The Interview: Michael West of The Wayfarers
In September, I'm leading a walk with The Wayfarers in the quintessential English countryside of Exmoor and Dartmoor in Devon.We'll see the backdrop to The Hound of the Baskervilles and visit Agatha Christie's house near Dartmouth.
The inspiration for this was my first walk 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 interviewed Michael a couple of years ago, as The Wayfarers celebrated 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.
Where have you just returned from?
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
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. 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
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.
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!
Click here for more information about my walk in Exmoor & Dartmoor with The Wayfarers