In 1931 six regional federations representing walkers from all over Britain joined to create the National Council of Ramblers Federations and act as an advocate for walkers’ rights on a national level. Bringing together over 300 affiliated clubs across Britain, this was followed by the official founding of the Ramblers’ Association on 1 January 1935. Their aim and purpose was to promote the interests of walkers, or ‘Ramblers’.
Since their creation in 1935, the Ramblers’ Association (RA) has undergone various revamps and it is interesting to glance at how the organisation’s campaigning thrust and identity has mirrored their ever more radical changes in brand.
In the first year of their creation, the RA had a modest membership of some 1200 individual members. They came from many walks of life and political leanings- communists, socialists, liberals, working class and emancipated, male and female, all joined forces in a mutual dislike of archaic laws, protective landowners and petty officialdom that kept them excluded from their beloved moors, hills and dales. The RA’s first member’s badge was typical of the federation or association type badges produced for hundreds of socialist organisations between the wars. It is a little over complicated and fussy in its design, which speaks volumes, for it was almost certainly designed by committee. It speaks of fraternity, indeed the very wearing of it advertised an individual’s commitment to, and membership of, a common cause. Early successes for the RA were their involvement in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act passed in 1949.
The membership in 1948 stood at 4000. With the appointment of their first secretary, Tom Stephenson, in 1948 the RA became more intense in it’s lobbying. Membership rose to 8600 and when Stephenson stood down to make way for a younger man with perhaps a little more energy, the association entered possibly its most militant phase, using the courts to protect rights of way and creating further appeal to an increasing, mostly working class, membership. The senior management struggled to shake off socialist tradition and appear more modern.
The RA was singular in its purpose and this was reflected in a redesign of the national brand. The new design was far removed from the first and now focused on the membership activity. For many older hikers, this is the ‘Ramblers’ brand that is most familiar. This logo proudly puts front and centre an image of what they were about- Rambling.
The classic Bergan rucksack typified the outdoors lover. While this is perhaps cliched, there is nothing wrong with that. The addition of a flat cap and pipe may have gone too far but would not necessarily have been inaccurate. The RA failed to appeal to the middle-class. If they had, membership could potentially have swelled by hundreds of thousands. The association now enjoyed a reputation and steady, barely growing, membership that spanned the United Kingdom and beyond. Divisions had occured but common purpose remained. Ramblers Scotland was established in 1967 and became a separate entity in 1985. Ramblers Wales was likewise set up in 1974. The explosion in the ‘hiking craze’ of the 1930s had become almost respectable and walking had become a favourite pastime for millions. Still, few were joining the RA, at least not until many were approaching or reaching retirement. An older membership demographic had settled in.
By the 1960s the campaigners had settled into their many fights and were getting good at it too. the RA had carved out a niche and knew how to lead a campaign. Led by strong people with vision and always the agitator and advocate, the RA had hard-fought successes over the decades and were instrumental in the introduction of National Parks and National Trails, including the creation of Britain’s first long distance path, the Pennine Way in 1965. In 1968 the Countryside Act was passed, forcing local authorities to put up signposts on footpaths.
Across the nation hundreds of regional groups met up of a weekend for local or more distant day hikes while their interests and access to the countryside were being championed by their national association. But in post-war Britain the fight for countryside access was not over, not by a long shot. The RA campaigned, leafleted, lobbied and took action.
Meanwhile, a plethora of ‘outdoors’ magazines, guidebooks, maps, retailers of outdoors equipment facilitated those enjoying an increased leisure time. The RA mostly failed to make inroads into the commercial opportunites that opened up. Potential revenue was lost as a result.
The Ramblers’ Association couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether to include an apostrophe or not in its name. Was it an organisation that belonged to the people (possessive), or was it of the people? Fifties and sixties RA publications, such as helpful listings of guided walks, bus time tables and bed and breakfast establishments tolerant of a mud grimed rambler, included the gramatically correct addition, but by the mid 1980s the RA management seemed to have largely decided that it was superflous. Its omission however, was more representative of wider changes in grammatical style. That said, the plural noun and accompanying apostrophe was still included on the badge produced in association with the organisation’s golden jubilee in 1985. The first and last RA badge to do so.
