Reviews of The Walker’s Handbook

Please note that some of these reviews have been shortened for reasons of space but all critical comments have been retained.

 

Review by Ianj37 on the Micronavigation forum (http://micronavigation.com/forum) published on 30th June 2015

This 346 page, A5 sized book is the 5th edition and has been completely rewritten.  I haven’t read the previous editions of the book and I came to this one with some doubt that one book could contain ‘Everything you need to know about walking in the British Isles’  but having read it, in my opinion, it does.  Subjects covered include behaviour in the countryside, kit and equipment, maps and navigation, footpath guides, safety, first aid and mountain rescue, and walking in winter. There are chapters on walking in each of the countries of the British Isles, walking holidays, backpacking, challenge walks, peak-bagging and walking festivals, clubs, walking with children, letterboxing and geo-caching, and how to lead walks and walking tours.

The topics included in the 23 chapters plus appendices range from how to choose walking socks, aimed at beginners, to, for the much more experienced, how to carry out a self arrest with an ice axe, and, as far as I can see, everything in between. OK, you might want to go to other books or web sites to get more detailed information, but at the end of all but the first chapter a bibliography lists those the author thinks most applicable.

The author was a librarian and I think that’s probably why it’s so easy to find what you’re looking for in this book.  At the beginning of the book the 11 page contents section breaks down each chapter, sometimes into over 20 sections. Each paragraph in the book is numbered and the index, which runs to 12 pages, refers to individual paragraphs.

With such a great breadth of information the question has to be asked whether the depth is there and again I feel the answer is yes.  I’m not sure how to qualify this for anyone reading this review other than to say that before I read the book I didn’t know what Newcastle disease was or that maps of the Channel Islands don’t use the OS grid system, but I do now!

I already know a bit about several of the areas covered by the book, so to assess how well it would inform someone who was new to aspects walking I headed for the chapter on backpacking. I’ve never done this, know nothing about it but have at the back of my mind that I might try it out. By the end of the chapter I am a lot more knowledgeable and would be happy to plan and undertake a backpacking holiday. I also know what kit I would need, what the pros and cons of those items are and could have a sensible discussion with sales staff. So from my point of view this chapter achieved all it set out to – a new boy has been educated! I have no reason to doubt that the other chapters would be equally informative to beginners.

These days most books are crammed with glossy pictures, so I was a little disappointed to find that whilst there are numerous line diagrams in this book there are no photographs or reproduced sections of OS maps.  I think that in some situations, for example, ways to ford a stream, pictures would have been better. That said I suspect their omission is due to printing, copyright and approval issues rather than the author’s unwillingness to include them.

The author has recognised that information will get out of date and that errors may have occurred, and has included an email address to which proposed corrections can be submitted. These will be investigated and if accepted posted on the author’s web site.

I found one significant error. An additional step has found its way into the description of how to take and use a back-bearing which means that anyone using the instructions from this book without thinking would get it very wrong. Other than that there were a couple of typos, and what I think are two comparatively minor errors – one about whether you can pick wildflowers and the other about whether all walking satnavs can receive GLONASS.

The author ends the  introduction section ‘ And so I hope that it will not seem too pretentious to look on this, the fifth, and probably last, edition of ‘The Walker’s Handbook’ as my legacy to the wonderful world of walking’. Well, in my opinion he has achieved his aim. Overall this is a very good book, well written, easy to read, informative and well referenced.

 

Review by Long John in Backpack, the magazine of the Backpackers Club, to be published in September 2015

The subtitle of this book is Everything you need to know about walking in the British Isles. That is a very good description of the content. However, packing simply everything into one book means that, as a reference guide, the novice walker will need only some of the information in it, and so will the experienced walker. There is a case for dividing the content into, say, two books, one for starters and another for the experienced. I think this is outweighed by the prospect that the starter will progress to improver and then to the fully experienced walker. In addition, the subject matter of the more advanced topics, it is hoped, will spur the novice on to greater heights (no pun intended). This is, therefore a book which has a potential long life on the book shelf and will become well thumbed.

