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No, not a policeman, but archetypal rural riverside England as depicted by one of our greatest artists

Manningtree to Dedham and Flatford Mill, Essex/Suffolk border

Flatford Mill pond as depicted by Constable

Flatford Mill pond as depicted in The Hay Wain (click to compare with Constable's painting)

Many years ago, a school trip took me to the National Gallery in London. Amongst the priceless collection was one painting which really captured my imagination: The Hay Wain, a depiction of a long-lost rural scene in the English countryside. The work of John Constable, the setting for The Hay Wain was the mill pond at Flatford Mill, owned by Constable’s father, and not far from where Constable was born and raised in East Bergholt in the Stour Valley. I bought a postcard of Constable’s painting, which remained blu-tacked to my bedroom wall for years after. Every now and then I would study it closely, marvelling at the detail conveyed by the artist: the foliage on the trees, the light captured in the cloudy sky and the rippling reflections in the water of the mill pond. Aware that Constable depicted a real location in his painting, Flatford Mill was somewhere I had in the back of my mind to visit for years. I finally got there on this walk, which also took in the meandering River Stour, the historic village of Dedham, and, as has become the pattern on recent walks, a country church or two. Although it lacks the dramatic views of, say, the South Downs, the gently rolling countryside around and about – part of Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – is stunningly beautiful nonetheless.

Start/Finish: Manningtree Station TM094322

Length: 8½ miles/4 hours

How to get there: Manningtree is on the line between London and Ipswich/Norwich, served by direct NXEA trains from Liverpool Street, taking around an hour either way.

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Giving a warm but windy welcome to Britain’s newest National Park

Polegate to Southease, Sussex

On the South Downs Way

On the South Downs Way

The last time I visited the South Downs, the area was still only designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (I say ‘only’ but being an AONB is impressive in itself of course) and was yet to attain full National Park status. Although the creation of the South Downs National Park was announced in March 2009, and the Authority set up to administer affairs began interim operations in April 2010, it was only in April 2011 that the SDNPA became fully active as Planning Authority for the area. So it seemed appropriate to head back to the chalk hills and steep woodlands to celebrate the culmination of a campaign for National Park status that began in the 1920s. The stunning landscape is defined by the area’s geology: as in the North Downs but in a mirror image, the hills consist of a steep scarp slope facing north and a shallower (but still quite steep!) dip slope facing south towards the sea. In fact the South Downs are part of same geological system as the Chilterns and North Downs, the Weald-Artois anticline that also gives rise to the Weald. The dramatic topography results in steep climbs and stunning views which is why I return again and again. And, of course, for the social history: a plethora of prehistoric remains and some of the most beautiful churches to be found anywhere.

Start: Polegate Station TQ582047

Finish: Southease Station TQ430054

Length: 12¾ miles/6 hours

How to get there: Both stations are on Southern’s network. Polegate is between Lewes and Eastbourne and is around 90 minutes from London; Southease, on the Seaford branch, has an hourly service and requires a change from Lewes to return towards London.

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A great walk through the best green space any city has to offer.

Capital Ring, Section 6 (sort of), Wimbledon to Richmond

Red Deer, Richmond Park

Red Deer, Richmond Park

I have written before about the ongoing attempt some friends and I have been making to walk the Capital Ring in its entirety and in order. But enthusiasm seems to have waned, and, to be honest, having looked at the map, some sections  – where the Ring largely follows uninspiring suburban streets – don’t seem to be worth the effort, so the idea of completion may now have gone out of the window. But one stage that simply cannot be ignored is that which begins in Wimbledon, crossing Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park to end by the Thames in Richmond. Parts of the route are as near to wilderness as you can get in a major city, matching the most attractive rural landscape for beauty. And for me, there is the added bonus of nostalgia as the route passes through places I played as a child, and somewhere I once worked in what might be the best job I ever had.

Start: Wimbledon Station TQ248707

Finish: Richmond Station TQ180751

Length: 8½ miles/5 hours

How to get there: Strictly speaking, this section of the Ring begins at Wimbledon Park tube station, on the District Line, but because it was a more convenient place to meet, we began at Wimbledon. Numerous buses, South West Trains services from Waterloo, the Tube, and Tramlink from Croydon make it a very easy place to reach. Returning from Richmond is just as easy: train (to Clapham Junction & Waterloo, or to north London and Stratford), bus or tube once more.

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A (mostly) riverside walk through beautiful landscape, passing historic towns and villages

Marlow to Henley-on-Thames

Hambleden Lock

Hambleden Lock

Typical. Glorious sunshine and bright blue skies all week while I’m at work, then when I finally get some time off, I awake to a grey, overcast, dismal day. Ah well, never mind. A relatively easy walk this, mostly on level ground along the towpath on one bank of the Thames or the other, following a section of the 184-mile long Thames Path National Trail. The Trail begins at the source of the Thames in the Cotswolds near Cirencester and passes through some of England’s most attractive countryside, unspoilt villages and historic towns, through the heart of London to the Thames Barrier near Greenwich. I only walked a 10 mile stretch on this walk, but it was certainly representative, including stunning riverside scenery and some fascinating historic buildings. Much of the Thames Trail is accessible by public transport; I’m sure I will be back for more.