The 1985 RA commemorative badge was almost a throwback in design. The surrounding red ring with gold script has similarities to the design of The Camping Club’s badge issued 1920-1983. The background tree is almost certainly representative of an Oak- ‘from tiny acorns grow…’, and the footpath sign- 1935 behind, and 1985 onward and upward, at least represented a little more than simply a pedestrian existence. Meanwhile, population growth threatened open spaces and the RA had to adapt to survive if it wanted to continue to be recognised in official quarters as the forward looking advocate of access, with half a century of experience of fighting political and legal battles. The RA had to modernise its approach, even if that meant upsetting the traditional membership while attempting to appeal to a new and younger member.
1987 saw a change to The Ramblers’ Association brand and outlook. Compare this 1987 logo to that of 1985, as alike as chalk and cheese. It was not a popular change in all quarters and following heated debate the vote by members, only just passed at their AGM. This was a very deliberate attempt to replace the tired image of old. Green and golden fields replaced the familiar rucksack. The old image of canvas pack, long associated with bobble hat, leather boots and wholesome activity by older members was ditched in favour of inclusiveness to all. This despite having lost the apostrophe and now also dropping ‘Association’ from their name. The disquiet amongst older members with this latest change rattled board members. There was an ageing profile, prompting management to try and drag the average membership age below 50, but membership fees enabled much of the essential work to progress. The ramification of such protracted argument and discussion was that members were denied a vote on the next change in brand, 22 years later.
In 1989 membership was 73 000 and a significant majority of these may have been content with their favoured organisation continuing forever in similar fashion to what had gone before. However the management of the RA recognised that the world was changing. A digital age loomed but they didn’t seem to know how to approach it. But still, with a small budget and a big profile, the RA continued to punch above its weight.
With the new century came a new chief executive. Nick Barrett was simply repeated the words of the executive committee from two and three decades prior when he said that the RA had to broaden its horizons and start appealing to a wider and younger demographic- “our public image is often unhelpful when trying to reach young people … there’s no denying that it’s easy to stereotype ramblers and we’re very conscious that this has to change if we’re to recruit the next wave of supporters and volunteers.” The RA was at last starting to attract a management that may actually give the RA some sustainability. Yet another rebrand seemed to be the solution.
Prior to the next revamp members were asked their thoughts. Many certainly had an opinion and the design agency took a year to collate the 6000 responses. The over-whelming response from members was that they wanted a change of image. Though how much that was a simple desire to change from a fairly non-descript image of some fields to something more dynamic is not recorded. But beyond a few working groups, that was as far as actual decision making by the membership went.
The strapline “ramblers- at the heart of walking” was created by branding agency Spencer du Bois. Eight potential logos, ranging from conservative update to a more radical approach, were presented, not to the members, but exclusively to the executive board. Tom Franklin, yet another chief executive at the helm, refused to involve the 135 000 members in the final decision- ‘it’s not the way to do business … ‘I didn’t want to do branding by committee.’
The RA announced their new image in March 2009. This change was intended to reflect the breadth and variety of its current activities. A tall order from a simple logo. The apostrophe was long gone, ‘Association’ remained only with their legal identity, now the use of capitals was eschewed. Why should the rules of grammar matter to anyone, hey, we’re radical, live with it.
The board opted for a revolutionary change from the staid and dated ‘countryside’ design of previous years. The lowercase ‘r‘ logo is comprised of a tree-like upright with a smoothly curved stone, These apparently represent items that could be found on a walk. The design allowed for other images such as leaves, feather or acorn, to replace them for use on websites, campaigning advertisements or postcards. It was hoped that using a changing ‘found objects’ design would enable the brand to evolve and remain fresh looking “in five years time“. A restricted colour pallet was available for different applications of the brand and Welsh and Scottish variants created, each with an appropriate strapline.
