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Marilyn Pilkington: the secret life of a volunteer ranger (and tips to avoid getting lost)

Interview by Jayne Ashe

Lancashire County Council have involved volunteer rangers within the countryside service for many years. These volunteers spent many hours roaming the county, providing advice to countryside visitors and assisting at events across a number of sites such as Beacon Fell Country Park and Spring Wood. At certain times there was as many as 80+ volunteer rangers, who supported a very large proportion of the Countryside Service. They were highly thought of across the county, and their jobs and responsibilities were very important.

Nowadays, however, this number is substantially lower, and former volunteer rangers are joining new groups and getting involved in other opportunities. Marilyn Pilkington is one of these former volunteer rangers. Living in Sabden, she is still very much in the shadow of the local landscape, namely Pendle Hill, but she doesn’t patrol across it anymore. She now uses her knowledge and experiences in different capacities, and is still a member of other local conservation groups, as well as a keen walker. But hopefully she still has some stories to tell from her ranger days…

When did you become a volunteer ranger?

I applied to join the ranger service around 17 years ago – however when I first started I wasn’t quite able to get involved in the duties I expected. My first weekend was the same weekend that foot and mouth outbreak hit Lancashire, and so over the next 12 months I was based at Wycollar, covering up footpath signs and waymarkers, telling people they couldn’t go for a walk and enjoy the landscape. This wasn’t really what I had signed up for.

But you persevered through it?

Yes and when the countryside ‘reopened’ I did my first patrol over Pendle Hill – and I had never seen so many people! The weather was good and with the recent limitations everyone came out for a walk that weekend.

So as a volunteer ranger, what were your main roles and responsibilities?

Volunteer rangers would usually work in pairs and spend many hours patrolling regular routes, which included a stretch along the Ribble Way; the route right over Pendle Hill from Whalley to Downham and the path over Jeffrey Hill down to Marles Wood. We were responsible for a number of tasks such as litter picking, providing advice to walkers and users, small management and maintenance jobs, as well as making sure the public was safe and the countryside was left how it was found.

© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe

I know the path into Marles Wood down by the Ribble at Dinckley is particularly popular for barbeques and the like in the summer months, which can lead to litter. Has it always been that way?

Yes that stretch of path is concessionary, and the land owner was never keen on people playing in the river and the barbeques and picnics. One summer’s day I was patrolling from Longridge Fell, over Jeffrey Hill and as I was walking along the river towards Marles Wood I could see some teenage boys playing in the river on inflatables. I tried to get their attention, concerned about their safety, however was completely ignored. When I got home that evening I sat down to eat tea with my son, and asked him how his day was. He told me that he had spent the day playing in the river near Ribchester with his friends on inflatables…

So he didn’t realise it was you who was trying to get their attention?

Course he did, he would rather just ignore me and then act like nothing happened!

I am guessing you had to deal with lots of different people once the 31st of October came around every year? Halloween on Pendle Hill is a very well-known event. How was Halloween as a ranger – did you patrol on the hill?

I grew up in Accrington and every year as a teenager we would walk over the Hill to Clitheroe on Halloween, ready to catch the 6am bus home, and so I have always known about its popularity as a destination on that night. I was really keen to do a patrol.

Things have changed over the past few years, but it used to be an even busier time and we would talk to people who had come from all over – Blackpool, Manchester and further afield. There used to be multiple ranger teams positioned at different points, to try and ensure everyone’s safety as many of the visitors didn’t know the area at all. There used to be a lot more going on in Sabden – street vendors and fairground rides – and many people wouldn’t arrive prepared for a late October evening. There would be people appearing armed with drink and food, expecting a short walk to the summit and something amazing to happen!

© Graham Cooper
© Jayne Ashe

It seems that being unprepared when attempting to walk up the hill isn’t an uncommon events. Did you come across or have to deal with any unfortunate accidents when you were out patrolling?

Not directly no, however I received a call one evening, after I had been out all day, from a neighbour who was a police constable at the time. They had received a call from a group of girls who were lost on the hill, the mist had set in and they didn’t know where they were, let alone where they needed to go. The Mountain Rescue Team and helicopter had been despatched, but my neighbour thought that if I talked to them, because I knew the hill so well, I may be able to work out where they were if they were able to describe features to me. Luckily when I was on the phone to them I could hear the helicopter, so I knew they had been found.

So what are your safety tips or recommendations for walkers and other hill users?

Never underestimate the weather! Conditions can change so quickly on the hill – even just taking a light windproof jacket would be recommended, even on a fine day. When the mist or the fog rolls in people can get very disorientated.

I was doing a visitor management surveys some years ago, which require me to stay at the same point for some time counting walkers going passed. I was passed a second time by one gentleman who was supposed to be doing a circular walk, and he assumed I had moved location. He didn’t even realised that he had lost his original route and had actually managed to turn back on himself.

© Graham Cooper

Apart from normal ranger duties were there any other opportunities you got involved with? I heard you were involved with the first Pendle Walking Festival…

Yes I helped by leading the Walking with Witches trail for the first Walking Festival. Dave Oyston, who was then a countryside officer, asked if I wanted to reccie and lead the walk after it had been put together using various historical notes which mentioned the home of Alice Nutter, the Quaker movement, those kinds of bits of information.

But you don’t lead it anymore?

No, I did lead it again in the 2nd year, but had 72 people turn up! With only myself and my neighbour who was volunteering as my back marker, I had to call Paul Shoreman for some ranger reinforcements. I knew that the group would spread out too much, and the weather wasn’t great so I was quite nervous having the responsibility for all those people on my own. But it proved so popular, and people got carried away with my elaborate stories. It’s lovely to see that it’s still being led for the Festival by different people.

So Pendle Hill has always been quite a large presence in your life, and now you live right in the shadow. Why did you move to Sabden?

I have been here for 11 years, but have always known the area because I have been walking through, passed and round for a long time. I was having a conversation with my friend about wanting to move to the countryside, to which she told me that I have been saying that for as long as she’d known me. I was horrified by this, because I don’t like just to talk about things, I like to do them! So I ended up here.

© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe
© Jayne Ashe

And so you enjoy getting involved with Sabden life?

Since I have retired I have got to know so many more people in the village, the local community is lovely. I help out as a steward for the Sabden Horticultural  Show, which is a great showcase of all sort of things that people really take pride in. One of the competitions involves growing potatoes – a couple sell the potatoes around the village before Easter, two seeds for £1, and then they come round again just before the show to dig them up. The heaviest crop of potatoes wins. I always have a bet on with Dave at the end that mine are going to be much better, and I keep him fretting for a few months – but my potatoes never end up in the ground!

And the final question – where is your favourite place on or around Pendle Hill?

One of my favourite places is near the stepping stones at Roughlee, before you reach over to Pendle Water. I think along there makes for lovely walking, the houses are beautiful and I love how the Bay Horse Inn has become community owned. I hate to see old establishments close because a pub is at the heart of a village!

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