We spent quite a bit of time in London this autumn for various (happy and sad) family events. This meant a lot of time doing things indoors, and a lot of time in the car going back and forth. We tried our best to stretch our legs and get some fresh air while we were up there, and I am pleased to report: North London does a good green space.
(N.B. Almost all the pictures I've taken have been of fungus with the phone while out and about . . . So, ah, sorry if you aren't into mushrooms?)
We lived in Finchley for the better part of a year when we first moved to the UK. At that point, all I wanted to do was get into the country and traipse through fields and woods, over hills and farms, away from the city. Although we visited lots of city green spaces, they always felt a bit like second best. This extremely wet autumn, though, I’ve come to appreciate the parks and woods and paths of North London a little more.
London has been designated a national park city. Despite the enormous population, there’s green dotted all over the map. Some of those spaces are sports grounds and golf clubs that might only be accessible via public footpaths or not at all, but there are also playgrounds, woodlands, rail trails, gardens . . . In North London, as well as your suburban pocket handkerchief scraps of grass, there are big, sprawling open spaces like Hampstead Heath and long corridors like the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. There are allotments to walk past, reservoirs frequented by migrating birds and in certain places the city simply gives way to farmland. Also, some of those little patches of green are full on woodlands, and some of the cemeteries are overgrown wildernesses.
I’m not going to lie, probably the main reason I’ve enjoyed the parks this year is because I haven’t wanted to get my feet wet. A lot of country paths around our area have turned into boot-sucking bogs. In circumstances like these, it’s quite a relief to know that you can visit a park and wander for a couple of hours through the trees on hard-packed trails where your feet stand a chance of staying dry.
One day we ventured out for a circular walk from Muswell Hill. We hopped onto the Parkland Walk, a rail trail of which the northern branch runs southwest from Ally Pally to Highgate Wood. Alternatively sinking between embankments and crossing high bridges with views out over the city, the path can be like a highway during summer holidays but quietens down as soon as the weather turns a bit colder. Highgate Wood and neighbouring Queens Wood are some of my favourite refuges in North London - beautiful beech woods, broad paths (and little winding trails leading to adventure), play equipment, rope swings and the cute little cafe in Queens Wood where you can eat a hearty lunch looking out into the trees. On this particular walk I got rather distracted by mushrooms! From Highgate Wood, Parkland Walk goes south east to Finsbury Park - but we cut back between the Crouch End playing fields before returning to the top of the hill via as many back streets as we could.
But not all our outings have been like that. There are also little spaces that don’t need much energy or planning: a 15 minute break for some fresh air can take us through the little wood at the end of the road and back to the front door. Or you can jump on the short section of rail trail that picks up where the Mill Hill East branch line now stops and spend half an hour so going up and back. Or there’s Little Wood and Big Wood in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which are perfect for a shot of nature if you can’t decide which bit of nearby Hampstead Heath you want to tackle - you could sit in the Little Wood amphitheatre and watch the squirrels or you could combine the two parks and spend an hour enjoying the autumn leaves.
Anyway, here’s to the green spaces and mushrooms of North(ish) London!
Do you have any favourite city green spaces? Why not, in the parlance of those YouTubers these days, let me know down below.
Now, that's slow travel! We have finally completed one of our long-term walking projects: from Dan's parents' old house in Finchley to their holiday let in Old Hunstanton.
After finishing my River Rother walk, I had a few days at home before we headed up to Norfolk for a week. We planned to walk four or five days to complete our "every now and then" walking project between London and the north Norfollk coast. The weather was hot at first - too hot to walk on a couple of days, so I ended up going to the beach and swimming in the sea for hours instead! And then, of course, the day we finished was grey and rainy.
I'll pop a few more photos down the bottom of this post, but I thought this would be a good moment to look back over the whole walk - which we started back in 2011, when we'd just moved to London from Australia. We didn't get back to it for a few years after that, but we've been fairly consistent in doing a section since 2015.
Possibly early November 2011. Finchley to High Barnet.
November 2011. High Barnet to Cuffley.
December 2011. Cuffley to Hertford; Hertford to Green Tye; Green Tye to Bishop's Stortford.
