London’s green heart and village-like districts guarantee an inspiring backdrop for a leisurely stroll. Take a short train ride from the city, meanwhile, and you can explore the charms of the bucolic southeast, with its rolling chalk hills, medieval country churches, prehistoric remains and ancient timbered inns.
In all seasons, and whatever the weather, the footpaths of the capital and the tracks and hedgerow-lined lanes of the southeast of England reward those in search of the great outdoors.
Here’s a sneak peek of a few of our favourite routes in the capital and beyond.
Distance and difficulty 4.5km; easy
Minimum duration 1hr 15min
Many visitors to London are unaware how far the parks at the heart of the city extend. This route takes you from the centre of London – Trafalgar Square – to Green Park, St James’s Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. You’ll cross a couple of roads, but otherwise can enjoy uninterrupted greenery all the way.
These parks are designated “royal”, along with four other London green spaces, because they are hereditary possessions of the monarchy, whose city hangout – Buckingham Palace – you pass en route.
Most of the eight parks, including spacious Hyde Park and neighbouring Kensington Gardens, are former royal hunting grounds, though the origin of Green Park was as a swampy burial place for lepers in the Middle Ages, and St James’s Park was a zoo under James I in the early 1600s.
Distance and difficulty 13.75km; easy–moderate
Minimum duration 3hr 15min
Hackney and Walthamstow are both vibrant and densely populated boroughs. But if you think these two areas are all grit and no green spaces, you’re in for a big surprise.
This route cuts a green slice from Hackney Central to the heart of Walthamstow, linking three waterways – the Regent’s Canal, Hertford Union Canal and River Lee Navigation – and taking you to the site of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and through the sweeping open spaces of the Hackney and Walthamstow marshes.
The walk is bookended by two hugely contrasting markets: genteel “farmers’ style” Broadway Market, on Saturdays, where you can grab a coffee and put together an excellent picnic for the walk, and the sensory overload that is Walthamstow Market (Tues–Sat), Europe’s longest, with a continuous colourful kilometre of stalls piled high with cheap clothes and homeware.
Walthamstow village even provides a secluded pub for a post-walk pint: the inviting Nag’s Head. With flat terrain and no stiles, this is a good option for bikes and prams.
Distance and difficulty 9.75km; moderate
Minimum duration 2hr 20min
This circular route takes you from the leafy fringes of the handsome county town of Guildford, through gentle North Downs countryside to the village of Compton. Here you can see the Arts and Crafts Watts Gallery. Dedicated to the work of G.F. Watts, it’s a wonderful showcase for his paintings and sculpture, and has the advantage of an appealing tearoom, housed in what was the building’s pottery.
This tiny village is also home to the Watts Chapel, its interior designed by Watts’ wife Mary in a unique fusion of the homespun and the visionary. From Compton, the route loops through Loseley Park and the hamlet of Littleton, back to the edge of Guildford.
Distance and difficulty day one: 17.5km; day two: 11.5km; moderate
Minimum duration: two days
This two-day walk covers a particularly attractive stretch of the Pilgrims’ Way, and takes you to the goal of the pilgrims – the magnificent cathedral itself. The walk begins at Charing in Kent, leading through lovely woods and farmland to Chilham, an idyllic village where you can stay overnight, before continuing on to Canterbury the next day. You can do either day of this walk on its own, but the most rewarding day in terms of landscape is the first.
This is fine, abundant countryside, especially appealing in April – when Chaucer set his tales and when the fruit trees are covered in blossom – or in late summer and early autumn, when you can scrump for apples and pears.
Distance and difficulty 17km; strenuous
Minimumduration 4hr 15min
This glorious walk is very much a day of two halves, starting as a strenuous hike along the clifftops near Hastings before descending to the pancake-flat “levels” beyond.
The route follows part of the Saxon Shore Way, a long-distance path that runs for 260km in its entirety, from Hastings all the way round the coast to Gravesend. Starting in tattily charismatic Hastings, a funicular takes you up to the sandstone cliffs that soar above the town into the pristine downland of the Hastings Country Park.
After following the clifftops for 5km, taking in sweeping sea views and dipping down into lush wooded glens, the route runs across Pett Level. Though the scenery is less obviously dramatic than along the clifftop walk, the levels have an enticingly still atmosphere and are prettily framed by hills to the north and the long bank of the sea wall to the south.
The walk ends at Winchelsea, an attractive little town with a fascinating history.
Distance and difficulty 18km; moderate
Minimum duration 4hr 30min
This circular Kent/Sussex route mostly follows the well-signed High Weald Walk, which links a chain of pretty, secluded villages via dense woodland and more open, gently hilly countryside. An unexpected feature of the walk is imposing sandstone cliffs, including Harrison’s Rocks and High Rocks, more Picnic at Hanging Rock than what you’d expect in southeast England.
The walk takes a while to leave the spa town of Tunbridge Wells itself, but it’s no hardship to explore its handsome pastel-coloured villas, quirky boutiques and cafés. There are plenty of food shops for picnic supplies, or you can have lunch at the Abergavenny Arms pub in Frant; there’s also an excellent old drinking hole at the lovely village of Groombridge.
Distance and difficulty 12.5km; easy
Minimum duration 3hr 10min
This walk heads south from Cambridge along the bank of the River Cam to the picture-postcard village of Grantchester, little more than a high street with a church, a green and thatched cottages.
Grantchester has long been a popular day-trip from the city, and lots of students still pack a picnic, rent a punt and spend a lazy summer’s day on the river here. The Orchard House Tearooms, right on the river and with its own moorings, is an idyllic spot for lunch or afternoon tea. There are also several good pubs in the village, all offering bar meals.
The return leg of the walk heads north into Cambridge via The Backs, the lawns behind the city’s colleges from where there are superlative views. Past the Backs, the route returns via leafy backstreets to the city’s train station.
Top image: Greenwich park © J Li/Shutterstock