teacher the idea to let them visit the countryside to get some exercise.

But it was when it came to returning home that he realised that a hostel in the countryside would be beneficial and avoid the travelling to and fro. So, in 1910, Richard Schirrmann acquired the use of a castle, where youngsters could enjoy a night’s sleep.

Basingstoke Gazette: A popular 1946 guide book for walkers and Dr Barbara Moore

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This idea grew, and soon other countries were copying the practice. In this country it became known as the Youth Hostel Association.

The first hostel was at Pennant Hall, Conway Valley, in Wales in 1930. By 1955 the association had grown to some 300 youth hostels, each one with a warden to keep order and collect the fees.

In 1955 there was a nightly charge of two shillings (now 10p) in the summer and one shilling and sixpence (7½p) in the winter. There were two hostels close to Basingstoke, at Hannington and Lasham, but these later closed down.

The YHA now has 228 hostels throughout the country with a fee of £8 per night for those under the age of 18. The hostels were originally for walkers and cyclists but now motorists use them as well.

Dr Barbara Moore, sculptor Henry Moore’s wife, will always be associated with long distance walking, as, in 1960, she trekked from John O’Groats to Lands End in 23 days.

Billy Butlin, the holiday camp owner, also arranged a mass long distance walk in which 700 people took part. Later on, Ian Botham, the cricketer, walked from Scotland to Cornwall to raise money for Leukaemia Research.

On a more local matter, the director of town development in Basingstoke, Robert Steel, walked from Scotland to Basingstoke to raise more than £5,000 towards the £557,000 needed to build the Sports Centre in the new shopping complex in 1967.

In the same year, more than 900 people took part in a 50-mile walk to raise money for the same reason. Walking is beneficial to both the body and spirit, especially in the countryside away from motor fumes and the noise and bustle of town life. Try it! You will feel better for it.

This article was originally published on January 23, 2004.