multiple footpath signs

In Praise of Pathwatch

This blog is to draw your attention to the Pathwatch initiative from The Ramblers. Those of you who’ve been following my progress will know I’ve had a spot of bother or two with footpaths. Specifically, step forward Staffordshire and take a bow, but mind that electric fence. Ouch! Too late.

I blogged about this and also put a video up on YouTube which this garnered quite a lot of interest. Not least, I managed to get the walking magazine The Great Outdoors to write a piece about it. One of the suggestions that came out of this was that I should download the Ramblers app Pathwatch, and it’s been a lifesaver.

Pathwatch is part of a wider initiative from the Ramblers to get all the rights of way in England and Wales well maintained by 2020. Quite a lofty ambition, but surely a worthwhile one at a time when we’re all being encouraged to exercise more?

So, I’m here to praise Pathwatch, and to tell you why it’s worth getting. Just so you know, this is an entirely independent review, no one’s paying me. I just love it and want to share it.

Know Where You Are

The app is super easy to use and one of its best features is the knowledge that you never need be lost again when out on a walk. It starts with this three option screen. The three choices are whether to download some maps. This is useful if you think you may have dodgy signal. These don’t need to be where you are at that moment, you just search from this home screen:

Home Screen

The second, and to my mind most useful, option is to locate yourself, using this handy button.

Locate me!

Not only does this tell you where you are, it also overlays your position on a map of public footpaths! So, if you think you have gone wrong, you can check, like this:

Whoops! Field edge, but not the path.

Equally, I find it useful to reassure myself that I’ve taken the right path, like this:

On track again. Phew!

 

Report Naughty Landowners

One of the biggest issues I had with my walking in Staffordshire was unmaintained footpaths. Okay, it isn’t just Staffordshire, but they have it bad. Well, one thing this app lets you do is report bad practice. Not only report it, but send a picture, if it’s something bad like this:

rotton stile

Electric fence barring a stile

Or just let the Ramblers know, so they can see if they can do anything about it. The reporting procedure lets you record positive and negative experiences.

So far I’ve only used the negative option! This takes you through two stages. First, what the nature of the problem is/was.

Then, some more detail. This is the screen under ‘Obstructions’ for example.

But, Isn’t It cheating?

Yes, that was my initial reaction. I set out on this walk not wanting to use any electronic gizmos unless in extremis. I wanted to be a heroic map-only kind of a person. The problem is, in extremis is what I experienced. So, I say: embrace the technology! As such, I offer this sort of mini-review up for nothing. Think of it as a little gift from Diagonal Walking.

 

There’ll be more on how I managed to find my way around the country in the book. Register your interest here.

 

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how to write a travel book

Safe From Staffordshire

Well, I’ve made it safe from Staffordshire. As anyone who’s been following my other blogs, or indeed the YouTube Channel (see the video Surviving Staffordshire), or my Facebook page, might have gathered, the second stage of diagonal walking wasn’t exactly a breeze.

 

As with previous blogs, I’m going to use this blog to keep you up to date with progress on the walk. However, from now on I’ve decided to differentiate the various platforms I’m using in order to sharpen things up. This follows a discussion my son Ed, who ‘walked with me’ over the bank holiday weekend and provided some feedback, for which I’m grateful.

 

The following therefore is for clarification. In future the blogs will be more for giving an insight into the process of writing a book. In doing so, I intend to be very honest, perhaps disarmingly so. These are in addition to the FFS occasional series giving Five Fascinating Facts about places I pass through. Instagram and Twitter will be used more to provide pictorial updates on progress. YouTube will provide occasional videos for a bit of variety. As much as possible, I’ll be using interviews with people who ‘walk with me’, or who I encounter on the walk, on the podcasts. And finally, Facebook will act as a bit of everything and as a signpost to the other media.

 

I hope that all makes sense. Anyway, on with the show.

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

 

The second leg took place from the Thursday before the Mayday bank holiday to the Tuesday after it. All the walking was in rural Staffordshire, pretty much all of it in East Staffordshire. This is not a particularly easy place to find convenient accommodation, so we took the decision to book a cottage for four nights and use that as a base. When I say we, I mean me and my wife Annette, who acted both as chauffeur and fellow walker for two of the days. This meant we could settle in somewhere and also have room for two other walkers, my son Ed and his partner Lydia join us for a couple of the days.

 

As most readers will know, it was a hot one. This was good, in as much as it meant we only got rained on once. However, it also meant taking extra care not to dehydrate or do anything heroic for the sake of it.

 

It also meant shorter days, as there tended to be a fair bit of driving to and from places. Typically, we got on the footpaths anything from 10 to 11 each morning and ended around 4 or 5. This was less than I’d got used to in the first leg, but as I say, it was hot, so this wasn’t a bad thing.

