CONCRETE x JUNGLE
How lockdown helped me to discover the hidden green spaces in London and ignited my love for trail running.
by May Edmondson
On 23rd March 2020 – the ‘one outdoor activity per day’ rule was introduced as part of the UK-wide lockdown in the fight against coronavirus. You were permitted to run or walk within the local area, alone or only with members of your own household – spending your one ‘token’ of exercise per day meant we had to make every run count. Trudging the tarmac worked for a while, but after a few days of pounding the same few pavements I became restless for something more adventurous – yet the public transport ban made the North Downs Way just a tad too far to be accessible, let alone the idea of beginning to tick a few peaks off the Bob Graham round, so I instead turned all my attention to searching for the best trails on my doorstep. Here is a roundup of my 5 favourite trails in London and the lessons I have learned in the process as I took my first few tentative steps in the world of trail-running.
1. Parkland Walk
Situated on the old railway line between Alexandra Palace and Highgate woods (Parkland Walk North – 750m) and Highgate Woods and Finsbury Park (Parkland Walk South – 3km), this 5km total stretch of protected green-space provides a very different kind of rush-hour commute. Look out for the bat sanctuary in the old Holmsdale road tunnels, the scary Spriggan sculpture which is said to have inspired Stephen King’s horror novel, ‘Crouch End’ and the old platforms which used to belong to a station of the same name.
Difficulty level: 1/5 – a great beginner trail
Optional add-ons: Combine with the New River Path, extending to Hackney and Islington in the South or as far as Hertfordshire in the North
Lessons learned: Avoid between 9-10am (dog-walkers’ rush hour)
Find out more about the Parkland Walk here
2. Beverley Brook Trail
Did you know that just beyond the bars and boating houses of Putney riverside there is a gentle stream stretching 10 km south of the Thames? Nope, neither did I until Lockdown! This picturesque trail takes you from New Malden, through Wimbledon common, across Richmond Park and Barnes Common, closely hugging the Beverley Brook, all the way to meet the Thames. The trail is mostly within green spaces, with a few crossings in between (including level crossings at Barnes, which is an added bonus if you are a train geek like me!) and is mostly flat, making it suitable for beginners. The route is way-marked with a red circle with a deer inside, which are mostly easy enough to follow and is particularly beautiful now the autumn leaves are beginning to shed. Since the trail encompasses so many green spaces, there is plenty of room for optional extra exploration, such as the Tamsin trail in Richmond park or the Thames path itself, where the brook empties out into the river at Putney.
Difficulty level: 2/5 – easy trails, mostly flat, some turnings difficult to spot when overgrown
Optional add-ons: The Tamsin Trail in Richmond Park, the Thames Path at Putney
Lessons learned: Take a moment to stop and enjoy the views – my favourite reading tree was found here.
Find out more about the Beverly Brook Trail here
3. Capital Ring
Ever spotted signposts with those little green circles with the big ben symbol in the middle? If you have, chances are the mega 75 mile (120km) Capital Ring orbital route passes through your local area. The route is divided into 15 sections, meaning it is possible to complete 1 or 2 sections in a day (although there is a popular ultrarunning challenge which involves completing the entire loop in one go!). Since it is owned by TFL, the route is well-maintained and sign-posted, meaning it’s hard to get lost. My favourite sections of the Capital Ring are section 12 (Highgate to Stoke Newington), which features the beautiful Abney Park Cemetery, and section 4 (Crystal Palace to Streatham). You can even download a certificate once you have completed all 15 sections (and it looks pretty on your Strava Heatmap!)
Difficulty level: 2/5 – mostly flat trails with some hillier sections
Optional add-ons: Richmond Park after section 6, or the South East London Green Chain Walk after section 3. Alternatively, follow the Lea Valley Walk north from Springfield Park, instead of south towards Hackney Wick as part of section 13.
Lessons learned: The same trails look completely different depending on the season, which is all the more motivation to come back!
Find all GPX files of the Capital Ring here
4. London Loop
The big brother of the Capital Ring, this second orbital route is larger (at 150 miles, 242km) and surrounds the outskirts of London, encompassing some of the most beautiful green spaces and historical sites of interest in the capital. Divided into 24 slightly longer sections, you could easily complete a section in a couple of hours, or spend a whole day on the trails. My favourite section so far is the stretch between Elstree and Cockfosters, which took me through the stunning ancient Scratchwood in Barnet and Monken Hadley Common in Hadley Wood. Be prepared for some slightly more technical trails and hidden wayfinder symbols – I have been caught out a couple of times after climbing over the wrong stile, traversing a farmer’s field in the middle of nowhere when the heavens have opened and I have had to abort mission. However, the rain, the cowpat mishaps and the getting lost are all part of the trail running adventure!
Difficulty level: 3/5 – Some more technical trails and wayfinders not always easy to spot.
Optional add ons: The Pymmes Brook Trail at Monken Hadley Common, which travels through Arnos Grove and Southgate, before finally merging with the River Lea Navigation at Tottenham
Lessons learned: Plan for things not to go to plan. You never know when you will get caught out on a run. Even the most seasoned trail runners get lost sometimes, or become injured off the beaten track. In the event that you do need the emergency services, giving your current location as ‘a big green field off the M25’ isn’t particularly helpful, so I cannot stress enough the importance of downloading the ‘what3words’ app, which has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, all given a unique 3 word address, to help the emergency services find you faster when you dial 999.
Find all GPX files of the London Loop here
5. Dollis Valley Greenwalk
If you want fields, hills, cows, dipping your toes in a stream, jumping over stiles, wading through long grass, this trail has it all. The Dollis Brook (a tributary of the River Brent), stretches 10 miles from Moat Mount Open space in the north all the way down through Totteridge and Woodside park towards Finchley and Hampstead Heath. It is virtually untouched by civilisation in sections, and you have to pinch yourself to remember you are in London. Sights include Barnet Gate Woods, Totteridge Fields Nature Reserve, and the towering Dollis Brook viaduct near Mill Hill. Because of its location in the North London greenbelt, there are dozens of smaller trails spanning off from the brook, including local Totteridge Village Heritage walks and the newly landscaped Folly Brook trail, meaning you could easily continue your exploration on the trails for an entire day, all within easy reach of the high streets of Whetstone and Mill Hill (and 2km from my house!). The well-trodden paths can become boggy after it has rained, so trail shoes are recommended, but the route is well demarcated and not too steep, making it suitable for beginners and veteran trail-runners alike.
Difficulty level: 2.5/5 – Some more technical and slippery trails, particularly in Winter
Optional add-ons: Folly Brook Trail (at Woodside park), London Loop (at Moat Mount), Capital Ring (at Falloden way) Brent River Path (at Henley’s corner), Mutton Brook (also at Henley’s corner), Totteridge Village Heritage Walks (at various points along the Dollis ascending to Totteridge Common).
Lessons learned: I have absolutely fallen in love with trail running! There is always something new to discover, even on your doorstep.
Find more info on the Dollis Valley Greenwalk here
May is a ball of energy and has been running with us for some time now. She’s only taken her first steps off-road at the beginning of the year and has carried that initial spark all the way to this. When she’s not running she’s a healthcare assistant (HCA) at Great Ormond Street Hospital working for the wonderful NHS here in London.
Follow her on Instagram and Strava.
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