In recent months, one of the few outdoor activities people have been able to enjoy has been going out for a walk. The Polytechnic Rambling Club has been making the most of the great outdoors for 135 years.
In 1885, while out on a ramble, two members of the Polytechnic, W.K. Davis and Percy Randall, realised that walking was a popular activity. As a result, in 1886 these two men founded what was initially called the Polytechnic Christian Workers’ Union Ramblers, later the Polytechnic Rambling Club, as a means of socialising while enjoying some fresh air and exercise. Despite getting off to a slightly disappointing start with only five people turning up to the first ramble, the club, which is still in existence, went on to become one of the Poly’s most popular societies, and helped found a movement of rambling clubs at polytechnics throughout Britain.
For the first year the average number on a ramble was only 11 but numbers gradually rose and the ramblers ventured as far as Barnet, St Albans, Epping Forest, Shoreham-by-Sea, Chislehurst and Dorking, walking on average 10–12 miles. In the 1890s the ramblers also started to venture abroad on walking tours to Switzerland, Austria, France and Belgium, walking up to 25 miles each day. During the winter months, rambling was replaced with excursions to sites including the Tower of London, the British Museum, the Daily Mail and the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Members of the Young Women’s Christian Institute (the women’s branch of the Poly) soon became interested but were initially only allowed on special excursions such as river boat trips. Nevertheless, by 1888 women were allowed on certain joint rambles which were often attended by as many as 80 members of both Institutes. These occasional excursions sparked sufficient enthusiasm within the YWCI that in 1910 they formed their own club. At the end of the First World War it was agreed that women could join the men once a month. It was not until 1946 that a joint fixture list was formed and the two clubs were finally amalgamated in 1955.
The First and Second World Wars had a considerable effect on both clubs. Between 1916-1919, the men’s club was disbanded. In 1939, much of the summer programme was cancelled and in 1940 membership had fallen from 153 to 85. The funds of the men’s club were frozen and the women took over its administration. In the aftermath of the Second World War, rambling became more expensive as day rail fares increased but this did not deter many. Instead the ramblers joined the Youth Hostels Association and weekend rather than day trips became frequent occurrences. The combined membership of the two clubs in 1950 was 300–400.
However, the clubs were not solely about walking and their socials, including dances, whist drives and garden parties, were some of the most popular at the Poly. The society started to take on a role of a dating agency as many future couples were introduced at such occasions. When the men’s and women’s clubs celebrated their respective golden and silver jubilees in 1935 around 350 members and friends were present at the Dinner and Dance.
The club saw disruptions by foot and mouth disease in the 1960s and declines in membership in the 1970s and ’80s (reaching a low of 40). However, by 2000 membership had risen to over 100 and the club is still going strong today.