London to Canterbury

Time to hit the road

134kms – 6 days

On Monday 1st July I walked out of my front door in Stoke Newington, London, closing it behind me like it was any other, normal, day. But it wasn’t a normal day. I wasn’t just nipping to the shops for some milk, or walking to my nearest bus stop. I was closing the front door behind me and walking to Rome. It was a strange feeling, and a private one at that. Nobody that I passed on the street knew of the kilometres that lay ahead of me, of the months of walking, and of the (literal) ups and downs that were to come.

Ready and raring to go

The vast majority of my route to Rome will follow the Via Francigena, a medieval pilgrimage trail that starts at Canterbury Cathedral. How I would chose to get myself from Stoke Newington to Canterbury was, however, entirely up to me. The extra 134 kilometers are my own optional extra, and there’s no ready made route that will deliver me door to door. After some deliberation I decided to try and walk through the London that I know, the London where I’ve lived, worked, and revelled for the last 11 years.

In no time I found my rhythm and was striding out. Stoke Newington turned into Dalston, which turned into Shoreditch, which turned into the City. And before I knew it I had reached the River Thames. Leaving the familiar territory of all things north of the river behind, I ventured into lands unknown. The sprawling Borough of Southwark, and its many hills, felt to be never ending in the absence of familiar landmarks to help me track my progress. And then I saw it, the fake Eiffel Tower that is the Crystal Palace Trasmitting Station, marking my stopping point for the night.

Continuing the journey south of the River Thames and looking back on Tower Bridge and the Tower of London

I feared a long and monotonous walk out of London’s suburbs, but I found myself in fields full of wheat and quaint little villages far sooner than I anticipated. Unexpected finds included the Wilberforce Seat, where in 1788 William Wilberforce vowed to abolish the slave trade, and a sundial in the small parish church of St. Mary the Virgin in Downe that’s dedicated to Charles Darwin, who lived in the village for 40 years.

Crossing the M25, Greater London’s busy ring road, was something of a landmark moment. I crossed over the motorway and immediately snaked through a dense forest, where I heard a rustling and noticed a deer watching me from only a few metres away. We held each others’ gaze for what felt like a lifetime, before it ran off and I carried on walking towards the clearing. As I emerged into the bright light of day, Kent, the Garden of England, stretched out in front of me. All I could see were fields of crops, horses grazing, and traditional oast houses dotting the landscape. London was well and truly behind me.

Kent, the Garden of England, stretching out in front of me after crossing the M25

The next few days developed a pattern of their own – following a mixture of the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way, passing through picturesque villages steeped in thousands of years of history (Otford, Aylesford, and Charing being amongst my favourites), and traversing fields bursting with crops and colour-popping with wild flowers. The further east I walked, the more I stumbled upon enormous manor houses, and the more striking the landscape seemed to become, dotted with vineyards and orchards as I edged closer to Canterbury.

Colourful corn fields
Walking through Kent’s thriving vineyards

Arriving in to Canterbury had something of a surreal feel – I had reached the end point, but the end point of the beginning. I was crossing a finish line, however it was only momentary. As I walked through the cobbled streets of the historic city, crossing bridges under which tourists were merrily punted along the River Stour, the elation began to wear off and it started to sink in that my journey was really only just beginning.

I headed for Canterbury Cathedral to get my “Pilgrim’s Passport” stamped, marking the beginning of my journey to Rome. The Cathedral attendant asked me “Where are you heading, Rome?” I nodded. “All in one go?” I managed a feeble “Yes”. He handed me back my stamped passport and told me to take my time looking around the Cathedral, sending me off with a smile that was a mix of all things excitement, envy, and encouragement.

The lofty heights of Canterbury Cathedral

The quiet backwards of the River Stour

So, how’s your training going?

Hmm…good question.

With my walk from London to Rome now just over a month away, everyone’s been asking me how my training is going. I know it’s usually their way of showing an interest in the challenge that lies ahead, but that question often makes me go stiff with panic. What if the training I’m doing isn’t enough?

How exactly do you train for a walk that will take three and a half months? Google hasn’t come to my aid with anything resembling a training plan. But maybe that’s a good thing…if I haven’t got one to stick to, I can’t beat myself up for not sticking to it! So, taking matters into my own hands, I’ve come up with a training plan of sorts. It consists of…you guessed it…walking.

Getting some practice in whilst house sitting for my parents by walking 10km along the River Stort to the pub for lunch…and back

Day long walks were always going to be hard to fit in to everyday life. And whilst they would get me used to walking for long periods of time, they wouldn’t prepare me for being on my feet day after day, which is where the real challenge lies.

