I’ve decided what I’m going to do as my local long distance path project for this year – it’s the London Countryway.
The London Countryway is a long distance walking trail that circumnavigates London. It lies outside of the two better-known circular London walks – the Capital Ring and the London LOOP – and so is a much more serious proposition. Having walked the LOOP and enjoyed it far more than I ever thought I would, the idea of doing similar at a greater radius from the centre of London really appeals. If I add to that the allure of a little-known path, it’s not a difficult decision to do it. Incidentally, there is also another circular London walk – the Jubilee Greenway, which joins up a number of the 2012 Olympic venues, and which lies inside the Capital Ring. My wife walked this last year and intends to do the Capital Ring in the near future, so if I do the Countryway, then we’ll have the set between us.
Anyway, back to the Countryway…
The path’s described as 205 miles long in the last available official guide (published in 1981 and out of print ever since), but varies up to 218 miles (350km) in more up to date unofficial updates I stumbled upon on the net. I always find the actual amount of walking slightly exceeds the stated total, and that’s before counting navigational errors and detours to stations. So I’m going to work on this being anything up to 230 miles at the outside, taking these things into consideration.
The route itself never actually enters London, running through the shire counties encircling the conurbation, but it does get within ¼ mile of the boundary. Broadly it runs outside of the M25, but not always. Essentially this is a walk through the greenbelt and through history, taking in various Areas of Outstanding natural Beauty (AONBs), National Nature Reserves (NNRs), Community Forests, the Thames, canals, Epping Forest and sites important in the nation’s heritage too many to name. There should be plenty of interest – especially if my experience on the LOOP is anything to go by.
Planning this walk, however, presents me with a number of problems, which help explain why I’ve not tackled this before…
Problem 1: What am I trying to achieve?
When I first contemplated this project a couple of years ago, I had grand ideas of being the first to re-discover and document this forgotten walk, and either attempt an authorised update of the book or write my own brand new guide. Ultimately this was too big a project at that time and so it got placed firmly on the back burner. In that time I’ve seen a few people walk the LCW and write it up on blogs – foremost among these is Des de Moor (@desdemoor), on his London Underfoot blog. He’s done a pretty comprehensive job – to the extent that I’m not going to bother publishing anything other than an account of my walk. As far as I’m concerned Des’s site is the current definitive guide to the walk, and the LDWA seem to agree.
So my objective now becomes simply to do the walk and create a bit of awareness about it through my blog posts.
Problem 2: Which Route ?
The London Countryway (which I’ll abbreviate as LCW henceforth) doesn’t have the status of an official long distance path, let alone any dedicated waymarking. The resources available, therefore, are correspondingly much more limited. I’m fortunate enough to have a copy of the 1981 second edition of Keith Chesterton’s guide to the walk which differs from the 1st edition principally in the diversion of the route via Theydon Bois rather than Epping due to construction work on the M25, and by a few general updates for errors and access issues. After that the book went out of print, never to reappear on bookshelves (you may still pick up a used copy on Amazon or eBay). So this leaves me with the first problem: do I go by the original route from the 70s or the route in the 2nd edition ? Or is there a better option still ? The issue is compounded by Des reinstating the original route via Epping now that the construction of the M25 is now a distant memory.
Problem 3: Where to Start ?
Des considers a number of issues with the original and 2nd edition routes, and makes one really significant change – he moves the start/end from Box Hill to Gravesend. This is eminently sensible as the ferry crossing at Gravesend is the only bit of the circuit that can’t possibly be walked. I never could understand why Box Hill was favoured as the start/end originally, unless Chesterton had an inherent bias towards it (maybe he was local, I’m not sure). For me a walk has to start in a meaningful place – a significant geographical feature or a place with some historic or symbolic significance. Starting at the lowest crossing point on the Thames effectively makes the walk a linear one, just like the London LOOP I walked in 2013-14. Like the LOOP, it’s also a start point near home, albeit I turn east instead of west. And finally, even the LDWA website now records the start/end as Gravesend rather than the original Box Hill. So this seems a no-brainer to me, unless I have a hankering to walk Chesterton’s route scrupulously accurately. Which I don’t, not least because of all of the other problems that would generate in tracing a 35 year old route.
