Headwater hits sustainability head on

Cycling in Provence with cycling and walking company Headwater
Cycling in Provence with cycling and walking company Headwater

Partnerships are what make sustainable tourism a reality and leading UK based walking and cycling tour operator, Headwater, has demonstrated that sustainability is about creating genuine community agreements.  After a year  of working closely with over 400 hotels and over 100 agents and local guides, they put have put in place a new and pioneering Sustainability Programme and Charter.

Due to the nature of its work, Headwater works with a plethora of ground handlers. Complex infrastructures are often used by tourism businesses as barriers to creating sustainable and ethical practices, but this company rose to the challenge. They have assessed every holiday in their 2014 portfolio, and evaluated every component using an agreed set of eight criteria. Not wanting to overload their suppliers with paperwork, they talked through the procedure with them at the annual contract meetings, so that suppliers did not feel as if they were being ‘examined’.  Reviewing sustainability standards will now become an annual event at Headwater.

The aim of the Sustainability Programme is to give each holiday an overall ‘Sustainability Score’ which appears in all brochures, in print and online.  It is impressive to see that local employment and local food sourcing also feature in these criteria, areas often upstaged by recycling and renewable energy initiatives by other schemes.

According to Headwater, most of their suppliers bought into the idea especially when they got to talk it through face to face, as it soon became evident that they were all engaging in sustainable practices already, but just not shouting about it. And the proof is in the pudding. In their cycling programme, only 5% of holidays scored less than 80%, with several scoring 95%. 81% of their walking holidays scored at least 80% with Spain’s Camino de Santiago and the UK’s Wye Valley walking holidays both hitting 99%. Tina James, Managing Director at Headwater, adds “ Going forward, it is vital that we both maintain these high standards but also continue to work with staff, suppliers and customers in order that all our holidays achieve, or exceed, our global  80% Sustainability Target” . Read more about Headwater’s sustainable initiatives here.

HF Holidays – fine fellows celebrate a hundred years of outdoor holidays

Catherine near the top of a snowy Pen-y-Ghent
Catherine near the top of a snowy Pen-y-Ghent

Long before the words ethical or eco started creeping into the tourism industry’s boardrooms, there was one man who was quietly laying the foundations of fairness in travel. Thomas Arthur Leonard (or TA as he was known)) founded HF Holidays in the UK a hundred years ago and, although his achievements have been relatively uncelebrated to date, the centenary of an organisation which still remains the only UK holiday provider that is a truly co-operative society, gives us a good opportunity to take stock of this pioneering philanthropist’s achievements (www.hfholidays.co.uk).

I found there was no better way to get to grips with his greatness than by hiking up to the top of Pen-y-Ghent, one of the three peaks of the UK’s Yorkshire Dales, on an unseasonably freezing day. So cold, in fact, that I was sure the HF Holiday guides would cancel the walk, with snow flurries concealing the summit. But no, they are made of stern stuff at HF Holidays. This organisation was created in 1913, after all, seeking to, against all odds, get people into the outdoors so that they could still enjoy the landscapes all around them, in spite of a growing sense of worldwide angst. And also, to do so on the cheap. Leonard had already created the Cooperative Holiday Association in 1894, but feeling that this had been swamped by the middle class, he created the Holiday Fellowship (HF), a Society which sought to provide basic, accessible walking holidays at in the UK and abroad. In the 1930’s he also helped create the Youth Hostels Association, keeping rambling real for generations to come.

Although HF has moved on from single sex bunk rooms to superbly equipped country manors, such as Newfield House in Malhamdale, Yorkshire, the base for my Yorkshire Dales walking break, there is still one core ethos of this walking society which has stuck with HF Holidays. All their guides, or ‘leaders’ as they call them are volunteers. Or good fellows, Leonard might have called them in his day.  Many of them have grown up with families who went on HF walking holidays, and now they want to share the love. They are all passionate about walking, cycling as well as a plethora of other outdoor activities.  They are also all warm, generous people who celebrate the notion of ‘fellowship’ without being in your face, let’s all hold hands and thank God for life sort of people. In fact, if I could sum these guys up, they are what you imagine the perfect grandparents to be and, if I could, I  would like to adopt each and every one of the guys who led us around the Yorkshire Dales for that role in my children’s lives.

Newfield Hall, Malhamdale Photo Credit: HF Holiday
Newfield Hall, Malhamdale Photo Credit: HF Holiday

So, as much as this centenary is about celebrating the achievements of TA Leonard, it is his legacy that lives on through people which what makes HF a very special company to holiday with, if outdoor activities are your thing. And of course, their walking leaders are hard core, which you need in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia or Glencoe, just to give you that added incentive to climb the next stretch which, in our case, we couldn’t actually see because of snow. But on we trekked, feeling with every step that we were in very safe hands, the route being judged with expertise along the way.  We took a steep, slow climb up to the peak, but due to the extreme and icy conditions our leader guided us down a gentler route down Pen-y-Ghent.

