Six pioneers and their shears


Slow Ways is honoured to have a group of supervolunteers – solo walkers who are putting enormous time and energy into reviewing routes. They meet up for a walk every so often so I joined them in the Midlands, on the overgrown Longbridge to Halesowen route

My name is Saira Niazi, and I’m the gatherer of community stories at Slow Ways. Soon after starting this exciting new job I discovered that along the threads of Slow Ways there were community stories already happening, all over the place.

Six of the network’s super walkers had arranged to meet up, and invited me along. With over 330 routes and 2200 miles between them, who better to show me the ropes? Longbridge to Halesowen (with the Slow Ways name of Hallon one) provided the underwhelming setting, including impenetrable vegetation and broken bridges.

“The only reason this was a great walk was because of the company!” Lynn Jackson

They seemed like my people; daring, curious and with a passion for walking. I was excited to get to know them, to hear their stories and insights and to discover Slow Ways through their eyes, these adventurous spirits at the heart of the project. They’ve met through each getting on board with Slow Ways, and we have a lot to thank them for – their running (walking!) total is over 330 routes and 2200 miles, and by the end of today that will be out of date.

West Midlands Meet Up

David, Ken, John, Mary, Mike, Lynn, and I met at 9.45am at Longbridge station. We were all coming from different parts of the country, and so meeting in the middle seemed fitting. Longbridge is an area of Northfield, near the border of Worcestershire in the south-west of Birmingham. From there, we were to walk to Halesowen, a lively market town in Dudley. The walk was 7.5 miles, stretching across a part of land that I thought I knew relatively well. My sister had moved to Oldbury a few years ago, and on visits I explored the canals, woods, country parks and small towns of the West Midlands.

The sights and smells of Hallon one
Photo: Saira Niazi

It was a gloomy and overcast day, but we were all in great spirits. We chatted, laughed, and shared stories as we went, mostly about the routes we traversed – walking connected us all. The walk itself was varied and not without its challenges. We walked through residential areas and into woods, we crossed the countryside, passed under a motorway, strode alongside roads for a brief time and across a farm. We walked on paths barely visible, shrouded in bramble. Luckily, David brought along his shears and quite literally carved out a path for us with Mike’s help. We walked along a very narrow path uncomfortably lined with holly. We crossed busy roads and muddy fields. I was grateful to be in the company of good-humoured, problem-solving walkers.

The walk was punctuated with interesting conversations – stories of wild camping in the South Downs, of coming by a police van filled with live ammunition parked up on a quiet hilltop in the middle of nowhere.

How much activity goes off under the radar? How much more of life can we experience and witness through walking? We spoke of all the unlikely smells, sounds and sights that makes walking so interesting.

A map of the Slow Way route from Halesowen to Longbridge

Smells we’d encounter passing by a chocolate factory, a bread factory, people’s homes. And the sounds: racing horses near the tracks, pounding rock music by a concert venue, the running water from a stream. And the sights!

On our walk we had passed by a mismatch of sights; from fly-tipping and glorified stiles to the remains of the hallowed Halesowen Abbey. Between dodging branches and crossing busy roads, amid conversations – time passed by quickly, too quickly for my liking. 7.5 miles felt like a few at most!

I loved Mike’s enthusiasm and can-do spirit, David’s pragmatism and wit, John’s sense of humour and grit, Ken’s curiosity, and generosity in sharing his knowledge, Mary’s thoughtful and kind nature and Lyn’s creativity and warmth. The best part of the walk was getting to know everyone. I liked learning that Mike’s favourite Slow Ways journey was in the Isle of Wight; he walked 50 miles in two days! And that David had walked alongside A-roads too and that Mary would go walking in Scotland every year. That Lynn often enjoyed walking alone and taking her time to pause and see the world. 

A fellowship of solo walkers

During the first part of the walk, Mary lost her phone, we retraced our steps in search of it. Ken found it lying on the ground. ‘I’m not used to walking with people!’ Mary exclaimed as we continued. It’s easy to get distracted or lost in our conversations. We were all used to walking alone – knowing this made coming together and appreciating being in each other’s company more meaningful. Together, we made up a fellowship of solo walkers.

The Slow Ways super walkers: Lynn, Mary, David, Ken, John, Mike and me!
Photo: Saira Niazi

At the end of the walk Lynn, Mary and I decided to have coffee and cake in Halesowen. We talked about the route which, although it was a bit of a mess, was made joyful because of the company. Lynn’s beautiful journal entry summarised it perfectly. We talked about the purposefulness that Slow Ways offers, an opportunity to walk alone while being part of something bigger. I felt grateful to have spent time with such incredible people, and to have discovered areas I knew little about.

A page of Lynn’s walk diary
Photo: Saira Niazi

After Lynn, Mary and I parted ways, I got the bus towards Dudley. David had mentioned a dark tunnel, more that two miles long. Netherton Tunnel: an otherworldly sensory experience. I got off the bus close to Netherton and walked up a long residential road until it opened up to a large green space. It began to rain.

I crossed a bridge, walked down some stairs, and looked ahead ominously at the dark tunnel. I switched on my torch, took out my camera and tentatively walked down the tunnel. It was disorientating and strange, in the distance I could see a pin of light. I walked towards it, listening to the sound of falling water and echoes of nothingness. A mile in, I decided to run around and make my way back. It was just as David had described it – strange, otherworldly, and thoroughly haunting.

The sensory deprivation of Netherton Tunnel
Photo: Saira Niazi

I thought about the volunteers I was with just an hour ago. I thought about how brave and brilliant and knowledgeable they are – and kind – for it is an utmost act of kindness to be a pioneer – to tread paths that may have seldom been trodden, not knowing what difficulties one may encounter, and to share that information with others.

If you’ve not yet walked a Slow Way, why not get started during our National Swarm on the weekend of the 26/27th of March, 2022. Walk wherever you are, or come to our Leeds Get-Together and meet us and other people to walk with.

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.