Lewes Footpaths Group A potted history
The Group was formed in 1964 as a sub-committee of the Friends of Lewes with the initial aim of keeping open the rights of way around Lewes. Essentially the idea of forming a Footpaths Group was that of Maurice Breese who was a committee member of the Friends of Lewes and who had previously run a rambling group for the St Mary’s Social Centre.
The Group started its work by appointing Maurice Breese as its Secretary, a position he held continuously until 1984. Then the people he had iinterested in pursuing the declared aim met in the Town Hall to plan a way forward. One of the first decisions made was to acquire a large Ordnance Survey 6 inch map of the area around the town and mark on it the rights of way in existence. This area was then sub-divided into 9 areas and perambulators were appointed to walk the rights of way in their patch and report on the state of them. Issues were then taken up with the County Council although little was done to rectify them. At that time many of the rights of way were blocked by vegetation, were ill defined and signposting was virtually non-existent.
Before long there was a desire to undertake practical work to remedy some of the problems discovered. As a result a clearance walk was arranged in Warningore Wood in 1965 and as this proved successful other such walks were subsequently held. Essentially those who came along undertook to clear the path in question of physical obstructions and define the route more clearly.
Gradually there was a call for “ordinary” walks and initially a programme of half day walks were arranged every three weeks on a Sunday morning. In many cases public transport was used to reach the starting point or return from the finish, but where car transport was used the meeting point was in Westgate Street.. In this early stage of the Group Maurice Breese used to circulate details of each walk a day or so before it took place, which involved him using a single sheet roneo duplicator and then delivering the details by hand to members. Clearly this gave him a great deal of work and in 1971 the concept of a printed fixture card was inaugurated.
Although the Group was legally a sub-committee of the Friends of Lewes and had received funding from them at the start, subsequently repaid, they took little interest in its affairs and in 1970 it was mutually agreed that the Footpaths Group should be an independent club. By then it was already managing its own finances with an independent membership subscription and so the change made no practical difference to what it was doing.
During the 70's and 80's the Group continued to undertake clearances and provide ordinary walks on a regular basis. Some were now taking place on a Saturday or bank holiday whilst a few all day walks were now part of the programme. Areas where walks took place gradually widened beyond the environs of Lewes and in addition to other parts of East Sussex many walks took place in West Sussex. Membership gradually increased and reached slightly short of 200 people. Towards the end of he 80's the first walking holiday was organised to the Alsace.
In 1991 Maurice Breese celebrated having been a walks leader for 60 years as he had first started doing so as a young man in Croydon for the Ramblers Association. A special celebratory walk was organised from Lewes to Barcombe and some 120 people turned up for it. Although tea had been arranged at the Royal Oak the numbers were far more than anticipated but fortunately by buying extra scones from the village shop and recycling crockery they coped with the numbers.
The early 90's also saw the holiday programme taking off. Initially many holidays were of a week's duration and were led by Footpath Holidays. However there was also a demand for shorter weekend holidays and these too became part of the annual programme. Destinations for both short and longer holidays have varied and included most parts of England and Wales as well as the Channel Islands, France and Majorca. At one time many of the holidays were organised by Group members so that the price to be charged to members was less. For the leaders it was a challenging experience and finding hotels with sufficient single rooms could be difficult. A particularly memorable holiday was in Willy Lott's cottage where the ablution block was in a separate building a little way from the house with its creaking floors. Another significant one, organised by the Town's Twinning group, was to Blois with accommodation in the homes of various members of their walking group. Subsequently this group paid a return visit to Lewes in 1997.
The use of a coach for day walks was initiated in 1996. The great advantage is it enables linear walks to take place as well as providing a convivial atmosphere on-board. Among the first were a three part walk eastwards from Midhurst and a three part High Weald Way walk around Tunbridge Wells. In subsequent years three coach trips have usually been arranged with one of them being to a place of interest so that members of the Group who no longer walk can take part. However the demand for coach trips which involve linear walks has recently declined and only one trip per year to a place of interest., albeit with a short walk for those who wish to take part, is now arranged.
As the average age of the membership increased the number of members willing to undertake clearance work diminished and so this aspect of the Group's work came to a close around the year 2000. Despite this the overall standard of rights of way has improved significantly in the last 50 years. However the walks programme has developed and from 1992 onwards mid-week walks have been arranged.. The aim is to have one of these as well as a weekend walk every fortnight. But this depends on finding sufficient members to offer to lead the walks and in the last year or so this has become more difficult. Nevertheless the introduction of shorter walks of about 3 miles, called strolls, in 2012 is proving popular.
From an early date about 3 general meetings per year have been held for members usually with an outside speaker mainly on an environmental topic. Social events have also been organised with a New Year lunch and a summer event such as 9 pin bowling being part of the annual programme
The Group has published a number of walking books with suggested routes for walks in and around the town. The work involved in producing them has been undertaken by members and before any reprint takes place it is necessary for someone to volunteer to undertake a practical check to ensure that no amendments are required. At one stage the Group also had sweat shirts produced with its motif on them.
Despite efforts to publicise the Group its membership has remained fairly constant for the last 40 years, although the proportion of ladies is now higher than in the past. For many it provides an opportunity to visit the countryside with friends and without having to worry about transport or the fear of getting lost. For others it has provided an opportunity to learn new skills such as map reading, for which the Group has provided occasional courses, or take part in walking holidays in places far from Lewes.
What has been achieved in the past 50 years has been due to the voluntary work done by a relatively small number of people to organise activities or undertake other work for the Group. Apart from Maurice Breese, mention should be made of the substantial contribution made by Bertram Sharp, Arthur Snell, Jeannette and Tim Swayne, Tony Tyrrell and John Vokins. If it is to continue to provide a walking programme for the people of Lewes it will need to find people prepared to undertake these jobs in the future.
Robert Cheesman A member of the Group since 1964