Jeannine Williamson meets past and present walking ambassadors Julia Bradbury and Beryl Vincent
Anyone with an interest in the great outdoors will know the name Julia Bradbury – the popular former Countryfile presenter who was dubbed ‘Lady of the Lakes’ after her TV series, following in the footsteps of legendary Lake District fell-walker Alfred Wainwright. Relatively few will be familiar with Beryl Vincent, but both women are walking envoys linked to Ramblers Walking Holidays.
Beryl, who recently turned 90, pioneered the company’s first walks – many of them very intrepid, and often she was often the only woman in a male-dominated pursuit – whilst Julia is the first celebrity ambassador for the company that celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. As part of the milestone event, they both met as part of a special walk that saw Julia accompanying Ramblers’ guests on a section of a four-day itinerary across the South Downs.
The hike followed the route of the Birling Gap walk featured in Julia’s book Unforgettable Walks – Britain’s Best Walks With A View, covering eight of her favourite walks. After the scenic hike taking in the distinctive chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, they returned to the comfort of Eastbourne’s five-star Grand Hotel, the base for the holiday, where Julia was introduced to her earlier counterpart.
Beryl was married to Noel Vincent – known to everyone as Vincent – who was one of the founding directors of the holiday company. She met him on one of the earliest breaks and then accompanied him on many adventurous tours, which often involved reconnoitring new routes and took her to places such as Mount Kenya.
She showed Julia fascinating old brochures, one dating back to 1947 and advocating the dubious double delights of “sunburn and frostbite” on a ski trip to the Alps. Another carried a report on an epic 1953 trip to the Morocco’s Atlas Mountains which involved: ‘Travelling by steamers and train for three days and nights to Marrakech, then on the next day by bus into the mountains to begin a ten-day-long walk and scramble over passes, through gorges and up and down mountains. They slept in native houses, at mountain huts, or in the open, and met many of the Berbers who inhabit these remote valleys. A mule-load of food was taken and another sent on ahead; more was bought when possible in rare villages and once or twice they had Berber meals.’
Beryl, a former occupational therapist, recalled: “There weren’t many women on most trips, but I didn’t take any notice of that. I first started going on the holidays because it was a way to see other countries and get to know the people. We often used to stay in youth hostels as after the war Vincent helped to repair damaged hostels. He put the idea of running holidays to the Ramblers Association, and they thought it was a good idea and that’s how it all started. Some holidays involved camping and on others we’d stay in mountain huts all sleeping in a line.”
She met Vincent in 1947, and they married in 1950 and Beryl would then accompany him on the holidays, helping to carry provisions and cooking equipment for the entire party. With food still being rationed, coupled with the fact that people had not been able to holiday overseas during the war, the walking breaks were an affordable, healthy way to travel with like-minded companions. Many of the early tour leaders were doctors and other professionals who had been forced to break their studies while they served in the war, and afterwards they used their long academic holidays to travel with Ramblers.
“In those days there wasn’t any air travel, and we used to meet outside Boots in Victoria Station before getting on a train and then a boat to Calais before an overnight journey in another train,” said Beryl, who taught herself to ski for the winter trips. “It was very exciting when we started going on some of the first flights with Freddie Laker. I have so many memories of the trips, but the thing I enjoyed most of all is that walking and travelling broadens your outlook and helps you understand how people in other countries think and act. I loved meeting all those people.”
One of the other main changes Beryl experienced over the years was the transformation of heavy nailed boots and often hard to find specialist walking gear into the light, technical fabrics of today.
“After seeing the walking breeches that people were wearing in Austria, I came home and bought a length of material in Petticoat Lane and had some made up for me,” she said. “I used to wear them with long socks I bought in Austria. I also remember buying my first rucksack and a pair of boots in France.”
Julia, who is used to viewers asking where they can buy the clothes, shoes and equipment she used on her television programmes, shared some of her personal stories with the Ramblers Walking Holidays’ guests at a private dinner at the Grand Hotel.
She recounted her varied and diverse career which includes being the former GMTV channel’s Los Angeles correspondent, helping to launch Channel 5 and being a presenter on the consumer programme Watchdog. Having previously co-hosted BBC One’s rural affairs series Countryfile alongside Matt Baker for five years, her reputation as the face of the outdoors began when she presented Wainwright Walks and wrote the namesake book along with Coast to Coast. Her six-part ITV series Britain’s Best Walks attracted more than four million viewers per programme and in addition to her role with Ramblers Walking Holidays she is co-founder of the online resource The Outdoor Guide and first female president of the Camping and Caravanning Club.
Talking about her passion for walking, she said: “I grew up in Rutland and Sheffield and started walking with my father who used to take me out in the Peak District as far as my little legs would take me.”
A huge supporter of walking for all ages, Julia said it was important to foster a love of walking in the Silver Travellers of the future.
“Study after study has shown it’s not only the best exercise, but it has a positive effect on mental health,” she said. “I think it’s really important for parents to take their children out for walks. It’s not just about obesity, but also providing children with a connection with the countryside. Other studies have shown that children’s exposure to green space has halved within a generation, and this is very sad. To encourage children to enjoy walking, you need to make it interesting, not just announce that you’re going out for a walk. The reason I loved going out with my father was that he made it exciting and told me stories or made me look for things. He made the whole experience seem like an adventure and that we were survivors in the wilderness. You start with the park, then extend the outing with snacks or a small bucket for collecting treasures. Later you could bring a picnic or give them a camera to take photographs.
“We have been in one of my favourite parts of the country today, but even if people live in cities, they can find green spaces to enjoy or go on urban walks alongside rivers and canals.”
She encouraged the group members to spread their love of walking and concluded: “Become an outdoor guru, take someone for a walk and share the outdoors with someone you know.”
Her mantra rounded off a wonderful day that included two women with very different tales to tell about their mutual interest.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays.