Can you walk right across London using almost exclusively green space? Yes – and here’s an unbelievably good walking weekend to prove it…
IF you pulled out all the green space in London – the nature reserves, hills, parkland, re-greened railway lines, canal towpaths, woodland and riverbanks – you could (presumably after apologising to Sadiq Khan) stick them together and create a national park roughly the size of Berkshire.
The capital has green blood. Its absurd sprawl is stitched together by hidden arteries where trees breathe, waterways shimmer and ponds and reedbeds lie 10 metres from major roads yet screen out their roar and fug beyond all perception.
It has equally green major organs – the colossal parks and open hilltops where families play, pensioners reminisce and lovers dream. These are places where you can take stock of London’s maelstrom of history and heritage and slowly form a personal connection to one of the world’s most important cities.
Walking in London isn’t a problem in itself: there are no less than seven major walking routes around or through the city – the Capital Ring, the London Loop, the Thames Path, the Green Chain Walk, the Lea Valley Walk, the Jubilee Walkway and the Jubilee Greenway. But how do you decide where to start? How much could you see in a weekend? And how can you maximise the greenery and minimise the pavements?
These were the questions Country Walking set out to address, and here is our answer: a weekend in the country, without leaving the city.
As our bookends, we selected two sporting icons: Wembley Stadium in the west and the Olympic Park in the east, then we fixed our mid-point at Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, the highest unbuilt land in the city.
Our trail uses the northern half of the Capital Ring as a base, but dips in and out to explore other delights (the Ring misses Wembley, Hampstead Heath and Highgate, so we’ve built them in). It includes nine parks, three nature reserves, one country park, four hills, one re-greened railway line and three rivers. With a bit of luck you’ll agree these offset the shortish stretches of pavement (and they’re only ever through leafy suburbs anyway).
The trail starts at Bobby Moore. The statue of England’s World Cup-winning captain stands proudly at the portal of Wembley Stadium and together with that gargantuan arch (all 436ft of it), it’s a pretty awesome start.
And within eight minutes (I kid you not) you are standing beside a pond, surrounded by oak and beech, with not a soul in sight. This is Barn Hill, in Fryent Country Park, and the contrast could not be starker. Apart, of course, from the Wembley arch, still rising above the trees to the south and reminding you of where you came from.
Here the trail joins the Capital Ring and powers on through the woods and across wildflower meadows to Gotfords Hill. At this point we could be standing on a Cotswold hillside or Wiltshire ridgeline; let no one tell you this isn’t a country walk.
Next stop is the Welsh Harp Nature Reserve, named after a roister-doister of a pub which formerly sat beside Brent Reservoir in its days as an Edwardian pleasureland. I’m rather sad that the pub and its zoo are no longer with us, but on the other hand this superb wetland is all the more tranquil for that.
Heading for Golders Green, the trail meets the North Circular Road – but instantly ducks away into Brent Park, and in seconds, the noise of the road is utterly mopped up by the foliage and silver water of this tiny, delicate place. I found it impossible not to stop here by the ponds (thought to have been built by medieval abbots) and watch the coots and the moorhens at play.
Passing into Hampstead Garden Suburb, the route quits the Capital Ring and pushes south, into Little Wood and Big Wood. The former springs a brilliant surprise in the form of a tiny outdoor theatre. On my visit, I met a local choral group practising Handel’s Messiah. Hallelujah.
The trail then climbs through a series of parks, eventually reaching Sandy Heath, the northernmost woodlands of Hampstead Heath. The woods are properly hilly and wild; at their heart stand two venerable oaks on a pronounced mound. A small pond sits just to the side of them and there’s an irascible heron who patrols it snootily. This might well be my favourite place on the whole darn trail.
But on we go and North End gives way to Vale of Heath, a tiny hamlet of Georgian townhouses planted in a deep and leafy dell, and then into the maze of footpaths, ponds and lawns that makes up Hampstead Heath. Our path crosses a grand viaduct which looks even better when seen from the pond below and then climbs steadily to reach our topping-out point on Parliament Hill. And there, laid out before you, is Central London.
Shard. Gherkin. Telecom Tower. One Canada Square. Tower 42. Spotting these thrusting giants is strangely just as satisfying as clocking the summits of Great Gable and Skiddaw from the top of Scafell Pike; it feels as though I have been sneaking around in London’s petticoats and suddenly popped up to see the city in full ballgown.
Day One ends here (well, just to the west at Hampstead Heath Railway Station, in case you need transport somewhere), and Day Two resumes here.
