What is the most indirect walking trail? The one where you walk oodles of miles, yet at the end of it, find yourself rather embarrassingly close to where you set off from? It was a question that was on my mind after working out that when you walk the Thames Path, your feet go on a 184 miles/296km journey, but the two trailheads are a mere 90 miles/145km apart.
The question burrowed itself into my mind, and slowly niggled at me until I finally cracked and started to find out.
Of course, I couldn’t work how direct every walking route is. There are just too many. The Long Distance Walkers Association, for example, has a directory of 1,500 walking routes in the UK. It would take me years to calculate that lot. So instead I decided to concentrate on main routes:
- 15 National Trails of England and Wales – the 16th, the England Coast Path, is not included as it is not yet finished
- 4 “Long Distance Routes” of Scotland – the West Highland Way, Great Glen Way, Southern Upland Way and the Speyside Way were the four original long distance walking trails created in Scotland, and are now part of a wider network branded as Scotland’s Great Trails
- A Coast to Coast Walk – the only completely unofficial path on the list, but it is included here as it is the most popular walking route in the UK
With 20 trails to look at, the next job was the find latitude and longitude co-ordinates for the start and end positions of each trail. These I found in a variety of ways, including pouring over Ordnance Survey maps, official route websites, Bing Maps and Google Streetview to pinpoint the proper start and end points. With those coordinates, I could calculate the point-to-point distances between the start and end using the distance calculator at doogal.co.uk.
I obviously also needed a distance for the trail itself. I got these from each trail’s official website. For the Coast to Coast you’ll find multiple distances given by different people (thanks, no doubt, to the different options you can take) so I opted for the 190 miles/306km distance given by the Wainwright Society.
With all that done, all that remained was to find out a ‘Directness Value’, simply measured by dividing the point-to-point distance by the official difference. The higher directness value, the more direct the route is. So if a walking trail went in exactly a straight line for its entire length, it would have a directness value of 1. And a circular walking trail, starting and ending in exactly the same place, well that would have zero. (Well actually it wouldn’t, because that would require the ability to divide by zero and that’s impossible. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll ignore the rules of mathematics just this once. Besides, there are no circular routes in our list.)
And with all that done, it was time to be able to find some answers.
The most direct paths
Not surprisingly, there are several walking routes that are quite direct, namely those that run roughly in a straight line. Of course there is no perfectly direct trail – it’s just not possible to walk exactly in a straight line. But there are some fair Directness Values out there.
Our third most direct trail is the South Downs Way, coming in with a Directness Value of 0.73. Walking its 100 miles/160km between Winchester and Eastbourne will take you 72.2 miles/116.2km as the crow flies. Even better is the Hadrian’s Wall Path with a Directness Value of 0.80, an achievement really helped by the obsession of the Romans in building things in incredibly straight lines.
Most direct of all though is the Great Glen Way. Running between Fort William and Inverness, this trail goes in an incredibly straight line by following a canal and the edge of some long, very narrow lochs. With a Directness Value of 0.87, the Great Glen Way is truly the walking route with no faffing around.
Something in the middle
What’s the trail with a middle directness? The one with the Directness Value of 0.5? Well there isn’t one, but there’s two that get very close. Coming in with a Directness Value of 0.52 is the Cotswold Way. Now that’s not bad at all.
But even closer to 0.5 is the trail that sparked off this whole, rather pointless endeavour. Yes, it’s the Thames Path with a Directness Value of 0.49. Good work river walkers!
And finally… the least direct path!
All the above though is just a sideshow from the ultimate question. Just what is the least direct trail? And what does one look like? The answer is, kind of horseshoe-shaped, and there are certainly a couple of trails that fit into that category; not every major trail goes off in a straight line after all.
Coming in third is one I know very well myself. Those walking it will probably spend nine or ten days walking just to travel a distance of just 22 miles/36km between its two trailheads in Knighton and Welshpool. With a Directness Value of a mere 0.16, yes, it’s the Glyndŵr’s Way, a V-shaped trail that is one of the few not to follow any feature that’s geographic or historical. Yes, it does visit some sites connected to Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, but the way mostly goes where it does because its creators thought it would be a good idea.
