Extreme walker Victor Keegan reckons you can journey over 17 miles without setting foot on the bitumen.
Until the arrival of motorised transport London was mainly a walking city. There are now signs of a revival thanks to traffic calming measures and the increasing realisation that walking is not only an easy option to keep fit but also a great way to enjoy the delights of the most exciting city on the planet. Transport for London which, believe it or not has a statutory duty to promote walking, is now taking its role seriously.
A couple of years ago, as a test of the walkability of London, I set out from Trafalgar Square — the official centre of the town — one Sunday morning to see how far I could get without crossing a road or going over the same place twice. It was almost 17 miles before I ended up going round in a circle.
I know of no other capital city where it is possible to do this (suggestions welcome!). If you want to try all or part of it yourself start from the north end of Northumberland Avenue (or from Trafalgar Square proper if the underpass is open) and head down the Strand for 100 yards. Turn right and go through Charing Cross Station and across Hungerford Bridge until you are on the South Bank. The rest is easy as you have access to miles and miles of riverside walkways with no need to cross any road. By contrast, the south bank of the Seine in Paris has half a dozen very busy traffic lanes. As I was aiming for a long distance ramble I turned right rather than left in order to add a couple of miles by crossing Lambeth Bridge and passing through Victoria Gardens and under the road at Westminster to Blackfriars where I crossed back to the south and on to Tower Bridge.
At Tower Bridge you can either walk straight on, but will end up walking in a circle where Deptford meets Greenwich (total distance about 12 miles), or you can cross Tower Bridge and hug the river around St Katharine Docks and further on until you come to Island Gardens at the tip of the Isle of Dogs. This last stretch was the most tricky, with innumerable small side roads to the west. That often meant going into a crescent or back street to come out not much further on than when I started. But I never went over the same road or pavement twice or got into a loop.
I carried on and on walking, hugging the pavement until I ended up somewhere in the Lea Valley or 17 miles from Trafalgar Square as measured on my pedometer. But if, at Island Gardens, I’d gone under the tunnel and turned left at the Cutty Sark, I might have beat my record easily by looping round past the 02 complex and on to the Thames Barrier (assuming the Thames Path is open). From here, goodness knows how many extra miles can be achieved. The map below shows the route from Trafalgar Square up to a point near central Greenwich. It could be extended much further.
View Long Walk from Trafalgar Square in a larger map
The wider point about this is not to walk for the sake of walking but to integrate some of the hubs — like the South bank and London’s amazing canal routes — into you normal schedule. Anyone going from Waterloo to work in the City should surely eschew the Waterloo And City Line and instead walk down the South Bank and cross over the Millennium Bridge — a complete joy. People sometimes look at me askance when I say that I walk from Victoria to Paddington (‘haven’t you heard of the Circle Line?’) but it is less than three miles and takes you via Buckingham Palace and Green Park to a delightful stroll across Hyde Park, at whose northern extreme you are a couple of blocks from Paddington Station.
A new literature of walking is beginning to emerge, as can be observed in most London bookshops, though there is nothing yet to compare with two great classics. John Gay — author of the Beggars’ Opera, arguably the world’s first musical — also wrote “Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London” (1716), which William Henry Irving described as “without question the greatest poem on London life in our literature”. It tells you what clothes to wear, how to cope with rough football matches in Covent Garden and footpads in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Even earlier, Richard Ames published a two-part poem in 1691 devoted entirely to a largely fruitless search for a decent glass of claret in London, rubbishing most of the pub landlords as he did. In one tavern on Snow Hill, Holborn his imbibing was interrupted by a prisoner in chains having a last pint of beer before being executed at Tyburn. This is possibly the origin of the phrase “one for the road”.
So embrace the joys of walking, be it for commuting or simple pleasure. And let us know if you can adduce a route from Trafalgar Square that improves on the notes above. How far can you get along the Thames path past Greenwich to the east? What happens if you head in the other direction, towards Vauxhall, after Lambeth Bridge. Are there any other lengthy routes one might take?
By Victor Keegan