It is a big (336 pages), heavy, (610g), book. The index alone takes up another 12 pages. Backpacking has 26 pages devoted to it giving fundamental guides on how to do it and what to have on your back. The only suggested kit list is for an ultralightweight pack with a baseweight of just under 4.6 kilos. A few more lists for lightweight and not-so-lightweight packs would have been interesting, as we all like to compare and contrast our own gear lists.

Nothing omitted for the starter’s requirements. There is good stuff on basic gear, mapping, rights of way, safety and hazards and the weather. For experienced backpackers there is interesting material on advanced map reading, GPS intricacies and pitfalls, and techniques for fording rivers and walking in winter. Walking in Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands is covered too.

The book is very well set out and Mr Westacott has taken care to to ensure that particular items in the huge amount of information contained can be quickly found. The index is comprehensive and each topic in the book is subdivided into named subtopics which in turn have numbered paragraphs. This would make it easy to have a note of individual points for future reference.

To give a flavour of the scope of the book, the section on rights of way is worth a closer look. The author acknowledges the authoritative work on the subject – Riddall on Rights of Way, and goes on to give a brief history of development of the present law on rights. There are items on creation, alteration and extinguishing rights of way, and the rules relating to obstructions, crops, stiles, dangerous animals and trespass. What can be done to enforce the law is also a topic worth a read.

I can recommend this book not only for its comprehensive approach to walking and the breadth of the subject matter, but also for the huge number of facts, sometimes esoteric, often little known, which, I, for one, will be impressing you all with in the pub.

 

Review by Parky Again on the OutdoorsMagic forum (www.outdoorsmagic.com)

Summary
This is now the 5th edition of this book and has been extensively rewritten and updated. It is in a handy manual format and is aimed at novice and inexperienced walkers who enjoy lowland countryside walking as well providing advice and information about walking in more demanding environments.

The book is set out in an easily accessible, readable and referenced format (an index to die for!) allowing Hugh’s passion, enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject to shine through, and although at times it may appear prescriptive, Hugh always lets us know that these are only suggestions.

For anyone starting out walking or wanting to know more on the subject I can heartily recommend this book for its overall depth of coverage and easy to digest format – an area where many books fall down heavily. Packed with useful and interesting information and many “Well, I never knew that” moments for those of more experience. Each chapter ends with a bibliography for some more reading, either for pleasure or for further information and, of course, included in these are the classic outdoors books. My thoughts on the sections of the book follow.

The book
As with any pastime you wish to indulge in, with experience comes more refined and personal choices for equipment and clothing etc. That said, and in view of the target market for this book, the advice given is considered and sound; albeit not to everybody’s taste for the more experienced.

Chapters 1 to 3
Run through walking etiquette and behaviour when out, walking techniques and clothing and footwear. No better place to start and well explained.

Chapters 4 to 6
Maps: maps used in the British Isles and map reading and basic navigation.
This is the best explanation of maps I have ever read and all in one place. At first glance the diagrams look daunting but actually illustrate the text perfectly.  Anyone reading these, and following up with Chapter 7’s exercise, should be well set up for their walking.

My only comment on these sections is that a compass should be recommended, but not essential, for lowland walking with a map due to the sheer number of paths to check that you are going the right way. Direction on the ground can vary considerably to that shown on the map.

Chapter 8
Advanced Navigation Techniques

The title says it all for when you think you need to learn more to get yourself around and how to handle bad visibility and weather. These are things to practise when you are out so as to understand them properly.

Chapter 9
The Global Navigation Satellite System

Technology is moving rapidly so what is available changes twice a year. Hugh insists upon using satnav instead of GPS for handheld devices – to avoid confusion with the Global Positioning System.  Initials and abbreviations are always context relevant  – sitting in the pub talking about your car and mentioning the AA is a different context to sitting in a pub discussing your alcohol intake and the AA – and satnav and GPS have fallen into common usage with specific meanings.

