Best walks in London, from Kew Gardens and Eltham Palace to Lesnes Abbey and the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’

Our capital city is more inviting for walkers than you might expect, with meadows, towpaths, unexpected sculpture and great houses to draw the eye. Octavia Pollock sets off to explore London on foot.

This city was made for walking. Far from being an inhospitable concrete jungle, London has woodland, river meadows and heathland, not to mention countless parks. Alongside bike stations and bus lanes, Transport for London devotes a whole section of its website to walking, including, under Walk London, seven routes that encompass everything from the criss-crossing towpaths of central London to fields and forests at the furthest reaches of the Tube map.

Signposts embellished with kestrels and crowns lead to hidden delights, from the sweep of Oxleas Meadows to atmospheric corners, such as the Railway Children Walk, near where Edith Nesbit lived, and the tumbled graves of Abney Park Cemetery.

King of the walks is the London Loop, a 150-mile hoopla around the city’s edge, sometimes called the walkers’ M25. Launched in 2001, it is monitored by Loop Leaders, volunteers from the Inner London Ramblers, who will run the Love Your Loop festival this September. The 24 sections pass along the mysterious ‘ghost roads’ near Nonsuch Palace, parallel concrete tracks the origins of which remain unknown; over Capability Brown’s Five Arch Bridge to Foots Cray Meadows; through the ancient hornbeams of Foxburrow Wood, near where Henry VIII’s daughters played in youth; and past Upminster’s rare smock windmill.

Closer in, within 10 miles of Westminster, is the Capital Ring, a 78-mile ‘green corridor round inner London’. It traverses royal Eltham Palace and the Cator family’s splendid 18th-century Beckenham Place Park, set in a newly restored sweep of parkland with a lake open to swimmers; the site of the UK’s first motor accident in which the driver was killed, in Harrow in 1899; and the Victorian ‘Cathedral of Sewage’ pumping station, built when the utilitarian was made magnificent.

Eltham Palace, the former home of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, viewed from the garden, Eltham, London.

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Unexpected gems are all over. An impish stone ‘spriggan’ springs from the arch of a disused railway line — now Parkland Walk, London’s longest nature reserve — from Highgate to Finsbury Park. King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park is, apocryphally, where Henry VIII looked for a rocket fired from the Tower of London, the signal that Anne Boleyn had been executed and he could marry Lady Jane Seymour. Myth and history yield to modernity in the regenerated East, in the glittering expanse of West Reservoir and the Greenway footpath, a converted sewer near the Olympic Park.

The Green Chain walk, in the south-east, begins with a glimpse of the past at Lesnes Abbey, built in 1178. The dinosaurs of Crystal Palace evoke a more dangerous age and lost watercourses bring back a time before cars. The tangled paths of Sydenham Hill Wood are a perfect place to get delightfully lost and the route finishes in Nunhead cemetery, one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries.

For an exploration of city hubbub, there’s the Jubilee Greenway, opened to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, which runs from the Olympic stadium to Horse Guards, and the Jubilee Walkway that circles major landmarks. For a tranquil stroll, the Lea Valley Walk threads the leafy towpath and river basin from Waltham Abbey to the Thames at Limehouse; time your arrival there for a spectacular sunset. And, of course, there is the mighty Thames Path.

Being alone with a map and the view can make for an idyllic Sunday, but having an expert guide can open up routes of which you never dreamed. There are 600 of the famous Blue Badge Guides, but an even older group is London Walks, founded by Australian Keith Baverstock 50 years ago and now run by David and Mary Tucker. Each guide is an expert, from the founding director of the Brunel Museum on the engineer’s bridges to a criminal defence lawyer on the Magna Carta and a doctor on the medical mishaps of Dr Crippen in Fitzrovia.

Severndroog Castle, a south east London landmark.

For Wisconsin-born Mr Tucker, Hampstead & the Heath is the best route. ‘Historically, biographically, it stands out, eye candy from first to last,’ he explains. When Covid lockdowns prompted the creation of virtual tours, he added the sound of Keats’s nightingale. ‘On our Kensington “walk”, we could teleport to the Louvre to witness the Eureka moment that led to the invention of the stethoscope.’ The longevity of London Walks guides, most of whom have full-time jobs, is bolstered by a profit-sharing model: ‘Between 88 guides, we have 1,794 years of guiding.’

For Rosie Oliver, lunchtime walks around Greenwich sparked the founding of Dotmaker Tours in 2012. ‘I started to notice little details, gargoyles, odd signs and so on and realised what I was missing. I made a list of animals for my partner to find on a mapped route and it grew from there.’ Each walk offers a new perspective: ‘It’s about re-engaging, re-enchanting.’

Her first route is now Greenwich Bestiary; closest to her heart is The London Ear. ‘We encourage people to listen and imagine what we would have heard in the past, metalworking, market calls; there’s a sense of time travel.’ Podcasts have kept the Dotmaker ball rolling in the past year, but the magic truly comes from ‘seeing people surprised and interested together’.

The joy of a walk is in the chance to slow down and see details that are often missed, from frieze flourishes to thought-provoking graffiti. On walks with Artscapes UK (currently bespoke; public tours will return when allowed), the secrets of ‘literary Hampstead, the street art of Shoreditch, the patchwork of culture, food and art in Spitalfields and hidden medieval churches in Clerkenwell are revealed,’ explains Rose O’Connor. ‘Our walks provoke conversation and challenge perceptions.’

As we step further than our front door, take a new path through London, alone or with an enthusiast, and your eyes will be opened.