I’m on a bit of a mission to walk more.
This is not a new year’s resolution, you understand, because we have already established that resolutions are bollocks.
Instead, it’s about stretching the legs, getting some fresh air and a change of scenery.
Sometimes getting out of London seems like an insurmountable effort in itself, but if you can force yourself out of bed before 9am on a Saturday and get a pal to come with you, you’re half way there already.
Sometimes it’s not even necessary to leave London for a good walk. Just last weekend, Lottie and I trudged into deepest South London to join a tree identification walk run by the London Wildlife Trust in Sydenham Hill Woods – the first time I’ve been on a walk with a police escort!
On the days that you can be bothered to leave London, there are lots of lovely walks that are easy to reach by public transport.
Here are three of my favourites:
The Pluckley Circular
How to get there: Take the train from London Charing Cross to Pluckley (takes just over an hour)
This is an easy walk through classic Kentish countryside. When Aisling and I visited in early September, the orchards were bulging with ripening apples and the hedgerows were heavy under the weight of juicy blackberries.
The walk starts at Pluckley station, taking you down country lanes, through orchards and across stubble fields, passing oast houses and village cricket grounds.
We stopped for lunch at the Swan Inn in Little Chart, where we sat outside next to the bubbling stream, as geese eyed up our ploughmans.
We’d hoped to end our walk with a celebratory pint at the Dering Arms, next to Pluckley station where the walk ends, however they were closed (cue massive sad face).
How to get there: Take the train from Paddington to Pangbourne via Reading, which takes around 50 minutes.
Route: We followed Martyn Hanks’ map (or tried to), available on the Saturday Walking Club’s website.
Look, sometimes you’re going to get lost and have to walk home in the dark.
And that’s exactly what happened to Helena when we attempted this route.
The first mistake we made was relying on a simple sketched route, the second that we underestimated how long we would have before it went dark.
Aside from wasting an hour accidentally walking around a field only to find ourselves back where we started, and getting stuck down a private road surrounded by the sound of gunshots, the route is a good one. If you’re going to do it, take a proper OS map so that if you go wrong, you can reroute yourself.
The route leaves Pangbourne, climbing hills with views over the Thames Valley, passing through Goring and circling back into Pangbourne along the Thames Path, which is lovely.
We were famished by the time we reached Goring at 3pm, but found that one pub had vanished and the others had stopped serving food at 2:30pm (wtf), so we finally ended up forking out a ridiculous amount of money for a jacket potato and cheese toastie at the Boat House over the river in Streatley. We spent so long savouring our morsels that we re-entered Pangbourne in the dark (which did mean that we got a nice view of the town in the dark -see photo above).
How to get there: Take the train from London Victoria to Dorking (or Box Hill and Westhumble if the timetable is on your side), which takes about an hour.
Route: After the Pangbourne fiasco, Helena fished out an old OS map and we devised a route on the train. “Anywhere but Headley Heath!” I said, recalling the miserable hours we spent hopelessly wandering the Heath on D of E. Well, dear reader, guess where we ended up…
Here’s a rough idea of our route, should you wish to follow in our footsteps:
We started off well. Having spent our formative years tramping round these parts, we made a beeline for Denbies Wine Estate, England’s largest vineyard. The rolling acres of vines transport you from the stark reality that you’re actually just a few miles from the M25 in Surrey.
On a sunny Saturday morning, the place was heaving with walkers, trail runners and an odd bunch of people being dragged along by their dogs (I later learned that this is called canicross, presumably crosscountry running with canines).
After catching some rays, we looped back through Westhumble, towards Box Hill.
Much of the land around here is owned and managed by the National Trust, who keep the paths in good nick, which is just as well, as they were packed!
We stopped for lunch in the village of Headley, where we thought there was a pub. What we found was more like a set from Footballers’ Wives, with ladies lunching, sports cars in the car park and a ‘smart casual’ dress code. I was slightly worried when I walked in splattered in mud, but everyone was quite good at turning a blind eye… perhaps we weren’t the first hikers to rock up looking for some grub.
After lunch we got lost, as I’d feared, on Headley Heath. It didn’t matter that we were armed with an OS map, compass and years of experience, the place is an evil vortex of confusing pathways leading to hell.
I’ve included this route in my list of ‘easy walks’ because the bit around Box Hill, where we’d planned to walk, is quite easy (and hilly) with excellent views, but for the love of god, please avoid Headley unless you know exactly what you’re doing (and if you do, please share your secrets!).
As we finally approached Box Hill on the North Downs Way, the sun began to set behind the trees and we had to descend in the dark. At one point, I thought it might be safer to walk along the road instead of climbing down the slippery steps in the dark, but by that time, it was difficult to distinguish between a quiet country lane and a popular dogging spot.
So on we went, down, down, down the North Downs Way, slipping down muddy steps as we dreamed of reaching Dorking.
We did it, eventually, thanks to the lights on our mobile phones, six hours after we’d originally set out from the same station.
The thing is, I am not an entirely hopeless walker. When the going is good, it’s great. But I don’t tend to remember those bits, because they’re too easy. Half the fun of being outdoors is working out where the hell you are and the fastest way you can get back inside.
You’re forced to take in your surroundings, talk to strangers and use your brain instead of relying on a machine to do it for you (although if you can get signal for Google Maps when you’re lost, use it!).
Country Walking Magazine are running #Walk1000miles, a campaign to encourage people to walk 1000 miles in a year. It’s a great target to aim for, especially if you end up tacking on an extra 3-5 miles to every walk after getting lost!
After a couple of lazy weekends, I think 1000 kilometres might be a more achievable goal for 2015 but it’s a start.
Where do you go to escape from London? Share your favourite walks below.