Yorkshire walking holiday review: T A Leonard and The Holiday Fellowship story

T A Leonard at home in Conwy

T A Leonard at home in Conwy - Credit: Archant

T A Leonard’s story goes even further back. During the ‘wakes week’, the mills in Lancashire closed for maintenance, providing hard working mill workers with an opportunity to take a much needed summer holiday. Leonard, then living in Colne in Lancashire, wanted to offer these working class folk an alternative to the usual destinations of Blackpool, Morecambe, or for the more prosperous, the Isle of Man. He felt workers would benefit from the fresh air, exercise and companionship a walking holiday would offer. He formed a rambling club in 1891 and took 30 people on a four night break to Ambleside. His walks became an annual event and their popularity grew.

Starting on an HF excursion in 1901

Starting on an HF excursion in 1901 - Credit: Archant

In his book, Adventures in Holiday Making, Leonard reflected that: “In those days we were content with very primitive arrangements, so long as they gave us the joy and freedom of the open fells.”

Things are very different now. In the UK alone HF Holidays runs 19 country houses with en suite bedrooms and facilities including heated boot rooms, indoor or outdoor swimming pools, ball rooms, jacuzzi spas and wi-fi. The journey taken has been a fascinating one.

Just before the First World War in 1913, with the ambition to provide an all-inclusive holiday for the price of an average weekly wage, Leonard set up the Holiday Fellowship with headquarters in Conwy, Wales. After the WWI the Holiday Fellowship continued to prosper and extend the number of destinations at home and abroad. In 1920 a membership magazine ‘Over the Hills’ was first published, by 1930 the circulation had reached 21,000 copies. It continued to be published regularly, containing news and views on walking until 1982.

By the end of the 1920s the Holiday Fellowship had 23 houses in the UK and nearly 30,000 guests. At this time the society responded to queries from female guests and produced a pamphlet on ‘Dress Hints for Ladies’. It advised lady walkers to “wear strong, low-heeled boots, woollen stockings, short skirt, close fitting hat or cap, and in summer a light scarf or handkerchief for the head, a woollen jumper and light macintosh or poncho”. It adds that “complete changes of underwear, and plenty of woollen stockings are essential”.

By the end of the 1930s there were 82 affiliated UK groups (plus two abroad) and the number of guests continued to grow to over 45,000 by the end of 1938. World War II meant the closure of most of the centres and a difficult time for the Fellowship, with guest numbers plummeting to 14,500 in 1943.

Food has always played an important part on an HF Holiday break. Until the early 1960s the various components of guests’ lunches were carried in a number of official rucksacks which included on a summer’s day a lettuce rucksack. The lettuce rucksack was the least popular, for in those pre-clingfilm days there was no way of preventing the freshly washed contents dripping down your back.

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On 19 July 1948, T A Leonard died aged 84 at his home in Conwy. Pioneer of open-air holidays and veteran of the outdoor movement, he had founded the Co-operative Holiday Association (CHA) in 1897 and had been instrumental in the setting up of the Youth Hostel Association (YHA), Ramblers Association, becoming its first president, and the National Trust. Even at the age of 80 he was looking to set up an organisation to provide family holidays. He was an unorthodox radical who had many interesting ideas, typically trying to buy Mount Snowdon for the nation to commemorate George V’s Jubilee - a plan that was rejected by the locals.

Would this pioneer of the walking holiday have foreseen that his creation would still be growing and evolving a century later, moving with the times, becoming more modern, but still maintaining the ethos that inspired him back then?

In 1982 the society changed its name from Holiday Fellowship to HF Holidays. Today it has head offices in Cumbria and Hertfordshire and is the UK’s largest walking holiday company. It is the recommended walking holiday partner of the Ramblers Association, Britain’s walking charity and one of only 11 national affiliated organisations with a seat on its governing body, the General Council.

HF Holidays is also a member of the Outdoors Industries Association, British Mountaineering Council and John Muir Trust, one of the country’s leading guardians of wild land and wildlife. The company is also affiliated to ‘Scotways’, which works to safeguard rights of way in Scotland.

It currently donates annually to 25 Mountain Rescue Teams and 11 Air Ambulances around the UK, and in 2010 the company was the founder corporate member of the Campaign for National Parks and sponsored the first Park Protector Award.

HF Holidays also champions responsible tourism through its own charity, the Pathways Fund. Through donations from guests, the fund helps preserve and improve the amenities and safety of the environment where walks take place, such as erecting signposts, installing kissing gates and improving pathways and walls. The charity also provides assisted holidays for individuals who cannot afford a holiday because of difficult personal circumstances.

The number of affiliated walking groups has more than doubled over the years and now stands at 190, a clear indication that walking as an activity is as popular as ever, and HF Holidays continues to offer quality holidays, helping people enjoy the great outdoors as it has done for almost a century.

T A Leonard has left a remarkable legacy. Five million people have holidayed with HF Holidays and they take more than 50,000 people on holiday every year. Currently 700 dedicated volunteer leaders follow in Leonard’s footsteps guiding their guests in 113 destinations in 46 countries all over the world from the Cotswolds to Tuscany and the Alps, and from the Scottish Highlands to Nepal and New Zealand. The co-operative still continues to plough all its profits back into making the holidays better for its guests. It is no wonder HF Holidays has been voted best large tour operator by Guardian and Observer readers in 2010, 2011 and 2012 with a 98% satisfaction score. In June 2012 HF Holidays became a Which? Recommended Provider, one of just five companies receiving this accolade, achieving a customer score of 94%.

HF Holidays is a forward looking company with comfortable country house accommodation and it has never lost Leonard’s original ethos of offering fun, friendly, down-to-earth holidays where guests enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company in equal measure.

T A Leonard knew the secret of a happy life and passed this on to tens of thousands of people. He was in the truest sense a crusader and citizen of the world. HF Holidays continues to play a prominent part in promoting walking holidays and the use of the countryside for walking and outdoor adventures nationally and internationally, championing the issues relating to walking wherever possible.

The recent introduction of children’s membership to the co-operative, brought about through a change in the law, would have pleased Leonard greatly.