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Walk this way to level up Britain

The government’s levelling up white paper, overseen by Michael Gove, is commendable in many ways, not least in being a “moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government”. The document sets out how opportunity will be spread “more equally” across the UK. It aims to “restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost”, chiefly the North and the Midlands. Yet the authors of the report have missed one important area of micro-regeneration in these areas: walking tourism. This is a long-distance journey often undertaken through culturally historic sites or ancient pilgrim routes, many of which are also National Trails. Such journeys have appealed to those looking to regenerate their lives and souls since early Christian times. It could be a creative way to stimulate growth where levelling up is most needed.

and skills, and supporting local business”. Grants should be given to restore derelict buildings on farms and in towns for accommodation, cafes and shops on the pilgrim paths, which will regenerate areas of Britain often culturally and politically left behind.

The model of the revitalised economy of Galicia – which was on its knees in the 1980s – is proof that walking tourism can help level up a broken local economy. But it took local and national government support to assist with building the infrastructure for the route that now has nearly 350,000 pilgrim tourists a year (it had fewer than 500 in 1985) trekking through rural countryside and spending more than the average European tourist. The West Highland Way has similarly helped revitalise the West Highlands, transforming former farming and mining villages and towns.

The white paper says it will “slash away the bureaucracy of the old EU regional funds”, but it needs to be remembered that it was precisely such funds that provided the investment infrastructure to make the Camino the most commercially successful pilgrimage route in the world.

These modern-day pilgrims may not walk for religious reasons, but rather they seek a journey

Walking the pilgrim ways gets us into the real soul of Britain. But it needs investment, especially in the North. And the potential benefits are huge: it is a way to recover our spiritual roots, connect with nature, step into Britain’s history and revitalise the tourism economy in the regions.

The Camino de Santiago – helped by significant investment from the regional government of Galicia in the 1990s – has rescued the local economies of northern Spain. It shows how investment in walking tourism can save an area that badly “lagged behind”. Surveys have shown that the majority of those walking the Camino are not religious. Indeed, many modern pilgrims adhere to the mantra of the British Pilgrimage Trust: “Bring your own beliefs”.

of purpose

These modern-day pilgrims may not walk for religious reasons, but rather they seek a journey of purpose. This would have shocked Chaucer’s pilgrims, but such a journey may lead to an encounter with God. Time spent reflecting on life as one pounds the road is surely time better spent than on social media. The motivation of the pilgrims – from all ages and backgrounds – is often exactly what Gove has singled out in his levelling up paper: health, wellbeing, education, community and connecting with a sense of place and culture. And, we should add, connection with the spiritual and religious roots of these places. The critical thing is that walking tourism must be seen as an economic stimulus to the local regeneration of villages and towns – not just a fringe leisure activity.

Why not invest in walking infrastructure to make the iconic, 73-mile Hadrian’s Wall – celebrating its 1,900th anniversary this year – Britain’s own Camino? It may lack the spiritual dimension of the pilgrim routes but it has an extraordinary history and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its potential to level up and regenerate the towns and villages along its route – including Tyneside – remains untappped.

By supporting this and other historic routes, the government would stimulate neglected parts of the economy. Britain needs to champion spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing as a way to restore the soul as well as local economies. There is no better – and cheaper – way of doing this than walking through our ancient countryside. Walking gets to areas that are off the beaten track, such as the great ruined monasteries of North Yorkshire.

The trouble is that our wonderful long-distance walking routes are often scattered and ill-served by transport. There is no central funding for their regeneration, and what funding is available is biased towards cycling – especially in towns – rather than in improving infrastructure (especially accommodation ) for walking routes. Signage is non-existent on famous routes that celebrate our walking history, such as the Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury.

The white paper says that the new £2.6 billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund will be used to restore “local pride” across the UK by focusing investment on “improving communities and place, people

Our great walking routes – from St Cuthbert’s Way in Cumbria to St Winefride’s Way (Shrewsbury to Holywell) – tell the story of Britain. Pilgrimage is good for the soul – and the economy. CH


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