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  • Natalie Bradbury

Art and long-distance walking: An interview with Matt Dalby

During the past two years, I’ve often felt like I was living and traveling through observing the things other people posted on social media, and experiencing places from a distance even when I was physically unable to travel. One of my favourite accounts on social media belongs to the artist Matt Dalby, who documents long-distance walks starting from his home in Manchester which take many hours and cover many, many miles. I spoke to Matt to find out more about his walks and how it relates to his artistic work.

Natalie Bradbury: Hi Matt. Can you introduce yourself and talk a bit about your creative practice?

Matt Dalby: Hi, I’m Matt Dalby, I live in Manchester, and creatively I mainly produce non-musical improvised vocal sounds under the name Tear Fet.

NB: Can you talk about what walking means to you? When and why did you start these walks?

MD: Walking has been there from the moment I was capable of walking any distance confidently.

Some context: my parents were born in 1943 and 1947 to working-class families. They were the first in their families to go to university, and both trained in the mid-late 1960s as teachers. Not a well remunerated profession. In addition my father very quickly went on to study to become a Church of England vicar. At the same time my parents were very much interested in folk music, in folk culture, in self-sufficiency, arts and crafts, and making your own entertainment (though let me specify, without the nationalism or nativism all of that can imply). Being a vicar is also poorly remunerated, even more so the five years my father spent as a curate prior to that, though the benefits are generous. We didn’t have a car until I was nine, and a reliable family car until later still; we didn’t have a TV until after I left for university at nearly 26; and most of the places we lived were either in the countryside, near to the countryside, or had walks along canals and rivers in easy reach. All this meant that walking was both a necessity and a pastime. I remember the steep streets of East Morton near Keighley when I was very young, the summer lanes and fields around Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire where my father trained to be a priest a little later, and the walks along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near where we lived in Baildon later still. All this was the first phase, walking as natural.

On my ninth birthday, we moved to the countryside, a village called Austwick about as far north and west as you can get in Yorkshire. It’s under the shade of Norber which is a foothill of Ingleborough, one of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. The nearest place to do your grocery shopping was Settle, a small town around 8km away, and the nearest large places were Skipton and Lancaster, each more than 30km away and also small. Walking and public transport were essential if you didn’t or couldn’t drive. I didn’t settle well and found myself bullied and with very few friends. Walking then had a multiple purpose. It was essential, it was pleasurable, and it was a meditative space. Not just somewhere to escape, but to think, to talk to myself. This will come back and be relevant in later answers. This then is the third phase. Walking is transport, it’s functional. Walking is leisure. And walking is a personal space where I can be as detached or as engaged as I like.

Finally the third phase, with challenge walks and the more conscious drawing in of my art practice. And again some context. From being a teenager I created temporary drawings (with chalk or water on stone, in snow) and sculptural objects (small arrangements of stones and/or twigs and leaves) outside. Later on I would compose bits of writing in my head, though never thought to take a notebook with me. This will also become relevant. Right from finding myself in the middle of this exciting landscape walks of six to 10 hours became increasingly possible in summer. The later, longer walks were already starting to be there. They continued through the year I spent studying in London, through the seven years in Cardiff where I did my first degree, and into Manchester shortly after the Commonwealth Games.

The really long walks didn’t really get underway until around 2015. Around 2013 my mother was diagnosed with cancer, at a stage where only palliative care was possible. She was able to be independent until very close to the end, but it was a huge shock. I’d already been thinking about longer walks, but hadn’t thought about how I could approach them. My mother’s diagnosis acted as a kind of spur. I decided in 2014 that I needed to set myself a challenge. This was also prompted by my starting to come out of a fairly severe depression. I needed to take on challenges, to push myself to do things. But nothing immediately suggested itself. There are coast to coast walks, or Land’s End to John ‘O Groats, or walking the coast of England, Scotland and Wales, but all of these are expensive, they require a lot of planning. Then one day I was looking at my OS map of Manchester and realised the answer was right there. It was the M60, Manchester’s orbital motorway, which is over 58km long. I could walk a circuit round the outside of the motorway. That meant some planning and preparation. Initially I thought I’d attempt it barefoot, I guess as some misguided penance or ascetic statement, but I very quickly discarded that notion. Instead, I started to create my own route, stage by stage, as well as taking increasingly long walks to ensure I had the stamina and resilience. Once I had the route (coming inside the M60 only between the Trafford Centre and Worsley, since crossings over the Mersey are more sparse to the west of the city) I walked it in stages to be sure I was familiar enough to do it without a map or directions. And in May 2016 I did the whole walk in one day. That was the start. I realised I could do very long distances, that there were many places in reach of my home in Whalley Range, and that I could use the train. At first I used the train to get me out to places so I could walk back, but it soon became apparent that the closer I got to home, the less exciting the walk. Instead, I started to walk out to places like Preston or Crewe and get the train home, meaning the walks got less familiar and more interesting the further I got.

