Welcome to the first episode of Wanderers, a series that spotlights interesting walkers from across the UK and beyond. First up, ambitious outdoor artist Ali Pretty
In this episode, I’m talking to Ali Pretty, artistic director of Kinetika and architect of the Beach of Dreams, an epic 500-mile walk over 35 days along the coast of England.
Ali embarked on the walk with Guardian Travel writer Kevin Rushby and radio producer John Offord. They were joined by local people, environmentalists and artists along the coast of Suffolk, Essex and the Thames estuary. In this interview, I find out more about Ali’s walking journeys from India to Ethiopia, Slow Ways and her plans for the future. Listen below for the full interview.
Why do you walk?
I’ve always loved walking, but I came to long-distance walking quite late. I joined the Long Distance Walkers Association in 2010, just before I was 50, and I met these hardcore walking types who marched me everywhere out of London, you know, 20 miles out of the city regularly. I learnt a lot from those older walkers, they were a great bunch of leaders. And I really fell in love with long-distance walking because I sort of thought, well, the more I walk, the happier I feel, and I met all these people that I wouldn’t normally. I wanted to share [the benefits] with the communities I work with.
Walking also helps me to connect with my creativity and [generate] ideas. After about 10 or 15 miles you stop thinking about the shopping list or all the things that you’re worrying about and then the thoughts just come to you. I find that I always have my best ideas or most creative epiphanies in a 20-mile zone.
Describe your most memorable walk
A really memorable walk was the one that connected the River Thames to the the River Hooghly in West Bengal. Walking from Kew Gardens to Southend, we connected ten communities, along with ten communities in West Bengal while walking into Kolkata. That was really looking at the relationship of the communities that are outside of the metropolitan cities, and how they actually service the city. And you know that there are always communities there that exist to service the capital city. Looking at how London and Kolkata were connected both through these riparian communities and the research that came out of it was amazing. And then I guess the culmination of all of that was Beach of Dreams, the 500-mile walk that I did from Lowestoft to Tilbury.
Long distance was about the kind of conversation that happens – the longer the distance, the more organic the conversation. What I love about continuous walking over many days is a conversation that builds. I wanted to almost have a slight curation of that conversation. And so in Beach of Dreams, we did a call-out for people to adopt a mile and in advance of doing that walk, to photograph and write about their connection to that mile. And then when we walked every mile there was somebody who led that mile. And so it was very, very democratic. And we got that person to read what they wrote in the spot that they wrote it. And every day, it would be very different and they had a flag that represented them and their connection. What they read and what they talked about then shaped the conversation for that day. For me, that was really, really memorable because I felt this really personal connection to these 500 people and to that landscape.
And so the next step is to scale Beach of Dreams up across the UK and Ireland. I’m really excited. Creative Lives are partnering with us, to invite people to walk the whole of the UK coastline and the Irish coastline in May 2024 as a symbolic national moment to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do it differently’.
Are there any Slow Ways that you’d like to walk?
I’d like to see what routes there are in Scotland. It was really interesting walking into Glasgow, which I don’t know at all. And then I was wondering if you could walk up to Glasgow off to the western coast. I suppose there’s a lot more distance between places as you go north from Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up to the Highlands. It would be interesting to discover how to connect them. I have been to the Outer Hebrides and, as I said, there’s a lot of distance between them and much smaller communities and there is a need for walking between communities. You know, it might be to deliver your post to the next-door neighbour or whatever. I’m interested in Scotland because I feel that there is a stronger community network and stronger ethos of looking within your community, which presumably has remained because of the need for you to be part of community.
This is just an excerpt of the discussion. Listen to the audio clip above for the full interview. Thanks Ali!
Ali Pretty, Artistic Director
Ali Pretty is the founding member and artistic director of the international outdoor arts company Kinetika, which she founded in 1997 after an established career in carnival arts and a growing commitment to community engagement. Ali has collaborated with and led teams of artists to deliver large-scale events to diverse audiences all over the world, such as WOMAD (1985-1991), FIFA World Cup (2009), and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Her most ambitious project to date is Silk River, commissioned by the British Council as part of the UK/India year of Culture in 2017. Ali has recently completed Beach of Dreams, leading a 500-mile walk involving 500 participants and 500 silk flags from Lowestoft to Tilbury.