Satnav is what is used in cars. Only. GPS devices (which use GPS chips) are what you use to navigate when not in a car.  Now that is cleared up, the chapter runs through GPS uses outdoors. I think that more emphasis could have been placed upon before using a GPS you should be proficient enough using a map and compass so as to be able to understand and interpret a map. You do not need a paper map to use a GPS to navigate. However, you do need to understand and be able to interpret what your GPS is telling you and using your GPS in conjunction with a map and compass is the best way to rapidly improve your skills using both methods. Using a GPS could easily fill a book by itself so if you are considering using one, use your best friend, Google, to find out more.

Meanwhile, back to the book. The basic features of GPS are explained well with good examples. Track points have been overlooked but this is mostly due to Garmin’s denial that they exist in their devices but electronic mapping such as Tracklogs uses them extensively and once mastered are the best way of entering routes into a device and really open up the functionality of your device.

Chapters 10 to 13
Covers general walking, safety, walking in winter and areas to walk in. The safety and winter part of the book goes beyond novice and inexperienced levels but a good guide of what to do. The other areas are handy information.

Chapters 14 & 15
Rights of way and walking in Scotland

A “must read” by all. Tells you everything you ever wanted know and some. Excellent chapters. Remember, the people who own the land have rights too, whatever you think about them.

Chapters 16 & 17
Two very short chapters on holidays

Chapters 19 & 20
Backpacking

A good place to start if you are considering this.

Chapters 21 to 23
Challenge walks, clubs and leading walks.

Full of valuable information if you are thinking of wanting to do this – it’s all rather more complicated than you think it is.

 A number of Appendices follow which make interesting and fascinating reading in a matter of fact and candid way. I am happy that, at last, someone has explained the Kinder Trespass, albeit briefly, in real terms and not allowed nostalgia and “spin” cloud the facts – the real heroes being lost in time.

An extensive Glossary of terms follows and it capped by a superb index.

Well, that’s the end of this review and closing comments are that this is an excellent, academic in places, well written in an easy and accessible style that would make an ideal companion for anyone who is just starting out going walking. Its main emphasis is on lowland walking which is just as, if not more, rewarding as higher places and can present navigation challenges that are more complex than higher ground.

 

Rapid Review by Jon Doran on the OutdoorsMagic forum

The fifth edition of Hugh Westacott’s The Walker’s Handbook comes complete with the unassuming cover line of Everything you need to know about walking in the British Isles and is, says the author, aimed particularly at ‘novice and inexperienced walkers who enjoy walking in the lowland countryside’ as well as mountain and moorland areas.

To be brutally honest, the cover image isn’t the most inspirational we’ve seen, depicting a file of older walkers threading their way across a lowland field, but to be fair, this is more of a manual than an inspirational tale of daring [sic!] do and the cover photograph is the only one in the entire book.

A Wealth Of Experience
What you do get though is the benefit of Hugh’s wealth of experience. Born in 1932, he’s been a walks guide for almost 50 years and has rambled and trekked throughout the UK, Europe and the US with 48 completions of the Wainwright Coast to Coast to his name.

The book is, as we said, very much a manual with 23 chapters spread across 346 pages featuring numbered paragraphs, and covering, well, pretty much everything about walking in the British Isles. And we do mean ‘walking’, there’s no dabbling with ropes and climbing and ‘scrambling’ doesn’t even merit a place in the index.

Fundamentals Focus
Instead the focus is very much on fundamentals like navigation techniques and map reading, a real strongpoint with a particular focus on the often over-looked niceties of finding your way through lowland areas rather than just mountains and moors with their more defined topographical features.

There are chapters too on gear choice, safety, first aid and mountain hazards, winter walking, backpacking and more. Hugh can be slightly pernickety – the chapter on ‘footpath guides’ begins by pointing out that they should be ‘more properly known as ‘walks guides’ because some of the routes are likely to include bridleways and restricted byways’ – what’s wrong with ‘walking guides’ for heaven’s sake? – but mostly the book’s full of good sense even if it’s occasionally a little general, not surprising maybe given the scale of its remit.

