The writer Will Self is a big fan of walking out of London. He's walked out several times, from somewhere in the centre to somewhere on the edge, attaining "a sense of enlightenment" along the way. But, as he recognises, it's not an easy thing to do, hence only a tiny number of Londoners have ever followed suit.
I thought I'd give walking out of London a try. I've done it from home, but I wanted to do it properly, so I kicked off at the very centre of the capital. That's the historical centre, at the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square, the point from which all distances are measured. And having confirmed my starting point, I wanted to walk the shortest possible distance, so I referred to a particularly helpful map that Oliver O'Brien put together back in 2014, which confirmed I needed to head towards a pub in Worcester Park. I drew a straight line from Charing Cross to the beer garden, a distance of almost exactly ten miles, on a bearing of approximately 208°. Then I drew in the actual route I'd have to take, because buildings and rivers and railways get in the way somewhat, whilst still trying to stick as closely as possible to my target route. And then I walked it. Thankfully it didn't take anywhere near as long as Will had suggested, but he was right about the important thing, how fascinating it would be. [my map][12 photos]
TO THE EDGE OF LONDON Trafalgar Square → Battersea → Wimbledon → Worcester Park
10 miles as the crow flies, 13½ miles on foot (4½ hours)
It's ten o'clock as I commence my radial safari, setting forth from a traffic island beneath the raised hoof of a bronze horse. It's two minutes past by the time I manage to escape the ring of circling vehicles, stepping off down The Mall as the tourist buzz begins to build. Already I've had to veer off the direct line to my destination, with the top of Whitehall and then the lake in St James's Park getting in the way, but no complaints, this is a delightful way to begin. I pass the weather station that's sometimes the warmest place in the country, and a kiosk owner unloading a box of muffins from a truck, before greeting the wildfowl by the water's edge. From the centre of the footbridge I can see both the London Eye and Buckingham Palace, which are as far as many tourists get, but I'm going so much further.
My brief green sojourn ends at Queen Anne's Gate, heading down towards the Art Deco façade of 55 Broadway. There follows a wiggly walk through Victoria, past the civil service caffeine-clutchers late to their desks, before diving off into the residential hinterland beyond. Beneath a brown and cream-striped mansion block an old lady with splayed crutches walks her small dog back home, a packet of biscuits dangling from her arm in an Argos carrier bag. I'm impressed, my straight line has already brought me to a series of streets I've never walked before, and we're barely a mile in. I get to walk the entire length of Cambridge Street, a prime Pimlico bolthole, with stucco frontage and pillared porches, plus a Westminster City Council plaque for Laura Ashley partway down.
It's fortunate that my straight line delivers me almost precisely to Chelsea Bridge, else I'd require a significant diversion to cross the Thames. Less fortunately, this location delivers the greatest concentration of new building work anywhere along my walk, specifically the glass shroud currently springing up around Battersea Power Station, and the completed apartments at Chelsea Gate alongside (which it must be better looking out of than looking at).
It's a relief then to slip into Battersea Park, and a goodly crossing thereof, the direct route again thwarted by a lake. Numerous truck drivers are parked up along North Carriage Drive, one cooing from his cab to an adoring crowd of crows on the tarmac, or so it seems. Two very different sides of London are visible on the way through - a local school holding a mass athletics event at the Millennium Stadium, and a huge speculative events space hosting a "designer bridal show", its customers arriving by cab and chauffeur to be ushered inside. Two herons are the highlight on the boating lake shore, while the grass on the bowling green is being given a striped manicure by two gents with rotary mowers. On a different bearing I could be in Paddington, Hoxton or Bermondsey by now, and I think I've struck lucky.
Into Battersea proper, where artisans travail in backstreet workshops to bring hand-blown lamps to drawing room tables, and fireplace merchants stock bespoke wood-boilers for that perfect finishing touch. Just when I'm despairing of ever passing through anywhere council-built, I stumble upon the Latchmere Estate. A plaque dates it to 1903, indeed it turns out this is the very first council estate in the country, and it's gorgeous. 315 high-quality Municipal Dwellings were laid out in parallel streets, with novel features such as baths and gardens... and needless to say they've all been snapped up by folks with (and who no longer need) mortgages, who maintain the stock brick terraces in near perfect condition.