Finally, that sense of discovery, even at times of getting lost, is important to me. Walking, like art, for me is process of exploration and experimentation. Having a neat, perfect product is irrelevant. It’s the process and the experience that matter.

NB: Sometimes you follow established walking or cycling trails, sometimes you walk both directions and sometimes you walk to a destination before returning by public transport. How many miles would you typically cover in a walk? How do you decide where to go and what route to take?

MD: Most weekends I’ll do at least one walk of between seven to 10 hours. Through the summer there are more frequent walks of up to 14 hours, though there will be a handful through the year of as much as 16 or more hours. And last year I managed a 20-hour walk, which is ridiculous. The route very much depends on how much time I can dedicate to planning and preparation, whether I can afford to get a rail ticket home, how much daylight there is, and where it is I’m planning to walk.

For a concrete example, if I walk to somewhere like Liverpool, which takes around 12 hours, then that’s necessarily going to be mostly by road. I could do more by footpaths and bridleways but that’s going to be a less direct journey and take longer. I’d also need to spend a lot of time beforehand looking at maps and working out what’s best. Always with the knowledge that even assuming paths are obvious, clearly signposted, and not blocked off, conditions on the ground are never as clear as looking at a map. That’s a lot of work. I do do that from time to time, but mostly I just want to go as quickly and easily as possible. So most times if I don’t know the route I’ll check on Google, print out directions, maybe take a map on the day, and hope for the best. That said, anything within about five hours of where I live is fair game for a circular walk, doesn’t need a map, and allows me to explore paths I maybe haven’t taken before. That’s because I’m pretty familiar with major routes in that range. Once I’ve walked a route around three times I can manage it with no prompt. But the bulk of my walks are circular and within familiar territory.

As for how I choose a route, if it’s one direction then then I just look at a map, see what’s in my walkable range, and whether that place has a train route back either there or nearby. Loops as indicated before are usually within a range I know reasonably well. Occasionally I’ll put more effort in, but generally I don’t have the time, inclination, or bandwidth.

NB: Are there any challenges? Often you cover distances I would consider to be quite far on my bike, let alone on foot!

MD: The biggest challenge is the poverty of provision for pedestrians (and cyclists and horse-riders). Footways end or change which side of the road they’re on without warning, often in an inconvenient and dangerous place. Countryside roads can be narrow, winding and fast, with poor visibility ahead and no footways or even verges. Roads in towns can be counterintuitive and complicated to navigate. In both these latter two cases I’ve found Cheshire to be a particularly egregious example.

Another challenge is toilets. If you’re walking 10, 12 hours or more, chances are you’ll need the toilet at least once. The best you can do is try and ensure there are larger supermarkets along the route, which is unfortunately your best option for working facilities these days. But remember that on a Sunday they won’t open until 10 or 11am, and close at 4 or 5pm.

Distance though isn’t really an issue for me. Bridges can be though, especially very high, spindly little pedestrian footbridges. I have a fear of heights, and some bridges I just won’t be able to walk over. Luckily that hasn’t stopped any of longer walks so far.

NB: You often critique the road system and provision of safe routes for walkers/non-motorists. Do you think walking of this kind is disincentivised or denormalised and do you come across difficulties being a pedestrian in trying to plot or navigate routes?