Trying to explain what a ‘self-belay’ is in a short paragraph with no diagrams was never going to end well for example, but the navigation advice is pleasingly detailed and comprehensive and the safety advice covers most of the bases well enough, though it omits to mention the new generation of smartphone apps like Echo112, which feels like a bit of an omission.

Verdict
The Walker’s Handbook is very much a traditional reference work that’s aimed primarily at ramblers – and we don’t mean that in a perjorative way at all. With its dry, matter-of-fact tone and bullet point-style numbered paragraphs it’s never going to be something you sit down and read for fun, but for the selective extraction of time-served information combined with an easy-to use index with exact paragraph numbers, make it a very decent walking information resource.

 

Review by Eugene Suggett on the Ramblers website (www.ramblers.org.uk) 26 August 2015

This hefty tome certainly has everything you need to know about walking in the British Isles. I’d have liked a bit more on the delights of walking, although admittedly the author’s concern has been to stick to ’facts and hard information’, and early on there is a brief chapter headed ’The pleasures of walking’. The book contains a thoughtful chapter about ‘Behaviour in the countryside’, interesting material about kit, useful stuff about navigation, a good chapter on weather and emergencies and helpful stuff on walking in both Scotland and Ireland. Rights-of-way law, letterboxing and peak-bagging all get a look in, and an orderly contents and comprehensive index help you find it all.

 

Review by Bob Smith, Editor of Grough Magazine (www.grough.co.uk/magazine/2015/09/26/review-the-walker’s-handbook-by-hugh-westacott) 19 September 2015

This is the fifth edition of Westacott’s handbook, subtitled: Everything you need to know about walking in the British Isles.

And it is a very comprehensive tome, as you would expect from a man who has completed the Coast to Coast Walk 48 times, the Pennine Way six times and who has walked from Land’s End to Fort William. He is also a life member of the Ramblers.

The handbook was first published in 1978 and at the time, Westacott says it was the only book of its kind, covering virtually all aspects of the subject.

There are many handbooks about today, but many concentrate on the path to becoming, say, a mountain leader, or are technical manuals. The author of The Walker’s Handbook says his work is aimed at inexperienced walkers setting out on their pastime, but he also hopes to widen the horizons of more experienced walkers.

Most who read the handbook will agree he accomplishes both. It is a comprehensive guide to almost everything you will need to know when setting out into the countryside of Britain and Ireland.

Westacott makes the justified statement that many other books don’t cover lowland walking and assume hillwalking techniques are applicable to lowland walking. Well, some skills are universally applicable, but anyone who has tried to thread his or her way through the pastoral scenery of Britain’s lowlands will know that navigation in these areas presents its own unique difficulties unlikely to be encountered on the country’s hills.

The author makes the point that the clutter found on maps of the lowland areas makes map-reading there more difficult, though the same could be said of many rocky mountain tops where the outcropping detail obscures other features on the map.

Although the handbook is aimed mainly at building a walker’s knowledge and skills, there is a section on how to move on and start writing and publishing your own walking route guides.

One chapter is devoted to those wanting to lead groups who must, according to Westacott, be paragons of all the virtues.

As with any printed handbook, information can quickly become out-of-date. The CRB criminal background check required by many organisations before you can work with young people or vulnerable adults has morphed into the DBS and the Walking Group Leader Award has been superseded by the Hill and Moorland Leader Award. However, the ‘Venture Scouts’ mentioned in the Walker’s Handbook haven’t existed in the UK since 2003.

Nevertheless, this book is a very wide ranging reference volume that anyone starting out can use to avoid the pitfalls that often afflict inexperienced walkers and trekkers.

Subjects covered include clothing and gear, maps and navigation, general behaviour in the countryside, backpacking, weather, first aid and mountain rescue, along with sections specifically devoted to England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, and their differing access setups.

There is current information on digital mapping, satellite-based navigation systems and their use in the outdoors. There is even mention of our own grough route mapping and route-planning system.

The authoritative tone is maintained throughout but is undermined somewhat in a little rant section at the end of the book in which Westacott takes issue with some of the campaigns and positions undertaken by the Ramblers.

