diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 24, 2014

In 1936, London Transport brought out the first in a series of three books of Country Walks. The idea was very simple, to encourage Londoners out to the extremities of the network to take a stroll in the countryside. People from inner streets and suburban avenues got to enjoy the tracks and byways, fields and riverbanks, and London Transport got to sell more off-peak tickets on otherwise empty tubes and buses, so everyone was a winner.

Three books of Country Walks were produced over the next couple of years. Each came with a specially commissioned Eric Ravilious woodcut on the cover. Each cost threepence, which for over 100 pages was damned good value. Each contained from a dozen to two dozen walks, most of which were approximately around the ten mile mark. Each came with a full page route map, something proper to follow rather than an artistic sketch. And most came with a black and white photo showing some of the delights you might see if you were to venture along the way. Sandwich the lot between a month by month list of flowers in bloom and a copy of the Country Code, and you had a fine book to grace any shelf or knapsack.

During the 1950s London Transport brought out the entire series again, suitably revised and updated, this time with a cover price of two shillings and sixpence. By the start of the 1970s another set of three was on sale, a little more modern in their outlook, but still blessed by those same Ravilious woodcuts on the front. I remember them being on sale in my local tube station, and I also remember that I never bought a copy, which may have had a lot to do with being only six at the time. As a car-less family we were very much the book's target audience, but day-long hikes weren't really suitable for children of infant school age, and 30p was a lot of money in those days.

Thirty years later I'm much more target audience, so I wondered if I could get my hands on a copy. I wanted the 1970s book rather than the originals, because that was the version I could have had but didn't. And a quick search of the internet revealed that yes, people did indeed have copies for sale. Prices varied somewhat, sometimes in relation to condition but also according to website, with some Amazon sellers demanding peanuts and some bespoke sellers charging rather more. I broke the habit of a lifetime and engaged in the digital transaction thing, and hey presto within a week my small blue book arrived.

Blimey it was in good condition - almost new, indeed almost as if I'd owned it myself. I treat books with enormous reverence, never ever breaking the spine, folding a page or even scuffing the cover. So I dipped inside very carefully and soaked in the typeface, the vintage photos and the edge-to-edge Ordnance Survey maps. According to the introduction maps of the Underground are available by writing to the Public Relations Officer at 55 Broadway SW1, while full details of London Country Bus services can be obtained by dialling Reigate 42411. I should, perhaps, never complain about the inadequacies of the updated TfL website again.

Book One contains thirteen walks in total, so obviously I flicked through (carefully) to see where they went. Here's a list, transcribed for posterity (or alternatively someone on Etsy has taken photos of the contents and you can see for yourself).
Walk 1 (10 miles) BLACK PARK: Langley, Black Park, Denham, Uxbridge
Walk 2 (6 miles) FOLLOWING THE PINN: Ickenham, Ruislip, Ruislip Woods, Pinner
Walk 3 (10 miles) THE LEE CHURCHES: Chesham, Pednor The Lee, Chesham
Walk 4 (10½ miles) DOWN ON THE FARM: Chesham, Ashley Green, Hockeridge Bottom, Ley Hill, Chesham
Walk 5 (11 miles) ST ALBANS TOUR: St Albans, St Michael's, Bedmond, St Albans
Walk 6 (11 miles) ESSEX SPIRES: Ongar, Greenstead, Stanford Rivers, Navestock, Kelvedon Hatch, Ongar
Walk 7 (8 miles) THE FRINGE OF THE FOREST: Chingford, High Beach, Upshire, Bell Common, Epping
Walk 8 (6 or 14½ miles) DOWNE AND AROUND: Farnborough, Downe, Cudham, Knockholt, Chevening, Knockholt Pound, Farnborough
Walk 9 (13½ miles) THE NORTH DOWNS: Caterham, Woldingham, South Hawke, Oxted, Tandridge, Tilburstow Hill, Godstone, Caterham
Walk 10 (9 or 11 miles) HEATH AND HILL: Tattenham Corner, Headley, Headley Heath, Mogador, Walton-on-the-Hill
Walk 11 (9½ miles) THE SURREY COMMONS: Leatherhead, Stoke D'Abernon, Oxshott, Esher Common, Claygate, Chessington

Walk 12 (9 miles) RODING TO THE CHING: Wanstead, Leytonstone, Highams Park, Chingford
Walk 13 (11 miles) CAESAR'S CAMP: Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park, Ham Common, Petersham, Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath
There are some enticing walks on that list, as well as some less well known places you might never think to go. The selection's much closer to the capital than most of the rambles to be found in Country Walks' modern equivalent, the Time Out Book of Country Walks. But that's because back then every walk had to be accessible by underground or red or green bus, and the London Country network only went so far. Things have changed a tad since then. The Metropolitan still stretches to Chesham (walks 2 and 3) but the Central was withdrawn from Ongar (walk 6) twenty years ago. As for buses, your Oyster card will still get you to Farnborough (8) and Leatherhead (11), but St Albans (5) is alas now off limits.

It'd be nice if TfL did something similar today, a publication to encourage us to visit the outer reaches of their empire. A Chiltern ramble from Chalfont and Latimer (on the Met), perhaps, or a North Downs climb at Box Hill (by 465), or a Kentish hike from Chartwell (by 246). But TfL don't produce publications like this any more, because books of country walks aren't on-message and fail to match with key performance indicators. There is the excellent Walk London campaign, of course, but that's increasingly underfunded and in danger of becoming little more than a series of Facebook updates.

There was a time when TfL promoted out of town destinations with vigour. You've probably seen those gorgeous posters at the London Transport Museum promoting Bluebell Time at Kew Gardens, Dorking By Motor Bus, or To Twickenham By Tram. Alas, no more. Instead we have campaigns for select types of transport, generally those commercially sponsored, prioritising the mode of travel rather than the destination. The official TfL Twitter feed has mentioned the River Bus, @BarclaysCycle and @EmiratesAirLDN several times over the last week, for example, but never once suggested somewhere they might take you.

I stepped out on one of the Book One country walks over the Easter weekend, and I'll tell you tomorrow how that went. I also bought Book Two, because I can see me walking a fair few more of these, so eclectic is the selection of places visited. Both copies of course remain pristine, even after a ten mile hike, so please don't ask to borrow either of them, you can jolly well source your own. And if anyone at TfL's ever interested in putting together a collection of 21st century Country Walks accessible by London bus or tube, or in creating a pdf or app on their behalf, I think that would be a mighty fine thing.

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