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.


 

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.