Welcome to Walk Midlands. A guide to day walks in the English Midlands accessible without a car, for walkers interested in all aspects of the region’s people, landscape and history.
Why Walk the Midlands?
What Walk Midlands Offers
Walk Midlands is a guide to day walks in the English Midlands accessible without a car, for walkers interested in all aspects of the region’s people, landscape and history. Every week I post a new walk which may be a couple of miles, or may be nearer twenty, which’ll always take you somewhere interesting in the midlands region. If this sounds like something you’d like to keep up with please consider subscribing to the Walk Midlands newsletter or following me on social media.
Each walk is preceded by a short feature type essay which teases out some of the key things you will see and experience along the way as you walk. The intention is to highlight something of the midland’s heritage and culture so as to enable you to get a better feel for the region’s rich tapestry of people, places and topographies.
In classic walking guide style each walk is then sketched out in detailed prose. This includes instructions as to where to walk on the route as well as interesting things to see and take in as you walk from A to B. I also include suggestions as to where to get refreshments, lunch and similar enroute as whilst nowhere in the midlands region is truly “remote” some areas which the walks pass through have fewer amenities than others. Every walk is accompanied by copious photographs which I make whilst researching the routes, which I include as an additional navigational aid and so that readers can get a feel for what the route is like.
I use the incomparable Ordnance Survey Maps app to plan routes. For ease – and because I hate the idea of anyone getting lost on account of following my instructions – I make these routes available to walkers alongside the written guide to the route. You can then access this on your own devices or download the gpx. file to open it in the navigation or mapping application of your choice. After the walk is complete, I offer suggestions as how best walkers may start their journey home.
Walks are broken down by county, distance and my broad categorisation of the topography and scenery that they take in. You can also access them all in one place if you would like to peruse the full spectrum of walks I produce.
As well as producing walks I keep a blog through which to share news and updates, as well as short notes, reviews and occasionally longer pieces which I think may be of interest to my readers. You can check that out here.
A Pastime for Everybody
Ever since the late 19th and early 20th Centuries day walking has been the activity of choice for all manner of people. This was the age in which Britain became the first modern majority urban society. Working people now tended to live in towns and cities, at a remove from the human created countryside where most food is produced, and more or less wild nature as well.
This separation, and the fact that labour organising and rising living standards in countries like the UK, meant that workers had at least a little time for leisure, spurred many of them to leave the towns and cities where they toiled during the week and head out to wander the countryside. Something which they were aided in by the invention of cheap reliable bicycles in the late 19th Century, a proliferation of motor bus routes in the early 20th Century, and still extensive networks of branch railway lines and tramways.
Whilst never quite as extensive as anything created in some other countries such as Germany and Sweden, these worker walkers created a significant infrastructure to facilitate their pastime. Maps and guidebooks proliferated in the early to mid-20th Century, as did institutions such as the YHA (established in 1930) and Clarion Clubs (admittedly more of a cycling thing, though they also attracted walkers) which were created in the 1890s as an explicitly socialist outdoors pursuits fraternity.
Walking frequently became infused with working people’s mass politics. Despite decades long campaigns and legislation for reform, to this day land access for walkers and others engaging in outdoors pursuits can be incredibly restrictive. Walking activists alongside others such as cyclists and climbers have long challenged these restrictions.
Mass trespasses and occupations of land have long been how ordinary people have asserted their right to properly enjoy the country they live in. A major early example was in 1871 when a large protest at Wanstead Flats saved what remained of Epping Forest being stripped of its common land status so that it could be sold to property developers. A similar action a quarter of a century later in 1896 at Winter Hill in Lancashire led by local socialists and trade unionists, saw thousands of people from Bolton on three successive weekends pull down fences put up by the landowner Colonel Ainsworth and assert their right to freely access this local beauty spot. The protestors were unsuccessful, and despite popular support lost their case in court. However, today Winter Hill is free to be enjoyed by anyone who wants to do so.
The most famous mass trespass to date occurred in the north western corner of the midlands region, at the Kinder Scout plateau in Derbyshire. On a late April weekend in 1932 several hundred walker activists organised by the youth wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain attempted to walk across the top of the hill.