A triangle of railway viaducts now intrudes, because here comes Clapham Junction. This means negotiating the car park in front of the 24 hour Asda (ideal for a toilet break, should you need one after 90 minutes on the road). There follows one of the most bustling sections of the entire walk, down to the Falcon and back up to the station entrance, where I get stuck behind a group of oblivious mummies and their offspring walking seven abreast, then accosted by a beaming chugger. The ominously-named Severus Road kicks off a backstreet chicane of three-storey beauties, before emerging onto Battersea Rise, where a procession of three genuine Routemasters appears bearing a cargo of Scandinavian party-goers.
A spatial coincidence now allows me to switch off for a bit. That straight line I drew from Charing Cross to the edge of London coincides almost perfectly with the main railway line from Clapham Junction down to Wimbledon - a good hour's walk - and for the next mile and a half there's a perfectly parallel road. The Daily Telegraph describes Spencer Park as the millionaires row of Nappy Valley, an enclave of small mansions with big gardens, overlooking its proximity to the Clapham Rail Disaster Memorial. At Wandsworth Common it changes to Windmill Road, named after a smock mill built to pump water out of the railway cutting into an ornamental lake, and whose wooden body still stands behind protective railings. And then the name switches to Earlsfield Road, a long slow straight descent to the suburb of the same name, whose sideroads are so snobbish that they all have "no public service vehicles" warning signs at the end. Again the houses are late Victorian delight - high, brick and gabled - plus one solitary whitewashed newsagent, because nobody gets their papers delivered any more.
In good news, reaching Earlsfield means I'm now halfway to my destination. From here it would be nice to follow the River Wandle south - it runs parallel to my desire line, and Will Self once walked this way on another trip out of town. But I must stick to the other side of the railway to avoid an enormous detour later on, which means a mile of déjà vu. I didn't plan it this way, but my route from Earlsfield to Wimbledon Park exactly follows the end of Capital Ring section 5. I recognise the bridge over twin concrete channels, and the corner shop where Wandsworth turns into Merton, and the brief deviation through a recreation ground full of cherry blossom, and the everydayness of the local mosque, and the semi-exclusive shopping parade leading up to the tube station. But at least I got to see a BMW with numberplate M16 GAG parked outside a bistro, so it wasn't all a repeat.
The avenues north of Wimbledon are sylvan suburbia, and I'm fortunate that my route leads me along a couple. Kenilworth Avenue is part conservation area, for the consistency of its semis, which boast lintels carved with foliage, stone bracket detailing and ornate ridge tiles. Daytime activity hereabouts consists mostly of workmen spending the owners' money - positioning tiles, bitumening paths, traipsing patio debris through the hallway and hoisting scaffolding poles up above potential loft extensions. In the second street, Woodside, a plaque announces that the romantic novelist Georgette Heyer was born here, and drooping boughs on various frontages hint that Peak Wisteria has just been and gone.
The centre of Wimbledon is the ugliest point on my walk, courtesy of the late 20th century. All the buildings around the crossroads to the west of the station were built for commercial convenience rather than architectural merit, and the brief strip of high street I get to follow is little more than somewhere shoppers sup and graze. The rest of the town centre's nicer, but I'm bearing off down the side of Little Waitrose, along an alleyway I'd not realised existed before. This is Railway Path, a mile of path alongside the railway, so well-named. It's popular too, the ideal route for residents of several dead end streets to reach the shops, or head to yoga, or cycle to Raynes Park, or be pushed home from nursery. I walk about halfway down, pursued by a postman with a large red trolley, before vaulting the tracks via a trellised footbridge.
On Toynbee Road a lost stuffed puppy sits smiling atop a junction box. I do hope it's not still there.
