ATG Oxford

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by ATG Oxford's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from ATG Oxford is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles

Founder Christopher Whinney
The best way to see a
country is on foot
In the hot summer of 1976, the founder of ATG Oxford
Christopher Whinney walked across Europe from London
to Rome, following in the footsteps of millions of medieval
travellers along routes of the ancient Via Francigena.
Technology has changed the way we travel dramatically;
however, Christopher tells the
that the best way to see a
country is still on foot.
I had been commissioned to write a book about my journey on foot to Rome.
The publisher requested numerous re-writes, and by the fourth version much of
the narrative’s spontaneity, integrity and interest had been lost. I consigned the
manuscript to a box and progressed with my “plan B”: to offer holidays comprising
“journeys on foot” to discover the most beautiful and interesting areas of Europe,
an experience shared by our ancestors since prehistoric times. To finance the
venture I sold my house – a remote, rustic mill in Italy – though proceeds from
the sale proved insufficient to fund a business. Success would have to depend on
referrals and I hoped that if I provided consistently excellent trips, people would tell
their friends.
Following my dream
Apart from mountain trekking, no similar product was being offered, perhaps
because the logistical complexities made it uncompetitive. Operating a specialist
niche business to standards that defied large-scale operation might, however,
provide protection from plagiarism. I rented a tiny shop in a side street from
which to sell trips and, as window dressing, some outdoor equipment. Alarmed
»Founder: Christopher Whinney
»Founded in 1979
»Based in Oxford and Tuscany,
»Services: Walking holidays in
»No. of employees: 12, plus 40
freelance tour guides
ATG Oxford
Highlighting best practice
by tourism’s tendency to destroy its
own resource – the environment – I
founded the business on principles
of “environmental best practice”:
conservation and sustainable
Obtaining hiking equipment proved
surprisingly difficult and at an outdoor
equipment fair, of the 136 exhibitors
only two agreed to supply the shop,
as the others already had a retailer
in the area. There was still a little
money left from the house sale, so I
sent significantly large orders to seven
suppliers. Five of them delivered the
order, to which I added some unusual
specialist brands, and by default
a burgeoning outdoor equipment
business evolved that could support
the travel venture.
In 1979, my “journeys on foot”
concept, with its environmental ethos,
seemed to many people whimsical and
eccentric, a view soon borne out by
its slow progress. Eleven people took
part in the first year on a walk from
Siena to Rome; 22 in the second year
on a walk from Volterra to Siena; then
35. Balancing the development of an
embryonic business with supporting a
young family proved challenging and
soon disastrous: “I married a writer,
not a small shopkeeper”, my wife told
me. And then she left.
The next four years, living in the tiny
attic above the shop, I developed
the business. It was not long before
the shop could afford a manager,
freeing me to research and lead
new trips – including the Camino de
Santiago – then unmarked. I soon
opened a second shop off Oxford High
Street. Eventually, seven years after
the company’s foundation, the travel
business was able to support itself.
The shops were sold and part of the
funds invested in a derelict 8th century
Augustinian canonry, Pieve a Castello,
once a main overnight stop on the Via
Francigena, between San Gimignano
and Siena in Tuscany. Historically and
architecturally important, it was subject
to stringent protection orders and it
became a project for the future.
Professionalising the business
Increased demand for “journeys
on foot” required new leaders and
managers who also needed to be
trained. It was a critical turning point,
because if standards fell, all my
momentum would be lost. I put my
experience of organising and running
trips into creating a training course.
The following year it won a National
Training Award and client feedback
indicated a significant rise in standards.
Training remains key to the culture
of continual improvement. The
initial selective recruitment and
training is residential, lasts for seven
days and comprises 24 modules
including specialist first aid and food
hygiene qualifications. Subsequent
training is ongoing for all, with
online customer assessment of
performance and analysis of customer
feedback identifying any perceived
areas of weakness. Our twice-yearly
conferences allow everyone in the
Discovering the most
beautiful and interesting
areas of Europe
remains key to
the cultureof
company discuss and resolve any
The importance of working as a team
was clearly crucial to success and in
1989 I limited the size of the company
to 50 employees and freelance guides,
which I considered to be the maximum
number for a cohesive team unit while
achieving the consistent delivery of
excellence. With a strong team we
could increase our product range,
and we added more programmes,
including independent walking trips.
We also used our research archives to
develop well-documented route books
and began offering a resident route
manager in each area. In 1991, ATG
became one of the first recipients of
the Investors in People accreditation,
which we have retained to this day.
Recognition and reflection
During the 1990s we obtained more
permissions for the restoration of Pieve
a Castello and works were undertaken
in what became a 20-year sustainable
development project. This not only
restored part of Italy’s heritage, but
the renovated complex also contributes
significantly to the local economy
as a Residenza d’Epoca, welcoming
travellers from around the world.
In 1999, following a number of
successful fundraising events in aid
of the Assisi earthquake disaster,
the Ad Terrae Gloriam (ATG) Trust
was founded to raise funds for
areas visited, through sustainable
development projects. In 2003,
ATG became the first organisation
to win both the top International
Environmental Travel Awards – the
Tourism for Tomorrow Business Award
and the USA National Geographic
and Conservation International World
Legacy Award for heritage tourism.
In 2006, ATG became the first travel
company to achieve the ISO 14001
accreditation with an effective
environmental management system
that is reassessed annually.
After 40 years, thanks to our excellent
team and systems for continual
improvement, the quality we achieve
is still rising – with over 99 per cent
of clients rating overall enjoyment of
their holidays as excellent. Whether the
“journeys on foot” idea was a catalyst
or just a concept whose time had
come, many ATG-researched routes
are now the officially marked standard,
while new areas are benefiting from
walking tourism, and millions of
people are discovering that “the best
way to see a country is on foot”.
Many ATG-
routes are now
Pieve a Castello: a
20-year sustainable
development project

This article was sponsored by ATG Oxford. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett.

Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett

The ability to listen to and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones.

With ongoing fractures in Westminster, the reverberations of which are being felt across the country, it is essential that politicians have a firm understanding of the challenges with which British organisations must contend; and that leaders in both the public and private sectors are aware of the difficulties faced by those working in all levels of politics, from local government to the national arena.

This is why The Parliamentary Review combines political content with stories from a wide range of organisations- small and large; new and old; those at the peak of their powers and those who have peaks to surmount. It is why these stories seek to inspire and challenge all who read them.

And it is why we, as former Labour and Conservative cabinet ministers and current members of the House of Lords, feel it is important to put aside our political differences and work together to ensure these stories are given the platform they deserve.

In this publication, you will find an insightful take on the past year in politics from the BBC’s Andrew Neil and a concise rundown of key events in industry and parliament. Most importantly, you will be able to read in-depth accounts from the individuals and organisations who make The Parliamentary Review what it is.
Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett
Co-Chairmen of The Parliamentary Review