In 2016 the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) successfully raised £100,000 in a crowdfunded appeal to repair footpaths in several popular UK mountain areas. The campaign was called Mend Our Mountains, and the BMC has just launched its sequel Mend Our Mountains II: Make One Million with the ambitious target of raising, yes, £1 million to repair even more.
A million pounds might seem a lot of money for a cause that isn’t going to stop anyone dying. But I believe it’s money well spent and I’m happy to put my hand in my pocket. It won’t stop anyone dying, but it will help to give everyone – rich, poor, big, small, young or old – the opportunity for a better quality of life. We are lucky to have a big network of public footpaths in the UK, that are absolutely free for anyone to use. I’ve been using them all my life, ever since I was a small child, and I continue to use them almost every weekend.
But in some ways, we’re not so blessed either. We have crap weather, which causes erosion, and turns our footpaths into a hideous quagmire after a few days of rain. In some places, we also have impenetrable peat bogs that swallow up footpaths like insatiable underground beasts. Hiking is super popular here too. Thousands of us go walking every weekend, pummelling our most popular footpaths with pounding feet. This accelerates the erosion.
I’ve recently returned from a year in Italy, a country similarly blessed with great mountain hiking. We visited the Apennines most weekends, where the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) helps to maintain an extensive network of trails. Things are easier there. The paths are marked by red and white paint marks every few metres on rocks and trees. Very little work is done on the terrain underfoot, because it doesn’t need to be. The weather is much better; the ground is hard and dry, and the trails are rarely muddy.
Perhaps just as significantly, hiking is nowhere near as popular in Italy as it is in the UK. We often found entire mountains to ourselves. There were just enough hikers to keep the trails marked by footprints, but not enough to erode them to mud like they are in the UK. Popular routes, such as the via normale up Corno Grande, the highest mountain in the Apennines, do suffer from erosion – in this case scree getting pushed down the slopes by thousands of hikers’ feet – but these trails are few and far between.
The month after we left Italy, I took Edita Munro bagging in Scotland, and introduced her to peat bogs. There are few hills in the Scottish highlands that can be climbed without wading across layer upon layer of damp, mushy earth containing the remains of grass, mosses and tree roots that have rotted and compressed over centuries. Midges love peat, but hill walkers despise it with a vengeance. It slows us down, browns our trousers, and even claims the odd boot if it’s not laced up tightly enough.
One of our days out was in the Fannichs near Ullapool, when we climbed four Munros that were surrounded by peat bog. There were several paths marked on the map, but almost all of them vanished, turning first to mud and eventually sinking into the bogland. In contrast to our many mountain hikes in the Apennines, it made walking in Scotland thoroughly unpleasant. I don’t think Edita will be tempted to become a Munro bagger any time soon.
Maintaining these paths, and making them pleasant for walking, is a lot of work. Stone needs to be laid to provide a firm base. Often this has to be carried in by helicopter. Sacking is placed on top of the stone, and a layer of smaller pebbles on top of that. On steeper sections the stone needs to be arranged in steps. Drainage channels must be dug alongside and underneath the new path to prevent heavy rain from turning it into a stream. Much of this work is done by volunteers, but it also requires skilled workers and supervisors who are paid for their time.
With visitor numbers rising, and extreme weather becoming more common, our mountain paths are taking more of a pounding than ever. But money is getting tighter. Repairs are usually paid for by local authorities and National Parks, but with government budget cuts of up to 40% affecting hospitals, schools and public transport, outdoor leisure isn’t given priority by public bodies.
In some places paths are eroding faster than they can be repaired, and charities such as the BMC Access and Conservation Trust are covering the shortfall. The BMC has chosen thirteen projects in fifteen different National Park areas for its Mend Our Mountains campaign.
You can see how the money was used last time in this short video about repairs to the amusingly named Ringing Roger, a path on Kinder Scout in the Peak District, that was turned from an eroded mud bath into a fine granite staircase.
If you’re interested in supporting this appeal, you can donate via PayPal. For large donations of over £500 you can also email the BMC directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and they will provide an alternative means of donating. I can confirm that I was able to donate this way through my Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) account.