Walking for River: a journey from Ipswich to Bristol


Walking the route of the air ambulance, using maps from charity shops

Three years on from the premature birth of her grandson, River, and his subsequent transferral from Ipswich to Bristol in the Children’s Air Ambulance, Annie embarked on the same journey by foot to raise money for the charities that helped her family.

What inspired you to walk from Bristol to Ipswich?

My story began three years ago when my grandson River was born ten weeks early in Ipswich Hospital. River was cared for in Ipswich for a few weeks until he was well enough to be transferred to St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol. He was able to make that journey in less than an hour thanks to the Children’s Air Ambulance.

During this stressful time, my son and I came up with a plan to fundraise for the Children’s Air Ambulance to say thank you, but also to distract us from the stress of the situation.

We also helped a charity called Cots for Tots in Bristol who provide accommodation near the hospital for the parents of premature and sick babies and children. Also for Bliss UK which campaigns for better care provision and research into causes of premature birth.

River’s quick journey from Ipswich to Bristol inspired me to take the same journey on foot and that’s how the Long Walk Home came to be. My plan to set off in April 2020 had to be postponed until April this year (2022), but it has meant I could practice lots, learn to read maps, plan a route and give up smoking!

This is the Slow Ways route for Ipswich to Bristol – a long old way on foot, or an hour in a helicopter! Annie’s route went a little further south

What were some of your favourite parts of the journey?

I loved the whole thing! Every day I found myself somewhere new, until the last day when I walked from Bath to Bristol which I had already done in a practice. The route in my head after lots of tweaking was as follows:

Ipswich – Sudbury – Braintree – Thaxted – Saffron Walden – Buntingford – Harpenden – Northall (Dunstable Downs) – Aylesbury – Chadlington – Chipping Norton – Stow on the Wold – Stowell Park – Tetbury – Bath – Bristol

It was more luck than judgement that I managed to walk across some of the most lovely countryside I have seen outside my native Somerset. I loved Thaxted, a beautiful Suffolk village, and the stunning view from the top of the Dunstable Downs, and the long Cotswold Way towards Bath taking in the old battle grounds of Landsdown. My favourite church was at Edlesborough and the best pub was The White Horse at Edwardstowe.

I should add that the vast amount of practice walks I have done in Somerset have revealed my life-long home to be more beautiful than I could otherwise have imagined. Suffolk is a close second.

You mostly used old second-hand printed maps that you found in charity shops?

I collected all the maps I needed. Mostly Ordnance Survey maps. I cut out the sections I needed and used highlighter pens to plot my route. It didn’t matter that some of the maps were old, as I didn’t need to look at main roads. The footpaths marked still existed in nearly all cases. I did make mistakes but I was always able to correct them. Explorer maps, the 1:25,000 scale, are the best. On my wall at home I have three very old maps showing my entire route.

Where did you stay along the way? Who did you stay with?

My overnight stays were arranged and rearranged with the help of my friendship group. Mostly I stayed with friends of friends, one very old friend of mine, and all the rest were strangers that I met through local Facebook groups. Every night was comfortable and relaxed, with a hearty meal, a bath or shower and a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed.

I stayed in two very grand houses, other more modest ones and one night in a camper van. In Bath, I stayed in a house that had been a safe haven for suffragettes after their hunger strikes! In Tetbury I was accommodated free by a local hotel after having dinner with the mayor and her husband there.

Any interesting or serendipitous encounters?

Yes! On day two staying in Sudbury I stayed with a morris dancer who happened to know another morris dancer due to put me up in Braintree! He also knew the lady who had given me lunch earlier in the day.

I found the memorial stone to a man called Michael Beard. Years ago when I was a nurse in the Taunton hospital I nursed this very man!

I visited many graveyards and churches; there was one in Aylesbury where I found the memorial stone to a man called Michael Beard, husband of Jenny. Now, years ago when I was a nurse in the Taunton hospital I nursed this very man! I know it’s the same person because he came into hospital, with no ID, having had a stroke. He kept trying to say the name of a man, who I found and messaged on Facebook. It was a friend of his in the Channel Islands who informed him of his wife’s address in Aylesbury. It’s a long story this one, but what are the chances of me finding myself in front of his tomb while eating my lunch 10 years later?

In Saffron Walden the lady I stayed with told me she had worked with Kaye Webb, founder of the Children’s Puffin Club from the 60s onwards. I had just listened to a documentary about her, as I was in the Puffin Club as a child. The two of us hit it off straight away with a shared love of children’s literature. These were the main serendipitous encounters.

Wait, one more! In Edlesborough I stopped to chat to a couple out walking, and the woman commented on my Bliss UK t-shirt. She turned out to be a retired special care baby nurse! They photographed my flyer and I later received a very generous donation from them.

Have you always enjoyed walking?

Oh yes! I enjoy walking to the point where if I can walk instead of drive I always will! It has been truly life-changing to realise how far I can get under my own steam.

What advice would you give to other people wanting to walk long distances?

Firstly, trust yourself. Your ability to travel and find your way will always be better than you think. If you struggle with technology then don’t bother with it; learn to read a compass instead. If you need shelter try a church. Walking by yourself is very peaceful, with the added bonus of being able to make your own decisions and your own mistakes.

Have you walked any Slow Ways?

I have not yet planned a walk using Slow Ways, but I really want to. I think I will always prefer using a paper map. I love the concept of Slow Ways, I plan to do more travelling this way.

Thank you Annie, and well done!

If you too prefer paper maps to downloading gpx files and navigating with a device, you are not alone! You can print out maps of any Slow Way route on the site by clicking on ‘More options’ under the map of the route, and then ‘Print via Inkatlas’. There’s a video guide to printing a map here. Or if you have an OS map you can draw the route onto it with a highlighter.

Slow Ways
Slow Ways is an initiative to create a national network of walking routes connecting all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. It’s designed to make it easier for people to imagine, plan and go on walking journeys, walking further and for more purposes.