Newsletter June 2011
World Trails Conference 2010
In early November, the first World Trails Conference was held on the breathtakingly beautiful island of Jeju, South Korea. The Cotswold Way was invited to attend on behalf of the 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the fantastic opportunity to exchange ideas with trail managers from around the globe was not to be missed...
The World Heritage Site of Jeju is a large volcanic island off the south coast of Korea. Almost sub-tropical in climate, the scenery passes from windswept coastline, through countless tangerine groves criss-crossed by distinctive stone walls, and up to the 6,400 foot peak of Hallasan, an inactive volcano and the highest mountain in South Korea. Inspired by the unique natural beauty of the island and experiences on European long-distance walking routes, in 2006 a dedicated group of volunteers began seeking out a way of promoting access to the coastline of Jeju, discovering old paths and creating new ones. Just four years later, and after a vast amount of work and private sponsorship, Jeju Olle is now the most popular of Korea’s few promoted walking routes. So far it provides over 200km of well-signed and excellently maintained paths, but the project has in no way exhausted its momentum, and plans to extend the trail to encircle the island over the coming years.
Proud as they should be of this wonderful achievement, the Jeju Olle Foundation sought to promote their trail internationally whilst seeking inspiration from other, older long-distance walking routes by playing host to the World Trails Conference in November. Perhaps the first conference of its kind, it brought together trail managers from all over the world for three days of dialogue, discussion and debate... with a little walking thrown in for good measure.
The first day of the conference was taken up by inspirational and compelling presentations from just some of the trails, organisations and countries present:
• USA: The John Muir Trail
• Spain: Camino de Santiago
• Japan: Shikoku Tourism
• China: Volksport Association
• Canada: The Bruce Trail
• France: Federation Francaise de Randonnee
• Australia: Parks Victoria – The Great Ocean Walk
• Switzerland: Tourism and Hiking.
With such a large geographical spread, the presentations gave the fascinating chance to draw comparisons on how promoted access is managed, funded and protected in different countries and cultures. Whilst each trail and each country had their own set of constraints and opportunities, the common theme running through all the talks was one of people and nature – and how trails can serve to bring the two together.
Nerve-wracking as it was, I was given the chance to add the Cotswold Way to the list of presentations. So, in front of nearly 200 people from across the globe, I gave a 30 minute talk using the Cotswold Way as a case study for the National Trails model. Beginning with the legal framework, I went into a bit more detail on how our trails are managed and funded, who they are for, and what makes them so uniquely special. Concentrating on volunteer input, and the efforts we make to keep our trails up to standard, it was a chance to demonstrate the British pride in our rights of access, and the special place the natural landscape has in our national consciousness. To my relief, and somewhat to my astonishment, the talk was extremely well received and generated a lot of interest from the other delegates, primarily in rights of way law, volunteer management, and the use of off-road mobility scooters to improve disability access. It’s quite a task trying to give a profile of such a large topic in such a short time, but nevertheless it was a fantastic opportunity to promote National Trails on an international stage and definitely gave me personal pride in who we are and what we do.
The second day consisted mainly of panel discussions on various topics around trails and trekking, such as cultural events on trails and how the deeper psychology behind walking can cross international boundaries. The depth of understanding and commitment was evident through all three discussions, and the conviction with which people discussed their subjects was infectious. The case studies the previous day served well to stimulate debate, but perhaps the most interesting was titled ‘Creating and Maintaining a Trail Focussing on Ecology and Ecotourism’. Takayama Masaru, of the International Ecotourism Society based in Japan gave an inspirational speech on the principles of ecotourism and how they can relate to trail management through tools such as well thought out and practical conservation plans, regardless of the cultural and legal differences that affect trails in different countries. The debate that followed essentially boiled down to one question, a question that trail managers throughout the UK and beyond frequently ask themselves; ‘how do we balance the landscape pressures of increasing visitor numbers against the benefits of promoting access to, and understanding of, the same landscape?’ I’m sorry to disappoint you, but sadly no single magical solution arose, and so the debate rolls on...
