diamond geezer

 Monday, May 03, 2021

There's a new long distance walking network in town... and in the city and in villages and snaking across the countryside. Wherever you are in Britain it ought to be somewhere near you.

It's called Slow Ways - an initiative to connect the nation via a web of interconnected walking routes. It was originally proposed by Daniel Raven-Ellison, perhaps better known as the man who dreamt up the dubious concept of National Park Cities (and, more impressively, convinced Sadiq Khan that London was one).

For the Slow Ways project hundreds of nodes were selected marking centres of population, usually at accessible locations like railway or bus stations. These were then connected by straight lines to create a lattice of routes across the country - approximately 7500 connections altogether. The idea was to find a decent walking route for each of these connections, not necessarily direct but pleasant and broadly accessible, via a major crowdsourcing challenge.

Over the last year thousands of people have explored their localities to suggest possible routes and these are now available on the Slow Ways website (free of charge, no logging in required). The next stage of the project is to review each route and provide some background information to provide confidence that the routes selected are appropriate. What's the geography like, are the paths of a reasonable quality, is there a better way to go, that kind of thing.

Each Slow Ways node has about half a dozen connections depending on local topography. Here's the node for Rochdale which links to seven towns and villages up to six miles distant. Longer walks can be created by chaining together individual routes, so for example Manchester is two links away (via Middleton). To review each section and confirm it's better than potential alternatives will require a lot of additional input, but it only requires a few Rochdale residents to take an interest and hey presto, a verified interconnected pedestrian highway.

Some Slow Ways cross fields, others traverse hills, some follow the coast and a lot wend through suburbs. But I don't have that luxury of landscape here in East London, so for my trial run I've chosen to follow a Slow Way that's rather more mundane.

This is Dalbet, so called because it runs between Dalston and Bethnal Green. It's just two miles long, very much at the short end of the Slow Ways oeuvre, and involves only 12 metres of ascent so is hardly tiring. But it's still a good choice for me to investigate because there isn't an obvious direct route, indeed I bet most Londoners would plump for private or public transport every time rather than try to negotiate the intermediate area on foot.

I started at Bethnal Green tube station and headed north. I immediately wanted to take a shortcut through Museum Gardens, which was considerably more verdant and blossomtastic than the 'official' route up busy Cambridge Heath Road and would also have cut the corner off. I suspect this is the kind of feedback the Slow Ways team wants to hear because at present Dalbet is simply one person's submission with no reviews as yet.

I had a lot more trouble when it came to taking the turning off Old Ford Road, because there wasn't one. The line drawn alluringly on the map instead passed through some railings leaving me to take a diversion round the foot of a tower block. I suspect this is the kind of feedback the Slow Ways team not only wants but needs. Things got better after that, following quiet backstreets and with a zebra crossing in just the right place to traverse one burst of traffic. It wasn't especially picturesque, nudging into a light industrial zone past taxi repair yards, but I wasn't complaining.

Next a problem of scale. It wasn't clear from the line on the map whether I was supposed to follow the Regent's Canal towpath or the parallel (quiet) street. This was partly because I couldn't zoom in close enough to distinguish between the two but mainly because someone had drawn the line much too approximately. This shouldn't be a big problem in urban Bethnal Green but a badly-drawn line could leave you badly adrift in a Bedfordshire field or the Brecon Beacons. The canal was lovely whicheverway.

The next section involved walking the full length of Broadway Market with its artisan cafes and bijou shops - precisely the kind of jewel you might have missed if you'd chosen the route yourself. Then came the full length of London Fields, zigzagging across the grass in a Way that was definitely Slow, and all the more pleasant for it. I was impressed that this Slow Way had now managed to be off-road for nigh on one mile (canal/pedestrianised street/park) which is quite an achievement for inner London.

Finally it was time to head west along Forest Road, a long residential backstreet which was appropriately quiet and required no additional navigation for the next ten minutes. I only had to remember to turn right just before the end into a long pedestrianised piazza and I'd reached my destination at Dalston Junction station. It felt like forty-five minutes that someone had thoughtfully curated rather than simply thrown together, so I'd chalk that up as a Slow Ways win.

I don't really need a Slow Ways network to find my way around East London but I imagine it could be very useful elsewhere in the country where I'm less familiar with the landscape. It could also encourage me, or you, to take an interesting route from A to B rather than hopping onto some less sustainable form of transport. But it all relies on input and accuracy, so there's a lot of work to be done before I could be sure that a Slow Way wouldn't leave me adrift and unable to continue.

Imagine if this really took off and a detailed network of Slow Ways crisscrossed the entire country. In the meantime the beta website is well worth an explore, and if you dipped in and offered some feedback it might be even better.

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