He is clearly no fan of Benny Rothman and his comrades in the 1932 Kinder Mass Trespass. The author’s view of the event is included in appendices which include the above difference of opinion with the Ramblers plus a ‘debunking hoary old myths’ section, along with a three-paragraph discussion of whether animals dig up human faeces and a more understandable poke at the labyrinthine calculations necessary if you have any hope of applying Tranter’s Variations to Naismith’s Rule.

Notwithstanding the peculiar appendices, The Walker’s Handbook is a valuable work for those pulling on their boots and heading for the countryside, and beginner and seasoned walker alike will learn from reading it.

 

Review by Roger Smith in the March 2016 issue of The Great Outdoors

When The Great Outdoors was launched in 1978, Hugh Westacott was one of the first people I signed up as a regular contributor. It was obvious from our first meeting that he had a comprehensive knowledge of the world of walking. Over the years that knowledge has become encyclopaedic, as is shown by the new edition of The Walker’s Handbook.

The previous edition was published as far back as 1991 so the book badly needed updating and Hugh has used all his professional experience as a librarian to organise the content into a form suitable for today’s market. In previous editions, more detailed information was given in some areas – long distance trails being one example. Now these are merely listed and the reader is (inevitably) referred to trail websites for further information. It is something of a pity that for the Scottish trails, the reference is only to the ‘Great Trails’ website, as many of the have individual websites which are better sources of information.

The comprehensive cover provided by the book is evidenced by the Contents section, which runs to 11 pages and provides a clear and detailed guide to everything included. The Walker’s Handbook’s 23 chapters cover all aspects of the subject, from the legal situation regarding access and rights of way (very well set out and carefully divided for each part of the British Isles including Ireland) to maps, equipment, navigation, safety, first aid, walking in winter and much else. The end result is a compendium of 346 pages of information about walking in Britain.

The sections are often highly detailed but also so clearly signposted so the information is easy to locate, assisted by the Contents section and also a full index.

I was sorry to read in an Appendix dealing with the condition of rights of way in England, “that the future of rights of way is bleak” (due to ongoing funding cuts). We all hope that for once he is wrong..

This is one of a number of interjections that show, for me, that the book is very much a labour of love and with all things has its idiosyncrasies. In the Introduction Hugh says “I have confined myself to sticking to facts and hard information” but from time to time his own often forthright opinion is allowed to come through, as above. The most notable example is a section which is quite critical of the Ramblers and he also engages in a debunking of the myths (as he sees it) surrounding the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

We can forgive these outbursts from a man who is so passionate about his subject and also because, as Hugh says, this is likely to be the last edition of the book (he is now in his 80s, not that he shows much sign of slowing down).

If this is the case, then the assembling of so much material on the pursuit we all love, and the fact that Hugh has published the book under his own imprint, would be a fitting legacy. If you need an authoritative review of anything to do with walking in Britain, then  keep this book on your shelves in the knowledge that you can turn to it with confidence.

 

Review by Kate Ashbrook in the Spring Issue of Open Space (Vol 31 No 5)

The Walker’s Handbook is a comprehensive guide to all one needs to know when walking in the British Isles.

Written as a manual it does not go into detail about everything but points you to further information. The section on the law of paths and access in England and Wales is merely an overview (no mention that unauthorised stiles and gates are obstructions or that they must be to British Standard). But it directs you to other volumes, such as our own Blue Book.

There are chapters on clothing, maps and how to read them, leading walks, walking with children and much more. The chapter on the global navigation satellite system was unfamiliar ground to me and I was pleased that Hugh emphasises the importance of frequent reference to a map when using a satnav. There are also many helpful lists and a good index.

Hugh begins by saying that he has confined himself to facts. Not so, he ventures into some personal opinions — but no harm in that. It is a useful book.

 

Review by Dominic Pinto

This new – and we’re assured extensively revised since the last in 1991 – edition is a tour de force by one of the GOMs of walking. ‘Everything you need to know about walking in the British Isles’ is a big claim of authority – the most up to date, authoritative, and comprehensive yet published. It is an (im)modest attempt to fill the perceived gaps between all the various guides, books, etc., none of which it is claimed covers every aspect of the subject.