A party of gamekeepers and police officers attempted to stop them. There was a clash which led to several of the young Communist organisers appearing in court and being briefly goaled. However, their actions, the force of public sympathy, and the strength of the wider and increasingly organisers and vocal walkers movement created a wave which led to the creation of National Parks by the Atlee government in 1949, and to the creation of the first official long distance trails such as the Pennine Way which opened in 1965.
Today, quite possibly as a tribute to some of the Kinder Scout Trespassers and their supporters, who in middle age were involved in setting up the Pennine Way, much of its early stages runs along the edge of the Kinder Scout plateau. The hilltop is one of the key sites of the Peak District National Park – the first created in 1951 – and forming the north western tip of the midlands region. These days it is a National Nature Reserve and the moorland birds which live there can live out their lives in peace without the fear of it being cut short by some aristocratic or plutocratic shooter. The old shooting huts have collapsed into a pile of stones, just about still recognisable as a human structure, but one which might just as well have housed iron age hill farmers, Roman miners or a medieval peat cutters.
Following the creation of National Parks almost all political persuasions got in on the act. The Tory Harold MacMillian government set up Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty from the mid-1950s onwards. These areas, rather akin to National Parks albeit without the resources, include the midland region’s Malvern Hills, Shropshire Hills, Lincolnshire Wolds, Wye Valley and Cannock Chase (the smallest of them all).
Despite these improvements, direct action to improve ordinary people’s access to the land continues. Whether it is the free parties of the late 1980s and early 1990s (the most spectacular of which occurred in late May 1992 at Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire), anti-road building movement of the mid-1990s or Reclaim the Streets in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Up to similar autonomist actions, often on a smaller scale but spread right across the country, to this day. A striking example in early 2022 was the “mass trespass” cycle ride by cyclists in and around northern Derbyshire over the closed Snake Pass to protest poor maintenance by the cash strapped Derbyshire County Council and to highlight how dangerous the volume of traffic on the route normally makes it for cyclists.
These days the struggle for access to the land goes beyond legal rights. Whether it is initatives and campaigns where non-white or non-British people assert their right to feel able and comfortable accessing the land, or the ongoing campaign to make walking routes more accessible to people who are mobility impaired, there are people taking action to ensure that walking really is for everyone.
Why I walk the midlands
Like most personal projects this website came about for several reasons. The idea fully crystallised in my mind in August 2021 when I was laid up for seven or eight days with COVID-19. I had a very mild version of the illness and consequently lots of time to think about what I might like to do once I was able to leave the confines of my room.
This said the Walk Midlands project had a significantly longer gestation period. I first became interested in walking during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when there really was not very much else to do. Besides my own local strolls around the interesting, and in places quite beautiful area of south Birmingham where I live, I found myself looking at and reading about other people’s walks online. During the disrupted summers of 2020 and 2021 I found myself going on the first largely walking focused holidays I had been on since my teens in the 2000s. I also found that I rather enjoyed them. It was probably at this point that I resolved to take up day walking (as well as the occasional longer trek) a key pastime.
A wider impetus however, it must be said, is the political upheavals of the 2010s. In particular the shredding of Labour Party majorities at the December 2019 General Election and the Brexit vote in June 2016. These two events, as well as numerous other things, made me wonder about the country that I lived in. It occurred to me that whilst I was fairly well travelled within the UK, and had read, watched, listened to all manner of things about it for more or less three decades, I in fact had very little direct experience of it.
For sheer practicalities sake I reckoned it made most sense to get to know a little patch of it, the midlands region which I have called home for most of my life, a lot better. And of course, there is no better way to get to know somewhere than to spend some time wandering between two points, seeing some sights, taking in the trees, fields, dells and dales. All whilst getting a sense of its people, their past, present and future. I hope that this has made me a more nuanced, knowledgeable and understanding citizen of this superdiverse, sometimes strange, sometimes beautiful, always inbetweenie bit of the world.