The rather stark, boy scout feel that HF Holidays had in the past has gone a little softer round the edges in modern times,  however, as we all jumped into the swimming pool at Newfield House on our return, pampered ourselves with a little pilates, and massaged those well stretched muscles with a petit Pino Grigio by the fire. Not sure if that would have passed TA Leonard’s middle class radar, really. Not to mention the fine selection of packed lunches, with poached salmon sandwiches and fine local cheese.

International walking holidays was also part of TA Leonard’s vision and this has now become the biggest growth area for the organisation. An organisation which is still, by the way, a truly cooperative and non-profit organisation. You can sign up to be a member and shareholder, attend the AGMs and have your say in how they move things forward in a world that is being swamped by 1 billion travellers, the majority of whom are still being seduced by pure profit driven travel. HF Holidays also realises that it needs to sustain its set up for the next generation, and so it has created a young person’s membership which adults can sign up to on behalf of anyone under 16. Too cool for school, really.

Double ladder stile on Pen y Ghent - in summer. Photo: HF Holidays
Double ladder stile on Pen y Ghent – in summer. Photo: HF Holidays

Another development is the (great value) Freedom Break, whereby you just use one of HF’s accommodations as a base for independent walking, but get full board accommodation, an OS Map and plenty of detailed information on best trails etc. These are just applicable to a certain number of UK locations at the moment, however, such as the Isle of Wight (superb coastal walking just a couple of hours from London), the Cornish Coast Path or the Lake District.  However, I was glad to be in the safe hands of a group and our superbly informative and affable guide, Mervyn Flecknoe, as we climbed up Pen-y-Ghent.  As we took our final steps down from the peak, we strode  across some massive flagstones made from local limestone. For an organisation that proudly promotes ‘Leave No Trace’ as part of its outdoor ethic, this is one impressive exception. Because, although they don’t shout about their conservation and care practices at HF Holidays, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. These flagstones, which prevent erosion caused in hiking hot spots, were funded by HF’s Pathways Fund, a charity which guests can donate to, and which not only works with leading conservations charities to protect landscape but also provides assisted holidays to those who could not otherwise afford one. Like I said – Foundations of fairness. For a hundred years. Fair play, HF, and happy birthday.

For more details of HF Holidays, including walking, cycling and outdoor activity holidays in varied locations from Barbados to the Brecon Beacons, or Kenmare to Kenya, see www.hfholidays.co.uk. Or follow them on Twitter @hfholidays or on Facebook (HF Holidays).


Hiking in the heat

Catherine’s son cools down under a water pump while hiking in Alps early May during unexpected heatwave

I was recently asked to contribute to an article on ‘Dangerous Places to Visit’. I politely declined, as warzone voyeurism or ‘extreme’ excursions are not really my thing. I did ask them if they would like an article on my skating across Sweden’s frozen lakes, which is about as dangerous as my world gets really, but that was so not on the danger meter compared with what some people like to put themselves through on holiday.

A slow paced walking holiday is my ideal really. However, with temperatures rising there are now growing concerns about the safety of walkers. Just a few weeks ago, a tragedy occurred when a 78 year old British hiker died from a heart attack, after struggling with the extreme heat while she was walking on Gran Canaria. As temperatures hit 38 degress Celsius six other people, all in their sixties, were rescued that same weekend, suffering from problems relating to heat.

I, like so many others, read this with horror, knowing that even though these hikers were not new to long distance walks, they could be struck so suddenly by the heat in this way.  And even though they were in their more mature years, some of the fittest and most agile walkers I meet on my travels are twenty or thirty years my senior. And, I must admit, that I have hiked in extreme heat and never given it a second thought, as long as I had my usual water, sunscreen and a hat. But of course, there is so much more to take into account, whether you are five or fifty and the British Consul for the Canary Islands gave me ten of the best when I admitted that I wasn’t perhaps as knowledgeable as I thought I was:

  1. Don’t hike alone unless you are an experienced walker and are familiar with the area (guilty)
  2. Always plan your trail in advance.  There are many useful websites with well researched routes (more or less)
  3. Choose an appropriate trail according to your fitness level (Emm, guilty).
  4. Take a map with you and don’t go off the trail (Not guilty, but map not always brilliant quality)
  5. Wear appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather and length of your hike (not guilty).
  6. Take enough water and food (always pretty good on that one).
  7. Don’t forget other essential gear like sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat (ten out of ten).
  8. Inform someone of where you are going and when you expect to return (Guilty)
  9. Take a fully charged mobile phone with you (Guilty).
  10. Phone 112 if you urgently need assistance (OK, I always confuse the international emergency code with 121, I admit – see European Emergency Number Association,  for details)