MD: Not just walking of this kind, almost all walking, cycling and horse-riding is disincentivised, even downright dangerous in places. And for people with small children, who are older or have mobility, sight or hearing impairments, or who use mobility scooters or wheelchairs almost all our current infrastructure is hostile and again lethally dangerous. I’m extremely privileged as a white, middle-aged man in good health and with a little money to spend, which means that by and large this doesn’t personally affect me too much. But it’s extremely obvious as someone who walks everywhere, and who walks through a lot of places, that more than seventy years of investment in roads has caused neglect of alternative and safe infrastructure for those who’d prefer not to drive. It’s unsurprising that people don’t feel safe on foot or on bikes, or on horses. They’re right, it isn’t safe.

My father was involved in protests against the proposed Aire Valley Trunk Road in the mid 1970s. This was a watered-down version of a plan for a new motorway, but also seen as an attempt to build the motorway by increments. The protests were successful, and it was an early taste for me that the built environment may not be in the best interests of everyone, and can be contested.

The issue goes way beyond roads, though. It’s the increase in the number of cars; the increasing size of cars; the toleration of parking on roads and pavements; the cluttering of pavements; the absence of pavements or only having extremely narrow pavements in places; speed limits that in my view are largely too high across the board; the infrastructure being designed around cars and forcing non-drivers to accommodate them rather than the other way round; the growth of suburbs on green belt sites requiring further infrastructure and longer journeys; factories, warehouses, offices and leisure facilities that are out of town and difficult to get to; the financialisation of housing causing prices to rise and force more people further away from the centre; the presence of stroads - roads that are main routes between places but which are also streets with residential housing, retail, and multiple parking places and access and exit points (the A56/Chester Road in Stretford is a good example); the casualisation/app-isation of labour particularly but not exclusively delivery work, and the kinds of shifts or multiple jobs people might need to work forcing them towards personal transportation; and there’s more. Basically we need to turn our approach on its head. Start thinking about liveable cities, towns and villages, prioritise walkable neighbourhoods, prioritise walking, cycling and public transport. It’s possible. Properly segregated cycle paths are cheaper to build and maintain than roads. Previously I chose not to suggest moving more freight on to rail and water, but it is relevant here, lorries cause multiple times more damage to roads than cars do. That’s an expense that could be reduced and spent elsewhere.

Inadequate infrastructure for walking can affect planning if I know what’s coming up. But more often it’s something I have to negotiate as I encounter it. If I see a complex set of junctions or an A road that seems iffy for some reason on a map, whether OS or online, then I might check out Street View to see if there is a pavement, or if there’s a pedestrian route nearby, or if I might need to take a wide swing round the whole section. Mostly I’ve been lucky, though there was a very tricky section of Skelmersdale last year, and most towns in Cheshire, not to mention Ashton-under-Lyne, Stockport and Rochdale can all be pretty abominable if you’re going straight through, depending on where you approach them from.

NB: Where have you been recently? Are there any walks that stand out? Are there any particularly good walks, or walks you have repeated? Is there anywhere you would really like to go that you haven't been yet?

MD: There haven’t been may super long walks so far this year, mainly familiar loops. The best have been going up through Middleton to Hopwood Woods and back, with all those Edgar Wood, Arts and Crafts influenced buildings in Middleton, and the limited but hilly woodlands full of fungi and all sorts of other stuff, with great views all around. Out to Moses Gate Country Park in Bolton, taking in Peel Park, Kersal Wetlands, the Irwell to Forest Bank, Drinkwater Park, Giant’s Seat, the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal, and Moses Gate. A whole lot of nature, especially water birds, rushes, more fungi. And if I’d set out earlier or there was more daylight I’d have continued through Leverhulme Park before turning home. To Daisy Nook Country Park and back through Clayton Vale, which like most of the country parks around Greater Manchester carries obvious signs of having once been an industrial landscape. To Glossop, I like going out that way, Broadbottom, Charlesworth and the like. There are a lot of footpaths to explore, especially once the weather improves. I can’t remember if I’ve done it this year, but I also enjoy walking out to Woodley, joining the Peak Forest Canal to Hyde Bank Tunnel, then through the woods down the Goyt Valley to Stockport, and pick your route from there. These are all good walks mainly in the 7-11 hour range.

