When community stories lead, Saira, walked her first route she found herself hooked by hidden paths that fed her curiosity for stories, people and places
Since starting at Slow Ways last year, I’ve walked a lot of routes. Some I’ve walked with colleagues and friends, others with strangers, but mostly I’ve walked alone. Early last year I embarked on very my first Slow Ways journey; largely unplanned, it took me from Canvey Island to Southend-on-Sea in Essex.
I walked across beaches, country parks, muddy marshes and through busy high streets. I stayed a night at Metal, an alternative Art School on the edge of the estuary. I met a local councillor named Peter, a wild swimming instructor in recovery, a sweet elderly couple, a farmer from Basildon and a basket weaver. I collected stories, took photographs and within the space of a few days, I was hooked!
My Slow Ways adventures have since taken me to so many different places — from Bradford to Bedfordshire and Newcastle to the Norfolk Broads. Every walk has been a revelation; I’ve discovered parts of the UK I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. On my journeys, I’ve connected with wondrous people, discovered incredible stories, traversed varied landscapes, and stumbled upon hidden gems. It’s been nothing short of magical! And, while I could easily list a HUNDRED reasons why I love walking Slow Ways, here are my top ten.
The Slow Ways community is very special! It’s made up of a magical mix of storytellers, change-makers, dreamers, doers, wanderers, wayfarers, walkers and, of course, a growing number of intrepid volunteers.
It feels nice to be part of a walking community. As a solo walker, I love being able to follow the journeys of other solo walkers through their reviews and posts on social media. It feels great to be connected through the act of sharing our findings, our photographs, a map, a drawing, some words — a story.
The pioneering Slow Ways volunteers I’ve met and connected with are incredibly kind, knowledgable, and adventurous. I love following their journeys on Twitter; David’s Brighton to New Brighton voyage, Mary’s ever growing photo library of stiles, tiles and bridges, Tony’s hand-drawn labyrinth of primary, secondary & tertiary routes he’s walked from his hometown of Edgware. Then there’s Mike’s ‘unhinged transit adventures’, Ingrina’s long distance multi-day treks through wild National Parks and Jane’s wondrous and spread out walks using paths seldom trodden.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael’s super cool 360° videos, Smith’s daring wild camping journeys, Anna’s upbeat South Downs jaunts and Helen’s wholesome wanderings with her dog. I love Hugh’s attentiveness, filling in key gaps in the network. Neil’s wondrous Welsh waterfalls, Tim’s epic mountainous meanderings, Zahra and Marlon’s joyous community group walks, Lynn’s magical illustrated journal logs chronicling her walks, Derick’s out-of-London green hikes, Liz’s solo urban and country meanderings… the list goes on and on and on. There are so many people on the Slow Ways social feeds whose journeys inspire me and propel me to walk more often, further and for more purposes. It’s a community that I feel very happy to be part of!
The occasions in which I’ve walked with some of our volunteers (now friends) have been so much fun. One of my most memorable Slow Ways walk to date, was organised by David Sanderson and attended by a band of us. It was a 15 mile (in part, stop and start) journey that started and ended in my hometown of Tooting.
The Slow Ways community is wonderful, welcoming and supportive — as it continues to grow, and attract more and more people from all walks of life, I’m hopeful this sense of solidarity and openness too will grow.
It’s nice to know I’m contributing to a National Walking Network that will help people get from A to B, with confidence and (hopefully) ease. It’s even better to know that with every mile walked and kilometre scribed, someone will read my review and be encouraged to add their own. Together these will create an incredible mosaic of experiences and insights.
It’s nice to know that these routes will be walked again and again. That they’ll connect people and places, far and wide. That every journey is a story and that every story is a world unto itself
It’s great knowing that I’m pitching in to create something practical, something momentous and extraordinary. That this network will be used for future generations for an endless number of reasons. It’s nice to know that these routes will be walked again and again. That they’ll connect people and places, far and wide. That every journey is a story and that every story is a world unto itself.
3. It’s always an adventure!
Every route I’ve walked so far has been an adventure — from Sunderland to Stratford-upon-Avon! I’ve seen castles, cutural centres, ruins, derelict factories, mills and museums. I’ve walked under motorways, over hills, through colourful and dank underpasses and alongside rivers and canals. I’ve slogged through mud and shingle, in heavy rain and sunshine. I’ve walked during the days and at night, in cities and in the countryside. Every walk has been an adventure that has left me feeling excited about planning the next journey.
It’s opened up the country to me in a whole new way…
As someone who doesn’t drive (and has no intention to learn), the fact that most routes start and end at a place where you can get public transport is enormously valuable. It’s opened up the country to me in a whole new way, enabling me to explore ‘remote’ areas, knowing that I’ll (eventually) be able to find my way back.
On my walks, I’ll meet all sorts of awesome people; I’ve met community artists and climate activists, photographers and foragers. I’ve met youth workers, up-cyclers and musicians. Walking Slow Ways has enabled me to explore parts of the UK, and to get to know the people, places and stories that make them special.
4. New discoveries
Walking Slow Ways allows you to discover new routes both near your home and further afield. On my walk with other Slow Wayers that started in Tooting, I discovered a part of the River Wandle that I never knew was accessible by foot, and got to pass through the incredible arches of the Henry Prince Estate. As a local tour guide and someone who felt they knew every inch of their local area, I was STUNNED!
Slow Ways often takes in paths less travelled, and in traversing these paths, you discover SO MUCH that you wouldn’t have otherwise. On recent wanderings, I’ve discovered the National Glass Centre, a fossilised tree from Aleppo, a hidden garden, a local cemetery, a secret beach. You never know quite what to expect while walking Slow Ways — and that’s part of the fun. Which brings me to another reason why I love walking Slow Ways…
5. It’s FUN
Checking Slow Ways routes is fun! It’s fun not knowing what to expect. There’s an element of surprise with each route walked, even routes that have been reviewed and verified. It’s fun getting a foot ferry across a river, thinking on your feet and taking a mile long detour to avoid a motorway crossing… it’s even fun getting lost in the dark and trying to find your way back to civilisation (if a bit scary).
I love the sense of relief and achievement you get at the end of every walk when you finally arrive at a settlement, and when you’re waiting for the train or bus, reflecting on all the things that you’ve seen, heard and learnt that day. You also learn a lot on Slow Ways walks from bits of local language, local culture, heritage to history. In a perfect world, my work would solely consist of walking, reviewing and writing about Slow Ways routes.
6. Stories, Stories, Stories
Checking Slow Ways inspires me to write, share and commission all sorts of ‘out-there’ stories. I come up with my best ideas while walking; it’s also the only time I’m able to really reflect on my work. Being in the world allows you to fully experience and participate in it. It keeps you grounded and connected; I often wonder what issues we could draw light upon using Slow Ways as a starting point. What problems could we collectively be working to solve?
What problems could we collectively be working to solve?
I come up with a hundred ideas relating to health, climate, music, sports, food, heritage and psychiatry. I dream up alternative Slow Ways travel guides created by communities, interviews with local legends, art reviews, zany podcasts, niche films, comics, drawings, soundscapes! I dream up musical playlists for specific walks and impromptu performance art. Sadly, at the end of the walk, I’ll go away and maybe action one of the hundred ideas I had — but it’s nice to still have them, and to be able to store them away till you can pull them out again. Nothing is really lost.
Equally, I love discovering Slow Ways routes through the eyes of our incredible story contributors. From young artists in Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield embarking on local walks and creating textiles, videos and collages in response, to inspiring individuals like Ben the ‘wheelchair fitness guy’ vlogging a wheeling journey from Bournemouth, passing by the spot where he had the accident that changed his life forever. I love seeing gallery owner and sea swimmer Finn Hopson capture a Slow Ways route from the sea through his otherworldly photographs. I love discovering hometowns through the eyes of writers like Anita Sethi, Magid Magid and Kate Monson.
7. It makes me feel well
Walking makes me feel well, physically, mentally and spiritually. It helps me to regulate my emotions and to think more clearly. So much has been written and shared about the health benefits associated with walking. I feel those benefits — viscerally, feel them.
Sometimes, when I’m stuck in my head, and everything feels bleak, I download a Slow Ways route on my phone and head out into the world. Following a set route requires you to be mindful, to focus and to be present. With every step walked, you begin to feel lighter. Your heart and mind opens up, like the skies above you and the horizons before you. You feel free.
I especially love walking in nature and being mindful of the creatures we share this planet with: the birds, the cows, the worms, the trees; walking makes me feel more connected to the world, and to those that inhabit it. In the words of Explosions in the Sky, everything is alive! It puts things in perspective, reminding me how small I am and how big the world is.
8. It’s ADDICTIVE
I find I’m spending more and more of my free time getting lost in maps, tracing routes with my finger, reading reviews, and dreaming up journeys. The possibilities are endless! I love adding new routes to my weird and whimsical waylists, planning long distance journeys that I’ll probably never go on and living vicariously through others’ adventures. Someone once said that Slow Ways is like a gateway drug, and that you need to walk three routes to truly become addicted. I definitely think that’s true. Despite everything I’ve said about the joys of checking routes, proceed with caution!
9. I can be alone and I can be quiet…
…equally I can get to know someone very well. Many Slow Ways routes are off road, and take in paths seldom used. As an introvert, I love using Slow Ways routes knowing that they won’t be very busy (at least not until the network is verified). On our diminishing island, with its busy, noisy cities, it’s easy to forget that there’s so much SPACE; so much LAND, so much SKY and so much SEA. One of the last walks I went on was from Sunderland to Seaham in County Durham; I didn’t come across a single person for the first five miles. It was great! I always return to civilisation at the end of a walk like this feeling happier and restored.
Alternatively, going for a walk with someone is a great way to get to know them. One my favourite walks so far was with Dima, a Syrian refugee, amputee, runner and interior designer. We went on a Slow Ways journey from her home in Flitwick to Ampthill. On the way we shared stories, memories, thoughts, ideas and reflections. By the end of the walk, I felt like I’d known Dima forever. We’d become friends! Walking enables us to have more honest conversations – the openess of our surroundings makes it easier for us to open up.
10. It’s one of the best parts of my job
Working at Slow Ways is a dream for so many reasons. I get to do all of the things I most love; I’m able to walk, write, and spend time with and learn from incredible people. I work in a team made up of visionary individuals, help bring people together, share the coolest stories, support people in sharing their ideas, contribute to creating an incredible walking network and basically feel inspired every single day.
Checking Slow Ways routes reminds me of my values, and some of the things that I most appreciate in life; things I want to share with others — magic, wonder, synchronicity, community, places, nature, dreams — the extraordinary details that make up every day.
In essence, walking Slow Ways enables me to meaningfully (I hope) connect people and places, through two of the things I love most – storytelling and walking.