I also have an externally facing motive. Since moving back to Birmingham and the midlands in the mid-2010s I have felt that the region is overlooked, not least on occasion by those, including myself for many years, who live here. It was striking to me that often those who had moved to the midlands, for university for instance, and stayed here, had a more open, appreciative and interesting perspective on it than me and other people who were born here. I thought that giving people walking routes, accessible without a car, was an important way to reconnect people, whether locals or tourists, incomers or life long residents, with the landscape, topography and heritage of the region.
It is incredible how things seem different when you walk through them, or walk to them. Suddenly the way things fit together take on a different logic. You can see more like a farmer, a villager, a labourer or engineer building a canal, a castle, or someone whose job it was to hew coal or other minerals out of the ground. It can also be an excellent way to explore and get a handle on suburban or urban areas, so I enjoy creating and sharing walks in those often overlooked, even derided areas as well. Whilst it is never possible to completely understand the world from another’s perspective, I do feel that walking is an important means of slowing down, getting closer to the grain of the land and developing a better understanding others, whether those who came before us, or those who inhabit the lands we call e.g. Staffordshire, the English midlands, Great Britain, and so on, today.
I do not know how to drive so it is essential that all the walks I undertake are accessible by public transport. Besides the economics and the environmental concerns I do not drive because I have a minor learning disability which affects aspects of my hand, eye coordination and spatial awareness, which I know would make learning how to operate a car hard. As a non-driver I know how hard it can be to get to various interesting sights, be they beauty spots, remote arts institutions, interesting little towns and heritage locations without a vehicle. For this reason a key objective of mine is to create a guide which enables those who do not drive, for whatever reason, to access and enjoy these places and spaces.
I also – you can find out in the “A Pastime for Everybody” section of this page – have a strong political understanding of what walking can be, and what it can and should achieve. I think that it is imperative that ordinary people, that working people, who at most own the property that they live in, have the right to access and enjoy the land that they live in. The land that working people in all of their brilliant diversity have toiled to make what it is, and to create the sustenance of life and our complex societies, for millennia. For this reason it is essential that everybody can access and enjoy it regardless of whether they possess a car, or any other fancy equipment, or not. It is this free quality which has drawn working people of every kind to walking since they first began to create durable institutions in the 19th Century.
For these reasons I am delighted to be able to spend part of my week, more or less every week, creating what I hope are interesting walks for people. I genuinely really enjoy doing it, and it makes for an excellent excuse to get out and about to all manner of places across the English midlands which I’ve either long wanted to visit, or have newly discovered. If you would like to find out more about how to support Walk Midlands and how it is funded, or if you can see a way for us to work together, visit the “Work With Me and Support” page for contact details.
I am Josh Allen, I have lived in the midlands region for the better part of 30 years. However, I only fairly recently began wandering around it, and writing up the walks I went on for my website Walk Midlands. I have had a varied working life to date, including as: an NHS filing clerk, music venue steward, music venue kitchen porter (where I once made a vegetarian shepherds pie for Ray Davis), local arts and culture reporter, and when I first moved back to Birmingham, as a leafleter stood outside New Street station flyering passersby about the now long folded independent coffee shop which was employing me.
For most of the time I have lived in the midlands as an adult I have worked at one, or more, of the region’s universities. Primarily in communications, events and public engagement roles. I continue to do this part-time whilst also doing freelance work with a range of cultural and heritage organisations in the region, and working on my own research and editorial projects (this one included). I am a creative non-fiction writer and my work has appeared in publications including: The Observer, London Review of Books, Tribune magazine, Vice magazine, New Statesman, Apollo magazine, New Internationalist, Novara Media, Jacobin magazine, Source magazine History Workshop Online and an array of regional and specialist publications.
My academic training – such as it is – is in history. I hold a BA in History from the University of York and an MA in Modern British Studies from the University of Birmingham. The way in which I look at and make sense of the world is instinctively historicist. I typically try to understand and convey things in the form of an origin story that teases out key trends, ongoing tendencies and sudden ruptures. This is something which comes through strongly in the short essay style story features which precede each walk. Whilst I am fascinated by the past and love to share this with people, I am also interested in the present, and in particular how people understand and make use of the past in their everyday lives to understand where they came from, who they are now, and perhaps chart a course to where they are going next. Many of my personal research and editorial projects focus upon exploring this. For more on my wider work check out josh-allen.net my personal website.