Love walking? Volunteers needed to test local routes for a new national network

A map of walking routes will help to connect Great Britain’s towns, cities and villages.

By sparing a couple of hours, you can contribute to a new national walking network designed to make routes safer and more accessible for all.

Slow Ways is overseeing the creation of the 80,000-mile national walking network that connects all of Britain’s towns and cities, as well as thousands of villages. It provides information about existing paths, trails and roads to help make walking easier and more accessible, especially for those looking to walking to start a new healthy habit.

A couple sat on a rock looking at a map in the countrysideCredit: Shutterstock / Halfpoint
Walking has many benefits, whether it’s for leisure or simply to get from A to B

Almost 1,000 people have already volunteered their time to create routes to help people travel around, and between, our urban areas, villages and national parks.

Now, to finish the job, Slow Ways needs people to check the routes on their own doorsteps by volunteering just a couple of hours of their time.

It’s the perfect opportunity for anyone who enjoys walking to give back to their local community – particularly older people, who have played a key role thus far, according to Dan Raven-Ellison, a geographer, explorer and the founder of Slow Ways.

“Younger people have really engaged in this project, but it’s older people, retired people often, who have a bit more time on their hands, who have been vital in building this network so far,” he said.

“We need your wisdom, knowledge and experience to complete it.

“Millions of people in the UK love walking, so why not combine your walk with a purpose? People will be able to follow in your footsteps – it may be later the same day, the following week, next year or in generations to come.”

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What is Slow Ways?

Slow Ways was set up in 2020, as a not-for-profit community interest company. “Slow Ways is there to inspire and support more people to get out walking and to discover new places,” says Raven-Ellison.

“Many people will use them for recreation, but historically these paths were created for functional walking – to walk to work, visit relatives, or trade.

“Now with more congestion on our roads, walking often takes less time than you would think, so it’s a great way to leave the car at home.”

In the UK we already have a system of rights of way – footpaths, bridleways and byways – as well as good mapping – whether that’s the top-quality maps from Ordnance Survey, or collaborative mapping such as OpenStreetMap.

Raven-Ellison says that what is missing is the human element. “There is no invitation or social cue to say you can walk a particular route on foot, even though it’s what people have done for thousands of years,” he said.

A close up of a man outsideCredit: Slow Ways
Dan Raven-Ellison founded Slow Ways in 2020

“Maps show us where there is a historical right of way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you can walk it. The route may be blocked or unsuitable.

“Just because a footpath is there doesn’t mean it’s the best way to go. Slow Ways is a network of routes that are safe for you to use in an enjoyable way, based on local knowledge and checked by volunteers.”

The scheme was launched during lockdown, when more than 700 people attended online training sessions and then got their boots on to walk their local paths. Just two months later, they had plotted 7,000 routes across the UK.

Now each of these routes must be verified before they can be included in the finished network.

A new national walking network

Slow Ways has an interactive online map with a searchable database. It includes information on each route and who it is suitable for – wheelchair users, dog walkers, families and so on.

Raven-Ellison says this information is vital. “Can you push a pram along this route? Can you take a wheelchair along it? If you have a big dog, will a difficult stile block your path? The route descriptions include whether a path is suitable for a small dog like a pug, or a Labrador-size dog,” he tells us.

An older couple walking a dogCredit: Shutterstock / MonkeyBusiness Images
The project aims to gather information such as a route’s suitability for dogs

Walkers will be able to use the network for local and national walking journeys.

“If you are plotting a long walk, you need to know that it is going to work, that you aren’t going to end up with your path blocked with barbed wire and a route that goes nowhere,” says Raven-Ellison.

But he stresses the routes aren’t just in the countryside. The network stretches through London and cities across the UK to allow walkers to get off busy streets and discover hidden places.

The network doesn’t just allow you to make short journeys, either. Some testers have used it to complete long-distance walks, including one from Brighton to Merseyside and another from Devon to Yorkshire.

Raven-Ellison hopes people will use the routes to create their own UK walking holidays, bringing business to pubs, hotels and shops in communities which aren’t in tourist areas.

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How to get involved

Go to the Slow Ways website and register. Then type your postcode into the search bar. You’ll see a list of all the routes near you and their status. Some may be ready to enjoy, but others may need verifying or reviewing.

When you decide which one you can help with, you can then pledge to walk that route. There are maps for each route that you can download to your phone to help guide you.

Once you have completed your walk, leave a review on the website and fill in the details.

That’s it – you’ve played your part in creating a new UK-wide walking network.

“I’ve seen so much wildlife since volunteering”

Tim Ryan, 69, from Devon, heard about Slow Ways when he was stuck at home during the pandemic.

He says: “Like many others with only an hour available for exercise, I thought I could use my time planning and designing routes, for what I considered to be a great project.

“When restrictions relaxed, I started walking and reviewing local Slow Ways routes.

A man leaning on railings by a beachCredit: Tim Ryan
Ryan has loved seeing wildlife while checking routes for Slow Ways

“I now spend more time walking from home on local routes and using public transport to get me out further. It has opened up new horizons and presented new challenges, which I had never thought of before.

“I have seen way more wildlife than ever before. When perhaps in the past my aims when walking were more to get the trip done, rather than enjoying the nature around me, taking part in Slow Ways has changed me so much – I’ve even taken up painting now.”

“Volunteering has given my walking a purpose”

Mary Austin, 67, from Lancashire, was a keen walker before she heard about Slow Ways.

She says: “I’ve done many day walks with friends or relatives, but often when I was walking on my own, I felt a bit aimless. Slow Ways has given me a useful purpose to my walks.

A woman standing in front of a log pilesCredit: Mary Austin

“If a route is too problematic because of blocked access or dangerous road crossings, I really enjoy adapting it or developing an alternative route to upload – I get an adventurous buzz out of pioneering these new paths.

“On rural routes I’ve loved the surprising discoveries of unexpected stunning views, carpets of wildflowers, and wildlife like hares, buzzards and curlews.

“On urban routes I’ve really enjoyed some of the architecture and quirky cafes. One of my favourite routes involved walking along the canal towpath underneath Spaghetti Junction.”

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Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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