After two very long days seeing not much more than the inside of a hotel, the third thankfully took us walking along the first section of the 12 that make up the fantastic Jeju Olle Trail. With the site visit timed to coincide with the Jeju Walking Festival, conference delegates were joined by around 1000 walkers and 200 or so soldiers from the South Korean Army who provided a thorough, if slightly embarrassing, half hour of physical exercises. Suitably warmed up, and fully stocked with the ubiquitous tangerines, we saw a slice of the history and scenery that make this trail so special. Before heading back to the coast, ingeniously surfaced paths led us briefly inland and to the top of one of the many smaller volcanic mountains with breathtaking views over the east of Jeju, where, inexplicably, a Korean pop star was waiting with a flask of coffee and a small stereo to treat us to a Korean language version of Abba’s irritating ‘Dancing Queen’. Don’t ask.
For the rest of the day, we left the throngs of walkers and followed Route 3 of Jeju Olle back towards the conference venue. Perfectly signed routes, maintained by volunteers and often installed by soldiers on national service, follow coast line not dissimilar to parts of the South West Coast Path. Through enchantingly thriving fishing villages, they took us across a deserted estuary and over a cliff top where acre upon acre of tangerine skins were laid out to dry in the stiff sea breeze and bright autumn sunshine. Jeju is a beautiful part of the country, and if your carbon footprint is small this year, I cannot recommend it enough as the perfect place for a hiking holiday.
Scenery and tangerines aside, Route 3 is a special part of the trail for the Cotswold Way. One of the many ideas discussed at the conference and earlier in the year when the Cotswold Way played host to representatives of the Jeju Olle Foundation, was the concept of ‘friendship trails’. Essentially similar to twin towns, the basic idea is for trails in different countries to team up in the name of partnership, mutual publicity and international cooperation. Realising the scope for part of the Cotswold Way to be a mini Jeju Olle and vice versa, I was keen to demonstrate commitment and at the closing ceremony, amidst much fanfare for the local and national media (international media being otherwise occupied with the G20 summit up north) I joined the Bruce Trail from Canada in signing a ‘memorandum of understanding’. Switzerland are already committed up to the scheme, and with the right level of interest, it really could be something that grows to benefit trails all over the world. The Cotswolds – Korea Friendship Trial has now been launched, and a new circular walk has been created to promote the link between our two countries. Go to www.nationaltrail.co.uk/cotswold to find out more.
Apart from a genuine feeling of unity, the other main product of the closing discussions was the proposal for a world trails network. Nearly all of the counties represented had some form of national forum for trails – places to share news, ideas, best practice and responses to legislation, but as far as can be seen, there is no single international network for promoted routes and trails. The conference in itself was a truly successful exercise in information sharing, and although certain notable countries were not represented, it was essentially the first meeting of a ‘world trails network’ in its own right, with all delegates agreeing to take the idea back to their respective organisations in the hope of gaining support and momentum. At the very least, it could be the seed from which a meaningful international forum could grow, and the task that I suggested could be a very useful first test case was to try and devise an international code of conduct for countryside access. However, along with many of the ideas and topics discussed over the three days, this in itself is fraught with the pitfalls of each different country having a different outlook on access to natural environments. But if nothing else, the conference proved that we are similar enough to at least try; that the essence of trail management is the same the world over – seeking to promote understanding and protection of the natural world through the provision of well managed, well interpreted and truly sustainable access.
If you have any questions at all about the conference, or have any comments to make about the Cotswold Way, I would love to hear from you. For the time being however, remember that there is a little corner of Korea that will remain forever Cotswolds...
James Blockley, National Trail Officer, Cotswold Way.
Contact: Cotswold Way National Trail Office
Cotswolds Conservation Board
Fosse Way Tel: 01451 862034
Northleach Mob: 07738 040456
Glos. GL54 3JH E-Mail: email@example.com
www.jejuolle.org (click on ‘English’ towards the bottom if you’re not fluent in Korean!)