So where exactly did The Proclaimers walk 500 miles to?

Leith (centre) and Firth of Forth looking northwest.. Image: RuthAS/Wikimedia Commons.

In their famous 1988 single I’m Gonna Be (500 miles), Scottish twins duo the Proclaimers declared their devotion to a woman by saying they would walk 500 miles, and then 500 more, to spend the rest of their lives with her.

But where exactly did they walk to?

I’ve seen several attempts to solve this conundrum, but these have mainly focused on radial distance – in other words, just drawing a straight line on a map. This doesn’t take into account the geography of Great Britain. In the real world, roads curve and obstacles like rivers and seas block the route – not even the Proclaimers can walk on water. So I attempted to solve the riddle using mathematical graph theory.

Graph theory is the study of networks made up of points (known in graph theory speak as “vertices”) connected by lines or “edges”. Every time you look up a driving route or search for a train journey, graph theory is what lets your computer calculate all the available routes and work out which one is fastest, shortest or cheapest.

To plan the Proclaimers’ route, I need to create a graph of the road network of Great Britain. Fortunately Ordnance Survey provides an openly licenced vectorised dataset called Open Roads which I downloaded and converted it into an “adjacency matrix” – effectively, a huge table containing all the road junctions and road ends (the vertices) and the road segments connecting them weighted by length in metres (the “edges”).

The song featured on the Proclaimers 2nd album Sunshine on Leith, the Edinburgh suburb where the band originate from, so it’s a reasonable assumption that they started their walk in the town. The Town Hall, which houses Leith Theatre, seems a likely place to start.

Walking 500 miles

Road graph, overlaid on OS Open Map Local, of area around Leith Town Hall (shown by red star). Image contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2019), OGL Licence.

So our task is to traverse every walkable road in Great Britain, without doubling back on ourselves, to find points exactly 500 miles from Leith Town Hall, without using any public transport. Luckily, the OS Open Roads dataset contains the road type attribute so I can filter out motorways and other non-pedestrian roads – after all, they walked, not drove, those 500 miles.

It’s a sizeable graph consisting of 3,078,131 vertices and 7,347,806 edges so represents a significant mathematical challenge, so I used Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) computing. GPUs are the powerful parallel computation engines contained in graphics cards, which are normally used to render 3D graphics for video games but can also be used to perform mathematical calculations.

I used NVIDIA’s new open source accelerated data science platform, RAPIDS, and an NVIDIA Quadro GV100 GPU, to perform the computation which uses a parallel algorithm to solve the Single-Source Shortest Path (SSSP) problem.

I then built the graph, applied SSSP, and found all results exactly 500 miles from Leith Town Hall, which took less than three seconds in RAPIDS.

This yields two possible destinations, both in Cornwall, the first of which is a remote farm 3 miles from Mevagissey which appears an unlikely destination.

Road graph showing The Meadows near Mevagissey, Cornwall (shown by yellow star). Image contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2019), OGL Licence.

The second result is the appropriately named Lusty Glaze Road in Newquay.

Road graph showing central Newquay and Lusty Glaze Road (shown by yellow star). Image contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2019), OGL Licence.

Given the urban location, overlooking the beautiful Lusty Glaze Beach, this would appear to be the most likely destination to fall down at her door.

 

Lusty Glaze Beach, with lots of doors to fall down at. Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons.

The walk would have taken The Proclaimers through all three constituent countries of Great Britain, passing through central Edinburgh, Peebles, crossing into England north on Longtown, Carlisle, Penrith, Kendal, Lancaster, Preston, Wigan, Warrington, Whitchurch, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Hereford, entering Wales at Monmouth, Chepstow, crossing the River Severn back into England via the M48 pedestrian bridge, Avonmouth, Bridgewater, Taunton, Tiverton, Okehampton, Bodmin and St Columb Major before finally arriving in Newquay.

The walking route from Leith to Newquay: click to expand. Image: contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2019), OGL Licence.

Walking 500 more

But perhaps, having walked all that way to Newquay, the woman wasn’t to be found so they had to walk 500 more in order to find her.

This yielded 11 possible destinations across Southern Scotland: Glenwhilly, Kilmarnock, Strathaven, two destinations in the Rutherglen area of Glasgow, Livingston, Haymarket in Edinburgh and four destinations in Leith, including the Victoria Swim Centre, Leith Walk, the Tesco superstore and the Town Hall and theatre where they originally started.

Possible destinations in southern Scotland to walk 500 more miles from Newquay (shown by yellow stars). Image: contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2019), OGL Licence.

Conclusion

So I would suggest the most likely explanation is that the Proclaimers looked for the woman at Leith Town Hall & Theatre where they were performing, mistakenly thought she’d gone to Newquay, and walked all the way there.

However, it looks like the woman had simply popped round the corner, maybe for a walk, a swim or to shop in Tesco, so they had to walk all the way back to find her.

Leith Walk. Image: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’d like to try this for yourself, I’ve made the Python Notebooks, together with links to the source data, freely available on GitHub.

John Murray is a data scientist and visiting research fellow in the Geographic Data Science Lab at  the University of Liverpool. He tweets as @MurrayData.


 

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.