If “the Google effect”on Britain is anything like “the Wild effect” in the US, there will soon be unprecedented numbers of people walking the national trails that traverse some of the most beautiful countryside in England and Wales.
Wild was the name of a book in 2012 and, two years later, a film about writer Cheryl Strayed’s life-affirming journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, the longest walking route in the world, stretching more than 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada. Before Wild, only a few hundred hiking permits were issued for the trail every year. Last year it was more than 4,500 – and the number who walked the whole route quadrupled.
Clearly, a bit of publicity goes a long way. There is no book, no starring role by Reese Witherspoon and no Nick Hornby screenplay – as there was for Wild – to promote the 15 national trails of England and Wales. There is, instead, a project for rangers and volunteers to take on the role of “cyborgs” by carrying futuristic equipment that will showcase the spectacular scenery of the trails on computers around the world.
“We’re putting the best of the British countryside where it’s never been before – on Google maps,” said Peter Morris, the North Downs Way trail manager. From 17 March, when the North Downs Way goes live, the national trails will start appearing on Google Street View. The Cleveland Way will be next.
Trail rangers and volunteers will eventually cover every mile – more than 2,500 of them – of the national trails with the futuristic Google Trekker camera, an off-road version of the Street View equipment. You will, for example, be able to plot your way along the Pennine Way, more than 260 miles, from your living room chair.
Mapping is a slow process, because the Google Trekker camera can be used only in dry weather and bright daylight. Several planned sessions have been cancelled at short notice, but there have been no serious mishaps. “We got caught by a thunderstorm once, just outside Canterbury, and had to hide under trees for half an hour and put the Trekker gear in a bin bag,” said Morris.
The rangers and volunteers who carry the 23kg camera and computer gear on their backs have to remain upright, even under low branches or crossing stiles, and it is difficult to cover more than a few miles every day.
There are two Trekkers available for the project, loaned free by Google, each with 15 cameras inside the top sphere, which take pictures every two seconds. Those pictures are “stitched” into a panoramic view and the mapping data is processed by Google. An entire trail can take months to complete and it will probably be two more years before all the trails are mapped and available online.
Andy Gattiker, the South Downs Way ranger who has covered a few sections of the trail, said: “I feel like a cyborg when I’m walking along with this thing on my back, and there are two extremes when people see me. One lot make no eye contact whatsoever, deliberately keep their distance and walk on by without a word. The others come and have a chat, want to know what on earth this thing is, what I’m doing and why. I have to switch the camera off if I stop more than briefly.”
“Millions of people use Google maps around the world,” said Anne Clark, managing director of Walk Unlimited and the brains behind the mapping project. “With the Google Trekker imagery, those people will be able to see exactly what the trails are like. Around a quarter of the people who complete a national trail are from outside the UK and that is bound to increase as people all over the world see how amazing our trails and our countryside are.”
There are many more benefits. For example, local businesses can highlight places to stay or eat on the maps, and people with impaired mobility can check whether a specific stretch of a trail is suitable for them. There are also benefits for those who are unable to walk the trails: “Older people who perhaps used to walk the South Downs Way but can no longer make it up here can still follow the trail online,” said Ben Bessant, assistant ranger on the South Downs Way. “Reminiscing in that way can be very positive. This project is going to be great news for the national trails and the people who use them – and people who have thought about it before but never been sure it was for them.”
A few people in Britain have walked every mile of the 15 national trails, as well as the 540-mile national trail of Scotland. Among them are Barry and Jennifer Lockwood, a retired couple from Huddersfield, who were particularly impressed by the South West coast path and Glyndwr’s Way, on which they encountered only one other walker.
“It’s a challenge and a holiday at the same time,” said Jennifer. “To pick out a favourite place is impossible because you’re out there walking in fantastic scenery all the time. We always wonder why so many people go abroad when there’s so much to see in this country.”
Barry said: “We’ve never been beach people and once we started [hiking] in the 1990s we just got hooked. We’ve walked the Inca Trail [in Peru] and the Lower Pyrenees, but we prefer to walk in this country. You don’t see many people, but when you do you usually stop for a chat. They’re very friendly.”
The South Downs Way, 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, is the most popular of the national trails. Last year 20,000 people completed it on foot, on horseback, on mountain bike or, in a few cases, on an off-road mobility scooter.
It is one of several trails that is free of stiles and the aim is to remove all of them. “The last stile on the Yorkshire Wolds Way was removed in 2015 and it is hoped the last one on the Thames Path will go this year,” said Clark. “Stiles can be the biggest barrier for a lot of people.”
The Grand Canyon in Arizona was the first trail to be mapped off-road in this way, in 2013, since when visitor numbers have increased by a million. “We saw the results of that and thought it was a brilliant idea,” said Clark. “Seeing the footage of a trail makes you want to go and walk it. Walking is very popular in the UK and is becoming more so.”
