Car-free in the capital

Tips for enjoying London Car Free Day

September 2019 - 

Newcomers to London take the Tube everywhere. When I first moved here, you could catch me getting on at Embankment to reach Charing Cross – at least doubling what is a five-minute walk above ground. But when, God bless ‘em, the TFL workers went on strike, I found a route to the office via Hyde Park, put my A to Z in my pocket and never looked back.

When you want to take in the life of the city, going by foot is best. By walking, you come across serendipity; street performers jostle with shoppers, the songs of buskers compete with the noise of the traffic, commuters huff past tourists blocking the way, runners weave through couples meandering along the riverside, kids play while after-work drinkers spill out onto the dusty streets. By walking, you can take all of this in.

Thames Path (c) Donald Judge

On foot, you’re there to see how London mixes old and new without rhyme or reason. Cardinal Wharf, Sir Christopher Wren’s Bankside home, now gazes across the river at St Paul’s Cathedral via the steel-strung (and no longer wobbly) Millennium Bridge. Postcard-perfect Georgian streets in the East End lie just around the corner from glass-edificed, statement-making office blocks. You might stumble on hidden gems like the Lawn Bowls club in Finsbury Circus, or the fantastic children’s play area at Coram’s Field in Bloomsbury.

This collision of new and old, and the sheer randomness of what you can encounter in London, is what people miss if they never explore on foot. And this year’s inaugural London Car Free Day, on September 22, is the perfect time to do so. To get you started, here are some of my favourite car-free London walks.

Parks, palaces and Portobello Road

This lovely walk takes in some of my favourite green spaces in the city – Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’ Park – and starting in Ladbroke Grove, there’s the opportunity to browse Portobello Market and stop for brunch. On your way, you come past Buckingham Palace for the essential London tourist selfie, and you could increase the day’s culture by popping into the National Gallery or National Portrait Gallery as you pass by Trafalgar Square. Perfect! 

Portobello market (c) parameters75

Osterley Park to Brentford

If you’re craving the feel of the countryside, this walk in Osterley Park could be just the trick, combining greenery and scenery with an impressive neo-classical mansion. It’s not arduous, but I’m sure tea and scones in the National Trust café are still justified.

Twickenham to Putney

Strolling by the Thames is the ideal way to spend a lazy afternoon. This walk is a treat for wildlife spotters, as it passes through the Leg of Mutton nature reserve and close to the vast London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Bring your binoculars if you’ve got time for a detour.

A walk through Epping Forest

If you fancy taking the Tube to an extensive ancient woodland rich in history, where royals once hunted for deer, then Epping Forest is just the ticket. The forest’s vast pollarded trees have created a unique ecosystem which has protected conservation status – and it’s surprisingly accessible from the city. This walk is an excellent introduction to a magical place. 

The end of the line…but worth it

Which is the best park in London? You may already know the Greenwich, Richmond and St James, but at the most northerly point of the Piccadilly line lies the intriguing Trent Country Park, beloved by locals and ignored by pretty much everyone else (apart from a few keen Go Apers). Here, you can spot Muntjac deer, tiny frogs and a good variety of butterflies, and it also boasts plenty for younger visitors to do: there are two small playgrounds, a river for welly-walking and a wildlife hospital (which charges a small fee). If you're feeling brave, you can also visit the mysterious Camlet Moat. But beware ... it’s haunted.

Written by two 'genuine' Cockneys, Ailis Kane and Penny Woods

Epping Forest at sunset. (c) martin_vmorris