Street smarts: educational guided walks across the UK

From architecture in London, street art in Belfast and city routes hosted by former homeless people, here are some of the most informative trails on offer

Nationwide tours of local stories

Do you want to know about crime and punishment in Edinburgh? Learn about depression in Manchester or about Scottish languages? These are just some of the unique subjects of Invisible cities guided walking tours.

An Invisible Cities guide in Manchester.
An Invisible Cities guide in Manchester. Photograph: PR

Even more intriguing, though, are the tour guides themselves. This is a social enterprise that provides training and employment for people with a history of homelessness. “You create a special connection with your guide, and with that comes understanding, and change,” says CEO Zakia Moulaoui Guery. “I would like to influence the tourist industry, and show that we can do things differently.”

London’s modern architecture

During lockdown, graphic designer and author Stefi Orazi, a specialist in modernist design, used her daily walk to explore the architecture of her local area: Hampstead and Highgate in north-west London. From her ramblings Perambulations: A Walking Guide to Modernist Houses was born. There is now a series of these stylish maps, taking in routes across London, from Chislehurst to the Barbican, as well as one guide to Brussels. The routes are accompanied by informative text about buildings ranging from post-war Span Developments to buildings by Richard Rogers and Patrick Hodgkinson.

One of the Perambulations: A Walking Guide to Modernist Houses guides.
One of the Perambulations: A Walking Guide to Modernist Houses guides. Photograph: PR

Belfast street art

Everybody knows about Belfast’s murals, but what about its street art? There is an important difference between the two, explains Adam Turkington of Seedhead Arts, which offers street art walking tours of the city’s Cathedral Quarter. “The traditional Northern Irish mural is a territorial marking, to say ‘this is our part of town’. Street art is about creating a shared cultural space, for the majority of people who live here, who don’t consider themselves to be in either one of the gangs.” Walking tours take in many works, and explore the history of the area, guided by either Turkington, or by the street artists themselves. “We want to tell a story about how art is vitally important for connecting people,” he says. “We might even look at a few bars along the way.”

We all love a pub walk. But Historic England offers pub walks with a difference: each trail takes in the most historically significant pubs in city centres across the north, from basic beer houses, such as Manchester’s Circus Tavern, to Chester’s magnificent, timber-framed The Bear and Billet. With routes in Stockport and Liverpool, the website offers an online map, with information about each pub visited along the way. The only difficulty is pacing drinks enough to ensure a full appreciation of the historical features (this is an educational walk, remember, not a pub crawl).

Brighton’s LGBTQ+ history

Brighton is famed for being one of Europe’s queerest cities. And what better way to appreciate this rich history than with a tour guided by Ric Morris, who has been leading his Piers and Queers tour since 2011? “It’s a great way to engage with Brighton’s culture, for people who don’t necessarily want to stay up late in a sweaty bar,” says Morris. The tour takes in 200 years of history, from Regency dandies, through to 1950s lesbian and gay life. Featuring famous names from Anne Lister to Oscar Wilde, it also uncovers some unsung heroes, such as a pioneering doctor who lived as a man long before women were allowed to practice medicine. Morris is now working out how to include locations from the forthcoming Harry Styles film, My Policeman, which is set in 1950s Brighton.

Northumberland’s ancient history

Compared to the Lake District and its West and Scottish Highlands just over the border, Northumberland remains a relatively well-kept secret for walkers. Ancient Britain runs tours of Hadrian’s Wall, guided by local bushcraft expert Kevin Robson, whose passion is connecting people with both history and the natural environment. “Obviously, the wall is associated with Roman Britain, but we also look at the iron age cultures that existed in this area before the invasion,” he says. His bushcraft sessions offer practical skills that would have been used in the iron age, such as firelighting by friction. “Anyone who comes here is blown away by the landscape and the tranquility.”

Standing stones on the Archaeoastronomy Cornwall tour.
Standing stones on the Archaeoastronomy Cornwall tour. Photograph: PR

Carolyn Kennett has a unique background: she’s an ancient-heritage-expert-turned-astronomer. The two disciplines come together in the guided Archeo-astronomy Cornwall walking tours she offers in west Cornwall, where moorland areas are densely packed with bronze age remains, including standing stones, stone circles and burial sites. “The tours look at how these ancient cultures perceived what was going on in the night sky, and how their buildings related to the rising and setting positions of the sun, for example,” she explains. Some walks take place in the evening, to see a sunset and do some star-gazing afterwards in this International Dark Sky Association designated area.

