The Interview: Michael West of The Wayfarers
I first muddied my hiking boots with The Wayfarers in the early 90’s, when they led me on a week-long walk through the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire. A few years later, I joined them on the Coast to Coast Walk of England, from the Lake District through Yorkshire and down to the sea at Whitby. And I’ve long been impressed by their dedication to that most English of pursuits, walking. That’s walking as in eight or 12 or even 16 miles a day, stretching the legs in some of the most beautiful countryside on the face of the earth. They are purists when it comes to going up hill and down dale, albeit purists who know the merits of a good fire, a good dinner, a couple of pints of Old Peculier and a comfortable bed at day’s end. And they’ve expanded way beyond England’s borders to offer walks in more than a dozen countries, from Italy and the Czech Republic to the United States and New Zealand. I first met co-founder Michael West back in the early 90’s, on that stroll through Izaak Walton’s fishing beat in Derbyshire, and quickly became a fan of The Wayfarers. I caught up with him recently for an update on The Wayfarers in their 25th season.
Where are you now?
I’m sitting at my desk in my Dorset farmhouse in southwest England. From my office I can look down the valley and see the sheep grazing and look forward to my daily walk through the fields with the dogs.
Tell me about the origins of The Wayfarers, who came up with the idea, and when did the company actually start?
Christopher Hague and I were daydreaming one day in the early 80’s about combining our love of the outdoors with our need to earn a living. And so we decided to give it a go – not as a business plan born of acumen but as a way of life – and we put together an itinerary in the Dorset of Thomas Hardy, where I live and which we both greatly love. It has proved to be an inspired decision. We have introduced thousands of guests to the delights of walking, in some 20 countries on four continents. Many of those guests have become dear friends. All our leaders and managers, too, are friends, or friends of friends, and we have truly created a family business, a family of friends. As a way of life, it has been a triumph.
My last trip was to Austria for the Founders’ Walk. Of all the Wayfarer trips I have taken over the years, this journey from Innsbruck to Salzburg ranks amongst the very best. The mountain air and scenery, the walking, the food and the music and, above all, the warmth of the Austrians themselves, and our walk leader and manager especially, combine to make a fabulous experience. Actually, although I walked it twice in 2007, I can’t wait to go back and do it again!
It’s been said that the English are mad about walking. Does this inform who The Wayfarers are and is it part of the appeal for Americans?
I think the English probably invented the idea of walking as a "leisure activity" and, yes, all of us at The Wayfarers are passionate about it. Unlike some other walking operators, we have never been tempted to widen our activities into more robust pursuits, fashionably called "multi-sports," such as white-water rafting, bungee-jumping or even biking. Walking is at the heart of all The Wayfarers’ itineraries. We believe the only way to experience the essence of a country is on foot.
And I’m guessing you’re one of those Englishmen who loves to walk?
Yes, my wife, Betsy, and I walk the dogs (three Jack Russells) every day. Yesterday afternoon we took them along the cliffs overlooking Lyme Regis and the English Channel, in the footsteps of countless Wayfarers who have enjoyed our journey along the world-famous Jurassic Coast of Dorset. I am really fortunate to have so many miles of glorious walking right on my doorstep.
How would you describe The Wayfarers in 2008. As a walking company, or something more?
Although walking is at the heart of The Wayfarers, our mission is to envelop our guests in the spirit of the region in which we are walking. That means experiencing not only the scenery but the culture. Local food and wine, of course, feature prominently, but we also highlight history, visits with local people – both grand and simple – in their own homes, special performances of music and poetry-reading, and traditional crafts. So, yes, The Wayfarers is more than a walking company. We open a window onto the soul of the world about us. We also care deeply for the countryside through which we walk and we actively support organizations and charities that protect the environment. We are in partnership with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, for example.
How would you characterize the Wayfarers approach to adventure travel?
Adventure to me means a journey into the unknown, exposure to the new and wonderful. It does not have to be accompanied by danger, discomfort or over-taxing physical challenge.
One thing I’ve noticed in my walks with you is that unlike many adventure travel companies, your leaders tend to be older, wiser and mature, people who’ve had an earlier career in most cases. Is that still true?
Yes, our leaders can be considered "old enough to care, young enough to have fun". As I said, they are all friends, or friends of friends, and come from a variety of backgrounds. There are former ambassadors, army officers, farmers and teachers. But they all have a wealth of local knowledge and are imbued with those essentials of Wayfaring responsibility, both for our guests and for the environment, and, above all, a sense of fun.
You’ve branched out way beyond Britain, so what are some of your most popular walks these days?
As we have such a huge and loyal following of guests who return to walk with us time and again (we call them — and consider them — Old Friends), it is important that we continually offer new destinations and, of course, they tend to be the most popular. So the response to our newest trip, to South Africa, has not surprised us. And the annual Founders’ Walk, which this year is in the New Forest and Isle of Wight, in southern England, is hosted by Christopher and me and is always a sell-out. Of the more traditional walks, those in Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy always appeal, as does the more strenuous journey from Coast to Coast in England. The opening of Eastern Europe, too, has proved immensely attractive with Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic being especially popular.
Any new destinations in the works?
We have introduced South Africa and we are particularly excited by our new itinerary in the Loire Valley of France, both making their debut in 2008. Christopher is researching a trip to Greece for 2009 and we are thinking about an in-depth look at India to follow on the success of South Africa. Northern Ireland, highlighting the renowned Giant’s Causeway, is part of our future plans and will most likely be the destination for the Founders’ Walk in 2009.
Unfortunately, I find myself too often at my desk but I try to take part in several of our walks each year, in addition to the two Founders’ Walks. One of the best things about The Wayfarers is meeting so many interesting and fun people and I never want to miss that opportunity. I also meet all our leaders every year and talk through the itineraries, usually in situ, to see how and where we can improve our trips and to discuss feedback from our guests.
What do you like about travel? What do you detest?
The answer to the first part is difficult as so much appeals — the changes in weather, the smells and sounds of the countryside, the thrill of the unexpected, trying to make myself understood in a strange language, observing another way of life and, of course, a different cuisine. The second is easy — airports and all that implies — crowds, queues and the ubiquity of "shopping opportunities".
Where are you off to next?
Betsy and I are taking our first real holiday for some years to Australia. We will visit my sister in Brisbane, Wayfarer colleagues and Old Friends in Sydney and realize one of my long-standing ambitions, to explore Tasmania. But I love home best of all — and I’ll miss the dogs and that view down the valley!
For more information, contact The Wayfarers/ 800-249-4620