TRAVEL FEATURE - - LOUIS LA PLANTE
London: An Undiscovered Hiker’s Paradise?
Catherine Redfern grew up north of London, England, in the Peak District, a hikers’ hilly dream. It’s a dense national park with a history so rich that The Guardian called it a place with “many secrets and many stories still to tell.”
“I was used to seeing hills from our town and walking most weekends,” says Redfern. But 15 years ago, she moved to London, a city known for many things—but the ability to hike a hilly trail is not one of them.
That hasn’t meant Redfern’s packed away her hiking boots. Rather, she hasn’t let a thing stand in her away from being adventurous. “I’ve walked sections of the London Loop, Capital Ring and the entire London section of the Thames Path. That last one with a baby in tow, I should add.”
She hasn’t stopped there. Redfern took to miles and miles of trails including the North Downs Way, South Downs Way and the Ridgeway. What she quickly learned is that all these paths could all be conquered in just a weekend from the city, she says, “although to be fair you can do most things in weekends from London.”
Yet when surrounded by the urban landscape in one of the most famous cities in the world, hiking isn’t always top of mind. So Redfern sought out to inspire others to see the world around London. On Twitter, she is @LondonHiker, and her blog of the same name aims to “satisfy your hill walking cravings.”
To do that, the right motivation is needed. Here, we asked Redfern to list the three most common excuses she hears that stop people from stepping onto the trails in and around London—and why these excuses must die.
1. “I live so far away from the big hills.”
It certainly feels that way sometimes, but I'd say just think about it. You can get a train to the Lake District in one evening. You can be on the South Downs in less time that it would take to travel from one side of London to the other! If you’re really craving the big mountains, you can grab a sleeper train and wake up in the middle of remote Scottish highlands [where you can find the area’s tallest peaks, reaching nearly 4,000 feet].
The other aspect to this is hiking perfectionism. You dismiss walking in the surrounding countryside because it isn’t full of majestic fells and hills. That’s fine if you are making it to the big hills regularly, but if you’re not doing anything at all, think again because it’s better to do some walking than nothing.
I liken this to refusing to walk any long distance walks because you think the only “right” way to do the trail is all at once. You could walk plenty of trails around London in sections—in day hikes or weekend trips. I even walked the [267-mile] Pennine Way over about five years. If I’d kept postponing it until I had three weeks free, it probably would never have been done.
2. “I don't have a car.”
Then you’re in the right place! We are blessed in London by being at the centre of a brilliant transport hub. You can catch a train to anywhere in the country from here. You can go west to Cornwall and Devon, Dartmoor and Exmoor, the Brecon Beacons and south Wales; east to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and coastal paths; south to the South Downs National Park, north-west to north Wales and the Lakes; northeast to Northumberland; and, of course, to Scotland.
Train travel is frustratingly expensive, but it’s just one of those thing you’re going to have to accept if you want to have the experience of a lifetime hiking in these stunning areas, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it at all. I wish it was cheaper for sure, but what am I going to do? Refuse myself this freedom out of principle? No. I have one life and I’m going to visit these places while I can.
Also, occasional train travel is still cheaper than owning a car. It’s true! And if you can travel outside of peak hours, you can get some great deals.
3. “I don't have time.”
First, go hiking in your weekends. You don’t have to use loads of precious holiday time to go somewhere amazing. I have spent weekends in the Lakes and Peak District and come back on Monday, or used up just one day of my annual leave and had a long weekend. You have to prioritize hiking in your life and block out a weekend every now and then.
If you work late hours and can’t travel after work, consider the Caledonian sleeper train. It leaves late! Or, force yourself to get up early the next morning. I’ve left my house (in zone 3) at 6:30 a.m. and been on the top of a hill in the heart of the Peak District a few hours later. It was completely worth it. I know people who have left their house in London at 5 a.m. just to get to the hills. They can’t be without it. It makes their soul sing. It’s part of them.
You can have London and the hills. You don’t have to postpone it or give up. Make the most of living here, and use London as a springboard to take you to some of Britain’s most unforgettable places. You’ll come back to London with a sense of incredible achievement and fresh eyes. And maybe appreciate it even more.
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