 

 

A Different Dynamic

 

As well as having Annette walking with me one day, and Annette with Ed and Lydia on another, I also had my cousin Simon and his wife Judy walking with me one day. On the first leg I’d done all the walking alone, and this meant a different dynamic. Walking with others means you tend to do more talking and less thinking. Or at least I do. This also means less notes, which makes the writing harder later.

 

On the other hand, having others’ perspectives helps add to the thinking process afterwards. Plus, their insights invariably add to the mix, making it richer. I think the challenge for the future will be getting this balance right. On this leg I did have the final day on my own, but this was only half a day. Still, I found it invaluable to get my thoughts in order. I hope the book, when it’s finished, will show this.

 

 

Writing

 

Writing is what I promised I’d talk about in this blog, so here I go. As I mentioned in my previous blog having good notes makes a tremendous difference when it comes to writing the passages up. What I tend to do is think of a unifying ‘message’ or theme for each chapter and write to that, weaving the actual experiences into it. Sometimes this emerges from the experiences, other times it is more deterministic.

 

To give an example, on this leg we visited our old university at Keele. This allowed for some ruminations on education and how it’s changed and is changing in England. Certainly in the last twenty years, which is my horizon for this book. Throughout, I am keen to keep the book as a mix between a travelogue and something a bit grittier, hopefully providing some insight into the state of the nation.

 

At the same time, I want to keep the book highly readable. This means injecting some humour, or letting it flow. I don’t want the humour to be forced, and I do want the book to have ‘a voice’. Luckily, this seems to come fairly naturally, especially as I have the template of my first book, Walking on Water, to go by. I am also not just writing notes up, but trying to write straight into a first draft. Sure, there’ll be some polishing, but I hope what I’m writing is 80-90% of the way there by the time I’ve finished. Again, another objective is to have the book reading asap after the walk is finished. This is so it’s fresh as we approach the actual ‘exit’ part of ‘Brexit’ (assuming we do – controversial), and also so it’s still fresh and relevant.

 

The only exception to this is the conclusion – for conclusion there will be. I want to bring the various strands of the book together in the end, and here I have been typing in notes, or streams of consciousness. I see these as helping to refresh my memory when it comes to writing those pages.

 

 

Wordcount

As for progress, I’ve now written about 25,000 words. That’s the equivalent to around 50 to 60 pages of a paperback. They fit into five chapters, two of which cover the last leg, which required around 9,000 words. Of course, all this may change in the editing, but it gives an idea. This seems about right. I’ve completed around 25-30% of the walk (it’s difficult to know) and somewhere around 100,000 words is a good target.

 

 

The Staffordshire Experience

Interestingly, as I’ve said, the entire walk this time round was in Staffordshire. In fact my diagonal also cut a diagonal through the county, which is a big one geographically. This was both good and bad, Good in as much as it allowed me to get under the skin of a distinct area. Bad in that the footpaths in the county are pretty poor. Not only are they poorly maintained, but there seems to be a semi-deliberate policy to deter walkers. This said, at least it gave me an angle for the book – a chapter theme! There’s more on my experience in Staffordshire in the above mentioned video and on this blog, which I called ‘Playing Hunt the Footpath’

 

 

And Finally …

 

I know some people like to be kept up to date with the progress on social media, so here goes. Remember, the reason I want numbers here is to make the book more of a compelling proposition for potential publishers, not vanity. I am even beginning to wonder whether to start to approach potential publishers sooner rather than later, rather than waiting until its finished. More on this in the future.

 

I now have approaching 400 followers on Instagram, and again following the advice of my son Ed, have installed an app caller ‘Followers’ which allows me to monitor who is following me to get their own numbers up and then dumping me. Twitter had been lagging behind, but has received a boost through a competition run by the Stay In A Pub initiative I have been working with. The prize is a signed copy of Walking on Water, and to date this has seen at least 50 new followers on Twitter. Okay, they are not of the highest quality, but hopefully it will kick start things. The total here now is around 350. This article was the second from Stay In A Pub, the first came out in the 26thApril.

 

I was initially disappointed by these totals, but have to keep reminding myself that the accounts are only a few weeks old. Actually, they’re doing quite well considering, and I think there may be a snowball effect. Certainly the Instagram account seems to be gaining momentum. This may be due in part to some of the publicity I’ve been getting, both locally and nationally. One coup I was pleased with was this article on The Great Outdoors website.

 

Facebook is still stuck in the friends and family plus odds and sods zone. I’m okay with this, but it would be nice to ‘break out’ a bit. As I’ve said above, I’m changing direction on the podcasts, but these are accumulating a following. I’ve regularly been in the top 5 in the Travel section of the PodOMatic chart, where I host the pods. In March I had 40 downloads, and I doubled that in April. So far, I’ve already reached the 40 mark in May and I’ve two more podcasts to come out. The YouTube channel is there as an adjunct really, but I enjoy doing them.

