Taking a step back in time with the country’s first working class walking club

ROAM FREE: 'The authors of 'Clarion Call Terry Howard, Roly Smith and Dave Sissons. PIC: Scott Merrylees
ROAM FREE: 'The authors of 'Clarion Call Terry Howard, Roly Smith and Dave Sissons. PIC: Scott Merrylees
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It was the country’s first working class walking club and helped pioneer countryside access. With a new book out, Stephen McClarence takes a step back in time with the Clarion Ramblers.

More than 20 years on, I can’t quite remember how my wife and I came to have Mrs Harley’s suitcase. Did someone ask if we wanted it after she died? Did we salvage it from a skip outside her house, next door to us?

I’m not sure, but the point is that it has played an unexpected role in the publication of Clarion Call, a new and engaging book celebrating one of Yorkshire’s oldest rambling clubs – the Sheffield-based Clarion Ramblers. At the book’s core is the society’s founder, the redoubtable GHB Ward – as much of a legend in the Peak District as Alfred Wainwright was in the Lake District. And just as truculent.

But first, the suitcase. Bulky, brown and battered, it was handle-strainingly, shoulder-wrenchingly heavy. Twenty years ago, we eased open its stiff, rusty locks. It was crammed with photographs and Kodachrome transparencies.

In various shades of fading sepia, they chronicled the life of Constance Harley, whom we only ever knew as an eccentric old lady fond of hoarding. After her death in the mid-1990s, relatives found a pile of unopened parcels in her hallway; some posted to her in the early 1950s.

The photographs filled in some of her story, particularly her holidays. One year she was in Italy, the next in Paris. She lounged on the beach at Cayton Bay; paddled at Morecambe; rode a donkey at Heysham and, visiting some unidentified place with friends, “we cooled our feet in the lovely river.”

She was involved with the Girl Guides and the Church Army Sunbeam Club and, crucially for our story, was a keen rambler. There were pictures of her weighed down by a hefty rucksack.

Intriguingly, at the bottom of the suitcase was 
a dog-eared album of photographs of happy bands of ramblers in the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District and the Scottish Highlands – mostly in the 1920s.

Many featured the celebrated Clarion Ramblers, one of the first working class rambling clubs.

Named after The Clarion, a popular socialist newspaper, it had 200 members at its peak and an inspirational message: “Is your life becoming a round of drudgery? Are you becoming a mere machine? Do troubles and sorrows and worries press on you? Then go and find woods and vales and moors, and get your Heart’s-ease there.”

The people in Mrs Harley’s photographs looked pretty high on Heart’s-ease. This was rambling long before Gore-Tex and Nordic poles. Some of the walkers could have been dressed for an afternoon strolling round city streets. The men wore tweedy plus-fours, ties and trilbies (or even bowlers); many smoked pipes, thoughtfully. The women wore long skirts and bonnets with hob-nailed boots.

A couple of years ago, I mentioned the album to Terry Howard, a great Right to Roam campaigner and stalwart of SCAM, the Sheffield Campaign for Access to Moorland. He more than anyone had opened my eyes to the wonder of the hills and the wild, bleak moors, to the joy of striding over heather, with curlews burbling. “Rambling gives you open space to think,” he once told me as a pheasant flew awkwardly past. “It’s a necessary part of life, a spiritual thing.”

He was excited by the discovery of the album, particularly when I said I thought several of pictures featured the redoubtable GHB Ward, the most radical of ramblers, who founded the Clarions in 1900.

Sometimes referred to as ‘The Slave Driver’, the fearsomely moustachioed Ward edited the pocket-sized Clarion Ramblers Handbooks for 50 years. “A rambler made is a man improved,” they said on the cover. “The man who never was lost, never went very far.” The Handbooks bristled with his opinions, so firm and forceful that GHB’s rage could amount to verbal GBH.

Newspapers, he railed in 1952, were full of “Sunday sex-sewerage, sensation, yarns and lies”. New-fangled television threatened to be “a curse to our common culture and upon the progress of the common man and woman who, more than ever before, needs not a machine-directed but a personal spare time hobby”.

That hobby, he was in no doubt, was rambling, which he saw as a tool of self-improvement. “We who have rambled and climbed for many years do not hesitate in proclaiming this to be the finest and the most enduring sport and physical exercise,” he wrote. “The man and woman who can persist into mid-life and, without tiring, do a 20-mile up-and-down walk, is an asset to the Nation.”

He was full of stirring enthusiasm and the likelihood of getting sore feet on the pathway to Heaven. “Don’t go out with a grunt; sell your troubles and buy a smile,” he urged. “Don’t be a summer bird and always wait for the sun. Be winter’s proud conqueror.”

Or, as another Clarion man wrote after the first ramble in 1900: “If our feet were on the heather, our hearts and hopes were with the stars.”

Terry Howard borrowed Mrs Harley’s album and showed it to fellow ramblers Dave Sissons, an expert on Ward, and Roly Smith, a leading writer on outdoor issues. It chimed in with a project the three of them were already working on – an illustrated book about the Clarion Ramblers.

They copied many of the pictures and a good two dozen of them are included in Clarion Call. The ramblers stride out in Derbyshire, smoke pipes at Ingleton station in the Dales, smoke more pipes in the Highlands, and pose in front of pubs.

Alongside the pictures are evocative lantern slides discovered at an auction. They were taken to use in lectures by the Sheffield-based rambler and photographer Bert Diver, the city’s first official Labour Party election candidate in 1904.

“People get misty-eyed when you show them old pictures of ramblers,” says Ann Beedham, whose stylish, imaginative design makes the book an attractive object in its own right.

We were talking at the book’s recent launch, which drew 20 or so ramblers to the Lord Mayor’s Parlour in Sheffield Town Hall. Plush, panelled, and scattered with comfy armchairs, it was an unlikely place to find People of the Outdoors. Several brought their rucksacks along.

Sadly, the Clarion Ramblers disbanded 18 months ago. “Members were getting old,” says Dave Sissons. “And there were no younger members coming up.” Wading through his collection of Clarion Handbooks, he has linked many of the photographs to accounts of rambles they featured.

Not that rambling is on its last legs. “There’s still a lot of walking going on,” says Ann Beedham. “But perhaps not so much in organised groups these days.”

Clarion Call, published by the South Yorkshire & North East Derbyshire branch of the Ramblers, stakes a claim for Sheffield as the UK capital of rambling – and for the Clarions’ status as pioneer trespassers. They were campaigning for access to moorland – and putting it into practice – long before the celebrated 1932 trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District.

Roly Smith says it’s important to establish Sheffield’s role in these early access battles – “especially now that the city is campaigning to be Britain’s Outdoor City”.

Terry Howard leafs through the book. “I showed it to someone in his eighties who walked with Ward in the 1940s,” he says. “He said he was going to spend the rest of the afternoon with tears in his eyes.”

Clarion Call: Sheffield’s Access Pioneers costs £7.99. For copies ring 0114 266 5438.