What makes a good walk?

Most of the E4 is excellent and the route takes you through wonderful countryside along walker friendly trails.  Some bits, on the other hand,  are just awful and should only to be walked by nutcases determined to complete the whole trail.  Going from Tarifa to Budapest I was that nutcase but was not far enough gone not to wonder why a particular stretch had been designated as a walking trail and whether or not “standards” had been applied.   In fact it became a bit of obsession, and I would bore friends who joined me to do bits of the E4 with my ideas for some sort of trail accreditation scheme

What I hated most were long stretches of road walking.  I’m still bitter about a hot sunny day spent walking a 35 kilometre busy road  stretch of the E4 from Santiago de la Espada to Puebla de Don Fadrique in northern Andulucia.  

On the road to Puebla de Don Fadrique

Like lots of my on trail obsessions, the notion of an accreditation scheme got filed away in some, not to be reopened, folder until I happened to spot, on the European Ramblers Website, the work that has recently been completed on a walk accreditation scheme.  Despite the fact that it was the European Ramblers Association (ERA) who accredited that dodgy bit of trail in Spain, I think the scheme they have come up with is impressive and addresses many of my E4 frustrations.
From the ERA
So how does ERA define a good quality trail? A trail is assessed at three levels: first in 4k sections, each corresponding to one hour’s walk; second, in daily stages; and third along its total length.  Criteria have been developed for each level and a minimum score needs to be reached if the trail is to secure accreditation.
Waymark painted over by a Spanish landowner
Swiss waymarking - the best?
The accreditation model is based on a German scheme and I suspect has been mulled over by a lot of people.  Defining a ‘good walk” involves codifying something that is very subjective, and the result will definitely not appeal to everyone.  To me a lot of it makes good sense and I was particularly attracted to the criteria which addressed the surface of the trail - essentially the minimum amount of road that is acceptable and the quality of landscape. I also liked the criteria relating to the daily stages which included availability of accommodation and access.  

Sitting behind the criteria is a walking model which fits my preferred style.  It’s a model which assumes you either want to get home at night or, if not, be able to stay somewhere, get a beer and a wash –  a typically European approach to walking.

I suspect a lot people would view a scheme designed to accredit quality trails as a something to do with the “Ministry of Silly Walks” - a manifestation of a Monty Pythonesque nanny state. However based on my experience of the E4, widespread adoption of the criteria would make a difference. In particular it would incentivise local authorities and tourist bodies to try harder to address issues of access which force footpaths onto roads, and might even make it harder for landowners to block established rights of way. It would also make good practice more visible and encourage new ideas - like the wonderful waymarking scheme used by the Swiss - to be adopted by others.

One aspect of the scheme I would like to see developed relates to information.  If you want to independently plan place-to-place type walking  then access to good information, at the point when you’re deciding whether or not to go, is crucial, and the relative amount of available information will often determine whether you choose one destination over another. The scheme touches on walking portals, and there are some excellent examples of walk websites (e.g. the web-site for the English National Trails, or the GR 48 in Spain), but some minimum standards would improve things.  For me a website needs to include both a daily schedule and a GPS trail for the route to be really useful.

Anyway if the scheme widely adopted is should make it more difficult for anyone to include a 35 kilometre stretch of road walking in a national/international trail and, if it does, the ERA deserves everyone’s congratulations.

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