October 2015. Bishop's Stortford to Great Chesterford over two days (wild camping overnight). Read a snippet about this leg under "Other adventures" in this post.
October 2016. Great Chesterford to Cambridge; Cambridge to Ely. Read more in a previous blog post, Rivers and Roman roads: An autumn walk in Cambridgeshire.
August 2017. Ely to Littleport.
August 2018. Littleport to Downham Market; Downham Market to King's Lynn; King's Lynn to Little Massingham; Little Massingham to Old Hunstanton.
Some of our other long-term walking projects and incomplete paths include the Grand Union Canal, the Thames Path and the Ridgeway (which we also completed this summer - more to come). A friend recently asked us if this was a common thing to do . . . so, is it? Do you have any walking projects on the go?
Wales, Malvern, Birmingham, London, Sussex, Kent . . . August was jam-packed with activities as we made the most of our summer holidays. This is a bit of an epic post - though, to be fair, it's mainly photos.
After walking from channel to channel, our holiday continued with a short stay in Monmouthshire. Our Airbnb wasn't far from Rockfield Studios, actually, and the museum in Monmouth had an interesting exhibition about the studio. We were also delighted to discover Monteas, a looseleaf tea shop with a friendly owner. We bought some delicious tea.
From Monmouth, we went canoeing down the River Wye, which was great fun. I'd only kayaked before, so it was interesting to get a feel for canoeing - it feels much more sedate and, if you're in a canoe with others, there's more team work and communication.
After a few days on the river, it was off to Malvern to finally visit the Malvern Hills. The short chain of hills is an eye-catching feature in the landscape, rising abruptly from the low-lying surrounds. We've seen them in passing and have always meant to visit, but it took us several years to get around to it! We just had one morning to climb to the top of one of the hills and enjoy a cup of tea sheltering from the stiff breeze. But what a morning! I loved being able to pick out other places we've been (the line of Hay Bluff was just visible in the hazy distance) and other hills we might want to climb.
Malvern was an overnight stop on our way to Birmingham, where we stayed with a friend and spent a couple of days exploring the city (and washing our clothes, because after two weeks of walking, canoeing and sightseeing, we were a bit smelly). She took us around the city and we got to spend a few hours in the fabulous Library of Birmingham, another place we've been meaning to check out for years. We browsed books (and borrowed some, thanks to our friend!), admired the old Shakespeare Memorial Room which has been incorporated in the top floor of the contemporary building and wandered around the roof gardens checking out the view.
On the way back to London, we detoured to visit the Alpkit warehouse and showroom, to look for kit in advance of our Snowy River adventure. That was fun, especially because they let me climb inside the fluffiest sleeping bag I have ever seen. I've always wanted to try one of those out, though I have absolutely no reason to use one in earnest!
In London, we met up with a friend for breakfast and did a bit of city exploring to find some wooden streets. Yep. Did you know that the streets of London (and Melbourne, and many other cities) were once paved with wood? You can read about it in this great article by Ian Visits. I came across this when doing some research for our Snowy River adventure (a proper research rabbit hole) and decided I wanted to see it for myself. Our walk took us down some interesting back streets as well as along main roads, making for a fun afternoon wandering around the city.
Home again, home again. But being home didn't stop us getting out and about. We were making the most of our time before heading back to work.
Wild swimming in the River Rother near Newenden. (Most people venture out in boats hired from the campsite.)
On the last day of August we walked all the way around Bewl Water. We'd been meaning to do the 20km/12.5mi circuit for a while and the weather forecast was fine, so off we set! Our circuit took us anti-clockwise from the main carpark/cafe area, along dirt and paved paths, down country lanes, around a few small hills, through woods and fields and along the Sussex Border Path for a while. It's a great walk if you're up for doing something of that length.
And on that note, let's call it a day (or a month)!
The sights and sounds of summer . . .
To start, why not put some sounds in your ears while you read over this post? Below is a compilation of various recordings I made (on my camera, so not brilliant quality) during June. Originally, I intended to do a recording every day for 30 Days Wild, but didn't manage it. Speaking of 30 Days Wild, it was fantastic to get my pack from the Wildlife Trusts, featuring cards with pictures that I drew! It was very exciting to have my art going out to thousands of people. I talked about the process of creating the cards here.
