We all know that walking is good for us in so many ways, both physically and mentally. And especially in recent months, for many of us, I am sure that getting out in nature and escaping the constant news cycle has been very important – I know it has for me! It is easy however to get into the habit of returning to the same walks that you know again and again. Of course there is nothing wrong with that but discovering somewhere new on your doorstep is wonderful too. And that is what iWalk Cornwall, Cornwall’s most extensive walking app, enables you to do.
You may have noticed that for the past couple of years I have been including links at the bottom of my blog posts to this online walking app. I started doing this for two reasons, firstly because I want people to have an easy way to visit the places that I am writing about and secondly because I wanted to support a great local business. The app, which to date has 256 walks, was created by Cornish brothers John and Dave Alden.
This amazing bit of kit means that you should never have to worry about getting lost again. The walks are mostly circular, both inland and coastal and range from 2 to 10 miles, and because the iWalk app works without the need for an internet connection it can still guide you even in deepest, darkest Cornwall!
The handy grading system means you can see what you are letting yourself in terms of difficulty and each also has information about the route, such as how many stiles there are or how steep the climbs there are, so that you can decide whether it is suitable for you. As you go along interesting facts about the places you are passing will appear – some of them with links to a certain Cornish blog – so the walks are informative as well as fun!
John Alden and I have been walking together quite a few times now so I decided to have a chat with him about the app, his favourite walks and what the future holds for the iWalk team!
Can you tell me a little bit about you and your connections to Cornwall?
We grew up in North Cornwall near Tintagel and spent a lot of our childhood on the local footpaths or in a boat, usually in both cases with a fishing rod. We left Cornwall to go to university. Dave went to Nottingham to do computer science and I went to Oxford and ended up with a doctorate in numerical modelling. I lead a software engineering team for the BBC in London and Bristol, and Dave worked as a software developer and as dive instructor in Greece and Croatia. Living “upcountry” in my case and abroad in Dave’s case made us both really appreciate what we’d grown up with.
Eventually we both found our way back to Cornwall. There’s a saying along the lines of “you can take a Cornishman out of Cornwall”. . . (but not the other way round).
So, how did iWalk Cornwall begin, where did the idea come from?
We started creating walks for our parents’ holiday cottages, and the visitors really enjoyed them but it became clear that once they missed one direction, getting back onto the route was really problematic. Even if they were confident map readers, they often had no idea where they were on the map by the time they’d worked out they were off route. And even if they did, matching the directions up with the map isn’t easy in an unfamiliar area.
Dave had been trying some experiments with the GPS functionality in mobile phones to see if we could plot a position on a map in real time if you were viewing the website on a phone. It worked, where there was a 3G signal, which was hardly anywhere in North Cornwall!
So he tried creating an app that ran offline and it worked surprisingly well, so we moved on to our goal of triggering the directions based on position. Trying that for the first time was a case of “where have you been all my life?”. I’d used the OS “memory map” app before to show position on a map but integrating directions and local information was something altogether different, more like having a personal walk guide in your pocket.
We soon found plenty of awkward things that happen on walks in the real world and these, combined with fuzziness of a GPS signal, made tracking which direction you should be on more challenging than our first prototype app could handle. We spent the next year iterating between field testing and devising logic to handle these cases and slowly it became increasingly robust.
We released our first app in 2013 and it’s now older than some of its users. Not all of them though – we recently had a review from an 86-year-old who seems to be getting on just as well with it.
Can you tell me why you think that getting out walking is important?
Physically, walking has been described as “near perfect exercise” and a “miracle cure” for a range of ailments. One research group has even estimated that walking regularly can add up to 7 years to your life expectancy!
Whilst walking, you are burning calories at triple the rate vs sitting on the sofa. The key thing is that walking is something that’s possible to keep up for a long time, particularly if there is lots of interesting stuff to look at (which Cornwall is not short of).
During a 3 hour walk you’ll typically burn an extra 600 calories – roughly the amount in a pasty.
You’d have to do over 1,000 press-ups to achieve the same.
During July (estimated but very likely to be correct), using the iWalk Cornwall walks, around 6 million calories were burned (equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of pasties) and enough miles were walked to pass 2.5 times around the planet.