The 2009 ramblers ‘r’ logo is still with us in 2021. To be honest, it still looks fresh, modern and, for those who search out it’s meaning, mostly relevant to the organisation as a whole. To a degree, the RA have been partially successful in their search for inclusiveness and tomorrow’s potential membership is now more aware of their existence and aims than ever before. There are still no membership options for younger ramblers or families but those under eighteen are encouraged to join, free of charge, their parents on organised walks.
In addition, the RA’s annual Family Rambling Days enjoyed great success in getting younger people and their families off their couch and into the countryside. Building on a decade of these, these were renamed the ‘Festival of Walking’. Note the change from the word ‘ramble’ to ‘walk’. Hundreds of guided walks are organised across the nation that non-member families can join. Distances vary but are usually under six miles.
Yet another badge illustrates previous success and attempts to remind people of just how central the RA has been to our countryside freedoms. 2019 was the 70th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. It was this Act that led to the creation of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Trails, the definitive footpaths map in England and Wales, and National Nature Reserves across Great Britain. Ramblers ran a campaign in 2019 to remind people of the original Act, the RA’s involvement and what it had led to, while also encouraging both members and the wider public to keep-up the fight for continued and greater access to the countryside.
The RA do tend to get through a few CEOs. Most recent is Tanya Curry who was appointed in February 2020 following the resignation of the previous chief executive, Vanessa Griffiths. The board has extended her contract as interim chief executive until April 2022. Membership is in long-term decline, revenue has dropped, regional offices have found funding severely curtailed. But the image of knitted hat wearing, canvas rucksack adorned, walking stick clutching, parties of aged hikers, nay- ramblers, striding en-mass up and down footpaths has largely gone, now revamped, just a little. One does wonder if concentrating on youth and inclusiveness, style over substance, was the correct direction when coupled with an inability to continue to appeal to many of the traditional, if aged, backbone leaving the organisation in droves. Even with dozens of hard-working volunteers, campaigning costs money and recent years has seen the ability to successfully campaign severely hampered by falling revenue and decreased internal support. Whoever is at the helm will have a difficult job in the coming years to reassure and rebuild the organisation. Attempts are already made to diversify income streams so that reliance on membership fees is reduced. It will be interesting to see what and who influences future campaigning direction. That said, there have been recent successes, great ones:
- 2000- through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, gained access to 865,000 hectares of land where in England and Wales where the public can access the countryside without depending on a footpath.
- 2003- through the Land Reform Act, secured responsible access over most areas of land and water in Scotland.
- 2009- via the Marine and Coastal Access Act, the public won the right to walk along the entire coast of England.
- 2011- in part due to the work by Ramblers Cymru, Wales became the first country in the world to have a path around its entire coastline. The Welsh Coast Path opened in 2012.
‘The Ramblers is a charity whose goal is to protect the ability of people to enjoy the sense of freedom and benefits that come from being outdoors on foot’‘Our Mission’ ramblers, 2021
The fight goes on, most recent has been the RA adding their voice to those opposed to recent proposals to criminalise trespass. Ramblers is now Great Britain’s leading walking charity with a membership that numbers around 100 000 members, a miniscule number compared to other organisations with a similar demographic, such as the RSPB (1.1 million). Through modernising and adapting over the decades, and never straying far from their first stated purpose, the RA continues to achieve remarkable things. As to the question whether any further rebrands divert monies from essential work, you can bet on it.
Here is a timeline of many of the most important or influential UK outdoor organisations that I occasionally add to.
While the Ramblers has undergone a number of changes in identity resulting in more than their fair share of badges, this is nothing when compared to those produced for The Camping Club of Great Britain & Ireland. There is an image heavy catalogue, still very much a work in progress, to be seen here. I will be including additions to this when and if they are identified.