In terms of where else I’d like to go, there’s nowhere in particular that stands out, but there are two classes. One class is having the leisure and access to affordable public transport to take decent walks where I can have a start and finish point that isn’t my own flat. To explore footpaths that I’ve passed and thought “that looks interesting”, but are a few hours away on foot, or to revisit places that mean something to me. The other class is again the time and access, but also the organisational ability to do things like the full Trans Pennine Trail from coast to coast.

As a neurodivergent person (I have an autism diagnosis) in a fairly low-paid job it takes a lot of time and mental and financial resource to organise anything much beyond a single day’s walk. Though I am proud of the time when over two long days I walked the length of the Lancaster Canal from Kendal to Preston. But as I mentioned before, in a lot of ways I’m very privileged. And while all those canals and country parks, and rivers, and routes like the Fallowfield Loop are all there, and all free, very little of it is truly accessible to the majority of people. Things are dispersed and divided by roads and unpleasant environments. They may not be well-served by public transport. Do people, even if they know about what’s on their doorstep have the time and energy to explore it? If your local haunt is Blackleach Country Park or Dove Stones Reservoir, are you going to know much about somewhere like Cadishead and Little Woolden Moss, much less make the effort to get out there? I do, but I’m only responsible for myself, and I’m a bloody-minded weirdo who likes novelty, exploring, and getting lost, and who’s happy to spend hours walking. That’s not very common.

NB: What part does the documentation of a journey play in your experience of walking? You often take photos of flora and fauna but you also create written responses and recordings and other creative responses. How do your walks relate to your creative work?

MD: It’s hard to say, I can give a lot of concrete examples of how my walks and creative work interact, but I’m not clear how either impacts the other. The most obvious examples are my dreams, and my improvisations.

Most of my dreams are like puzzles, negotiating either (for me) complex social situations, or more usually complex, shifting, paradoxical landscapes comprising elements of several places I know. The link with exploring places you don’t know is pretty obvious. But also to creating something with only the vaguest destination in mind.

Which brings us to my improvisations. These have a long history, and one I wasn’t aware of at the time. I mentioned before how I’d create small, temporary sculptural objects, and compose bits of writing in my head. These were entirely improvised activities, but that was obscured by the fact I would try to write down what I’d composed later, and that I’d only come across improvisation referred to as such in the context of music, of jazz. But what I did notice, and was a big clue as to what was going on, is that later when I came to write down the words running through my head they often just didn’t work. And if I tried editing, the text might end up clearer but would invariably be inert and dead. At the same time those more infrequent sculptural objects and interventions would still work in their context even as they washed away or disarticulated, be it hours, days, or weeks later. It was more than 25 years later, long after I’d embraced improvisation, that I realised that’s what had been happening.

Before that I did my first degree in Cardiff, where I’d write on scraps of paper while walking to and from university and work, and while there. I began to use found and overheard text from around me, and use following the route of a walk to provide a structure to the poems that emerged from this collaging. When I came to Manchester it took longer to settle down, but once I started my MA and discovered the experimental writing I hadn’t been able to find before I very quickly gravitated towards practices that began to open up improvisational possibilities. Specifically visual and sound poetry, which led to a revived and much looser visual art, and to a broader, improvised sound art practice respectively.

It really wasn’t until a few years after I did my M60 walk that I really went back to way I’d written in Cardiff, though this time with an explicit intent to create accounts of my walks. That has fallen off a bit during Covid, but I do intend to get back to it. The long accounts are an ongoing process of figuring out how best to approach them. They started fairly dry and factual, but I’m interested in making them more impressionistic, personal, subjective. There’s a tension between how far I want to portray what the changing landscape is like, and how far I want to reflect the actual experience of walking. There are the ways your mood changes, the ebb and flow of physical awareness, the effects on your perception of time, how it shrinks and expands, how distances seem to shrink, those moments when your self-awareness drops out, and how my mental map mutates.

Maybe the biggest commonality between the walks and my creative practice is an absorption in and engagement with the moment. Both activities require a degree of awareness and responsiveness to what’s around you.

Follow Matt on Twitter @soundpoet and listen to accounts of some of his walks at

See Matt’s work at

Matt posts weekly live vocal improvisations on YouTube at

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