Angry acid-spitting creatures in Parkhurst Forest

The refurbished red squirrel hide at Parkhurst Forest was launched this weekend by Gift to Nature. I was there to take a guided walk and also a group of children from Hunnyhill Primary School round and show them the hide, plus a few other things!

I promised that I’d show the visitors angry acid-spitting animals – and I did! Parkhurst has some suitably irate wood ants, and by teasing them with a bit of litmus paper on a stick we could demonstrate that they genuinely do spit acid.  Continue reading Angry acid-spitting creatures in Parkhurst Forest

Why Queen Victoria’s secret beach should remain secret

Evicted from his office by the noisy Isle of Wight Festival today, the Ranger instead spent the day on a tour of the Osborne Estate, Queen Victoria’s island retreat, still lovingly maintained much as she left it. Just occasionally there are privileges associated with being a Ranger, and today was one of those rare moments. Although Osborne is a fantastic visit for the paying guest – highly recommended, if you’re wondering – much of the estate is not open to the public, and so this was the first time the Ranger had ever been around many of the quieter corners of this royal estate, including Queen Victoria’s own beach at Osborne Bay, one of the very few private beaches on the Solent. It was an extraordinary experience. A few images will perhaps serve to convey a little of the splendour of that isolated cove. Apologies to those who subscribe by email but if you want to see them you’re just going to have look at the webpage.

Sign at Osborne Bay
The public have no access here

In praise of the Guided Walk

Arriving in the car park, there are a few already there – standing expectantly, leaflet in hand, booted and brightly coloured outdoor gear. The sight of a council van confirms to them they’re in the right place, then out gets the ranger, and the latest guided walk is about to begin.

A guided walk

It’s a typical scene in the recreational countryside, and has been, in some form or other, since rangering first began in earnest in the UK with the advent of National Parks after the second world war. Just last week, I led a walk as a part of the Isle of Wight Walking Festival, which finishes today. Over three hundred walks organised over two weeks – and thousands of happy walkers, to whom my modest contribution was a mere dozen or so. Yes, the guided walk is alive and well, and remains the mainstay of face-to-face interpretation techniques despite sixty years of huge changes in the way in which we live in, work in, and perceive the countryside. But what makes this hoary old dinosaur keep going? Surely we have developed some better ways to engage people in the countryside by now. Is the guided walk just a habit we can’t seem to break, or an anachronism overdue for retirement? I’d say neither. And here’s why. Continue reading In praise of the Guided Walk

How to lead the perfect guided walk – part 3

You read part 1 and part 2, now finish the set with this last section where you can find out some ideas for keeping your commentary flowing; some important health and safety advice; and lastly how to finish the walk.

Part 3 – Delivering the walk

So, we now get to the part you’ve been hoping for, how to actually walk and talk at the same time. There are a few things you can do, a few you must do, and a few more that you must not. You should always:

  • Walk the route beforehand at least once, even if you are familiar with it. This will enable you to be aware of any fallen trees, puddles, flytipping or other recently-arrived phenomena which you might wish to avoid. It’s also good to get your mind running over what you’re going to say.
  • Put aside some time to plan your actual talk – don’t rely on just telling people things at random as you spot them. Whilst experienced presenters can get away with this sometimes, even the most seasoned guide will admit that time spent in preparation can often make the difference between a good and a great walk. And if you’ve done the same presentation twenty times before, maybe it’s time you put something new into it to give yourself a bit of a kick-start.

Here are a few tricks you could consider if you’re looking for inspiration:

  • Do some research offsite – talk to people who know about the history or ecology of the area, or read around old books and leaflets. Don’t over-do this one, but a few facts or, better still, entertaining stories, are always helpful.
  • Write yourself some cue-cards. If you’ve been on a presentation course you know about these already. Get little index cards and write on each one a series of short reminders of things to say and talk about. Don’t write a script! For a walk, you could have a series of cards for a number of locations you want to stop at. If you need to write more than a card’s worth, you’re writing down too much.
  • Use some props. You probably have in your office or education centre a few items of interest from the site in question, which can be handed around at the right time. Fossils, historical or archaeological artefacts, or old photographs can be not too heavy and usually safe enough to keep in your rucksack. Maps are always interesting if you’re talking about how things used to be.