Problem 4: Gravesend and Brentwood
By moving the start to Gravesend, Des magnifies an existing issue with the route: a stretch of urban road walking. This wouldn’t be a huge issue well into the walk (it would be seen as necessary pain), but to start a new long walk in such a soul (and sole)-destroying way becomes a bigger problem. However, the Gravesend-A2 problem is one I’m long familiar with – I’m a Gravesend boy and I’ve walked this terrain countless times. For me the issue isn’t just about avoiding pavements and tarmac, but finding something new. On last year’s Wealdway, I simply took the painful option of getting to the other side of the A2 as fast as possible. I want to mix it up a bit more this time.
Des attempts to solve this issue by taking advantage of the recent reshaping of the landscape out by the A2 and the advent of the HS1 line to allow for a little bit of path walking before crossing the A2. But all 3 of the options he has mapped are still essentially road walks to the A2 for virtually their whole distance. You just have to look at a map of Gravesend to see that this is unavoidable. He does, however, propose a detour of the path via Cobham which would avoid me retreading the route of the Wealdway the other side of the A2. Being my home patch, and having walked all of the options at some point before, this doesn’t really do much for me, so I’ve had to decide I’m going to freestyle this section, picking what I like from all of the available routes and my own preferences. I may even adopt a much more radical route altogether.
Brentwood has a similar issue with a high degree of tarmac to be negotiated, but Des has also suggested an alternative route through there. It’s not really earth-shatteringly different from the original though, so I may also do a radical alternative for this stretch too. Being fairly local to home, I’m not under the constraint of needing to make the station within range of the walk, Brentwood is within range of a lift from home. So subject to the cardinal rule I’ve set below, I can play with this as I want.
While we’re on the subject of route choices, Des offers two routes through Tilbury:
This one, however requires very little thought. There’s no way I’m walking through Chadwell St Mary and downtown Tilbury in hiking gear, and the route via the two forts has much to commend it. It would be utter madness not to do the longer option.
Problem 5: Daywalks or Backpacking ?
Last year I walked the Wealdway as a series of 1-2 day walks, each involving a wild camp. This was highly successful and added just enough of a sense of adventure to proceedings that it’s worth considering again. But the previous year, my London LOOP walk was strictly a series of daywalks taking advantage of the radial nature of London’s overground and underground railway lines. Clearly I could do something similar for the LCW too, although the greater distance out from London is likely to hurt the available walking time more. Given that some days of the LOOP it took the best part of 2 hours travelling each way, this needs serious consideration. Throwing a wild camp in for sections on the far side of London may make this palatable.
So I think the answer is that this walk will be a mixture of both, but in line with last year’s goal to wild camp frequently in the south east, I’m going to try to do this whenever it makes sense to.
Problem 6: Which Direction?
Both the original and revised routes go clockwise, although they start in different places. But I walked the London LOOP in reverse and am currently doing the SWCP backwards in a series of annual sections. So I don’t feel any pressure to stick to convention and go clockwise. Both directions appeal – if I start in Gravesend, I can get a big patch of tarmac over and done with rather than finish with it. I can also walk home from the end in Tilbury. However, if I start in Tilbury and head anti-clockwise it will feel like more of an adventure from the off. It feels too close to call, and in practice I’ll probably not decide until just before I start. It’s quite likely that the choice of direction will be as much determined by the practicality of the length of the first section as it is by any other consideration.
Problem 7: Following the Route
The route description in Chesterton’s book, in common with many guides of that era, relies heavily on words to describe the route (“turn left after the stile” etc). There are a few detailed maps to cover tricky places, but the only maps covering the whole route are black and white 1:100,000 type road maps, overlaid with a thick dashed line. In trying to plot the route out on a modern 1:25,000 scale OS map, I found I went wrong in numerous places and had to use educated guesses to match up some areas of description and original map. Obviously this would be a problem if my goal were to slavishly following the original route to the letter.
Des, however, provides the whole route plotted out on Google maps, and furthermore this is downloadable as a Google KML file. A conversion to GPX using GPS Babel and I was able to import it into Anquet. The result however is this:
The resulting GPX is made up of 218 routes and a staggering 11,370 waypoints, so a bit of work is needed to make this usable. As should also be obvious from the above screenshot, the file contains the alternative routes and a number of link routes too. It also contains many point of interest (POIs). As it stands this isn’t going to quite do the job. But never mind, this is the sort of problem I enjoy solving.