 

 

That’s it for now I think. I hope you’ve found this update on progress blog interesting. There’s much more to come, so stay tuned and keep diagonal!

 

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multiple footpath signs

Playing Hunt the Footpath

There are nearly 3,000 miles of footpaths in Staffordshire, but those East Staffs are in a terrible state. That, at least, was the finding of this writer. I spent four days walking through the footpaths of this part of the county and found a story of what seemed almost wilful neglect. It seems footpaths and their maintenance, have become the walkers’ equivalent of motorists’ potholes.

 

Ignoring the Footpath

 

Issues faced along this stretch of the Diagonal Walk included footpaths being ignored, hidden and obstructed. Crops were regularly planted in the path of the public right of way, making access impossible. They were also planted right up to the edge of fields, making it very difficult to negotiate boundaries. In these cases, the walker is left with little choice but to plough on through crops. This cannot make sense to either the walker or the farmer.

 

The nominal width of a public right of way is a metre. So why did this farmer think it was okay to leave what was effectively a tyre track for walkers?

footpaths walking

 

‘Losing’ the Footpath

 

Another common feature was ‘losing’ the footpath. This involved having a sign for the footpath where it was most public – by the side of a road for example – and then ‘losing’ it. No further signs. Time to play ‘hunt the footpath’. This was seen in various guises, from absent signs to broken fingerposts, like this one.

wilful neglect of footpath

 

 

Making Walking Difficult and Dangerous

 

Broken stiles were another issue. Often, a stile that looked vaguely dodgy when approached, turned out to be downright dangerous. Rotten wood and rusty nails were all too common. This one for example, would have required a tightrope walkers balance to use:

broken stile on a country footpath

 

Then there were stiles wilfully obscured. In what world does it make sense to put an electric fence either side of a stile, as was the case here?:

rotton stile

 

Electric fences were a problem in general. During a single day, I had to duck under three of them, like a prisoner escaping from Colditz.

electric fence

 

Mud and ‘Don’t Ask’

 

As if all this wasn’t enough, there was the mud – or worse. On numerous occasions, I had to wade through ankle deep mud or manure at a footpath junction. On one occasion, me and my companions were yelled at by a farmer for not going the right way – a path made inaccessible by liquid manure. We were only trying to find a way through!

mud manure

 

A Question of Money or of Attitude?

 

I understand that budgets are being squeezed. However, I wonder if this problem is more one of attitude than money? Like many places, East Staffs has a rich asset in its footpaths. Indeed, English footpaths are an underappreciated asset for the country. So why, when we are all being urged to do more exercise, do these practices still go on?

 

I wonder if it’s more a question of attitude and approach? A footpath allowed to return to nature takes a lot of effort to recover. Why waste such an asset? When farmers get so irate at people not sticking to footpaths, why do they allow them to get that way in the first place? It’s not in their interest, and it’s not in the walkers’ interests to walk through crops. Leaving a gap on the edge of fields costs virtually nothing.

 

Is this a classic case of passing the buck? The County Council is responsible for working with landowners to keep public rights of way open, safe and welcoming. Footpaths seem to get caught in the middle – with no one having clear responsibility. Even when ramblers and other groups help out by installing stiles and gates, it remains the landowner’s responsibility to maintain them. But if no one’s looking ….?

 

East Staffs now proposes to designate three levels of footpath in East Staffs. Proactive maintenance will only take place on the best of these – the A footpaths. Routes B and C will be left to their own devices.

 

On the evidence of what this walker encountered, I wish them the best of luck.

partners collaboration working together

Partners Wanted For Diagonal Walking

A keystone of Diagonal Walking is the concept of ‘Walk With Me’, both physically and digitally. If it helps, think of it as me kicking up a cloud of both dust and digital code as I follow my line down from Crosby down to Dungeness. I’m on the lookout for more partners. As my previous blog has shown, it’s already been rewarding working with others, but there’s potential for more.

 

Calling Potential Partners

As part of this, I am keen to find partners who might be interested in my walk. Or in walking, or just exercise in general. They may be active in promoting their local area, a breakfast club for example, a tourist body or a radio station. Or they may have a more tangential interest, perhaps as a manufacturer of walking clothing or equipment, or a small hotel chain (I’ll be staying in a lot of hotels and Air BnBs). Local businesses might also want to get into the act. A local drone photographer, a pub or a shop for example. Or maybe they’ll just be interested in something they regard as, well …. interesting!

 

Swapping Not Selling

The point is, I want to be able to connect with as wide a variety of people and organisations as possible – that’s why the website has a ‘Connect’ rather than a ‘Contact Us’ tab.

So, am I looking for sponsorship? No, it is my intention, certainly as I write this at the outset to the whole project, to keep things ‘pure’ if you will. I see Diagonal Walking as more of a collaborative rather than a commercial venture. The sorts of partners I’m looking for will be happy to operate on a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ level. Think of it more as swapping than selling.