One and two hour walks have therefore become a daily ritual, replacing bus and Tube journeys as my way of commuting around London. And they’ve been far from a chore. Getting out and about on two feet has allowed me to be a tourist in my own city, revisiting places that I haven’t wandered past in years, noticing things that I’ve previously been too pre-occupied to take in, and discovering places that I usually miss out on because I’m in a cramped Tube carriage 20 odd metres below ground.

If you’re a Londoner, or are visiting the city, and are looking for some walk inspiration, here are two of my tried and tested favourites that take in some of the city’s lesser know sights. I’ve walked, run, and cycled these routes many times and they never get old or dull. They offer a slightly different perspective on the city from the more traditional stroll along the Southbank and saunter through the parks. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

1. A wander around Hackney’s green spaces

I’m one of those annoying Hackney residents that bangs on about how amazing Hackney is. But when it comes to green space, Hackney really is amazing.

One of my favourite walks in the borough starts in my local Stoke Newington green space, Clissold Park, with it’s deer enclosure, butterfly house, paddling pool and cafe. From Clissold Park you head north around the West Reservoir Water Sports Centre, where you can watch people sailing, canoeing, and open water swimming. You then head over to the East Reservoir, known as Woodberry Wetlands, a nature reserve that’s home to an abundance of wildlife. A boardwalk circles the reservoir, and makes you feel like you’re in the Norfolk Broads rather than Zone 2.

Slowing life down on a stroll along the River Lea

Leaving the reservoirs and heading further east you eventually reach the River Lea, which is one of the largest rivers in London and the easternmost major tributary to the River Thames. Here it feels less like London and more like Oxford. Cyclists whizz along the tow path, boat clubs line the banks of the river, and rowers skull up and down the water dodging colourful canal boats. All this activity takes place against the backdrop of the Walthamstow Marshes, where there isn’t a high rise in sight.

Walking south along the River Lea you enter the wonderful, and totally underrated, Springfield Park. The wooded areas, the ponds, and the cafe are all highlights, but it’s the views across the Walthamstow Marshes that make Springfield Park special. From here it’s a quick walk back to Stoke Newington, by which time you’ve earned a well deserved drink in one of it’s many pubs.

Top tip: The Coal House Cafe at Woodberry Wetlands not only does delicious food, but also has wonderful views across the reservoir. You feel like you’re having tea and cake in a National Trust property, not next to a reservoir in Hackney.

2. Going traffic free from Kings Cross to Victoria Park

If there’s a chance to walk in London without cars and mopeds whizzing by, I’m taking it. The walk along Regent’s Canal from Kings Cross to Victoria Park is a real gem, especially if you’re a foodie.

It won’t be long before you come to a halt as you pass Word on the Water, a bookshop on a narrow boat moored to the banks of the canal. For a bit more culture you could visit the London Canal Museum, which is housed in an ice warehouse that dates from the 1860s and was owned by a famous ice cream maker, Carlo Gatti. As well as learning about London’s canals you can also learn about the city’s ice cream history!

Keep walking east and the canal will soon head into a long tunnel, which sadly means you have to part ways and resurface onto the roads. But not for long – you’ll rejoin the canal east of Angel, and the hive of activity that is City Road Basin. Kayakers and stand up paddle boarders will pass you by on the water, as you wander past narrow boats that double as cafes – the perfect place to refuel on coffee.

You’ll spend the stretch from Angel to Haggerston struggling to decide where to stop for a bite to eat. There are too many good options for me to mention, so I’ll leave that to the professionals. But hopefully you’ve worked up your appetite again by the time you get to Broadway Market. Leave the canal behind and explore its shops, restaurants and pubs. If you’re there on a Saturday you’ll have the street market to explore too, and can stock up on everything from cheese, to chorizo, to artisanal chocolates.

A cheese seller at Broadway Market’s Saturday street market © Paolo Paradiso / Shuttershock.com

Return to the canal to continue your journey east, and you’ll be spotting funky graffiti all the way to Victoria Park. Once you arrive at the park itself you might want to rent a rowing boat or pedalo, visit the Chinese pagoda, watch boats speed around the model boating lake, or just lie down and relax. And there’s always room for a slice of cake…head to Pavillion cafe, overlooking the west boating lake, and enjoy something naughty.

Top tip: Even though the Saturday street market is fabulous, it’s worth visiting Broadway Market on any day of the week. There will be less people, so you’ll be able to enjoy the shops, restaurants and pubs without too much pushing and shoving. If you’re feeling energetic, you can also take your swimmers and head to the London Fields Lido for a spot of outdoor swimming.