So, back to our activites in June. We paid a visit to London for a family wedding at the start of the month and enjoyed some green spaces in the city.
The wedding cakes were a sight to behold. All the fruit and flowers inspired me to try something I'd been meaning to get around to for the last few years: cooking with elderflowers. I foraged a couple of flower heads and made them into pikelets (sweet little pancakes), which worked quite nicely.
It's hard to fit in outdoors time around a full time job with a 1-2 hour commute each way, so we decided to start a little tradition of going on a walk on the way home at least once a week. We chose Arlington Reservoir, because it's a one hour circular walk on an easy trail, with a variety of stuff to look at: the water and waterbirds, a bit of woodland, views of the South Downs, animals, buildings, fields. It was satisfying to watch the evolution of the micro-ecosystem that is the reservoir wall over the course of the summer and autumn, until it got too dark to walk any more.
There was a gorgeous Chicken of the Woods fungus growing on Battle High Street, of all places. I didn't want to take it, as it looked so lovely and colourful. Somebody else didn't have any such qualms - it had been cut down when we next went past, a couple of days after I took this photo. (I later heard it was a friend of a neighbour, who presented it to a family member for their birthday!)
We had an amazing microadventure on the South Downs with probably the most beautiful scenery I saw this year. The HRRA walk this month was also on the South Downs, which meant even more fabulous views!
Small tortoiseshell butterflies, which have suffered a population decline, especially in the south of the UK.
And at the end of the month we went Champing for the first time. Despite quite a grey and drizzly month overall, we did manage to make the most of it.
The Grand Union Canal, as the name suggests, is not a single canal, but rather a (grand) union of several canals. There’s the trunk stretching from London to Birmingham and then there are branches, or arms, heading off into surrounding areas. Some of those arms are full of water and navigable the entire way. Others are dry or filled in - completely out of commission. Some are little more than reed-choked drainage ditches, half forgotten except by the creatures that find a safe haven in these slivers of weed and water.
A number of years ago, we embarked on one of our very long-term projects: to walk the length of the Grand Union Canal, including all its arms. We started strong, covering most of the sections within London as well as the Wendover and Aylesbury arms. Then we moved down to East Sussex and the canal was too far away for day walks . . . but not too far away for a three day break during the half term holiday! So we booked a couple of Airbnb places and set off. From Slough.
Day 1: Slough to Cowley Lock
Two red kites wheeled close over the road as we drove in - our first taste of the wildlife to come. We parked the car and headed to the canal, surprising a small mammal of some kind (possibly a water rat), which scurried through the reeds and plopped into the water.
The Slough Arm was opened in 1882, mainly to carry bricks from the surrounding quarries and brickworks to London. It was closed to commercial traffic in 1960 and there were plans afoot to fill it in. Locals opposed this idea and got on the campaign trail. The canal was re-opened in 1975 and is still in use today. We didn’t see any boats moving about, but there were a few people fishing from the banks and a couple of boats with smoke wafting from the chimneys.
We stopped for lunch a mile or so into the walk, just before we felt the first few drops of rain. It was light and scrappy at first, but got heavier as the afternoon went on. We passed a couple of other walkers and joggers, disturbed a deer, tut tutted at the section of canalside that was covered in rubbish, spotted a few birds and the first green hawthorn leaves of spring. It was drizzling with a bit more gusto by now, but we didn’t want our thermos of tea to go to waste, so we agreed to stop under the next bit of shelter for a cuppa. The next bit of shelter was a large bridge carrying the M25 around London. What a romantic place for afternoon tea.
Refreshed, we strode on, following aqueducts over the Colne Brook and Fray’s River (where we saw a kingfisher). Soon enough, we came to Packet Boat Marina and the junction with the Grand Union Canal proper. Immediately, the canal became more lively - a few boats moving around on the water, cyclists and pedestrian commuters sharing the path with us.
We admired all the boats on permanent residential mooring, but it started raining in earnest so we headed on. The phone was dead, leaving us without instructions of how to get to our Airbnb. Luckily we found a map by the canal, dredged a few bits of info from our memories and eventually found our way ‘home’: a cosy cabin beside the canal, belonging to one of the permanent moorings. Our host invited her two bedraggled guests into the boat kitchen for a cup of tea, where we met a cute dog (Rufus) and cat (Twix). In the end, we couldn’t be bothered going out for dinner, so we went to bed early, drifting off to the sound of rain on the cabin roof and deers and foxes barking in the night.
