In late September I took a train down to Exeter to record the latest in my walk and talk podcast series. I was meeting Daniel, Raven-Ellison, the highly accomplished and engaging “guerrilla geographer” and founder of the Slow Ways movement, which is capturing the imagination of the British public in the age of lockdown.
The goal of Slow Ways is to build network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities. So far over 7,000 walking routes have been mapped. Now the challenge is to walk, review and verify them all – checking over 100,000km of Slow Ways routes!
Dan and I walked a Slow Ways route up the River Exe from Topsham to Exeter and, along the way, we chatted about nature, walking for wellbeing, the future of cities and the importance of trees.
Come join us on our walk and take a listen. You won’t be disappointed.
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This morning’s walk was going to be a leisurely stroll from the old Roman town of Caerleon following the river Usk to Newport. Heading into Wales’ third largest city might sound like a counterintuitive route for a national forest route but part of my challenge was to imagine a walking route that might inspire people throughout Wales to reconnect with nature, and to understand that we can make that connection even when walking in urban environments.
I’d been inspired in part by a new grassroots walking initiative called Slow Ways. It hoped, through crowdsourced mapping, to create a network of accessible walking routes that would connect all of the UK’s towns and cities. I thought perhaps some of my routes might help add to the Slow Ways map.
I was walking with an old school friend called Andy. His family hail from Newport and he was keen to explore his roots. We started by the Hanbury Arms pub in Caerleon and walked past the grass covered ruins of the old Roman amphitheatre. A group of young kids were playing hide and seek amid the impressive stone remains while their parents chatted and drank coffee.
Today, Caerleon is best known for its Roman heritage – many thousands of tourists come to visit each year. A thousand years ago though, the town became famous because of its association with another historical figure, King Arthur, who reportedly made the town his own seat of power sometime in the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans departed.
The notion that Arthur gathered his knights of the round table here in Caerleon was first documented by a 12th century travel writer named Geoffrey on Monmouth in his Historia regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain). It, along with another of his books, Prophetie Merlini (the Prophecies of Merlin), introduced what we now know as the Arthurian legends to people all over Medieval Europe. Geoffrey used the books to argue Arthur’s true claim to the title King of Britain and he described how the magician Merlin received the gift of prophecy after retreating to live with the animals of the forest.
Geoffrey’s tales captured the imagination of the age but not all of his contemporaries were convinced. One rival clerical scholar, William of Newburgh, concluded; “it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors… was made up, partly by himself and partly by others.”
Having left the town we now followed a new walking and cycling path it hugged the river Usk. It was high tide and the river looked picture postcard pretty as the sun broke through the clouds in streaks and reflected off the surface. A black cormorant was doing aerial reconnaissance for its lunch above us.
We’d entered a sliver of countryside that separated Caerleon’s expanding suburban sprawl from Newport’s old industrial edges. Even so, it was a surprise to come across a sow and her litter of piglets sleeping on the dry mud at the side of the cycle path.
Behind the pigs was a magnificent, old tree perched precariously on a steep hillside, its thick branches raised upwards as if to help it maintain balance.
“So what type of tree is that?” asked Andy with a hint of mischief.
“I’ve not quite reached that level of expertise,” I replied a little defensively. “However, I did download this handy Woodland Trust app with its guide to British trees. It should give us the answer.”
Just then an elderly couple walked around the corner. They introduced themselves – they were locals out for their daily constitutional up and down the river path.
“We’re trying to work out what type of tree this is,” I said. “Can you help?”
The couple looked at me as if I was a complete idiot. “It’s an oak tree. Obviously,” said the woman before quickly moving on.
“Probably best not to tell too many people you’re writing a book about trees just yet,” said Andy.
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