As walking specialist HF Holidays celebrates its centenary, Stephen McClarence finds it’s still on the right path.
Deep in the Yorkshire Dales, the walk leader offers a bit of advice. “Beware,” she says, “of clints and grykes.” Clints and grykes? Small animals with lethal teeth? An upmarket food store in Skipton? Hostile tribes lurking up remote valleys? None of those, we discover, as we set off on the walk, with this song in the backs of some of our minds:
“The sun is a-shining on valley and hill,
Heigh-ho! Come to the Fells;
Of stewing in cities we’ve all had our fill,
Heigh-ho! Come to the Fells.”
Come to the Fells was a favourite song of the Holiday Fellowship, a pioneer of British walking holidays now renamed HF Holidays and celebrating its centenary next month. It aimed to give the Northern working class healthier and more edifying holidays than they generally had in Blackpool or Morecambe: working class to walking class in a few thousand easy steps.
Back in the 1920s, the Fellowship’s magazine, Over the Hills, included a column which took a wry look at its members’ idiosyncracies. They included community singing, a passion for comradeship and, just occasionally, “the nasty habit of lipstick”.
“The biggest problem is to stop the guests linking arms and marching through towns and villages abreast,” wrote the anonymous columnist. “I have seen this at Keswick; innocent men, women and children – yes, children – swept from the high street into shops, their faces frozen with terror.”
As they surged through the streets, these storm troops of rucksacked sociability doubtless sang their hearts out. Eighty years on, there’s less arm-linking and singing, though possibly more lipstick, as my wife Clare and I discover as we check in to Newfield Hall in Malhamdale, for a weekend taster of what HF Holidays has to offer.
It’s now the UK’s largest walking and outdoor leisure holiday company, a co-operative society with more than 33,000 members that organises trips all over the world (Alaska, Morocco, China, Borneo, the Galapagos islands: you name it).
Newfield Hall, seven miles north-west of Skipton, was built in the 1850s as “a commodious family mansion” for a successful lawyer. Bought by HF Holidays in 1930s, it’s been transformed into a comfortable 45-bedroom country house hotel run in a down-to-earth way. With its stained-glass coats of arms and grand fireplaces, its sweeping parkland and dramatic views, it retains much of its Victorian grandeur, though the original owner might have raised an eyebrow at the modern indoor swimming pool, pillared like a Roman bath house.
Newfield is one of 19 country houses (including ones in Whitby and Sedbergh) which HF Holidays uses as bases. As befits apostles of the Great Outdoors, walking is the common factor, but holidays also offer chances to dabble in photography, music, gardening, bridge, dancing, birdwatching, golf – most things really, except terrorising people in Keswick.
Before dinner on the first night, Steve Backhouse, HF’s beguilingly named head of holidays, gives an introductory talk in the bar. He points out that HF’s founder, TA Leonard, a genially bearded congregational minister in Colne, was, among much other environmental pioneering, the first president of the Ramblers Association. Leonard died in 1948, but his granddaughters, Jessica and Nancy Green, are staying at Newfield for the weekend. Jessica talks of his impact on Conwy, the North Wales town where he set up the Fellowship’s first HQ: “People remember him walking through the streets in his long cape. He said: ‘To hell with the cars! This is my town; they can get out of my way’.”
Holidays have changed radically since then and Steve Backhouse adds the one thing he now has to fight is the idea that “the hard walk is the best walk”. He doesn’t have to fight that with us. We live on the Sheffield edge of the Peak District and walk there most weekends, but a nine-mile trek up Pen-y-ghent – the most testing of the three guided walks on offer – is beyond us. We toy with a bracing eight-miler round Malham and Goredale, but, being realistic, sign up for the easy option: three miles up to Malham Cove followed by a buffet lunch.
And anyway, next morning it’s raining. “On a good day,” the walk leader says, “you’d be able to see...” Well, we’d be able to see everything we can’t see because of the rain.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, says a cheery soul, only bad clothing. I say this is nonsense. There most certainly is such a thing as bad weather, and this it. So, some way short of Malham Cove, Clare and I turn back.
Back in the warmth of Newfield, Clare chooses to spend the afternoon at a Pilates class while I browse HF’s Heritage Room. Leather-bound Twenties photo albums show healthy sepia-tanned people in stout brogues and thick socks striding sturdily to the summit of Great Gable.
These were days when male guests were urged to “sport a neck tie for the evening meal... This should be striped and most colourful so as to liven up the proceedings.” Clints and grykes, incidentally, are blocks of limestone and the gaps between them. Plenty round Malham Cove, they say.