Birmingham’s Black heritage

Five years ago, self-confessed “heritage nerds” Marcia Dunkley, Dawn Carr and Garry Stewart got talking at an event, and the idea for Birmingham’s Black Heritage Walks Network was born. Whereas port cities like Liverpool and Bristol had obvious links to the slave trade, they felt that the black history of their home city remained well hidden. “Birmingham was actually the beating heart of the Transatlantic slave trade, as a centre of industry,” explains Dunkley. “But it’s not talked about here.” The team developed eight walks based on different areas of Birmingham, from Handsworth, where the walk is themed around a visit to the area by Nelson Mandela, to Edgbaston, which has links to the US civil rights campaigner Ida B Wells. All the regular tours will be back up and running in March but, over the winter months, they can be arranged privately.

A young sleuth on a Treasure Trails tour.
A young sleuth on a Treasure Trails tour. Photograph: PR

Getting the kids enthused about a walk – as opposed to, say, curling up on the sofa with a gaming device – can be difficult. Treasure Trails helps ramp up the fun by turning walks into challenges in which the family has to solve clues together, while learning about an area at the same time. There are over 1,200 self-guided trails to choose from, sited all over the UK, with themes including Spy Mission, Detective Mystery and Treasure Hunt. Each one takes around two hours to complete. There’s a text message service with extra clues if you get stuck, so there is no excuse not to dump the screens and don the waterproofs.

The Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail is one of Britain’s oldest sculpture trails, having been welcoming visitors for 35 years. The Forestry England-run project was inspired by the land art movement of the 1960s and 70s, and specialises in site-specific works by big names including David Nash, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Cornelia Parker. But there are more recent installations, too, by Natasha Rosling, Pomona Zipser and Henry Castle. The trail is free of charge, with maps available to download.

Wild food is everywhere, but you can only make use of it if you have the know-how. Totally Wild runs foraging walks across the UK, from Friston Forest in the south, to Scotland’s Mugdock country park, via Hackney Marshes in London and Rufford Abbey in the Midlands. There are foraging and cooking courses, which end with a three-course meal, including delicacies such as dandelion root coffee pancakes with birch syrup and elderflower cheesecake. For the self-guided forager, there are a range of useful guides and recipes on the website.


Alice O'Keeffe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Portmeirion to Coleg Harlech: an architectural odyssey in north-west Wales
One’s an architect’s idyll, the other a faded brutalist gem, but both are worth seeing on this scenic coastal hike between the two

Rowan Moore

29, Oct, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Foraging and walking on the way to the Sportsman pub in Seasalter
This marsh hostelry may not look fancy but the locally sourced menu and the warm welcome are just the ticket after a hike

Stephen Harris & Emma Read

03, Nov, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘Balm for the soul’: my beloved, blissful walk in the Forest of Bowland
This magical place is a history-imbued, gives-you-goosebumps expanse of fells, moors and farmland – with a fabulous pub at the end

Rachel Cooke

30, Oct, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Bad weather is good for you: take a walk in the wind and rain
Don’t be put off by winter weather – going out into the mud and cold is highly beneficial to our immunity and general health

Annabel Streets

29, Oct, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
On Slapton Sands: why my walk along Devon’s coast was a journey through time
A lot has happened in this little corner of the UK – discovery of early man, regal holidays, war disaster, humpback whale visits – all of which enrich the experience of taking this route

Ashish Ghadiali

02, Nov, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
A walk on the wild side: explore the Avalon Marshes, Somerset
In the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, on the Somerset Levels, our writer discovers a wetland wonderland for wildlife

Stephen Moss

02, Nov, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
A need for speed: if running is too risky, why not try race walking?
If you’re a runner prone to injury and joint problems, you may need to take up race walking. Just be prepared to look like you need the loo

Martin Love

31, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Giant steps: why walking in nature is good for mind, body and soul
Rather than just moving from A to B, think about your surroundings and the wider ramifications of your walk

Jessica J Lee

30, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Scenic route: feed the spirit with an art walk around Soho, London
Would-be collectors will love exploring this area of the city, which is teeming with exciting spaces showcasing lesser-known and new artists

Niru Ratnam

31, Oct, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
On the right track: how walking connects me to the land and its people
From the Himalayas to Palestine and north London to south Devon, hiking gives a sense of belonging

Ashish Ghadiali

05, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM