Walks near London
London’s extensive canal network is a haven for nature lovers – and often just a single stairway down from the city’s hustle and bustle
One of the best things about London is that you don’t have to leave the city to do some serious walking. The West End is virtually surrounded by the leftovers from King Henry VIII’s deer-hunting grounds (Hyde Park, Green Park, St James’s Park, Regent’s Park), while from the East End, you can – via Mile End Park, Victoria Park, the Hackney Marshes and Lea Valley Park – walk straight out of London into the countryside without having asphalt under your feet for more than a few steps at a time, only to cross a road from one green space to the next.
Today, I want to tell you all about that other great inner-city web of hiking trails: London’s network of canals, which allows you to escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis for as long as you want, a ten-minute-walk from one bridge to the next or a full day of hiking.
Many of these canals are just a single stairway down from the city’s busiest roads and provide you with the opportunity of refreshing and recharging your inner batteries. It actually feels like magic – and is the closest the real London comes to Platform 9 3/4 of the Harry Potter books.
One particularly beautiful stretch of the Grand Union Canal takes you from the west London suburb of Alperton to Greenford. Unlike a brief stroll around Camden Lock or down the Regent’s Canal in Little Venice, however, this walk requires a more serious commitment because it is a relatively long underground ride away from the town centre.
It’s better to go somewhere else if all you are looking for is a quick dip into this world of tranquility. If, however, you decide to make the journey to Alperton (on the Uxbridge branch of the Piccadilly Line), you will be richly rewarded with a picturesque blend of wildlife …
… wetlands …
… and houseboats …
… that will make you think you are in the deep countryside rather than in the outskirts of Europe’s largest and busiest city.
Leave Alperton tube station by turning right and then left into busy Bridgewater road. You will be forgiven for thinking that this does not look promising, more like an industrial park than the natural variety, but once you have crossed the road and walked down the stairway right opposite you, the change is immediate …
… although, on the early part of the trail, urban London still intrudes …
… and there are constant reminders of its multicultural nature.
But the landscape soon opens up and becomes significantly more country-like.
After about 2 km, you will spot Horsenden Farm on the far side of the canal, no longer run as an agricultural business but as a canoe club and an adventure playground for children. (Which is where the wooden sculptures of rhinos and crocodiles come in.)
When you reach the double bridge soon after, leave the canal for a short excursion into near-by Horsenden Hill forest (we shall return).
Cross the footbridge and turn left for about 50 m until you reach the entrance to the forest. There is a large panel with a map that suggests several trails.
To follow the red trail, take the stairway up the slope until you come to an open space with several tall trees. Cut right before the largest of the trees, and follow the footpath which eventually leads you back into forest and up another series of steps through some serious, jungle-like woodland …
… all the way to the summit, which is marked by a stone.
The clearing on which you stand is not a “natural” feature of the countryside but the result of a very early example of human landscape engineering: it was created thousands of years ago when stone age travellers chopped down the trees at the hilltop for a settlement, one of the first in southeast England. (The Neolithic Daily Mail reported the event under the headline: Migrants Deface English Countryside.)
From here, you get views all over North London, including, on the hill opposite to your right hand side, that of the famous Harrow School, the alma mater of Churchill and Lord Byron.
Take the path on your left to walk down the hill and turn left at the bottom. The continuation of the red trail is hard to find here, we lost our way but eventually made it back to the bridge across the canal. You can’t really get lost as long as you remember to keep vaguely downhill.
There are also plenty of wooden orientation panels scattered around the area. It is generally not too difficult to make out in which direction you must turn to return to the canal.
Once you are safely back, continue alongside the waterway for another 2 km. The area behind the fence on your left hand side is called Perivale Wood, a nature reserve which is closed to visitors at all times except for the first Sunday in May.
At the wooden footbridge, turn left in the direction of Greenford underground station, walking past the Paradise Fields wetlands, created less than 20 years ago as an artificial habitat for wild birds. Walk up the stairs to busy Greenford Road and turn left, past the shopping mall, before crossing the road and turning right immediately in front of the railway bridge. Greenford station (Central Line) is behind the next corner on your left.