Were it not for my desire to walk a straight line, I'd never have considered walking down, or even near, Dennis Park Crescent. I wonder initially if it might be the first patch of genuine council housing on my route, but no, the houses are too varied. Indeed quite the opposite, this turns out to be another of Merton's conservation areas, this time backed by a 24-page planning document praising the housing layout, the mature treescape and the central island of open space beneath a spreading plane. Dating from 1921, no housing developer builds anything vaguely like this any more, nor alas is allowed to.
I next stride down Bronson Road, one rung of a ladder of 20 parallel residential streets, and one of 19 to be sealed off at one end. The council appear to have been particularly vigorous in deterring through traffic hereabouts, an area romantically named Wimbledon Chase. A cut-through at the end of Whatley Avenue leads to the first decent expanse of greenspace since Battersea, Prince George's Playing Field, where two hoodied adolescents nuzzle by a rusting goalpost. A fence erected by the local football club forces me quarter of a mile off-line, the largest deviation of the walk, before eventually returning down Grand Drive past a succession of toppled empty food waste buckets. It must have been bin day.
Tennyson Avenue (in West Barnes) might easily have been the actual street on Reggie Perrin's daily commute, if only there were a Coleridge Close leading off, or indeed any other poet-themed thoroughfare on the walk to the station. Its visible daytime residents are mowing the front lawn, or watering the lupins, or cleaning out the back of the car with a Henry. Meanwhile, according to the notices affixed to a depressingly large number of trees and lampposts, at least one homeowner is desperately seeking a lost cat called Archie (quite small, black and white, neutered, micro-chipped, please check your sheds and garages).
I've never explored the Motspur Park area before, so it's a pleasure to discover Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields - the only playing field round here that doesn't belong to a posh school. The main focus is a footballing expanse with buttercup corners, overlooked by three large (and presumably doomed) gasholders. One overkeen athlete in sing-along headphones is jogging all around the perimeter, stopping off at every item of outdoor gym equipment to do press-ups, sit-ups, whatever, before sweating home. And to the south is a fenced-off track between fields of horses, in one of which a grey pony is gambolling merrily, bringing joy to a small child and her mother walking by. Suburban living is under-rated.
The final fifteen minutes of the walk crosses the top left corner of the borough of Sutton, as you can tell because the bins have changed colour. Green Lane crosses and is then bordered by the Beverley Brook, a very minor stream at this point, running in wooden-edge channel round the local sports club. With barely 200 metres left I finally spot what might have been actual council housing, two symmetrical loops of pebbledash semis, although I might be wrong, in which case I have somehow managed to exit the capital without passing through any less-than-desirable residential area. When you consider how much of London is nasty, modern, dull, squashed, over-commercial or simply bland, the entire 208° radial route is somehow a triumph of pre-war survival.
My ultimate target is the fence below the railway embankment at the back of the car park of The Brook public house in Worcester Park. It's private land, so I get funny looks from the couple finishing off their lunchtime drinks at the tables alongside. And annoyingly I can only waggle my fingers into Surrey, which doesn't really count, so I have one last detour to make, beneath the railway bridge and back up The Avenue on the other side. The boundary runs diagonally across the street just past the Baptist church, where I'm chuffed to have confirmation of this invisible line from an official marker inclined at the edge of the pavement. I slump on Mrs I. M. Carr's memorial bench ("who in her later years enjoyed the rest and company provided by seats like this"), somewhat drained after a four and half hour walk, but achievement unlocked.
When Will Self walks out of London he carries on until he reaches open fields. I got none of that in Worcester Park, a peripheral anomaly that's still in Zone 4, with the built-up streets of Epsom and Ewell spread out beyond. But I can now say I've walked from the centre of London to the edge, and yes I am tempted to do it again. A small nudge in my starting position would have yielded very different endpoints - from the other end of the Strand the most direct route out is to Woodford, while from Oxford Circus the fastest exit is at Stirling Corner. Or I could instead put my phone away and stop trying to follow an artificially straight line on a map, and just walk. There's no better way to know and understand the city we live in.