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Taking the Byways


Byways: Poems and Stories on Foot is an anthology of stories and poems from across the UK and elsewhere, exploring the urban shortcuts, well-trodden meanders, ancient pathways, hillside and field paths.

To celebrate National Walking Month and the launch of Byways, we asked some of its contributors to write about their local walks.

Cherry Potts, Arachne Press

My regular local walks take me through cemeteries (so that I can read and walk at the same time) or up any one of Lewisham’s ‘three peaks’, One Tree Hill, or Blythe Hill or, occasionally, Hilly Fields, although my most regular walk is a brisk half mile to the post office and back.

As a publishing house, Arachne Press has accidentally fallen into specialising in what we call well-rooted books: stories and poems about place, and getting there. We’ve covered trains (Stations), the coast (Time and Tide), and a road in A470 Poems for the Road /Cerddi’r Ffordd. Concern for the environment crept in, and we talked about whether a ‘Road’ book was the right thing. It was about then I thought, we should do a walking book, which resulted in Byways – poems and stories on foot.

Exploring the back streets of Spitalfields in breaks from a dull IT course, finally cured me of a long-term low-level agoraphobia but I still walk with an end purpose – a destination or a view. Despite that I have walked hundreds of miles in places as diverse as London, Orkney and west Wales, and I have a particular fondness for the back route – the snicket, the alleyway, the ginnel, and love the variety of cut-throughs in towns that retain an old layout, like parts of Bath, where the drungs run parallel to the roads, quiet and away from the traffic.

Our call out for Byways asked for all of these, and those all-day hikes in the hills… but also that made-by-foot wilful pedestrian route, the desire path.  I think all of our off-the-beaten-track walks are ‘desire’ paths.

Here’s Ros Woolner changing her walking practice in lockdown:

I live in Oxley, in the north of Wolverhampton. From the city centre to my house takes about 45 minutes on foot if you follow the direct route past the Molineux Stadium and up the Stafford Road, or a bit longer if you go along the Birmingham Mainline Canal. During lockdown, I stopped walking on the narrow canal towpaths because it was impossible to pass people at a safe distance. Instead, I went to the Goodyear Neighbourhood Park, built on the site of the old Goodyear tyre factory. This park features in my poem ‘Safety Notices’ and I think the barrage of public health messages during the pandemic affected the way I experienced the place, and explains the hint of danger in my poem.


Safety Notices

When I walk around the pond

these November afternoons,

hood up, hands in pockets,

I don’t stray off the tarmacked path,

push through bulrushes

and enter the brown water.

I leave reflected houses undisturbed.

And I keep out of the wilderness

on the other side of the fence.

I don’t climb iron railings,

drop down onto rough grass,

wander up the slope and onto the tracks

where trains speed past

to Manchester and Birmingham.

No, I keep my eyes on the yellow

birches and I stick to the path.

"Exploring the back streets of Spitalfields in breaks from a dull IT course, finally cured me of a long-term low-level agoraphobia but I still walk with an end purpose – a destination or a view." - Cherry Potts

Whereas Angela Arnold takes a rather different view.

Like many people I live in an outlying urban area that borders on the more rural. I look out of my window and see tarmac, brick, cars. Maybe the stumps of the trees the developers felled and a few ‘weeds’. But a very short walk and I’m out in nature proper: wildflowers, insects buzzing, swallows overhead heading to an isolated farm among the built-up areas. Small pockets of nature, even ‘wilderness’ left for us to explore and delight in are so important to us, to children especially. To randomly, thoughtlessly, demolish that is heartbreaking.

Walking with All of It

Here’s one hidden, trodden, nettle circumventing, clipped

bramble skirting, sapling bending, secret

path to buzzard, kite: as was.


Every balancing swerve

embedded in your muscles. Shaping up, slowing

down, whittling away at an ever-evolving thigh and calf

memory – up, over, squeeze, neatest dance

learned over and over each spring through to autumn

return. The catch of mind-free repetition, caught.


Gangs of weather-tantrum trees partner you

like whispers of the sketch-readily still; then storm-

whop you on into a bent-body scramble: brazenly

unsafe, heading for skull crack.

Nothing not here for the in-living:

soft leaf drip and loutish branch poke, implosive samplings

of the best-sunned berries and the irretrievably

soggy, indelibly sour, all the generous plump

of the land and its most peremptory

jacket-snagging – clear enough limits.

Every one of its mood-bound expressions inscribing

its intimate history into yours.

Till the barbed wire goes up,

the yell of a Private sign, and your body cries out: a whole

movingly (dancingly) describable part of it torn away with a snort.

So? written there in killer letters, nailed,

metal bold. Sap and blood severed.




Finally, Helen Campbell, wanting to keep her byways to herself:

I grew up in a northern city that was sliding into post-industrial.  There was the side everyone saw: the traffic filled streets, the brick terraced houses.  And then there was that other space, the not so visible places, the unofficial pathways, that you had to be on foot to see and know.  It was these spaces that made the city special, made it magical.

There were ginnels that cut between houses and churches and went who knew where,  backways once places for dust bins and now the preserve of Queen Anne’s lace, nettles, goose grass and jack-by-the-hedge. One byway took us from my grandparents' house along a cut-through between two factories that at night seemed like something out of The Inferno. And there were still the packhorse trails heading off over the moors to the markets of Manchester and Leeds. 

Going back, I look for those fingerprints.  Some have gone – the city marches on – but many remain.  You just need to look for them.  On foot, of course.


Mapmakers have discovered us.

Someone must have informed them.

Our short cut, our private track

now broadcast out to the wide world.


It has many names, our short cut:

back track, metro path, the way

to the shops – depending on

who is talking and their journey.


How did they find us?

The pathway is hidden, cloaked,

not visible from the road.

So maybe the mapmaker walked


here one wintry day. GPS

in hand.  Sliding slightly, muddy,

watching light leach from the sky

as the pathway hardens icy.


And now they have captured it.

Counted its length. Imprisoning

its curves, shape, its very soul.

And next will be its naming


and then we’re done for – it will pass

from familiar into formal:

no longer ours but something

belonging to maps. Official. 


About the author

Living Streets