Mary marches on: two years, 200 walks


In between tunnel detours, Saira interviews inspirational Slow Ways reviewer Mary Austin as she passes the 200 routes mark, clocking up more than 1000 miles!

Mid May, I joined Mary in checking three Slow Ways routes in the West Midlands. As we traversed dark tunnels and drifted through colourful underpasses, we spoke about canals, cosmos, and Mary’s tremendous walking milestone.  

I’ve long admired Mary for her determination, her sense of humour, her unwavering sense of adventure and most of all, her diehard commitment to following routes exactly as they are drawn. I also appreciate Mary’s capacity to forward-plan, her penchant for data (most Slow Ways reviewers, I’ve noticed, are lovers of data) and her natural ability to find beauty and wonder in the ordinary.   

Tunnel Vision

Our walk from Oldbury to Wolverhampton, was as eventful as it was pleasant. I learnt so much. I learnt about Mary’s relationship to the skies above: the planets and stars, and her awareness of moving through landforms on our spinning earth. I learnt about her summer holidays on a narrowboat as a girl and how her experience of cutting through waterways shaped the way she thought about geography and connecting places.

Along the way we stopped off for tea and masala chips at the cheerful House of Chai at Dudley Port. We stared at moorhens, coots and swans and their tribes of ducklings. We tuned into a cacophony of loud and erratic noises coming from a nearby factory. We admired quirky street art. We spoke to three older men, locals with big cameras hanging off their necks, by the entrance of the infamous Netherton tunnel. “You’re not going into the tunnel, are you?” one man asked. “Yes, we are,” Mary responded, assuredly. “You’ll never come out!” came the reply. He then went on to tell us they were travelling down it by boat in a few weeks. We pushed on.

Mary came well-equipped with her headtorch. On a previous visit I’d only managed to walk down a dozen meters before turning back thoroughly spooked, but with Mary leading the way I felt quite safe.

In this vein, Mary has pioneered routes up and down the country – braving dodgy stiles, herds of cows, barbed wire fences and a whole host of other not-so-fun obstacles. She’s left reviews of every route walked, informing the next walker of its delights and deterrents. That’s more than 200 reviews chronicling 200 routes walked!!


In between our ramblings, curious and awe-inspired, I interviewed Mary about her Slow Ways journey. Have a read below of our chat

What’s your most memorable Slow Ways walk, out of the 200 you’ve walked?

The first group walk I did with a bunch of regular Slow Ways reviewers was memorable. It was an underwhelming route, but walking with everybody made all the difference. It was the first time I met other Slow Way reviewers. The walk I did with Mike (in Yorkshire) was a three-day walk- I just did two days of it – that one too was memorable and a lot of fun! 

On a recent walk, I got talking to a farmer. He was very nice. Walkers and farmers are often in conflict but most of both groups are fine. It’s the odd ones who spoil it for everybody else.

Do you ever feel challenged or unsafe?

A little, on two long walks from Lancaster. They were very long; one was from High Bentham to Lancaster. I wasn’t happy with the original route so I tried creating my own, but it still has one very challenging part, called the Lune Valley Ramble. Others call it the Lune Valley Scramble! At one point, there’s a steep wooded slope down to the River Lune, which is getting wide at that point. Sometimes, when there’s a lot of rain coming downstream from the Dales, there’s a bit where the path feels a bit too close to the edge of the water. I felt worried about falling in the water. There is a question about danger of slips or falls on the Slow Ways surveys (which I usually try to answer).

(Mary later devised a third version of High Bentham to Lancaster, which avoids the Lune Valley Scramble.)

What did you do for your 200th walk?

I did two in one day. Off to the Yorkshire Dales, I caught a train to Hellifield then walked from there to Malham. That was my 199th route. Walking Malham to Settle was the 200th. It was all roads at the end, mainly quiet country roads, but that does wear your feet out a bit. Beautiful scenery though.

Have most of your routes been in Yorkshire?

Yorkshire and Lancashire. Although, I’ve also done a big line along the south coast of Cumbria, to Barrow in Furness. A while ago I also completed a big triangle: Lancaster to Carnforth, Kirkby Lonsdale sort of area, then parallel to the A65, Skipton, Keighley, Leeds, returning via Blackburn, Preston, and back to Lancaster area. 

Have you always been so adventurous, brave, and curious?

I started going on adventures about 25 years ago, when I used to drive more. I used to set off in the car from Lancaster up to Scotland with a tent in the boot, without knowing where I was going. I would usually stay on campsites, or occasionally wild camp. Sometimes I would sleep in the car if there were too many midges out. Occasionally I would book a B&B for a bit of luxury.

Have you had any unexpected encounters on Slow Ways?

On rural ones you often get glorious views. In Yorkshire with Mike it was very wet the second day… We walked Settle to Kettlewell then to Horton in Ribblesdale, where you can get the train home. There were some industrial remains on the Horton to Settle route which I went back to another time, to look at it better. 

What’s your ideal Slow Way?

Reasonably direct, off-road, as much as possible. Although I don’t mind quiet country roads. Former railway lines and canal towpaths are easy to navigate. Some walks have too many street junctions- I include ones I’ve made in that – so you spend too much time looking at your phone. One thing I like about Slow Ways is I use trains and buses so much more. They all start and end at stations or bus stops. 

Going it alone

Years ago I wanted to go to Norway but had no-one to go with. I spotted an advert for a local company doing a bus trip to and around Norway. There was quite a large single supplement for the hotel rooms, so I asked to share with another solo female. We’d quite often be crossing a fjord by ferry, and most people just sat there on the bus, couldn’t see anything except metal walls. I had to get off the coach and wander up on deck!

The Slow Ways community for me is more often about doing
stuff by myself, but sometimes sharing it with others.

For me Slow Ways has normalised going for a walk or a meal on my own. Even Ramblers and such, it’s all about big groups walking together. The Slow Ways community for me is more about often doing stuff by myself but sometimes sharing it with others. 

I hadn’t done any holidays on my own before I went to Scotland, where I was blown away by how much I loved it. I didn’t have to consult with somebody, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, there was no need to compromise.

Have you made any friends walking the Slow Ways network?

Yes, definitely; the Slow Ways volunteers who chat on Twitter are a lovely bunch of people. 

Do you have any walks coming up?

Glasgow. I go to Scotland every year but so far I’ve only done one Slow Way up there. They’re mostly big ones. But around Glasgow some of them are shorter, so they might come next.

What advice would you give a young woman considering walking Slow Ways?

I’ve got a mathematical mind, I think about statistics and the likelihood of bad things happening. Some women are scared of bad things happening to them, but in reality they are much more likely to have bad things happening at home, with someone they know, or perhaps in a car, and they don’t worry about either of those situations. It’s familiarity really. I think the media are pushing women away from certain public spaces. Stories aren’t newsworthy if they are good.  

Thank you Mary!

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Saira Niazi
For as long as she can remember, Saira's loved wandering around, discovering new places, talking to strangers and recording her adventures. When she was in school she would often bunk off and end up exploring markets, museums, city streets and suburbs. She leads wandering tours, writes, and is Slow Ways' Community Story Lead.