 

Working in Harmony

To me, partnerships need two willing partners working in harmony, meeting both joint and specific interests. I’ve just made that up, but I think it works.

For my part, a specific interest would include boosting the number of individuals walking with me in a digital sense. In other words, working with partners who can introduce me to people who want to follow me on one of the social media platforms. Or they may be partners who may be able to help in my wider mission of trying to understand what makes the country tick. Other specific interests may be more basic. Swapping a bed for the night in return for a talk to a local society for example.

Partners’ interests could vary from exposure of their business, filling a talking slot in the diary, promoting their town or region or simply being associated with an innovative project. I don’t want to limit peoples’ imaginations, but rather spark them.

If you think you’d like to partner up and be part of Diagonal Walking, simply use the Connect link to reach me, and let’s start a conversation.

 

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Centre Middle of England

The Search for the Middle of England

There’s something special about being at the centre of things. You are the bullseye, the focus of attention, the heart of the matter. It comes as no surprise therefore that the field of contenders vying for the title of being the very middle of England is a crowded one.

It’s easy to see why there are so many claimants to the crown. After all, how do you define the middle of what is, indisputably, an irregular shape? The question is not dissimilar to other equally contested titles, like the country’s oldest pub or school. These all have more than one candidate – it all depends on which rules you use.

 

Runners and Riders in the Middle of England Chase

Following British legal tradition, the twin pillars of patronage and precedence tend to carry considerable weight. One claim in particular stands out to be the centre of England, that of Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire. This was chosen in the time of the Napoleonic Wars as the dead centre of the country. It was argued (not unreasonably) that this position would take the longest for an invading army to reach. It was even designated as a safe haven for the royal family should old Boney ever cross the Channel.

This claim had the additional benefit of being supported by armed force. It was decreed that if there was to be a last stand then it would be a spectacular one. A huge barracks and arsenal was built that, at its height, covered 150 acres and employed 500 men. The stronghold even had its own spur off the Grand Union Canal to speed the royal family there, although whether it’s possible to speed anywhere by canal is open to question.

The power of precedence over patronage is demonstrated by the strength of the claim from Meriden, near Coventry. Meriden nestles in a small section of green belt half way between Birmingham and Coventry in the parish of Solihull. Like the early explorers, Meriden has taken the route of planting something physical in an attempt to cement its case. Not a flag, but a sandstone pillar on the village green, which some say is over five hundred years old. Like Weedon, Meriden’s claim is based on a calculation that it lies at the furthest point from the sea of anywhere in the country.

When it comes to tangible symbols, Lillington just outside Leamington Spa out-trumps Meriden with its Midland Oak. Locals insist this marks the absolute, no doubt about it, dead centre of the country; although the exact provenance of this claim is unknown. As a precaution perhaps, in 1988 Lillington got the Duke of Gloucester to unveil a plaque recording the oak’s importance. Isn’t the current oak standing at the spot much too young though? Don’t worry, they’ve got that covered. It was grown from an acorn from a tree grown from an acorn from the original. Apparently.

 

An Answer?

Just as the business of claim and counter claim seems to be building up into an impenetrable fog the distant sound of hooves can be heard from the Ordnance Survey, who rode to the rescue in 2002 with an arbitration. Showing a truly English sense of fair play they decided to ignore all the competing claims and came up with their own definitive, unarguable,  candidate.

Their calculations homed in on a modest farm in Leicestershire. The good men and women of the Ordnance Survey decided that if you wanted to stand in the very centre of England then you should head for a spot in the grounds of Lindley Hall Farm just outside Fenny Drayton, a mile or two north west of Hinckley.

The OS grid reference is 362964. Or if you want to be really precise its position is 52° 33’ 51.52” North and 1° 27’ 54.57” West. This is a degree of precision which seems to brook no argument. The method by which the Ordnance Survey arrived at this point follows a similar force of undeniable logic. Borrowing from the science of geometry they decided to arrive at the centroid or barycentre of the country. Stay with me on this. The centroid is the intersection of all the hyperplanes that divide an object X into two parts of equal moment about the hyperplane. In other words, it is the average of all points of X.

Brilliant! Most of us can understand a bit of geography. However, make the basis of your argument mathematics and you are unlikely to meet too many challengers. In an age where science rules, notions of romance and precedent are promptly swept aside and the title of being the centre of England is given incontrovertibly and without prejudice, to humble little Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire.

Just to make things plain, in 2013, a six foot high monument made out of a railway sleeper was installed to mark the spot – just to make sure.

 

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Map Point 14 – Toddington, Beds

Toddington, perhaps better known for its Motorway Service Station, much like Newport Pagnell and Keel earlier on the walk. I see a theme emerging here …

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