Mental health is more tightly coupled to physical health than we often realise. At a reductionist level, we are basically a big, walking bucket of biochemicals. Exercise releases the happy ones, these trigger our emotions, and so we feel good. At a more intellectual level, there is a lot of satisfaction from discovering new things and making a positive difference e.g. by reporting overgrown paths to make things better for others.
Unlike many sports that require training and practice, walking doesn’t require any special skills which makes it instantly accessible to the majority of people. Therefore it’s a great way to have a shared experience with others and socialise – even now. It’s something you can do both within a “social bubble” and socially-distanced with friends. It’s outside, in a (very!) well-ventilated place and distanced from strangers.
Your iWalk Cornwall walks are about so much more than just getting people from A to B, how do you start putting them together?
Pretty much all our routes are circular (apart from about a dozen one-way coastal walks) and are mostly in the 4-6 mile range (around 2-3 hours walking time) so they can either be done in a morning or spread out over a day with a picnic and a bit of swimming on a quiet beach.
We test each of the routes at least 3 times before we release a walk and then re-check each of the 256 every couple of years to pick up changes to the footpaths and landmarks.
It’s been an evolutionary process based on 10 years of research, people using the walks and feeding back suggestions, and our own observations when re-testing the routes, discovering new things each time we walk them. There’s rarely a day passes when I don’t update one of the walks. I’ve just been adding some more historical info to the East Moor route in between writing this.
Now, I know this is a hard one but can you tell me about your top 3 walks around Cornwall? Which ones do you think are unmissable?
It’s a hard one because the answer depends on the time of the year, and also for a relatively small triangle of land area, Cornwall is mind-bogglingly varied. Here are three but there are a couple of hundred more:
Holywell to Crantock is an absolutely classic Cornish coastal walk. In June, the poppies at West Pentire are spectacular and if you can time it for low tide at Holywell Bay you can see the holy well in the cave that inspired the one in Poldark. It also passes the two coves that were the inspiration for Nampara Cove. You’ll likely see some seals too.
Widemouth to Bude stands out as a bit unusual because canals are not the first thing you associate with Cornwall! The one at Bude has an interesting history that largely defined the town and provides a really nice habitat for things like water voles and kingfishers. The coastline is a complete contrast, with weird and wonderful rock formations and the wildlife reserves on the “culm measures” (a sort of rare peat grassland) are brimming with wildflowers.
Minions and Caradon Hill combines industrial heritage, moorland landscape and Cornish eccentricity: Much of the route is on the trackbed of the railway that used to bring granite from the Cheesewring Quarry and ore from the mines down to Liskeard. There are extensive remains of the copper mines on Caradon Hill which have created a striking landscape. Minions itself is home to some entertaining livestock who can usually be found frequenting the pub’s beer garden or surrounding bemused motorists. Cartoon figures of the same name appear on various signs around the village and add to the surreal experience.
What’s next for the app?
Something we’ve just rolled-out is to allow walkers to report public footpath issues directly to Cornwall Council. That includes defects with stiles, footbridges etc, overgrown paths or any other obstructions, and any livestock problems.
There’s now a little menu next to each direction number with a “Report Issue” option, or alternatively you can get the menu by tapping the numbered marker on the map screen.
Once you choose “Footpath issue” and the direction is on a public footpath, the app will automatically populate an email to the Cornwall Council Countryside Access team containing the parish info, path number and pinpointing the location. You can add a description and attach any photos to that email (which is highly recommended so they can see how bad it is). I made a little diagram which I’ve included.
To manage expectations, some of the less urgent things that are reported (e.g. signage) won’t get addressed immediately by Cornwall Council due to funding constraints, but these are all recorded and can then be used as evidence to make a case for more funding from central government – so worth reporting. Some also get done as part of larger pieces of work e.g. when footbridges are replaced.
So, I hope you enjoyed my chat with John and it’s inspired you to explore a bit more perhaps. At the moment finding new places to escape the crowds seems a cunning plan!
The iWalk Cornwall app is free to download and walks cost just £1.99. The app will guide you to the starting point, if you are driving and there is advice on where to park, usually for free, which is always super handy! I really think that this app is ideal both for locals and visitors alike. It enables you to get out and explore, to really discover some of Cornwall’s quieter corners without the worry of not being able to find your way home again! I have certainly been to lots of new places because of iWalk even in areas which I thought I knew well.
Author’s Note: I have not been paid for this interview/review, all opinions expressed are my own.
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