Make sure you don’t end up doing these:

  • Reading from a script! This is the kiss of death. If you read from a script at all, or even memorise a script parrot-fashion (and yes, some people do) you may as well give up and do the whole walk in mime. It will sound stilted and just wrong in the context of a walk. You must be relatively informal and flexible about your presentation – this is not the same as a lecture or slideshow. Your audience will also want to interact with you, and you must let them do so. Especially in a small group you must be ready to have more of a discussion than a presentation if that’s the way it’s going.
  • Going off the beaten track – either literally or metaphorically. By contrast to the problem of scripts, it’s often tempting to wander from the route or subject of the walk. Don’t do either. Keep to your planned route unless you have a very good reason to deviate; and keep the talk on the subjects that you have prepared and advertised – after all, that’s why the people came. If people want to go a different way, let them. But don’t go with them. If one particular walker wants to talk about something else they can do so with you afterwards if needs be.
  • Getting into an argument: all too easy if one particular person wants to monopolise the discussion. That’s not what walks are for. It can be hard to deal with and you’ll have to use your judgement as to the best approach, but just be alert for this and don’t let one person spoil it for the others. Remember – you’re in charge.

Health and Safety

All walk organisers should ideally take all possible precautions to guard against accidents on guided walks. In practice this is not always possible. Depending on the circumstances it is not always clear-cut who is liable in law if someone is injured on a guided walk, and insurance cover does vary so if you have any concerns you should contact your insurers (or your employers if you are working for an organisation) and ask them about liability in such a situation. They should be able to clarify the situation as it applies to you, and reassure you. It’s usually no big deal but it’s certainly worth knowing the situation. Usually insurance for a local authority will extend to volunteers leading walks by arrangement with the council, too. It is certain that if a leader takes members of the public into danger, it would be negligent not to warn them, and give the option of not going. Do not normally take guided walks along anything but the most sensible paths. In cases where someone would obviously not be suitable for the route, such as a frail old person, it is quite acceptable to tell that person that the walk would not be suitable for them. If they come, that is their choice. A good idea from a safety and management point of view is to have one person or more helping the leader. One leader is the minimum requirement for a guided walk, but when events get popular and involve more than about 20 people, it is time to think about getting more people to help. If you’ve got a helper, they should walk at the back and perform the function of ‘sweeper’, making sure nobody falls behind and warning you if you’re going too fast or they can’t hear you at the back. Note that if you don’t have a helper, you’re going to have to do those things for yourself!

Finishing the walk

Make sure everyone knows it’s finished. Don’t let them just drift off, but make a bit of a climax of it. Thank them all for coming, tell them that this is the end of the walk, and explain how to get back to the start point if you’re not there already. Give out any leaflets, and any other relevant material. If you have them and there is no wind, it can be good to spread a range out on a van and let people choose. Give a small ‘trailer’ for any up and coming events and of course for your next guided walk. If donations are appropriate, make it clear how they are to be offered and what they will go towards. Some people will expect to pay so if it is free, say so explicitly so they don’t feel embarrassed. Hang around until the visitors start to go, because some people love to come up and talk to you after the walk. This is a valuable part of the walk because not everyone is confident talking in a group. So try not to rush off unless you have to do so. Anyway, you probably need a rest too before the next job. Now it’s over! Relax, wave your visitors off, get out your thermos for a well earned cuppa… then start planning the next time!

How to lead the perfect guided walk – part 2

If you enjoyed “How to lead the perfect guided walk – part 1“, you’ll be keen to read this next part where you can find out how to start your walk, what to say, and what not to say!

Part 2 – Starting the walk

Always turn up at the advertised meeting point despite the worst weather. Run the walk if there is one person or more who wants to go on it – even if that does not include you! Arrive at the meeting point at least 10 minutes beforehand, and start the walk between five and ten minutes after the advertised time. This allows any stragglers to join in. If anyone turns up and looks vaguely as if they might fancy a walk, be sure to say hello and ask if they are here for the walk. Otherwise they might be shy of approaching you, especially if there are only a few others there. What to say To start off with there are a number of things which should be said, even if many of the group have been out with you before some might not have.

  • Introduce yourself, giving your name and job title if you have one. Introduce any other members of staff present if they want to be introduced.
  • Welcome the visitors to the place/project, on behalf of your employer and/or the site owner if you are doing it for them. If the project is sponsored or supported by any organisation they will probably appreciate a mention too.
  • Explain what the theme of the walk is, if there is one, and how long it will last. Be sure to keep to this time!
  • Give a warning if there is likely to be any rough going, e.g. if it is muddy. This is especially relevant if you see someone with a pushchair which might struggle to overcome some of the route, or unsuitable shoes – if they are warned and still come then they are less likely to complain afterwards. Of course, you should always design your route to fit your likely audience. If your walks attract parents with buggies and you have to turn them away you have failed!
  • Consider asking your group – as a group – if anyone has any special needs or disabilities which they think you might need to know about. It would usually be rude to ask an individual such a question but there is no harm in putting the onus upon the walkers to make you aware if they so choose.
  • Before you set off, give a brief description of the route you will take and assure the visitors that they will end up back where they started (if that is your intention).
  • If appropriate, point out that the walk is entirely free, and no payment will be expected. Mention your employer/sponsor again at this point for maximum advert factor! If you will be accepting donations, say so at the start, and say what the donations are for.