    Timanfaya National Park in Lanzarote where you can only walk with approved walking guide

Another great piece of advice came from Amanda Marks, Managing Director of Tribes Travel, one of the most exemplary travel companies in terms of ethical and sustainable practices. Just back from Botswana, Amanda told me, “ I’m probably a good one to ask about this problem, as I don’t cope with the heat at all well, yet love going on walking safaris etc.  As soon as it goes above 25 degrees I struggle, but I have learned to cope with this in a variety of ways.  Firstly, shade.  I always walk wearing a hat with a wide brim all the way round. On top of this, if it’s REALLY hot, I take an umbrella.  Yes, I get a lot of stick for that one, and it’s not practical all the time, but can provide much needed shade at critical times.  Secondly, hydration.  Most people know to drink lots of water, but I always add rehydration powders to my water.  It gives you extra salts and sugars that help your body cope with the heat.  Thirdly, choosing your times. Apart from choosing the months which are less hot, I also choose my times of day quite carefully. Always walk in early mornings and late afternoons.  The middle of the day is most definitely siesta time for me”.

So, my hydration salts are going to be a firm fixture in my Camelbak from now on, and if you haven’t heard of Camelbaks, a brand of hydration pack,  check them out. There are many cheaper versions on the market now and when I have lots to carry, I just take the inner section out and transfer it to my normal day pack. Another expert is Carol Palioudaki, resident agent of Pure Crete which offers walking holidays on this stunning island, as well as a superb collection of holiday accommodation all owned by members of the local communities. She says that “People really don’t think about the heat risks, or they underestimate them. We always warn our clients here in Crete that when temperatures are above 35 celsius hiking becomes dangerous. Our body temperature is 37 celsius so when the outside temperature goes above this, the body can’t cool itself. The best time for walking in Crete is during the spring and autumn, but even then mini heat waves can pose a risk. The dangers of walking in extreme heat are well know in Crete, and the Samaria Gorge, one of Europe’s longest and most demanding gorge hikes, closes to visitors during extreme local heat waves” .

Guilty on so many charges, La Graciosa, Canary Islands

Gran Canaria is also home to a superb English travel writer, Matthew Hirtes who, if you are a fan of this part of the world, is worth checking out, either on his blog, Gran Canaria Local,  or via his book, Going Local in Gran Canaria (Summertime Publishing, 2012). His thoughts are also worthy of adding to the walking wake up call to those of us, myself included, who have been guilty of walking on regardless.  “What was most depressing of the recent hiking tragedies on Gran Canaria”, says Matthew “ is that they were  so preventable. There’s a reason for the hiking season being from October through to March on Gran Canaria. And that’s because the island is politically Spanish but geographically African. Heatwaves originating from the dry and dusty Sahara, which is a lot nearer than the Iberian Peninsula, make hiking a no-no from April through to September. I recently completed a round-island trek at the tail-end of March and it was heavy-going. The surprisingly verdant interior of Gran Canaria offers a whole new world to explore beyond the bucket and spade. But there’s a time for this place and it’s certainly not May”.

And a few final thoughts to throw into the mix from a spokesman at the British Embassy, following the Canarian tragedy. As well as concurring with all the above, he wisely added that tourists should “bear in mind there may be no supplies of fresh water in the mountains and hills. Streams will often have dried up” and “be aware that the Catalonia region has started charging negligent hikers, climbers, skiers and other adventurers who have to be rescued. The regional government has recently started sending bills to all people who required emergency rescues, to encourage others to be more careful”.  He also couldn’t stress the importance of travel insurance highly enough, adding that “If you need to be returned to the UK it could cost between £12,000 to £16,000 for an air ambulance from the Canaries”. All sobering stuff – not that I paid attention while walking along Pembrokeshire’s Coast Path in Wales a couple of weeks ago. After a night of storms, it suddenly hit a cloudless 24 degrees, and not a bit of shade in sight. I didn’t even have my Camelpak, just my usual aluminium water bottle and certainly hadn’t packed a rehydration sachet. This was Wales after all. After three hours of walking, I had to take a rest under a gorse bush, slowly sip what was left of my bottle, and then walk off my route for a couple of kms to find proper sustenance. I can honestly say I have now learnt my lesson.

 This article was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland.