If you've ever fancied walking the New River, there's never been a better time. Indeed I suspect there'll be more people walking it this weekend than ever before, because it's 400 years old tomorrow, which is a damned impressive anniversary for a 17th century aqueduct that still works. Some will only walk a short part, some will walk for longer, and a few valiant souls are even planning to walk the lot. I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy walking the New River Path, I wasn't convinced a private canal would hit the spot. But I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the walk, from scenic Herts through built-up Middlesex backwaters to the heart of the city. And I was rewarded by a number of intriguing places I passed through along the way, many that I'd never have found myself in otherwise. You should have a go one day. Here's my advice.
Get a map: If you don't have a map of some sort, you will get lost. The route is well signposted for most of the way, but there are sufficient gremlins in certain spots to ensure you'll miss the path. You'd think following a river would be easy, but the path alongside is sometimes blocked off (especially south of the M25) and then you're diverted through residential streets instead. An Ordnance Survey map's no help. The New River Path isn't a public right of way - it's been opened permissively by Thames Water - so no useful dotted line appears on any Landranger or Explorer. But you will find the New River Path marked on the excellent OpenStreetMap, see here, all the way along (I think) the correct route. I've also had a go at mapping the path on a Google map (the management accepts no responsibility for any accident, injury or tantrums that may be caused). But what you really should do is get hold of the official New River Path booklet published by Thames Water. It's full colour, it's 28 pages long, and it shows not just where to go but also the major points of interest on the way. I eventually got hold of a copy last weekend, after I'd finished walking the whole thing, thanks to a useful table of goodies at an Open House event. You can ring (0845 9200 800) or write (PO Box 436 Swindon SN38 1TU) for a copy, so it says on the back. Or you can download it, thanks to a page that appeared on the Thames Water website less than two weeks ago. That full New River Path booklet is here. You'll want it.
Check out an old map: The original New River was 40 miles long, but has been straightened over the years to cut off several contour-hugging detours. It's informative to see where the 400-year old route deviates, indeed some of the larger loops near Enfield are walkable in their own right. A wonderful (zoomable) 1834 map can be found here.
Wear sensible shoes: The New River was never a working canal so never had a proper towpath. This means the banks are often just grass, which can get muddy and squelchy after wet weather. Perfectly fine in the summer, but best be prepared at other times.
Walk south: Obviously, because that's the direction the New River flows.
How many days does it take to walk the New River Path? That depends. It definitely takes more than one, and it probably takes more than two. I did it in three. You might feel more comfortable doing it in four. One way to find out is to start walking at the Hertford end and see how far south you get before you feel tired. Stop at Broxbourne and you're a 4-dayer. Continue to Cheshunt and you're a 3-dayer. Cross the M25 and you can do it in two.
The New River Path in two days: The halfway point is roughly Enfield. To be a little more accurate, it's approximately Turkey Street. You can catch trains fairly easily here, or from either of the two main Enfield stations. You don't need to stay overnight in the area (although that's what one dedicated group is doing this weekend, sleeping over at Theobald's Park).
The New River Path in three days: I ended my first day in Cheshunt, although be warned it's a non-trivial walk from the path (on the New River) to the station (on the Lea). Then I ended my second day at Palmer's Green, to create three roughly equal sections. Did I tell you how enjoyable it was?
The New River Path in four days: This means four sections each approximately seven miles in length. Day one ends at Broxbourne, immediately adjacent to the station, which is ideal. Day two ends in Enfield, probably Enfield Town rather than Enfield Chase. Day three ends at Alexandra Palace, or Wood Green, take your pick. And day four is urban all the way to Islington.
If you don't want to walk it all, which bit? The Hertfordshire half is definitely prettier than the London half... in which case I'd suggest the first seven miles from Ware to Broxbourne. If you want to get the full flavour of the New River, rural and urban, then Cheshunt through Enfield delivers this in only five miles. And if it's an inner London heritage stroll you're after, maybe try the five miles from Finsbury Park to Angel, which is mostly along streets but with a few good stretches of water to enjoy.
Sunday 29th September (list courtesy of the New River Action Group)
» 1.30-4.30 Sir Hugh Myddelton's Glory: New River Head. A special event, funded by Thames Water and organised by the Amwell Society. There will be a re-enactment of the opening of the New River on the very site it happened 400 years ago, with live theatre, music, food and fireworks. The event is invitation-only...
» 9.30-1.30 New River 400 Walk organised by John Polley. The walk starts in Finsbury Park and finishes at New River Head, Islington, where the main New River 400 celebration event organised by the Amwell Society will be taking place. Get yourself a free invite to the big bash here.
» 9.30-6 New River 400 Year Anniversary celebrations at Myddelton House Gardens.
» 11-4 Myddleton Road Market. A special street market in Bowes Park.
» 12-4 New River 400: Family Activity Day at Clissold Park. At The Old Bowls Green.
» 11-4 New River Walk 400 Year Celebration. Free community fun day along the New River Walk in Islington