The business of social walking is setting off into a largely unexplored area of navigation. A community-based group in the wooded hinterlands of south-east London has developed a system in which the conventional map of coloured lines and contour patterns has been replaced by photographs of the way ahead.
An app created for the purpose leads walkers from starting point to finish by means of a chain of photos, each image taking over from where the previous one leaves off. This means that in a stroll of, say, two hours, there will be between 20 and 40 guiding pictures. The group is called Go Jauntly and it is run by Hana Sutch and Steve Johnson, both of whom have careers in interactive design; more importantly, both have young children, whose energy and curiosity they wanted to channel into an exploration of the outdoor world.
Channel kids’ energy and curiosity with a woodland walk
Started in April, the free app already claims to have between 450 and 500 monthly users, and about 4,000 downloads. Several users have started contributing their own routes. A monthly premium subscription of £1.99 a month (£19.99 a year, with first two months free), gives access to 100% of the curated walks. While originally conceived to appeal to young families, it has had a lot of interest from millennials and the recently retired. Walking organisations in Canada and Germany have also expressed their enthusiasm for the model.
In the company of a dozen others, including young children, I test-walked a Go Jauntly route in south-east London, one of 230 so far established, mainly around London and Sheffield so far. We made for Sydenham Hill Wood, just off London’s South Circular Road. Even taken together with the adjacent Dulwich Woods, it is little more than a tiny wedge of green in London’s vast sprawl. Yet it has an interior vastness that makes itperfect Go Jauntly territory, for once you have penetrated its unexpected density via a modest cut away from suburban flats and houses, you could be in that elusive English place, real countryside.
Sydenham Hill Wood was once part of a huge forest. Photograph: Daniel Greenwood/London Wildlife Trust
Until a couple of hundred years ago, that is precisely where you would have found yourself, as this remnant was once part of the seriously large Great North Woods – north of the then village of Croydon.
Our route was a little under two miles. Following the sound army principle of a patrol’s speed being that of its slowest member, we took a little under two hours. The youngest member slept for most of the way in a baby sling, but the slightly older ones, instead of being knee-high to their parents, became gladly face-high with the plants and flowers.
For a walker reared, as I was, on the Ordnance Survey map, the use of this visual app was a challenge, albeit a benign one. You could easily spot the OS-dependent by the way they kept on referring to the folded wad of coloured paper in their hand, stopping to compare the land beneath their feet with the squiggles beneath their forefinger. There is a delight in reading the surface of the country in such a way, and seeing it conform to this representation. But goodness, it can steal your concentration.
I looked around at my companions, mostly thirtysomething professionals, with their smartphones: not one of them was moving in that look-up-look-down way. A single glance at the screen was affirmation enough. Smartphones are often accused of absenting their users from company, but this application has the opposite effect.
Cox’s Walk footbridge, over an old railway cutting. Photograph: Alamy
“One of our main hopes,” says Sutch, who lives in nearby Brockley, “is that the app will increase the social appeal of people walking together, and of coming up with new routes in their own neighbourhoods.” For her and husband Liam Owen, who grew up in the fine walking country of Northumberland and is also involved in the project, the habit of walking regularly is as much a necessity as a pleasure.
As she describes it, the detachment of town dwellers from walking is comparable to that of London from its rich and often hidden parcels of green. “For me it has profound effects,” she says. “I can literally step away from a busy schedule and detoxify. I feel noticeably calmer, lighter and better able to deal with the anxieties that come along in a busy life. Its effect on our young son is also wonderful.”
These are points worth making, since any perception that we as a nation are walking more than we used to is deceptive. In August this year a survey by Public Health England revealed that four in 10 middle-aged adults fail to manage even one brisk 10-minute walk a month.
On our way through the woods of Sydenham and Dulwich, we came across such evocative traces of the past as the cutting of aformer steam railway to Crystal Palace, and the remnants of a tastefully ruined folly in the overgrown grounds of a great Victorian house. We also walked into the future, in the form of an industrious band of London Wildlife Trust volunteers working on the Great North Woods Project to create a nature corridor through the ancient woodland.
Sydenham Woods were once a major industrial resource. Photograph: Alamy
With a grant of nearly £700,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project aims to raise awareness of the woods’ resident species, such as woodpeckers, stag beetles and purple hairstreak butterflies. It also plans to encourage such family activities as teddy bears’ picnics and minibeast hunts. All this in an area which was once a major industrial resource, producing charcoal, timber for shipbuilding, and tannin for the leather makers of Bermondsey.
In both the London Wildlife Trust and the Go Jauntly initiatives, connectedness comes up as a key word. This concerns not only re-establishing vital links with the natural world which the post-industrial rush for housing swept way, but also a more prosaic but equally revealing business: knowing where things are, where they were, the routes people took between them, and why they vanished. Who knew, for example, that Dulwich means damp meadow, Penge means edge of the wood – and that dear old Croydon means valley of the crocuses.