How a new people-powered hiking network could transform travel in the UK

We speak to ‘guerrilla geographer’ Daniel Raven-Ellison about Slow Ways — a volunteer-led project kickstarted in lockdown aiming to map thousands of new walking routes, which he hopes will get Brits discovering the country in an entirely new way. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020,
By Daniel Raven-Ellison
The Slow Ways routes often start and finish in urban areas, where there’s greater choice of ...

The Slow Ways routes often start and finish in urban areas, where there’s greater choice of restaurants and accommodation, which Daniel Raven-Ellison hopes will enable more people to plan hiking trips on a budget.

Photograph by Getty Images

Tell us about the Slow Ways project and what it’s accomplished during lockdown.

Even though our islands are rich with paths, they've not been pulled together into a single network that makes it easy for people to see how they can get between places on foot. Slow Ways aims to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain's towns and cities, as well as thousands of villages. Most of the project has been completed in lockdown, with 700 volunteers drafting 7,000 Slow Ways routes that collectively stretch for 100,000km. That’s the equivalent of two-and-a-half laps of the equator.

While coronavirus has been traumatising for the country and for many of our Slow Ways volunteers, working on the project has proved a good thing for many of us. Isolation has, paradoxically, brought us closer together: through the project we've shared ideas, routes and creativity. The result will be a beautiful legacy of ways to enjoy and get around our country.

What inspired the project?

I had the idea while walking between Salisbury and Winchester. I've walked around Great Britain a lot, including a project with National Geographic that involved walking across all of the country's national parks and cities. Exploring the country like that, you start to notice things that could be done to inspire and support more people to benefit from walking — for example, rural walks that start and finish in the countryside and so can feel inaccessible to some people. Because the Slow Ways routes often start and finish in urban areas, where there’s greater choice of restaurants and accommodation, the project will hopefully help more people get hiking.

Daniel Raven-Ellison is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and creator of Slow Ways. 

Photograph by Daniel Raven-Ellison

Slow Ways offers a different approach to long-distance rambles — and perhaps an alternative to driving or public transport?

Many of us are used to walking 10 or 20km for the sheer pleasure of it. I think the Slow Ways will help to remind and inspire us to make walks of that kind of length to see friends, family or for work. Why? Because slowing down can be so good for us. Doing so would be good for our health and wellbeing, the environment, bring us joy, give us time to together, shape our stories and potentially save us money too. 

For people who love a weekend walking, I think we could see circular routes being replaced with triangular Slow Way walks. You could set off on a Friday and sleep in two different towns on the Friday and Saturday nights before finishing on the Sunday where you started off from. Each leg of your walk might well be through stunning countryside, but each evening you’d be somewhere new, with places to stay and places to eat, plus transport links if needed.

What’s next, and how do people get involved as volunteers?

There are thousands of people who are really excited about the Slow Ways and just can't wait to be involved. Some people want to use them to travel the length of the country, others want to discover new places, and many want to share routes they know with others.

Now that we've drafted the network, the next challenge is to get outside, to explore and test them. All going well, I hope that we'll be putting a call out to recruit 10,000 volunteers from across Great Britain to help with that at the end of this summer. To volunteer for that and to get involved, people should sign up for the newsletter on my website.

Daniel Raven-Ellison is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. When completed, the entire Slow Ways network will be published online, via a free, searchable Ordnance Survey database.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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