What not to say!

This is particularly relevant if you work for a charity, local authority or other public body. Be very careful throughout the event to say nothing which you would not be prepared to say in front of anyone, including your employers or the press.

  • Make no political statements.
  • Do not give personal information about other members of staff, or yourself ideally.
  • Tailor your tone to your audience – usually it is a ‘family show’ and should be kept at that level.
  • Do not make promises or wild speculation about future developments at the site, unless you state clearly that it is only speculation.
  • Do not be anything other than polite about other people, such as surrounding landowners, or other official bodies – they may be amongst your audience too.

And now… Coming up in the third and final part… ideas for keeping your commentary flowing; how to finish the walk; and important health and safety advice.

Part 3

How to lead the perfect guided walk – part 1

It’s been a fair while since The Ranger led more than the occasional guided tour or walk, but back in the day he was churning out several each week, and learnt a few wrinkles along the way. It’s the sort of thing most rangers – and various others – get to do now and again, and some love it whilst others hate it. So, dusting off his old photographs The Ranger is going to give you the low-down on how you, too, can lead a guided walk. Predictably, his examples will be of countryside walks, but you’ll find that much of the wise advice he dispenses would be useful for tour guides, teachers, and indeed anyone wanting to take people around somewhere indoors or outdoors in an organised way.

The Ranger leads a guided walk... in about 1989
He’s been doing this a while: The Ranger leads a guided walk… in about 1989


Part 1 – Before the Event

Choosing a good event

Choosing a good title and subject is essential – rather like blog posts, most people will just read the title and move on. Lots of explanation is wasted on them if they never read it. So be sure that your event is called something good and concerns something that people will want to hear about. Short, easy to understand and interesting titles are good. Here are some good names of events The Ranger has been involved with. Feel free to use them:

  • Dormouse hunt
  • Ghost walk
  • Tree ID (hey, that rhymes! Clever.)
  • Fun day (a simple but very effective description of almost any family event)
  • Rockets & Alarms

Did you notice the last one? It didn’t follow the rule about being easy to understand. You’ve got no idea what it is, have you? But you want to know… If you want to title a walk with a really intriguing title, then by all means do so, so long as you are confident that people will be interested enough to find out more. Here are some bad names that The Ranger has never used:

  • Guided Walk
  • Natural History Tour
  • Walk followed by a short lecture
  • Strenuous hike

All of these are dull and uninformative. One is too long (stick to two or at most three words). Two are pretty unpleasant-sounding as well. Who wants to be ‘lectured’? Most people would rather hear a ‘talk’, or even a ‘show’!


Nobody’s going to turn up if you don’t tell them. So get your event in a schedule of walks, somewhere. Most areas have one. Ask at tourist information centres. If you’re working for a big organisation they almost certainly do something of the sort already – get on the list. This usually requires you to plan your events up to a year in advance but it’s worth the effort, really. It also gives you time to plan. Be sure to check the sunset and sunrise times and/or tides (if relevant) if you are planning well ahead, as these can catch you out. The Ranger once did a walk along a revetment at high tide, and got a party of office workers in their work clothes drenched when a big wave overtopped it. He was not a popular man that lunchtime! If you’ve got the pre-publicity done, the next stage is nearer the time. You need some posters about a fortnight before the day. If you’ve got a designer to help you, great. If not, keep it simple, and check you have all of these on the poster:

  • Title (big text)
  • Date (big text)
  • Time of start and time of finish
  • Cost, if any, (small text) or FREE! (big text) if not
  • Location
  • Who’s it suitable for / not suitable for

Print them off on a laser printer, not an inkjet (they run in the wet, or when placed inside windows with condensation), probably about A4 size, and take them round to local shops and organisations, plus erect a few on the site of the walk where regular visitors will get the idea. Send information about your event to the local press – writing a press release is an art in itself (another post, maybe) so get some help if you don’t know how. Remember, newspapers actually want to print interesting stuff, and you won’t normally have to pay to advertise your event if you publicise it properly. That’s enough to start you off. Now get ready for the big day!

In part 2 – starting your walk, what to say, and what not to say!