Keen walkers today may find it hard to imagine a time when the moorlands to the west of Sheffield weren’t the city’s welcoming back garden. When gamekeepers would wait to intercept ramblers on the hills or at railway stations along the Hope Valley line. When the Peak District national park itself was a distant dream.
A new book takes us back about a hundred years, to tell the story of the role Sheffielders played in the first fights for our right to freely walk on these moors today.
Clarion Call: Sheffield’s Access Pioneers is written by Dave Sissons, Terry Howard and Roly Smith, who themselves dedicated many years to the local access campaign. At the centre of the book is the figure of GHB Ward, who in 1900 founded the Clarion Ramblers – thought to be the first working class rambling club. To Ward the moors represented freedom from “prison factory walls” and they rightly belonged to everybody, rich and poor equally. This book documents some of the club’s early rambles at places like Bleaklow and Derwent, which usually took place on Sundays and sometimes at midnight, when it was easier to trespass onto forbidden footpaths. Ward was driven by his belief in the mental and physical benefits offered by escaping the smoky city for the hills and nature at its edges. And his sense of happiness and liberation was clearly shared by other ramblers – after the first ramble on 2 September, a Clarion member wrote: “if our feet were on the heather, our hearts and hopes were with the stars.”
As the authors of Clarion Call make clear, the legacy of Ward and the Clarion Ramblers cannot be understated. The Clarions were involved in meetings with other clubs from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester which then led to the creation of the national body known today as the Ramblers. Their involvement in the wider campaign for access to mountain and moorland, both before and after the famous Kinder Mass Trespass, played a big part in bringing about the country’s first national parks. And the Clarion Handbooks, which Ward almost singlehandedly wrote for fifty years, are treasure troves of anecdotes, poetry and enthusiasm. These ”little gems of outdoor literature", as Terry Howard calls them, are now collectors items.
Not only does Clarion Call tell the inspiring story of the access pioneers’ activism, but it also offers fascinating insight into the history of the rambler. Its black-and-white photos, many of which were taken by Clarion member Bert Diver, show men in their tweed suits, women in long dresses and bonnets, all wearing hob-nailed boots – a far cry from the head-to-toe Goretex common in these parts today.
At the end of the book, Terry Howard leaves us looking to the future – reflecting on the implications of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act, and climate change. Above all, though, the authors leave the reader feeling indebted to Ward and the Clarions. Clarion Call is a heartfelt tribute to these pioneers who, after 115 years, set out on their last ramble in 2015.
Clarion Call: Sheffield's Access Pioneers is published by the South Yorkshire & North East Derbyshire branch of the Ramblers and is available from local bookshops around Sheffield for £7.99 or you can buy it online from Amazon.