My Great Outdoors – by Sue Cassell

What motivated me to build My Great Outdoors?

During lockdown, my eight-year-old son, despite the brilliant weather, was reluctant to venture outdoors.  This was tough for me, as I thrive in the outdoors.  

My time at home was at least a chance to catch up on reading. I started with a book by a former colleague, Duncan M Simpson. Although a trained journalist, Duncan had been captivated by the ethos of the Youth Hostelling movement during his stay at a London Youth Hostel, and decided to switch careers to work as a Youth Hostel warden. In retirement, he has written a part-memoir and part-history of the Youth Hostels Association.  Open to All: How Youth Hostels Changed the World is a juxtaposition of personal (and fascinating) reflections on the life of a Youth Hostel warden and the external forces that were at work during the last century, transforming the Youth Hostels Association from ‘a simple idea’ into a global movement.

Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire (North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), photo by author

I then dipped into Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.  I was impressed by how his parents lovingly gave up their free time to take him out to the places that fed his early passion for wildlife. I could also relate to Chris’ description of his first encounter with a fox cub:

Button nose, sleek cheeks with a fuzz of fine black whiskers. A fluffy, smoky coat, and after the most amazing second of my life, it turned and skipped through the hole, its glowing tail tip following it forever in my memory. It was indisputably and absolutely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  

I had had a similar reaction when, after enduring city life for four years, I discovered the joy of walking in the countryside on the fringes of London. On a walk that started from Woldingham station (30 minutes on the train from Victoria) upon entering woodland, I saw a fox with her three cubs – absolutely mesmerising, and a beautiful sight.  Interestingly, in Rob Cowen’s Common Ground, he devotes a chapter to observing a fox: ‘I see the fox for the first time on the same day I lose my job…’, although it’s Rob’s love of maps that really resonates: ‘maps transform us. They make birds of us all. They reveal the patterns of our existence and unlock our cages.’

Hambleden in Buckinghamshire (Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), photo by author

Combining my love of books, maps, transport logistics, countryside and wildlife, and using my time stuck indoors, I then decided to build a website. I really enjoy synthesising information and presenting it in a user-friendly way. I also love photography. The website’s purpose is to help people from all walks of life to enjoy the great outdoors and connect with nature.  It’s designed to provide all the necessary information in an easy-to-use format for people to get started with trips into the great outdoors. There are explanations about maps, walking routes, public transport journey planners, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Trails, and so on.   

There are plenty of photographs of scenic places in the United Kingdom (including within our major cities), the aim being to inspire people to get outdoors.  Thus far, people have commented that My Great Outdoors is a valuable resource, especially for those without a car and/or who are new to walking. It’s helpful too for those of us who have children who are glued to their screens – there’s a section with ideas for how to encourage children and young people to enjoy the great outdoors. 

Woodland near Tonbridge, Kent (Photo by author)

My ethos is all about encouragement.  Remembering when I was new to walking, I was discouraged by walks descriptions that started with the words ‘from the car park’.  I don’t have a car!  

I would like to think that the website will spark an interest in walking among those who in the past haven’t given it a go, or who maybe have given up because of a negative experience (plodding through thick mud, having an unwanted encounter with cattle, being drenched in the rain, getting hopelessly lost, missing the train home, etc.). I have been through all of these experiences – I still love walking, and think it’s one of very best things in life.  Being a seasoned walker, I’m more prepared now.  I have an app on my phone that tells me my exact location, and another that gives real-time information on public transport. I know which routes and terrains to avoid the dreaded mud (I was never disciplined enough to clean it off my footwear).  All this knowledge and experience gives me the confidence to step out and enjoy walking in the great outdoors, mostly on my own.  It’s that preparedness and reassurance that I want to share with others, alongside the joy of walking in lovely places.

Somerset, near Peasdown St John (Photo by author)

I remember when I worked for the Youth Hostels Association, I would travel home in the evening from the St Albans HQ via Euston Station. On my way home from work one evening, I asked a young man (an IT student) at the Burger King outlet on the concourse at Euston Station if he ever visited the countryside when he wasn’t working.  He told me he didn’t, so a visit Tanners Hatch Youth Hostel was arranged one Sunday. Tanners Hatch is delightful – it’s a former woodcutter’s cottage set in the Polesden Lacey  estate (owned by the National Trust) in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  The Youth Hostel warden and I were his hosts and guides for the day.  While walking through the beautiful countryside, Christopher – the young man from Burger King – said, while looking at the view across rolling green fields, ‘this is divine’.  His three words confirmed one of my missions in life – to reach out and encourage people to enjoy beautiful places.  Fortunately, through a process of trial and error, I’ve now acquired the digital skills to reach out to, potentially, a national audience. 

Recently, I presented the case study of the outreach and visit to YHA Tanners Hatch and Polesden Lacey at the Black Environment Network Conference, emphasising the immense positive effect that a trip to the countryside can have, especially for those with fewer opportunities.  There was a teacher in the audience from inner city primary school in Birmingham who then approached me, and we arranged funding for her class to stay at Hartington Hall Youth Hostel in the Peak District National Park.  For many of the children, it was their first time away from home, and they were able to relax and widen their horizons in a beautiful, traffic-free place.  This helped to pave the way for major funding for week-long summer camps at Youth Hostels for disadvantaged young people across England and Wales.

Great Chalfield, Wiltshire (Photo by author)

I’m indebted to the Youth Hostels Association and the Ramblers’ Association for all the opportunities that I’ve had over the years to learn about countryside access and protection.  They are wonderful organisations, as is the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust.  I’m especially grateful to one volunteer, Len Clark, who interviewed me for the role of Countryside Officer at the Youth Hostels Association.  He was 83 at the time of the interview, and he died at the age of 103 last year.  Those twenty years of knowing Len were special.  He was a brilliant mentor and listener (he was a Samaritan for many decades) and a skilled communicator.  His family and friends persuaded him to write his memoir which was published in 2013.  I hope Len would have approved of My Great Outdoors.

(All photos by author)

About the Author

Suse Cassell has always been a countryside-lover and keenly interested in environmental issues. After graduating in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, she worked in the City and for major corporations for several years before ‘seeing the light’. The ‘light’ was a delightful weekend walking on Exmoor while staying at Exford Youth Hostel. Luckily soon after, Sue saw an ad in The Guardian for a post at the Youth Hostels Association. After four years there, she then moved to Brussels to head-up the European Federation of Youth Hostel Associations. She then travelled back to the UK and a job at the National Trust HQ (which, rather surprisingly, on one occasion involved a trip to India). After redundancy and a child, Sue was ‘matched up’ with a role at the Economic and Social Research Council, followed by roles with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and most recently the Natural Environment Research Council, where she has started a walking group.

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