Day 2: Cowley Lock to Croxley Green
A cool, still morning dawned, robins and blackbirds singing in the garden. Twix the cat came to say hello and jumped on the bed for pats. After croissants and jam and freshly squeezed juice for breakfast, we set off at a good pace.
The canal was misty, the smooth water broken only by a little group of colourful mandarin ducks. We watched a heron stalk elegantly along a log, then lose its footing and flail around a bit before looking at us haughtily as if to say, “I meant to do that.”
The stretch through Uxbridge was fairly urban, but passing under the A40 felt like stepping into the countryside. Suddenly, the trees and winter hedges were alive with birds: robins, wrens, chaffinches and tits - long tailed, blue and great. Beyond the trees, we glimpsed a large pink building, which later research showed was a new Hindu temple.
We took the opportunity to leave the towpath for a while to walk through the woods by the Denham Quarry Lakes. More birds zipped through the trees around us (we spotted both types of woodpecker during the morning), while others swam on the lakes (ducks, swans, geese, cormorants, coots, moorhens). It was really lovely to see so many different birds. I also spotted some wood ear fungus, which was quite exciting. I didn’t eat it.
Two grey wagtails greeted us as we rejoined the canal (a misnomer - they’re mostly recognisable due to their yellow fronts). A little further on, we took a detour up the Troy Arm (or Troy Cut). This is a short, private branch that was used to service Troy Mill. It looks pretty unnavigable now (at least to anything bigger than a kayak), but the surrounding scenery is beautiful: big quarry lakes, blue sky and presumably later in the year lots of greenery. We stopped at a canalside pub for lunch and even got a window seat.
We might have been full after our meals, but that didn’t stop us a mile or so further on from purchasing cupcakes from two kids who’d set up a canalside cake table. One kid was clearly the business minded partner, with the sales spiel and the cash handling skills. The other one was up a tree.
It was a gorgeous day, with sunshine so bright that I started to wonder if I was getting sunburnt. We frequently saw bands of goldfinches along the canal, with their distinctive red faces. We also saw a goldcrest and (we think) a yellowhammer. It’s funny that we noticed more birds when we were walking in what is essentially the outskirts of London than we do when we’re at home. I guess it’s partly to do with simply being out and about more when we’re on holiday, but I also wonder if it’s to do with the variety of habitats along the canal - part rural, part wood, part urban, part parkland, part lake. This walk also made me think I should try to get better at identifying ducks. We saw several types, but even after a googling session I can still only identify a few: mallard, tufted, mandarin and pochard.
Past Rickmansworth, we left the towpath again, this time to find our Airbnb. We didn’t have to go far - it was only a minute from the water. This time we were greeted by two lovely hosts, homemade blueberry muffins and an energetic little dog. Dan went to the shops to get rolls, cheese and tomatoes for dinner (so much food that day). We ate, had baths and then fell asleep without even getting properly into bed. Such lightweights!
Day 3: Croxley Green to Berkhamsted
Continuing our theme of delicious food, breakfast included fresh blueberries and homemade bread for toast. Yum! We said goodbye to our hosts (well, the one who was awake!) and headed out. There was a thick layer of spiky frost on everything: leaves, grass, ropes coiled on boats. The world was quite white.
We followed a flock of morning commuters, all of whom traipsed over the lock gates rather than going the extra hundred yards to the bridge. Wispy bits of steam rose and danced over the water and, further along, thin sheets of ice covered the canal.
Watford went by without making much of a difference to canal life, although as usual we could tell when we’d left town: passers by started smiling and saying good morning. From Cassiobury Park, the canal and surrounds took on a slightly more manicured appearance.
We passed a number of increasingly pretty bridges until we reached the white bridge, an ornate piece of work that was part of the canal’s payment to the Earl of Essex in order for him to allow the canal to pass through his estate. It’s easy to forget that while today a canal might be seen as a pretty, picturesque addition to the landscape, back in the day it was like having a highway put through the countryside.
