THE Dales Way is now one of the most popular long distance walks not just in the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District, but the whole of Britain. It’s difficult to give a precise number of people now walking the entire route, but estimates suggest between 4,000 and 5,000 per annum judging by sales of certificates and feedback from accommodation providers and luggage handlers. This does not include day walkers completing one or more day stages. The contribution to the local economy is estimated at between one and a half to two million pounds a year in terms of purchase of food, accommodation and services.

This success story owes much to a small but very committed team of volunteers who in October celebrated their 25th anniversary – the Dales Way Association.

The association began, as so many organisations do, as a protest campaign. Way back in 1991 the Dales Way was shortlisted along with the Thames Path, the Cotswold Way and Hadrian’s Wall Path for National Trail status. All these except the Dales Way are now well established National Trails, The reason for the omission was simple. Officers of the then Yorkshire Dales National Park Committee opposed designation on the grounds that there were already enough walkers in the Dales. The Pennine Way and unofficial Coast to Coast Path were quite enough and more walkers would increase maintenance costs and repair bills. Even waymarks or signs saying Dales Way were resisted.

The Dales Way Association opposed such arguments. Discussion papers were produced to argue that encouraging walking was what national parks were set up to do. But it was not the DWA’s pleading that was to dramatically change things. It was foot and mouth disease. In the dreadful years of 2000 and 2001 when almost all paths in the national parks were legally closed, it was not only the farming community that suffered terrible hardship, but many small tourism businesses saw their livelihoods ruined as visitors did not arrive. The knock-on effect on the rest of the Dales economy was dire.

When restrictions were finally lifted in 2002, the first thing that the Dales Way Association did was to bring together 50 or so accommodation providers on the Dales Way to a meeting at Bolton Abbey Village Hall to announce a relaunch. To our delight, the National Park Authority – whose attitudes had already changed with new personnel – gave the campaign 100 per cent support, and even helped with a promotional leaflet to bring walkers back to the Dales Way. Walkers were now seen as welcome, the lifeblood of the national park. Whilst routes like the Dales Way needed to be properly waymarked, stiles repaired and surfaces managed, the physical and mental benefits to walkers were seen as immense, as were the economic and social benefit they brought to the local community.

Things never looked back. There is now a strong, cordial relationship between the national park rangers and the Dales Way Association with annual meetings to report progress and discuss problems. A recent BBC Radio Four Ramblings series with top UK presenter Clare Balding – who declared the Dales Way to be her favourite long walk – resulted in massive increase in popularity of the route.

But the Dales Way Association had also changed. Following the death in 2008 of David Smith, the association’s long serving founder-secretary, the association faced a long series of crises to find people to do all the many things that David had done. After much discussion it was agreed the only way it could survive was to go all electronic – to abandon the much loved newsletter for an e-newsletter thereby saving huge print, postage and labour costs, to build up the web site to become much more interactive.

Far from being a disaster, the new slimmed-down Dales Way Association is now thriving, with a growth of membership, including younger members, all on line, taking totals over the 500 mark.

The success of this approach was proved early this year when catastrophic floods in Cumbria resulted in sections of Dales Way literally being washed away. But within hours, the DWA was working closely with national park rangers and officers of Cumbria County Council to find alternative routes, and in helping to prioritise bridge and riverside repairs to enable walkers to get through. By spring 2016 the route was largely open. Walkers from as far away as the United States or the Netherlands could go online to find out any problems that might still be there and what the alternatives were.

What the Dales Way has proved is that a single issue campaigning body does not need a weighty structure of committees, sub committees, endless meetings, policy papers and conferences, but be a small team of activists each with a specific a job, rather than just attending endless meetings. Almost every penny of DWA subscription is spent on the Path not on servicing members. For example the DWA was recently able to give £500 to the national park towards the restoration of Birks Mill Bridge, which links into the Dales Way at Sedbergh. This was cost of mailing a conventional newsletter.

The Dales Way is now firmly established as a key part of the infrastructure of the Yorkshire Dales. Its success has inspired other fine other routes in Craven such as The Dales Highway and Lady Anne’s Way. The Dales Way Association also proves how effective a small, dedicated team of volunteers can be in making worthwhile things happen.