The second least direct path, with a Directness Value of 0.13, is also in Wales. But this time, it is a trail that is far less arbitrary. Indeed this one follows a geographic feature, and it is that feature that causes the indirectness. And it’s the coast. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path may be a 186 mile/300km walk, but when you get to the other end you’ll find yourself just 25 miles/40km from where you set off from. And that’s what happens when you walk on the coast, because coastlines are rarely straight and flat.
That same excuse is the reason for the most indirect path as well. Almost inevitably, that honour falls on the longest National Trail in existence. At 630miles – or the far longer sounding 1014km – the South West Coast Path is an epic undertaking. It will take you about a month and a half to do it all, yet on many days you’ll barely make any progress at all thanks to the many inlets and bays it encounters. And when you finally do get the end, what have you got to show for your progress? You find yourself just 76miles/100km from where you left all that time before. Yes, with a Directness Value of just 0.10, the South West Coast Path is an easy contender for this crown.
So there you go. If you want to actually set off on a walk and actually go places, the Great Glen Way is probably the trail for you. But if your main aim is to arrive reasonably close from where you started from, why not try the South West Coast Path? Although if you haven’t got seven weeks to spare, you might just want to consider other options, such as public transport.
For those interested, here’s a table with
|Trail||Start coordinates||End coordinates||Official distance||Point-to-point distance||Directness Value|
|South West Coast Path||51.211092, -3.473884||50.679653, -1.950111||630||1014||75.9||99.8||0.10|
|Pembrokeshire Coast Path||52.089062, -4.681956||51.733894, -4.652027||186||300||24.6||39.5||0.13|
|Glyndwr’s Way||52.344261, -3.049674||52.658563, -3.144496||135||217||22.1||35.5||0.16|
|Cleveland Way||54.246346, -1.061377||54.217696, -0.271974||109||175||30.9||49.8||0.28|
|Peddar’s Way/Norfolk Coast Path||52.390763, 0.855365||52.932618, 1.300361||93||150||41.2||63.3||0.42|
|Yorkshire Wolds Way||53.717589, -0.434779||54.217696, -0.271974||79||127||35.5||57.2||0.45|
|Pennine Bridleway||53.092784, -1.591007||54.412835, -2.403434||205||330||97.2||156.4||0.47|
|Thames Path||51.694262,-2.029724||51.494995, 0.037451||184||294||89.8||144.6||0.49|
|Cotswold Way||52.050930, -1.779739||51.381500, -2.358718||102||164||52.5||84.6||0.52|
|Pennine Way||53.370509, -1.816907||55.547455, -2.275127||268||429||151.7||244.1||0.57|
|Speyside Way||57.190562, -3.829121||57.676414, -2.964936||80||130||46.5||74.9||0.58|
|North Downs Way||51.212761, -0.793908||51.122432, 1.315457||153||246||91.7||147.5||0.60|
|Southern Upland Way||54.841502, -5.119953||55.932687, -2.360358||212||340||132.1||212.6||0.63|
|Coast to Coast||54.490750, -3.606449||54.430416, -0.532011||190||306||123.6||198.9||0.65|
|Offa’s Dyke Path||51.632536, -2.648470||53.342625, -3.412604||177||285||122.4||197||0.69|
|The Ridgeway||51.411506, -1.830571||51.842156, -0.608428||87||139||60.4||97.3||0.70|
|West Highland Way||55.940606, -4.318159||56.816367, -5.113975||96||154||67.8||109.1||0.71|
|South Downs Way||51.061038, -1.314666||50.751869, 0.267037||100||160||72.2||116.2||0.73|
|Hadrian’s Wall Path||54.953928, -3.211641||54.988093, -1.530114||84||135||66.7||107.4||0.80|
|Great Glen Way||56.816367, -5.113975||57.477290, -4.224846||75||121||56.6||105.8||0.87|
Note: Speyside Way distance does not include the Speyside Way Extension, but does include the Tomintoul spur. Coast to Coast distance is that given by the Wainwright Society.