We had morning tea in the almost-warm morning sun, sitting on a lock in the middle of a wide green valley between the M25 slip road and the M25. If you count the M25 as the edge of London (which in some ways it is), we were about to head back out of the capital. Near the motorway we spotted a little grebe, ducking and diving all over the canal.
Despite the warm sun, there was still enough frost on the puddles to try and skate. This mainly involved me clutching Dan’s arm and making him pull me along for a couple of steps as I slipped all over the place. We made good time to Hemel Hempstead. Too good, since we arrived at Woody’s Vegetarian Cafe before they started serving lunch. Oh well, second breakfast was good enough for us!
Past the marina, the canal became quaint again - old pubs, locks, a swing bridge - and what with the very muddy path it was easy to forget we were in the middle of a large town. A few clouds started to appear, and a few more. There was rain forecast for the afternoon, so we didn’t amble. Back into the countryside we went, admiring the clear River Bulbourne running parallel. The river is more a small stream now that the canal takes its water. It was full of watercress, and a little further on a sign informed us that there used to be a thriving watercress industry here. We also saw a tiny wood mouse.
We talked about canals and rivers as we walked, planning future adventures. The path disappeared behind us and soon we were in Berkhamsted. The people of Berkhamsted clearly appreciate their canal and have money to spend. The canalside became very well-kept, with pretty historic signs (still retaining the older name of Grand Junction Canal) and several information points. One such board informed us that Berkhamsted “has the dubious honour of being the home of sheep dip!” And with that, the walk was over. We said goodbye to the canal - until next time! - and hopped on a train. It had taken us about 6 hours to walk from the outskirts of Watford to Berkhamsted that day; it took the train 12 minutes to cover that distance in reverse.
Year of sleeping variously: canalside cabin edition
Our second month of sleeping variously. Last time it was Premier Inn!
Canalside Cabin verdict: 72%
If you'd like to start using Airbnb, use this link to sign up and you'll get £14 off your first booking. We'll get credit, too - win/win!
February's microadventure challenge was set by Emily. She chose wildlife spotting. Inspired by Emily’s species-tracking updates, Dan and I thought we’d keep a log of what we’d seen in our courtyard and beyond. As the month progressed, I also started thinking about why we hadn’t seen more wildlife.
In our courtyard
Beyond our courtyard
A couple of friends who have joined the microadventure challenge invited us on the spur of the moment to visit Wildwood in Kent. Since I hadn’t managed to spot a (live) badger, I thought this was likely to be my best chance of seeing one.
We had an interesting but cold afternoon wandering around the park. We saw a sleeping otter, then later on we were lucky enough to watch one up close being fed. They have amazingly powerful little teeth and jaws that can bite clean through a person’s fingers. There were a number of deer species and a couple of elk (they have bizarre looking faces). I enjoyed watching the big, hairy bison - they looked like pleasant creatures (though I wouldn’t like to have one charge at me - they’re massive). Dan was quite taken by the lynx, I was in a flap over the little owl. We saw lots of other animals, including storks, Bennett's wallabies (did you know there are colonies of wallabies living wild in the UK?), Scottish wildcats, harvest mouse, beavers, eagle owls, barn owls, wild boar, wild horses, egrets, ravens (they are so much bigger than crows!) and wolves. We all spent a long time looking at the edible dormice (which are much bigger than I expected and look almost like sugar glider possums), but that’s possibly because they were inside, where it was warmer. Oh, and we saw some snoozing badgers, too: success!
I’m always a bit uncomfortable in places like this. The animals aren’t cooped up in concrete boxes for display like in old-fashioned zoos, but they still don’t have a lot of room to move around in. I know that many of them are rescue animals and are better off here (e.g. Wildwood has just raised enough money to rescue two Bulgarian bears), but I didn’t like seeing the wolves pacing around the fence line of their enclosure, or the raven flying from end to end of its little aviary.
Where is the wildlife?
If declining wildlife, birdlife and biodiversity is something that concerns you, you might also want to get involved with a local conservation group. In the UK you could try: RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, BTO, Butterfly Conservation Trust, CPRE, High Weald Landscape Trust, Hawk and Owl Trust, Bumblebee Conservation Trust or Buglife.
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