Discover Cornwall’s countryside with iWalk Cornwall
We’ve teamed up with the brilliant iWalk Cornwall to bring you a seasonal walk. Each season we’ll be recommending a new walk that shows off Cornwall and inspires you to get out and about. The iWalk app is fantastic to use and we can’t wait to share with your our favourite routes. But first we thought we’d introduce you to the brilliant John who started the company.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
A lot of the inspiration for iWalk Cornwall is from our childhood growing up in North Cornwall near Trebarwith Strand. Our parents sold everything including their wedding presents to buy a derelict farm in the ’60s. Over the next 10 years, they rebuilt the ruins into somewhere to live and a couple of holiday cottages so the first words we learnt as babies were probably along the lines of “shhh or you’ll wake up the visitors!”
After finishing school at Camelford, I moved “upcountry” to Oxford to do a degree, and a doctorate in numerical modelling. After that I worked for the BBC, leading the technical teams for the factual websites including Science, History and Nature and working with the BBC Natural History Unit inspired the nature content in iWalk Cornwall. Another defining moment for iWalk Cornwall resembled a scene from the Fishermens’ Friends film: a colleague in London told me they had visited Cornwall and “done everything there was to do in 4 days”!! I now work on iWalk Cornwall full time and live in mid-Cornwall so all footpaths in reach.
My brother Dave is a software developer with a broad experience ranging from building the voting system for The Voice and Strictly Come Dancing to writing the software that stops everyone on the Victoria Line turning into paté when the brakes are slammed on. He’s now a specialist in app development the Open Source software he’s written is downloaded over 100,000 times a week by developers to build their apps. He’s currently modernising the railways when not working with me on iWalk Cornwall.
When and why did you start iWalk Cornwall?
Not long after the turn of the millenium, we wrote several circular walks around the Tintagel area for visitors to our parents’ holiday cottages. Dave had also devised a load of circular routes nearby, initially just for himself to explore some new places for a bit of fresh air after being in front of a screen all day. Based on these, over time, we gradually added a some more circular walks around North Cornwall and published these on the holiday cottage website. To our surprise, we started getting emails from locals saying they’d enjoyed doing the walks so we created a dedicated little website for them in 2012, initially called iWalk North Cornwall.
What was the first walk you created?
We created a short walk in an old slate quarry in Trebarwith Valley for a technology experiment to see how well GPS tracking would work with the walks on our website. There’s no phone signal in our “silicon valley” so we had to walk down Trewarmett hill with the web page already loaded! Apart from that, we were surprised at how well it worked and it evolved to become a tool we that we used when writing walks. Dave rewrote this as an app which could be pre-installed on the device and then run without any internet.
To see if this thing we’d built for ourselves was something other people would find useful, we created an Android app for a single walk at Padstow which we figured must get a few visitors. We just put it in the app store and didn’t advertise it so we were delighted that a few people bought it but the reviews were what inspired us to carry on – they were proper enthusiastic.
We created a few more single-walk Android apps and later on reworked this as a single app for Apple and then Android through which a growing range of walks could be purchased. Since the walks had reached Land’s End by this point, we thought we should probably change the name to iWalk Cornwall!
The app has constantly evolved over the last 8 years shaped both by feedback from our users and our own hands-on experience of using it on more than 1000 walk tests – it’s still the tool we use all the time ourselves to do our job. It is also now, unusually for an app, actually older than some of its users!
How does the app work and what happens if I lose phone signal?
Once a walk is purchased and downloads onto the device, no internet or phone signal is needed to do the walk – it runs completely offline. It has been designed from the outset to cope with the geography of Cornwall so as well as not needing a phone signal during a walk, and walk downloads are small enough to work over slow internet connections (i.e. stood in a field when I’ve forgotten to download the walk I was supposed to be testing!).
During the walk, the app tracks your location using GPS and uses that to remind you when it’s time to follow the next direction or warn you if you’ve gone the wrong way. There’s a screen with a list of numbered directions similar to an old-school walking book, except that it automatically updates itself as you walk along, and map showing where you are and which way you are facing. There’s also a summary screen telling you how far you have left to go which also counts down the distance to the next direction as you walk.
There are now over 250 walks on the app, which walk is your favourites?
It’s a bit like asking a parent “which is your favourite child?” Each needs regular attention, is very occasionally naughty, but all are very much loved!
The true answer is that it’s the one I’m currently doing. Each has its own unique character which is why we’re still going after 250. I’ve personally walked every route at least 3 times, most are coming up to five times now as we systematically revisit the older ones and update the directions for any changes to the footpaths, signposting, landmarks etc.
