Going home seven times


Antony Butcher has lived in Edgware, London, for years, but walking home along the seven-pointed star of Slow Ways widened his sense of belonging

Apparently, it was Thomas Wolfe who said ‘You can never go home again’. I thought it was Hemingway; another thing I was wrong about.

A silly statement I thought, I’d been coming home to my North London suburb for decades. A standard metropolitan residential area, population 77,000. Without any big attractions or famous export, it doesn’t stand out. Many people think it’s near Edgware Road tube station, when it isn’t. I thought I knew my neighbourhood well – going to the shops, commuting to work, taxiing the kids to-and-fro, walking around local open spaces – generally the same routes and usually on a bike, in a car or on the tube.

And always returning home.

Every compass point

It came to my attention that my home town was a node on Slow Ways. It appears on the site as a seven-pointed star with routes going to places I knew well, but along routes I didn’t know at all. It offered not just new walks, but walks with a purpose.

Edgware on the Slow Ways network

I set off to walk those seven routes.

Writing up reviews on the Slow Ways website made me pay attention to my surroundings during the walk, looking for interesting sights as well as stiles and gates. I began to discover new parks, alleyways, churches, pubs, statues, shopping areas, independent shops not on Google, and blue plaques on houses that looked like my house.

Inspired, I continued with the whole web.

A highlight of Busedg two from Derick Rethans

To the north! A steep rise to stunning views, London clay but with areas of flinty sand. Streams, brooks and rivers flowing southwards, downwards, lots of pavements. Gardens, parks, open spaces, youngsters making documentaries.

Place names became familiar towns with welcoming cafes and pubs

I wasn’t passing by; I was passing through. With my feet on the ground, I was present, listening, looking, learning. I was walking but I was also stopping, talking, interacting with the places and the people, taking time to be in places I’d previously only seen flashing past through a window. Place names became familiar towns with welcoming cafes and pubs. My mental map of the area increased in size and detail.

Widening the web

Hooked on exploring, over time, I completed the web. Then I completed the webs of the towns at the edge of the web. After that, I tackled the webs of the towns on the edges of those webs, completing the tertiary ring of all the Slow Ways around my home town. From Gerrards Cross in the west to Loughton to the east, and from Hatfield in the north to Ealing down south. That’s about 800km of paths, taken slowly and without deadlines to absorb it all, to enjoy both the journey and the destination.

Some routes I pioneered were not navigable and some creative thinking was needed to work out a new path. This was sometimes frustrating, but always a satisfying challenge. Not every route was five-star but every walk added variety and interest. Using routes made by other people took me to places I would not normally have gone and would never have seen otherwise.

Current and former railways, A roads, B roads, motorways. Winding country lanes and roughshod Roman roads. Canals, paper mills, evidence of industries, tunnels, RAF bases and old airfields. Old holloways with coal posts, ancient woods and 800-year-old churches. Vibrant, exciting communities, temples and mosques. Battlefields and riot ground memorials, places of peace and the UK’s first ATM.

Places I once thought remote have now become local and familiar. They must be local if I’d walked there

Houses of the rich and famous from Spike Milligan to JMW Turner. I met many kind people who offered food, conversation and good wishes. Tranquil village ponds, maddening six-lane trunk roads. So many open spaces, farms, bluebell woods and natural beauty spots. There’s the new national Wembley stadium and also where the old stadium is buried. Places I once thought remote have now become local and familiar. They must be local if I’d walked there. The journey has been truly mind-expanding. I cannot get lost for long, I know this place.

Edgware, now zoomed out, with unverified Slow Ways routes in green, and verified (or snailed) Slow Ways routes in purple

That’s Edgware in the centre of the map. I live there. It is an amazing place, set in the middle of cosmopolitan communities, dotted with steep hills and greenspaces, large and small, threaded with rivers and canals. I know where there are kingfishers and nature reserves. It’s full of history and modern creativity. And people, lots of lovely people. It’s a vibrant interesting place and it’s my home.

I look forward to my next Slow Ways walk, knowing that as I leave home I will be adding to my sense of place, my sense of belonging. It will change my mental perception of where I am, and to some extent my own place within it. When I return, I will not be returning to the same place.

Thomas Wolfe was right. In a way, once you’ve tried a Slow Ways walk, you may never go home!

Cover image from a walk on Busedg two by Derick Rethans

Antony Butcher

Antony is a radiographer based in Edgware, London.
He is passionate about walking and the environment.