After the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the lockdowns that went with it, many people emerged, blinking, back into the wide world with their sense of perspective dramatically changed, not least in the way they viewed the green spaces beyond their window, and the opportunities that lay out there. Those who had long loved the outdoors re-embraced it with new vigour, and thousands of people who hadn’t previously heeded the call of the wild suddenly developed a desire to get out and explore it.
As soon as they could, people got out into the countryside, with organisations such as the National Trust, National Parks and the AONBs all seeing a massive influx of visitors to the countryside spaces they manage. Existing interest groups such as the Ramblers had fresh uptakes, and entirely new community collectives coalesced and evolved, many of them full of younger people from a wide range of socio economic and ethnic backgrounds, with a desire to spend time in the outdoors often being the only common denominator to be found between them.
Observing this, Columbia (opens in new tab) recently established The Hike Society (opens in new tab), which they describe as a new outdoor community and movement created “to unite the next generation of hikers and outdoorspeople”. And this weekend, 15-16 October, the society is holding its inaugural event: The General Hike (opens in new tab), which will see groups of walkers taking to the trails and hitting the hills in 20 lovely locations around Britain.
Walks range from easy and moderate, in places like Cheddar Gorge (opens in new tab) in Somerset and along the Seven Sisters (opens in new tab) on the South Coast, to more technical and tricky, such as Glyder Fawr (opens in new tab) in Snowdonia, Wales. The event aims to bring people - many of whom have never met one another previously - together to share a positive experience in the outdoors. It’s absolutely free to take part, although participants are asked to sign up for a ticket through the event hub, so numbers can be managed - and Columbia will have a little present to give out to every ticket holder.
Over 400 people are expected to show up at one of the destinations to take part in a hike. Columbia have worked with several organisations and people to make this happen, including the collective Common Ground (opens in new tab), a loose group of mostly young people that has grown from a series of social media posts into a vibrant community, active both online and very much in the outdoors.
This week, T3 caught up with Liam who, with several others, almost inadvertently created the group earlier this year, and now find himself as an accidental but enthusiastic champion for a whole generation of outdoor explorers.
Now 28 and based in Halifax, North Yorkshire, Liam enjoyed the outdoors as a kid, camping and walking in the woods, but drifted away from it in his teenage years, doing “less healthy stuff”, as he says. “As a teenager I was still into adventuring, but we’d go into abandoned buildings and stuff like that.”
The pandemic, however, reawakened his enthusiasm to get out and about in some properly wild areas. “I think it was the fact that were not allowed to be doing it,” he tells me. “It gives you that urge to want to do something more. And mentally, it really took its toll on pretty much everyone. Lockdown was a very lonely time… When the restrictions were lifted, a lot of people had a new outlook and appreciation [of the outdoors], because of the things that had been stripped away from us.”
Initially, Liam simply started posting photos of walks he was doing with his girlfriend and dog on his personal Instagram feed (opens in new tab), and other people started reacting to them and posting their own images of outdoor experiences. As they began following one another’s adventures, a core group of six formed, and then that very quickly gained traction and grew. They started off conversing on a groupchat, but within an hour had mazed out the membership limit, and they started a community group on Discord (opens in new tab) instead. Before long it had organically grown into a real movement, which they eventually named Common Ground, and now they have an Insta page (opens in new tab) with over 1,500 followers, mostly comprised of people aged between 18 and 35, most of whom had never met but all shared a growing passion for the outdoors.
Earlier this year they made the move from online conversations to on-ground meet-ups, initially in the Peak District, which was the perfect place, centrally located with loads of great trails to explore. “Our first walk was in Edale,” Liam explains. “We had no idea, going into it. Us six came along, with our girlfriends, but we were thinking ‘who the hell is going to turn up?’ And it was absolutely pissing it down all day! In the end 26 turned up, including one lad who driven all the way up from London. He told me he’d driven five o six hours to get there. And that really blew me away. I thought straight away, ‘we’re doing this again!’”
Since then, Common Ground have met up every two months for communal walks in other places around the country, from Pen y Fan in Wales to Bowdell in the Lake District, and the numbers have continued growing all the time. “We had about 45 on the Pen y Fan walk,” says Liam. “Everyone goes at their own pace, but we stop at regular intervals and regroup. Being one of the Common Ground people, I do try and get around and talk to everyone, because it is a real community thing.We’re trying to move around to make it easier for people, and hope to get to every national park.”
There next walk is this weekend, on picturesque Pen y Ghent (opens in new tab) in the Yorkshire Dales, as part of Columbia's General Hike.
While some of the people joining in with the walks have prior experience in the outdoors, many don’t, and Common Ground recognise that there are challenges around large groups descending on wild areas. “We’re trying to encourage people, not to just visit one nice spot, but get people interested in the outdoors in general, and that includes the conservation and preservation of it, and ‘leaving no trace’.”
The walks are very accessible too, generally achievable by most people with a basic degree of fitness. “And we do want to be inclusive to everyone,” Liam stresses. “Not just those with less experience in the outdoors, but also people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and regardless of their race and religion.”
As well as smaller groups that have germinated and grown organically since lockdown, like Common Ground, Columbia are also partnering with the Ramblers (opens in new tab), Britain’s official walking charity, who will conduct a survey of participants in the General Hikes to find out who they are, what’s motivating them to get outside and what they’re passionate about. The findings of which will be used to direct a financial donation from Columbia to the charity aims at increasing inclusivity and access to the outdoors.