People are one of the most troublesome creatures spoiling the beauty of the countryside – those who thoughtlessly throw their litter out of car windows or neglect to take their rubbish home, not to mention the fly-tippers.

Sounding your horn after someone has thrown empty packaging onto grass verges out of the window of a vehicle, only seems to get you a universal gesture of unfriendliness.

Gone are the days of the Keep Britain Tidy TV adverts, which for a certain age group, were drummed into our subconscious as children, making us feel it was a cardinal sin to drop litter.

So, what's to be done?

Well, some community-spirited people are taking matters into their own hands.

Last month, Claire Hampson, the creator of Wombles of Hambleton, received an invitation from Keep Britain Tidy to be presented with the Ambassador of the Year, Rising Star Award at the Houses of Parliament. This dedicated community group, based in Northallerton, has received a Hambleton Heroes Award, and two other Make a Difference awards from local radio stations, for their work to make a cleaner world. In 2021 they broke all records when they filled 4,101 bags of litter from their local environment.

Claire has worked in Stokesley and Thirsk secondary schools as a languages teacher, but realised, like many teachers, that her workload was unsustainable and she had little work-life balance. Still wanting to work with children, she applied to be a High Level Teaching assistant and was successful, beating 75 others to work as a class support in a primary school, and to teach some French, which she loves, and is still doing.

Having more time to spend at home with her family, she began to notice the amount of fast food rubbish around the grass verges in her village of Danby Wiske.


Claire at the Houses of Parliament

Claire at the Houses of Parliament


"It was a light-bulb moment," she says. "So together with my sons, we decided to pick up the litter, but we only scratched the surface. There is no 'away' when you throw something away. It has to go somewhere and it lingers. Glass doesn't break down and cans take years to disintegrate."

In the summer of 2018, Claire became an ambassador for Keep Britain Tidy, and later she began to present assemblies in primary schools in the Northallerton area, in order to raise awareness, also delivering talks to many other community groups such as the scouts, the WI and air cadets. During her last half term week, she talked to about 600 children about keeping their environment litter free, and some of the schools decided to create their own litter picking teams.

While out walking, Claire would automatically take a bag with her, and in 2018, she answered a call from Northallerton Food Festival who wanted someone to organise picking up the litter. It was then that the Wombles of Hambleton were formed – one of many volunteer litter picking groups.

"Bedale's Litter Busters do a great job, Thornaby's Community Litter Pickers meet every weekend to clean up their area," says Claire, "as do Middlesbrough Champs who pick up an amazing amount of litter. Unfortunately according to statistics, the 18 to 25 year group are the worst offenders. During the pandemic we kept going, communicating through social media, and it gave many of us an incentive for our daily walks."


Sacks of rubbish collected by the Wombles of Hambleton

Sacks of rubbish collected by the Wombles of Hambleton


Keep Britain Tidy provide insurance, hoodies, high visibility jackets, bags and recognition for the groups, while Claire attends many conferences, and is keen to meet and discuss ideas with like-minded people, of which there are thousands. One of the ideas discussed to prevent the problem in the first place is that fines are not a solution, as there is no nobody to police the throwing away of rubbish. One government plan is to get money back for the return of bottles and cans, which may be an incentive. Claire reflects that return and reward could be the way forward, but maybe shock tactics in advertising are also needed.

Despite the good work that is going on not everyone is supportive.

"People sometimes say to me that I am doing someone out of a job, and that's what they pay their council tax for," says Claire."But the council only have the resources to pick areas with a high footfall, and the grass verges are picked mostly when there are no green bins in winter. However, they will try to sort out problems which people report, but they don't have the authority to clear litter from the large areas of private land around the county."

In 2021 Claire received a call to say that Thirsk was in need of some help. With friends who live there she collected more than 100 sacks as well as old fridges and microwaves which had been there for years. Even the most picturesque places need help sometimes. To date over the last five years, the Wombles have collected more than 12,000 sacks of rubbish in their area.

"I think that people are becoming more aware of the urgency of protecting our environment," says Claire. "Certainly the children in the schools I visit are very keen to set up their own litter picking groups. It is so easy for anyone to join a group, and people with disabilities who can get about with or without motor scooters do a great job, and there is a sense of achievement too. We are also the eyes and ears as to what is happening around the towns, such as damaged road signs and fallen trees, which we report. I work with Friends of the Earth, Community Gardens and the Food Festival – it is all interlinked, with the same aim in mind.

"We will keep on doing what we are doing for as long as we can, but there needs to be more personal responsibility from the large food producers about packaging and recycling. It is so easy to take your litter home, or keep it in the car until you can dispose of it. Sadly I have seen animals killed by litter. Making a cleaner world for our children and wildlife is an urgent priority."

Claire is organising events for the Keep Britain Tidy Great Spring Clean which started on Friday, March 17 and runs until April 3.

To take part in this or to create or join a group, email your local council, or Claire can be contacted on on facebook: thewomblesofhambleton or Twitter: @hambletonwomble.