The plan to connect every British town

In one month, 700 volunteers mapped 7,500 walking routes spanning 110,000km
The second wave of volunteers participated in a one-hour Zoom training session where they learned how to chart the Slow Ways network: routes must be as direct but as off-road as possible; only use existing public rights of way or paths with permissive access; and have places to rest at regular intervals. Within weeks, a new nationwide walking network was complete, making it possible to easily plan walks between cities like Liverpool and Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol and Newquay and Plymouth for the first time ever.

“We had about a year’s worth of time volunteered in a single month,” said Raven-Ellison. “I couldn’t believe how many people signed up, and how much time they were willing to invest in the project.”

One of the first to respond to Raven-Ellison’s call was Jane Taylor. “The idea of finding a slower, greener way to travel immediately appealed to me,” said Taylor. “When you walk, you see more – you smell the land, you feel the countryside, and you find out the history of the area. I don’t want future generations to miss out on that.”

The newly mapped network makes it possible to easily plan walks between places like Liverpool and Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol and elsewhere (Credit: Charles Stirling/Alamy)
The newly mapped network makes it possible to easily plan walks between places like Liverpool and Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol and elsewhere (Credit: Charles Stirling/Alamy)

In September 2020, Raven-Ellison put out a third call for an additional 10,000 volunteers to help verify the routes were accurate and safe. “I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t get that many,” he said. “But we’re now up to 80,000 and counting.”

Once Covid-19 restrictions lift across Britain, volunteers will walk the routes and fill out a questionnaire to assess the routes’ accuracy, safety and accessibility. Raven-Ellison hopes to soon publish the map on the Slow Ways website so that as many people as possible can review and grow the network. He says the Ordnance Survey has also expressed interest in publishing it on their website and app moving forward.

The Ordnance Survey has also expressed interest in publishing this new pedestrian highway
“I see this as a massive collaborative mapping project,” said Raven-Ellison. “We’re creating a new footpath infrastructure not just for ourselves, but for future generations. For that we’re going to need all the help we can get.”

Raven-Ellison hopes Slow Ways can create a new walking network for future generations (Credit: Terry Mathews/Alamy)
Raven-Ellison hopes Slow Ways can create a new walking network for future generations (Credit: Terry Mathews/Alamy)

With Raven-Ellison’s warning still ringing in my ears, I uploaded the GPX files he’d given me to OS maps and laced up my trainers. I started early in Storrington, a 12th-Century former market town with stone walls, a medieval church and 200-year-old limestone cottages so charming they belonged in a Beatrix Potter story. I turned left onto Brown’s Lane as my map instructed, passing an intricately carved Islamic-style door that looked like it belonged in a Moroccan souk rather than a rural English town, before traversing a muddy field into a country lane cocooned in a web of leafless trees and gurgling, pond-fed waterfalls.

As I emerged out of the sheltered bridleway onto open hills blooming with daffodils and dotted with lambs basking in the spring sunshine, it occurred to me that I’d driven past these fields a dozen times, yet I was smelling the land and seeing the landscape for the very first time. The footpath climbed steeply over the South Downs, the stitched canvas of green grass, brown-grey woodland and red-brick rooftops stretching out across the landscape like a patchwork quilt below. A buzzard swooped overhead while I pushed on, following the smell of cut grass and dry hay until, two hours later, I reached Findon.

In normal times I might have stopped for a West Sussex ale at the 16th-Century Village House pub, or perhaps a slice of carrot cake at Dee Dee’s tea room. Everything was closed due to Covid-19 that day, but Raven-Ellison hopes that once restrictions lift, having hospitality at regular intervals will make these routes more accessible to a wider range of people. “You can get a train or bus to the start point, and eat in a Tesco or stay in a Premier Inn. Slow Ways isn’t just for hikers – it’s for everyone,” he said.

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