The 5th edition weighs in at 587g, and at nearly 350 pages is a heavy tome. As one who is by no means shy of blowing his own trumpet, the author has an impressive record: seven decades of walking and backpacking. He has had many a clash with the walking establishment, challenging the Ramblers Association on any number of their claims – and invariably judged to have the right of it. His CV of walking, guiding, and publishing is equally commanding.

The book is more a manual, almost a (hitch) hiker’s guide to the (GNSS/GPS) galaxy, and in this day and age it would have been all the better if it were published as an app, or loaded on a rugged, waterproof, crash (or at least drop) proof, PDA with which you could roam the lowlands and highlands without fear.

Given the detailed depth and layers of good although not necessarily the sole, or even the best, practice, the book’s target is said to be the inexperienced walker seeking advice and inspiration – with the added aspiration that it would salve the brow of the more experienced walker also. That’s a tall order, with some tall claims.

It may be my own limited parochial experience but I’d never come across the ‘Westacott Way’, or any of the previous editions of the book dating back some four decades. Indeed, having walked myself since being dragged out unwillingly from an early age – well before my teens – on outings from North London to Hampstead Heath or to the Chilterns, or with the youth club on weekend and week camps in the Home Counties and Somerset, Wales, and Yorkshire, there’s been over 50 years of hiking and walking running through these veins. The author certainly has the experience of many corners of the world coursing through his, and this manual is a distillation of all of that. It may neither be error nor opinion free, but for all of its warts it is much more than just his legacy to the wonderful world of walking.

The practical if at times pedestrian detail of the many sections and chapters is invaluable. Any prospective leader of walks would be remiss in not adding this to their library of well-worn hiking books. Like a pair of comfortable walking boots, this should be one of their constant companions. Indeed, anyone preparing any kind of walk preparation, leading, orienteering, or similar course of workshop will find this an essential, if not the essential, weapon in their armoury of manuals.

For me it was the introduction, to the pleasures of walking, that really gave the best setting for the book. Making many of my notes for this review after good if damp days walking, and drying by an open fire with a good pint of cask ale to hand, and reflecting, is perhaps the best time to read the enthusiasm that stalks every page of the book – however much they are sticking together.

The Book is going to be a passport, though probably not for all its practical detail for the novice wanting to venture beyond the outlying ‘burbs. It is no coffee table book, yet it lends itself to a perfect armchair beside a good hearty fire in the great, and a mug of tea (or satisfying pint of bitter) at your side.

It contains a heady mixture of sound sense, commonsense, the obvious, the practical, observation, comment, and firmly held opinion.

But looking again at my notes, and annotated copy, there is little to find fault with, or indeed to have a contrary view. Whilst some, perhaps many, will take issue with some of the opining – on the attitudes and views of landowners, or the Ramblers Association itself – these are not fundamental principles that are challenged or challengeable. Having encountered Mr Westacott’s views in online fora, and debated and discussed them, it would be unexpected to find substantial matters here that need challenging. This is no curate’s egg, but humility is not in the nature of the animal.

In some areas, there are relatively small matters where I might have spelt out advice in clearer terms. For example, on dogs (1:25), it’s worth emphasising that once having let a dog off the leash in the face of menacing livestock, one should not call to the dog as it is more likely to come to you rather than the threatening animal. In 1:28, there’s no right to stop and picnic, merely to pass over the land. In 1:31 it should be clear that to pick and take away anything that is cultivated is in fact theft.

In 1:37-38, walkers should not bring their own food and drink to consume on pub premises (or in pub gardens). The rate of pub closures has not appreciably let up, in rural or urban areas – and the most authoritative source of pub information (opening hours, facilities, location maps, food service hours, etc.) is now CAMRA’s whatpub.com, with nearly 36,000 (over 96%) of Britain’s real ale pubs listed. It will always be sensible to check directly with the pub as many, particularly in remoter areas, may decide to alter hours, or close early, from season to season or in the absence of customers. And sad to say pub closures can and do continue to happen overnight after a change of ownership.