Something else is niggling away at me: although I only completed the first of the three sections of it, the Cambrian Way was described as A Cambrian Way (ie it was a suggestion rather than a proscriptive route). Tony Drake, the creator of the Cambrian Way (which I still mean to finish one day), was perfectly happy with people saying they’d done it as long as they passed through all 42 of the “checkpoints” he stipulated (and even so some of these had alternative options as well). I really loved this approach, enabling me to tailor my walk to my logistics and tweak parts of it according to interest or pace on the day. It strikes me that for a long distance walk where the official route is 35 years out of date, and the best available current version differs in some significant aspects, a degree of flexibility of precise route is reasonable. So I’ve decided to come up with a list of “checkpoints” through which I must pass, taking the best from the original and Des’s versions. This allows me to not beat myself up if I take a wrong turn (which I almost certainly will at some point), and not worry about concentrating on following a prescribed route to the potential detriment of enjoying the walk. So checkpoints it is. For that reason, I’m also going to take the cue from the late Tony Drake and refer to this walk as “A London Countryway”.
A final word on this approach of treating the route as flexible: in the words of Chesterton, the original guidebook author: “In fact, I hope walkers will not stick rigidly to the Countryway, but will use other paths where they feel so inclined and make a whole family of routes.” So that’s what I’m going to do then.
So what are the “checkpoints”. I had a number of criteria for deciding this:
- They ideally need to lie on Chesterton’s routes or Des de Moor’s routes.
- Any places of major historical or geographical significance lying close-to but not on any of the published routes will also be considered. For this purpose, I’m setting this as no more than a mile off-route and I can’t miss any of the checkpoints on the “proper” route to do them.
- Wherever possible, the checkpoints will be things or places of significance, as I intend to photograph each one. However, for practicality I may need to include some less exciting places to achieve a sensible distribution of checkpoints and to keep the route broadly in the same area as Chesterton’s and de Moor’s. Again this is no different to the Cambrian Way which includes a number of checkpoints in places which aren’t particularly special in themselves, but which by passing through them ensure you take some sort of route through the bits of mountain terrain the walk’s creator wanted you to include.
- The number of checkpoints needs to be sensible – so that I ideally visit several in a day, but where there is a sensible distance between them. I’m aiming for one about every 3-4 miles.
- Any significant hills close to the route, I’ll try and work in too.
So this is what I came up with as my preliminary list, but remembering that I haven’t yet decided on which direction to do it in, so may well reverse the order of these…
- Gravesend Town Pier
- Cobham (taking the suggested alternative – “better than the main route” to quote Chesterton)
- Culdrum Long Barrow
- Addington Long Barrow
- Ightham Mote
- River Hill
- Toys Hill (a HuMP)
- Crockham Hill
- Betsom’s Hill (two County tops)
- Botley Hill (separately a Marilyn, a County top and a trig point)
- Reigate Hill (a HuMP)
- Box Hill (the original start/end point)
- Dunley Hill (a HuMP)
- Wisley Common
- Horsell Common
- Runnymede (a slight detour)
- Windsor Castle
- Lane End / Widdenton Park Hill
- West Wycombe
- Great Missendon
- Berkhamsted Castle
- Kings Langley
- North Mymms
- Newgate Street
- Waltham Abbey
- Epping Forest (high point at 117m)
- Stapleford Tawney
- Greensted Church (a recommended detour)
- Secret Nuclear Bunker
- Weald Park
- Thorndon Country Park North
- Thorndon Country Park South
- West Horndon
- Coalhouse Fort
- Tilbury Fort
The planning for this project will, no doubt, evolve a bit more as I go, and not least through the decision as to which direction to do it in. The next stage is to use the rough framework of checkpoints and stations and calculate some rough distances. Then I’ll be able to simply piece together each walk as an appropriate number of those sections. That’s what I did for the LOOP and it worked brilliantly, allowing me to make decisions on the walk itself about carrying on or stopping short. But this isn’t a walk I’m going to plan in minute detail. I’m simply going to construct a set of dots to join up – the checkpoints above and the stations I can start/stop at, and arm myself with the knowledge of the distances between them. On the day, I’m simply going to use the map and work which paths to use to get me to the next dot. Let’s hope it works.