The trail carries on across the Heath and into Highgate, first passing Highgate Ponds. These gorgeous mini-lakes have been adored by the gentlefolk of lovely Highgate for generations; there’s even a well-used men-only swimming pond, underlining their old-fashioned lineage.
Jinking up the ivy-walled ginnels of Swain’s Lane, we arrive at the gates of Highgate Cemetery East. Usually I’d fight shy of advocating a paid-for walk, but the cemetery should on no account be missed, because it is almost certainly the most beautiful cemetery in the world. Pay your £4 and you’ll see what I mean.
The grey-white headstones sit among a dozen miles of tiny footpaths topped by shady oaks and beech. Some graves are concealed by foliage; some are tiny bricks; some are Gothic-sculpted ancestral mausoleums the size of small houses.
The place is replete with famous residents: you can find Middlemarch author George Eliot, actor Ralph Richardson, galactic hitch-hiker Douglas Adams, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren and TV prankster Jeremy Beadle if you know where to look.
But the king of them all is the one marked on the guidemap in boldest red: MARX. The grave of Karl Marx, father of modern socialism, is an immense monolith topped by a startling bust of the man himself and an engraving of the final words from his Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all lands unite.” The scale of it is awesome.
Then it’s time to cross Archway Road and rejoin the Capital Ring. This seething thoroughfare is in fact the A1, and it's somewhat staggering to think that if I turned left here and kept walking, in a month or so I’d reach Edinburgh. Thankfully I don’t need to do that, and instead join the Parkland Walk. Formerly the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway, this serene corridor runs on a nicely elevated track, with tremendous hedgerows either side packed with rosehips, blackberries and even wild garlic.
The trail sweeps on through Finsbury Park and then joins the New River. “New” is a relative word; this surprisingly epic waterway was built in 1613 to carry fresh drinking water around London, with its terminals in the River Lee in Hackney, and Ware in Hertfordshire. On our walk it’s quietly sneaking round the Borough of Haringey, passing through a pair of reservoirs before depositing us at the gates to Clissold Park.
We’re back in the money here: Clissold Park is beloved of the affluent types of Stoke Newington, who stroll its paths after enjoying the chic coffee shops and vintage record emporia of the nearby high street.
Abney Park is even nicer; it’s an ivy-draped cemetery with all the haunting beauty of Highgate, but perhaps even more pleasingly it’s open to all, no fee, and is a means of passing from one place to another.
The path then wends through Stamford Hill, one of London’s biggest and proudest Hasidic Jewish communities. Here children rush for Synagogue while the elders debate the ways of the world at the gate.
And before too long, the trail leaves all urbanisation behind and descends into the Lee Valley. Maps can’t agree on whether it’s Lee or Lea, but I’ll stick with the former. Through the broad sweep of Walthamstow Marshes and on into Hackney, there’s soon a real aroma of Olympic transformation in the air. Dozens of swanky new flats and offices have appeared here since 2012. There are landscaped gardens, curious sculptures and swish residential domes.
Happily there’s nothing swish about Hackney Marshes. Essentially Britain’s biggest Sunday league football park, the marshes are dotted with such a maze of battered goalposts that it’s hard to tell where one pitch ends and another begins. And as the stadia of the Olympic Park creep onto your skyline, it’s fun to consider the contrast: on one side of the A12, buildings created to help dedicated world-class athletes go for gold. On the other, simple fields where a bunch of middle-aged blokes are hoofing a ball about with all the silky skills of a wardrobe.
And finally, the Olympic Stadium provides perfect symmetry, mirroring the grand sweep of Wembley but with its own criss-cross character. Today it’s becoming the home of West Ham, but what memories it evokes from that sweltering summer of 2012: the fireworks and flame-lighting of the opening ceremony; the night of triumph for Ennis, Farah and Rutherford; The Who rocking the joint at the close. If this walk is a celebration of London, this may well be the party piece.
Hopping onto the Docklands Light Railway at Pudding Mill Lane for the journey home, you may (I hope) look back on this as one of the most intriguing and absorbing walks you’ll ever do. The great thing is, we didn’t need to transplant all these green spaces into one new national park: we found them all anyway – and they gave us a genuinely special country walk.
It’s best to do the trail using public transport. Take the Metropolitan Line to Wembley Park to start. At end of Day One, either stay overnight in Hampstead or take London Overground from Hampstead Heath Station to connect with either Victoria Line (at Highgate) Jubilee Line (at West Hampstead) or Bakerloo (at Willesden Junction). At end of Day Two, take Docklands Light Railway from Pudding Mill Lane and return to Central London via Poplar. For full journey planning, visit tfl.gov.uk
Words and Photographs Nick Hallissey
This feature originally appeared in Country Walking Magazine