Seeing the landscape transform through the different seasons is also really fascinating, it’s something enchanting that it’s easy to lose touch with in modern life. Cornwall has some amazing stuff to offer visitors outside of the traditional holiday periods, you just need to get out of the car to find it.
It’s pretty wet and cold at the moment, any recommendations for a good winter walk?
In the app, there’s a “walks by type” section which has a list of walks which are the better ones for wet weather. The shorter walks are also useful for dry afternoons with not too many hours of light left. Walks with shipwrecks are often good at this time of the year as the winter storms can excavate them from the sand.
As we move through the year, this section automatically updates itself with what’s in season so snowdrop walks will appear soon and then gorse and bluebell walks after that. There are some “off the beaten track” walks to escape the summer crowds too.
Why do you think Cornwall is so special compared to other places?
Cornwall’s peninsula geography creates lots of micro-habitats that makes for extremely varied scenery even over relatively short 2-3 hour routes. You can be on moorland one moment, in a valley carpeted with bluebells the next, and then on the beach! The landscape is totally different between north and south coasts and between East and West Cornwall so even after 250 walks, we do a new walk and it’s completely different to all the others.
Cornwall also has a unique Celtic heritage with beautifully-carved relics from the mediaeval period right back to large-scale stone structures 1000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids as well as an industrial heritage that sparked the Industrial Revolution and shaped the modern world. New things are being discovered all the time: a storm might bring ashore “pieces of eight” silver coins from one of the treasure ships that ran aground full of cargo or, like my dad, you might find a Bronze Age axe head when tidying up the garden.
We notice that your website advocates walking for improving health both physical and mental. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Going for a walk is a great way to do some really beneficial physical exercise whilst at the same time having a bit of fun exploring some new places, finding out about things you never knew about and not thinking about “doing exercise”. Some health researchers have estimated that walking regularly can add as much as seven years to your life expectancy.
Your body burns roughly triple the number of calories when walking than when sitting on the sofa so, because it’s an exercise that you can keep up for several hours without getting tired or bored, it’s an effective way to burn fat. In fact, researchers have found that your body burns more fat walking a mile than running a mile because it has more time to metabolise it. Remember the tale of hare and tortoise! Very roughly, on a three hour walk, the extra calories you burn off is roughly equivalent to those in a medium pasty. Combined with eating sensibly, one gentleman informed me that he’s lost 8 stone by doing the iWalk Cornwall walks.
The app contains a “shorter and easier walks” section with the walks ranked by least steep first (as this makes a bigger difference than length). This can be useful for building up gradually from an easy hour’s stroll to more demanding 2-3 hour coastal walks.
What are your top tips for having a successful walk?
Doing anything outdoors requires a bit of common-sense planning, for example checking the tide times and the wind forecast if you’re planning a coastal walk, seasonal dog restrictions on beaches etc. The app is designed to allow walks to be bought at short notice so plans can be adapted for changing weather.
A comfy and waterproof pair of walking boots is probably the most important thing although on muddy routes in winter, wellies are sometimes a good option so you can just not worry about mud. The neoprene wellies that you can get these days are a bit nicer for walking longer distances than traditional wellies.
It’s a good idea to wear thin layers that can be taken off and carried easily when you get warm going uphill and the sun comes out and put back on in the wind and shade. If the weather isn’t pretty-much guaranteed to be full sun then take a waterproof.
For walking with the app, a USB “power bank” is highly recommended – for about £20 you can get one with several times the capacity of the phone’s battery so you can walk from dawn until dusk without worrying about running out of battery. I keep mine in my camera bag so it’s always with me and secure it underneath the phone with a couple of elastic bands when needed.
We love all of the wildlife and heritage information on the walks. How do you discover what to include?
We use a combination of historical maps and heritage databases combined with some incite from locals to research the heritage information along the route. We also collaborate with the Cornish Bird blog on Cornish Heritage and so some of the topics in the app link through to longer articles about the subject if you want to find out more.
The wildlife information is based on our own observations from testing the walks. If you’re reading about something on a walk, you are probably standing in our footprints from the time we saw it.
We continually add to the facts as we periodically re-check the routes and spot new things. Once you’ve bought a walk, you get free updates with any changes to the directions and additional facts, so you’re always walking with the latest version.
ABOUT iWALK CORNWALL
iWalk Cornwall is a collection of thoughtfully-crafted circular walks and a guided walks mobile app. There are over 250 walks and each walk costs just £1.99 to purchase and download. New walks are steadily added to the site and existing walks are also continually being updated for changes to the footpaths and with more information about the heritage and natural history.