Walk Unlimited, a social enterprise, took over promotion of the national trails in 2012 when government spending policy changed. “The promotion of the trails might have got lost, buried away on the gov.uk site,” said Clark. “This project just would not have happened if the promotion of the trails had stayed in government hands. We spoke to somebody from Google and it was a relatively straightforward process.”
“Part of the Google mapping programme is to make the world accessible to everybody,” said a Google spokesman. “We’re taking the Trekker gear to a whole bunch of beautiful places.”
There will be launch events at both ends of the 153-mile North Downs Way on 17 March, at Farnham in Surrey and at Dover. The last 20 miles of the trail, from Canterbury to Dover, doubles up as part of a much longer ancient pilgrims’ route, the Via Francigena. It starts at Canterbury Cathedral and ends in Rome, 1,200 miles away. “That might be one for Google in the future,” said Morris.
The national trails of England and Wales, their lengths and recommended number of days to complete the route (some are much more hilly than others).
110 miles, nine days recommended to complete
Helmsley to Filey, both in North Yorkshire
Opened in 1969, this is the second oldest national trail. It features heather moorland and spectacular coastline around the edge of the North York Moors national park.
102 miles, seven to 10 days recommended to complete
Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, to Bath
This trail follows the Cotswold escarpment for most of the way and when you are out of the woods you can see for miles – the Severn Vale, the Malverns, the Mendips and the Welsh borders.
135 miles, nine days recommended to complete
Knighton to Welshpool, both in Powys
Takes in the tiny town of Machynlleth, seat of the Welsh parliament when Owain Glyndwr rebelled against the English in the 15th century. You will see some of the finest Welsh countryside on this trail.
Hadrian’s Wall path
84 miles, seven days recommended to complete
Wallsend, Tyne Wear, to Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria
Popular with foreign visitors, this coast-to-coast path follows the route of Britain’s most famous Roman monument – and also ventures into Newcastle and Carlisle.
North Downs Way
153 miles, 12 days recommended to complete
Farnham, Surrey, to Dover
One of the less strenuous trails, this one largely follows the route of the ancient Pilgrims’ Way, from Winchester to Canterbury. You can “walk it” via Google from 17 March.
Offa’s Dyke path
177 miles, 14 days recommended to complete
Chepstow, Monmouthshire, to Prestatyn, Denbighshire
Trek along the border and cross from England to Wales and back more than 20 times. The trail follows the dyke built in the eighth century on the orders of King Offa, and crosses eight counties.
Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast path
93 miles, seven days recommended to complete
Knettishall, Suffolk, to Cromer, Norfolk
The Latin pedester (on foot) gives the first part of this trail its name – it follows a Roman road. The second part takes you around the beautiful north Norfolk coast.
Pembrokeshire Coast path
186 miles, 12 days recommended to complete
St Dogmaels to Amroth
Almost all this trail is inside Britain’s only coastal national park – the Pembrokeshire Coast. Very hilly, hard going, but worth it for the spectacular cliffs, coves and beaches.
205 miles, one to 14 days by bike or horse
White Peak, Derbyshire, to Howgill Fells, Cumbria
Open to all, but specially designed for horse riders. Officially opened in 2012 by Martin Clunes, and follows a different route to the Pennine Way.
268 miles, 16-19 days recommended to complete
Edale, Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm, Scottish Borders
Fifty years old last year, this is the oldest national trail and a real beauty. Much of it is very remote, so plan ahead if you are going all the way.
South Downs Way
100 miles, eight to nine days walk, two to three days cycle
Winchester, Hampshire, to Eastbourne, East Sussex
The most popular of the national trails and the only one entirely within a national park. The 360-degree view from Chanctonbury Ring, an ancient sacred site, is one of its highlights.
South West coast path
630 miles, 30 days fast, eight weeks leisurely
Minehead, Somerset, to Poole, Dorset
The longest and perhaps most rewarding of the trails. You’ll get a good idea of what to expect from Simon Armitage’s 2015 book Walking Away. He also walked and wrote about the Pennine Way.
184 miles, 14 days recommended to complete
Cricklade, Wiltshire, to Thames Barrier, Greenwich
The only national trail that follows a river all the way – and the easiest to access by public transport. A good part of it goes through London.
87 miles, six days recommended to complete
Avebury, Wiltshire, to Ashridge Estate, Buckinghamshire
Said to be Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgeway follows the same prehistoric route over the high ground of North Wessex taken by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers.
Yorkshire Wolds way
80 miles, five to six days recommended to complete
Hessle, near Hull, to Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire
Connects with the Cleveland Way if you want to “double up”. This trail, which gave its name to the award-winning Wolds Way beer, covers a lot of chalky landscape and finishes on the coast.
Coming soon (ish)…
England Coast Path
2,800 miles, six months or so to complete
Due to be fully operational by 2020, but don’t be surprised if it’s a few years late. Will incorporate some paths on existing national trails.