Saturday 28 February 2009

The London Countryway: the furthest orbit

The obvious thing is to define the territory by walking round it. There's a long tradition to this sort of activity that presumably goes back to instinctive behaviour, patrolling the community's marches, beating the bounds. It's a way of beginning to draw a mental line, powered by your footsteps, in the most basic form of locomotion -- at times agonisingly slow, like the progress of those seat-back map displays on a transatlantic flight, but profoundly satisfying to the patient, like growing things. There's power, too, in completing circles and cycles, resonant with cosmological myths and notions of containment and control.

And London is a city many times encircled, with skeins of orbital infrastructure rooted deep in its real and cognitive geography. The completion of the London Underground Circle Line in 1884 -- a painful process thanks to the bitter rivalry between the two railways companies involved, the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan & District -- was a major cause for celebration; the line now delineates much of the boundary of Transport for London's Fare Zone 1 and therefore, for many Londoners, defines the limits of Central London. Since then there have been many attempts to create an outer circle of suburban railway, the latest of which is now promised by 2012. 20th century strategic road transport planning has been obsessed with successive concentric ring roads, circulars and orbitals, reaching its culmination with the completion in 1986 of the M25 motorway, which now defines the edge of Greater London in the popular imagination, though in fact it generally runs some distance outside the administrative boundary. In 1999, the author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair undertook a walk around the M25 keeping as close as was legal to the motorway -- the resulting book, London Orbital, appeared in 2002 with an accompanying film by Chris Petit. Less visible to Londoners, except as street level inconvenience of the sort we're all expert at moaning about, is the Thames Water Ring Main, the main part of which was completed in 1993, though it's still being extended.

These pieces of civil engineering take their circular form mainly for practical reasons, usually to help people go round without going through, although there's an inescapable touch of the mythical about some of them, as Sinclair recognised. Choosing to follow such large circuits on foot is more about psychology and aesthetics, but it too has a history. A Dr Greenfields published Country Walks in Greater London, an account of his "circuit of the Metropolis by lane, footpath, field and ferry" in 1907. In the 1990s London finally got its own signposted orbital walking routes, an outer London Loop and an inner Capital Ring, which are now supported by Transport for London -- the same agency that operates the Circle Line.

The problem with attempting to stake out the edge of London on foot is the unhelpful interface between administrative and real geography. The Greater London boundary -- the limits of the reach of the Mayor and the Greater London Authority, encompassing 33 boroughs -- traces an ragged line of headlands and peninsulas that corresponds only roughly to the limits of the urban area. In some places it severs unbroken urban sprawl in apparently arbitrary fashion, while elsewhere it embraces significant expanses of genuine countryside. An uninformed observer might assume it was drawn to reflect a reality that no longer exists. In fact the overall pattern of development on London's edge has changed little since just before World War II, when first wartime disruption then postwar planning put a halt to the hitherto largely uncontrolled spread of the built-up area, creating among other things the Green Belt (another circular metaphor) which still shapes much of the experience of walking London's suburbs. The line was drawn in the early 1960s when the former London County Council was expanded into the Greater London we know today, and it went where it did through the need to compromise with suburbanites sometimes vocally to reluctant to be swallowed by the metropolis and keen to keep ancient boundaries intact.

The London Loop is little help here as it rarely grazes the boundary -- though it crosses outside it in several places, there is also quite a bit of London beyond it, as well as quite a bit that should be London, or at least makes sense as part of a London walk. Thankfully there a further orbit more appealing to start this journey than Sinclair's trudge around the motorway -- the London Countryway, a route I have not yet walked.

The Countryway is an unofficial route -- a phenomenon that depends for its existence on England's bafflingly complex but notably generous system of off-road access to the countryside. It plots a course through the existing network of public rights of way -- routes across private land open to walkers, and sometimes riders and cyclists which are protected by law -- linked by sections of public road and other public paths across parks and commons and along rivers and canals. It doesn't exist as a signed route on the ground but only as a written description. It was largely the work of one man, long distance walker Keith Chesterton.

Chesterton first had the idea in the early 1970s, and was inspired to take it further by the example of the GR1 walking route around Paris -- another city shaped by concentric circles (plus a spiral, for additonal Gallic flair). If Paris deserved such a route, reasoned Chesterton, then London, with its more interesting and varied rural hinterland, certainly did. He was soon gripped by the urge to create interconnections and experimented with linking the North Downs Way and the Ridgeway, then, pre-Thames Path, the closest National Trails to London, but the Ridgeway proved too far out, so with the help of walking friends a different route evolved which was first published in book form in 1978.

The Countryway proved relatively popular, with a second edition of the guide in 1981 (which includes the reference to the Dr Greenfields book mentioned above), but it did not make the step to more official status by winning support from local authorities, possibly because so many of them would have had to be involved. Eventually the book went out of print, always a danger with an unofficial route, and the creation of the London Loop as an official, signed path made the route seem less relevant. I spoke to Keith Chesterton in 2005 and he was still keen to produce an updated new edition of the guide, and I subsequently heard some other walkers had been resurveying the route, with the possibility of an online guide, but to the best of my knowledge this has not yet appeared. It's a shame, as the Countryway would make a fine complement to the Loop and the Ring. My walk will be based on the 1981 guide, rerouted where necessary due to changes on the ground -- in particular where the route encounters the M25, which was still under development when the guide was last updated.

Chesterton's book suggests a handy shorthand form of vital statistics which serves for any route encircling London -- its length, the points at which it crosses the Thames in the east and in the west, the significant northern and southern extremities, and the distance it runs from Charing Cross, the official point from which road distances to and from London are calculated. The 328km Countryway crosses the river at Tilbury in the east, runs via Box Hill near Dorking in the south, crosses decisively again at Marlow in the west, and runs via St Albans and Broxbourne in the north. The distance from Charing Cross varies from 21km at Waltham Abbey to 50km at West Wycombe. At Waltham Abbey it runs not much more than 1km from the Greater London boundary and even runs inside the M25 for a while, passing not far from the London Loop, but most of the time it is much further out than this, a genuine countryside way.

As such, it may seem a strange place to begin. London is a very large city, a world city, one of the three or four most famous cities and most recognised cities in the world and still among the top 20 biggest. Surely walking it should mean treading the urban fabric and celebrating it for what it is, not hiding among chalk downs and woodlands on a route that could almost have been designed to help you pretend the city wasn't there. But though London will mainly stay out of site on this walk, we'll still feel an influence that stretches far wider even than the Countryway ventures. And we'll also walk the geographical context that will help us to understand where London is, in its place, where we'll discover it soon enough.

Guidebook: A guide to the London Countryway by Keith Chesterton, 2nd edition, 1981. Although out of print, this is relatively easy to obtain secondhand including through Amazon Marketplace.


Anonymous said...


I have just started this as my next project over 2015 and doing the wealdway too. Got to Borough Green so have the choice from here and hope to do both in stages. Will let you know where have any probs.
By the way,last year I finished the saxonway (from Dover North from North Downs Way link)and before that the North Downs way (down to Dover)


Des de Moor said...

Thanks for posting! Hope you enjoy the walk. At some point soon I plan to walk it all again...