Back when humans’ only mode of transport was their own two feet, they created well trodden paths between settlements – the first trails. Over thousands of years, partly thanks to the Romans, some of these paths became roads catering for the horsedrawn cart and then motor car.
Our transportation network is now completely built around vehicular transport, of course. It’s evolved to make the journey from A to B as smooth as possible for the driver. Further, with the aid of satnav devices and phones, finding your way from any village, town or city in the country to another can be done in seconds.
But wouldn’t it be great if it were as easy for foot travellers? Navigation websites such as Google Maps may offer a route for pedestrians, but you can’t always be sure they aren’t going to direct you on to a dual carriageway or somewhere similarly unsuitable.
This is where Slow Ways comes in. The idea came from OS Get Outside champion Dan Raven-Ellison, who last year put out a call for volunteers to help map the country with suitable walking routes between towns, cities and villages. As the first lockdown inspired a greater interest in walking, 700 individuals worked together to create 7500 routes (now more than 8000) stretching more than 110,000km. The website launched this year and runners, walkers and cyclists were then invited to check and review the routes.
So, this is what TR editor Paul Larkins, his friend John Pike and I decided to do. Starting from my home town of Peterborough, we would run to the nearest sizeable town, Stamford. The quickest route via car is 14.1 miles and involves mainly dual carriageway along the A47 and A1, definitely off-limits to pedestrians. On speaking to a few friends about this plan, it proved most would have struggled to come up with a safe way to run from Peterborough to Stamford, even though they were well aware of how to make the journey by car.
‘Stapet’ as it’s called by Slow Ways — the naming convention combines the first three letters of each town or city at either end of the route — is measured at 15 miles. We met at Peterborough train station, since most Slow Ways begin and end at major public transport hubs. This of course makes it easier for runners and hikers to get back where they started if the route is too long to return on foot.
With mid-run sandwiches handed to photographer Bob, we headed off out of the city centre. We knew it wouldn’t all be trail but we were pleased within the first half-mile to get alongside the footpath of the river Nene (pronounced ‘Neen’ incidentally, despite the ‘Nen’ claims of those at the Northampton end upstream). Remarkably, despite the city of Peterborough being seven miles long from north to south, you can quickly find yourself in the countryside if you head off-road in an easterly or westerly direction from the city centre.
We were very familiar with the next four miles of the route through the beautiful Nene Park. Having lived in the area for 20 years, I count this as one of the wonders of Peterborough – part of the reason why it’s been named one of the greenest cities in the UK. It stretches for miles out from the city centre in the triangular corridor between the A1 and A47 dual without even a village to spoil the views. ‘Enjoyable and beautiful’ – one of Slow Ways’ 10 requirements ticked off. It was so enjoyable that we forgot we were actually supposed to be reviewing the route.
Continuing at a reasonably sedate pace, given this was the farthest some of us had run in quite a while, we moved on to the villages of Castor and Ailsworth. A couple of pubs and a coffee shop here are probably the only places mid-route that tick off the ‘eating places’ box. In fact, Slow Ways advises there should be a place to sleep, rest or eat every 5-10km. I don’t think we needed to sleep, which is just as well! That said, that stipulation is, of course, more for walkers doing longer hikes.
“Someone ask us what we’re doing and where we’ve come from”, wished Paul, but in reality there was barely anyone along the way to try to impress.
Heading out of these villages we came to a section which challenged another of the Slow Ways criteria we were reviewing. It was a 1km section of road without any pavement. It was enough for us to mark it down but not to rule it out as a suitable route.
Back alongside the Nene again, we could hear the traffic of the busy A47 running parallel but it seemed like a different world entirely to the peaceful scene by the river. Unfortunately, though, we had to cross this road in a 60mph speed limit. We were lucky – there was no traffic when we got there so we didn’t have to wait – but was this section in the spirit of Slow Ways?, I wondered.
By this time, the rain had started to come down quite heavily and, to make matters worse, we started to lose our way a little. ‘Ease of navigation’ is another criteria for a Slow Ways, but we – sorry, I, as chief navigator – had to take the blame for this. I had the route mapped out on my phone, but runners get lost more quickly than the walkers who would normally be following this route. We ended up heading the wrong way around a farmer’s field, trudging through heavy-going mud, trying to find a way out at the end and then having to wade through a thick patch of thigh-high nettles. I was itching for the next couple of days but at least it all added to the sense of experience.
When safely back on track, it was on to the Hereward Way, named after Hereward the Wake, who fought the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. I felt like we’d shown similar fighting spirit to get through those nettles.
We reached the grounds of Burghley House – yes, setting of the famous horse trials on the edge of Stamford. “We must be close now,” said John. Well, no, a few more miles to go, pointed out Paul – this is, after all, a little bigger than your average back garden.
Eventually we arrived at the picture-postcard town of Stamford. You’ve probably seen it on film or TV dramas. The view was particularly enticing on this occasion, though, as it meant we were near the end of our run.
We hit 17 miles as we came into Stamford train station – two miles longer than planned, which confirmed my rusty navigation skills.
I’ve always felt there is something particularly satisfying about an A to B run. You’re not just running around in circles but you actually have a purpose. You’re completing a journey – in this case, reaching the nearest big town on foot just as they might have done thousands of years ago. Long before motorways, and when the slow way was the only way.
Meet the man with the masterplan...
Creating a network of hiking routes was the aim when Slow Ways founder Dan Raven-Ellison came up with the idea and set it in motion.
Although we have an array of rights of way and footpaths through the country, and wonderful apps such as OS Maps, he sensed a lack of cohesion to it all.
“Prior to the car, we had footpaths connecting all the towns, cities and villages in the country, and that’s how we got around, but I think today there’s a lot about our footpaths that make it a little bit difficult for people to make sense of, or to feel that they’re usable”, said keen walker Dan. “For me, a really good example of this is that, throughout the countryside, we already have lots of roundels all over the place telling us that you’re on a footpath and that it’s named after some person. But it’s not telling you what you’re headed towards.”
Our travel network is heavily skewed towards catering for drivers. However, given the increased emphasis on greener modes of transport and the realisation of the health benefits this can also offer, it is time to address this issue.
Dan continued: “When you think about our road infrastructure, we’ve an expectation that you can drive reasonably directly between any two places in an accessible and straightforward way and that it’s fairly easy to navigate. I’m not suggesting Slow Ways suddenly have signage through the country, but that’s just one example of where good mapping and signage telling you where you are or where you’re heading can make a big difference to whether you’re likely to make that journey or not, and the range of people who feel they are welcome to make a journey like that.”
The website even has a journey planner which allows you to join up various Slow Ways to form a much longer route right across the country.
As well as looking to create new links between towns, cities and villages, Dan is calling for people to review existing ones and suggest alternatives as it could be that an existing route is not particularly accessible.
Or, of course, you could simply pick a route near you and run it.
Three Slow Ways to try
Sherringham-Cromer (Shecro) five miles
This takes in the North Norfolk Coastal Path, which is definitely one of the more runner-friendlier sections of the UK’s coastal routes. That said, Beeston Bump is mildly testing, but you are rewarded with magnificent views and a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Alton-Petersfield (Altpet) 14 miles
Within just over an hour from Waterloo Station, you can be at Alton, the starting point for this trek mainly along Hangers Way. There are plenty of wooded and grassed sections passing by a series of tree-covered hills known as the ‘Hangers.’
Burntisland-Buckhaven 14 miles
Perfectly illustrating how routes can be formed of several Slow Ways put together, this one starts in the historic town of Burntisland and heads up the Fife Coastal Path. See evidence of ancient lava flows, rich birdlife and centuries-old monuments.