Start: Marlow Station SU855865

Finish: Henley-on-Thames Station SU763822

Length: 10 miles/4 hours

How to get there: Both start and finish are termini of branch lines off the Great Western main line between London Paddington and Reading. A small number of First Great Western services run direct from London, but by and large a change of train is required: at Maidenhead for the Marlow branch, and at Twyford for the Henley branch. Even so, the journey to/from Paddington is only about a hour or so.

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A surprisingly green walk along a disused transport link in North London

Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, North London

Crouch End Station

The disused platforms at Crouch End Station

The stimulus for this walk came from attending a talk by Oliver Green, curator of the London Transport Museum, held at the Museum of London but one of a series of fascinating (and free!) public lectures arranged by Gresham College. In his talk, Mr Green discussed pre-and post-Second World War developments on the London Underground. One major project was the ‘New Works Programme‘, begun in 1935, which included proposals relating to what is now the Northern Line – the Northern Heights plan.

Back in the 1860s, the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway (EH&LR) had been busy proposing and constructing a line between Finsbury Park and Edgware (with a branch to Muswell Hill), eventually opened on 22nd August 1867 shortly after the EH&LR had been taken over by the Great Northern Railway (GNR). An extension of the Muswell Hill branch to Alexandra Palace was opened by the Muswell Hill & Palace Railway on 24th May 1873, but closed almost immediately when the Palace burnt down only 16 days later; re-opened in 1875, by 1911 this too was under the control of the GNR.

Under the Northern Heights plan, London Transport proposed to take control of and electrify these existing lines, replacing ancient carriages pulled by obsolete steam locomotives with modern, efficient electric tube trains. Also proposed was an extension to the Northern Line from Edgware to Bushey Heath. Construction commenced in the late 1930s only to be halted on the outbreak of war. But when peace returned, post-war austerity and the advent of legislation to create a Green Belt around London meant that the incomplete works were never re-started, despite the extensions being marked as ‘Under Construction’ on tube maps for a number of years. The electrification plans never fully came to fruition, while the early but unfinished stages of construction for the Bushey Heath extension now lie abandoned in fields near the M25. Between Finchley and Edgware, electrification only reached Mill Hill East and the remaining line never reopened to passenger services. It continued to serve goods trains until its final closure on 29th February 1964, leaving only the stubby branch off the Northern Line still in use today. A similar fate befell the line between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace: passenger services ended in 1954, and after a few years of goods-only usage, the line gradually closed in stages such that all traffic ceased by September 1970.

The line of the railway between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace is now a linear park, a green ribbon winding its way stealthily through the suburbs of north London. Plenty has been written about the Northern Heights (and this great video explains the Bushey Heath extension) and many others before me have followed its abandoned trackbed – what is it about disused railway lines that so fascinates so many people?

Start: Finsbury Park Station

Finish: Alexandra Palace Station

Length: 4½ miles/3 hours

How to get there: Finsbury Park is very easy to reach: by tube (Victoria and Piccadilly lines), by bus or by First Capital Connect train services from Kings Cross or Moorgate. The return from Alexandra Palace is by train back to Kings Cross or Moorgate. An Oyster card can be used for both journeys, probably the cheapest option.

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Amazing engineering, both man-made and biomechanical, in the Weald.

Balcombe and Ardingly, West Sussex

Springtime Sussex countryside

Springtime Sussex countryside; in the distance, a Brighton to London train speeds northwards over Ouse Valley Viaduct

A forecast for a sunny day (well, they got it half right) sees me heading down the Brighton line to West Sussex for another wander in the Weald. The purpose of this walk was largely to take a closer look at a superb structure that I have whizzed over many a time, but at 90mph, which doesn’t really allow for a full appreciation. A carefully planned circular route also took in a number of other local landmarks, together with some stunning (if a little damp) countryside. This wasn’t a massively long walk by any means, but the conditions underfoot and the topography – wave after wave of sodden hills and valleys – left me quite exhausted by the end.

Start/Finish: Balcombe Station TQ306302

Length: 12½ miles/7 hours

How to get there: Balcombe station is on the London-Brighton mainline, about 45 minutes from the capital. Strangely, although the station is managed by Southern, only First Capital Connect services stop there unless you travel on a Sunday (as I did) when only Southern serve the station. Trains on any day of the week run at roughly hourly intervals.

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Kite flying

The first signs of spring in the Chilterns

Saunderton to Wendover, Buckinghamshire

Quintessential beech woodland in the Chilterns

Quintessential beech woodland in the Chilterns

North to the Chilterns, to take advantage of early spring sunshine. A favourite area of mine, the chalk hills, downland and beautiful beech woodlands of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are very popular with walkers and riders. Generalising somewhat, the topography gives rise to two distinct landscapes: the south-east facing dip slope is heavily wooded, while the much steeper scarp slope that drops away abruptly to the north-west features valuable but rare chalk downland, a threatened habitat that, as I saw on this walk, is a priority for conservationists. A National Trail, the Ridgeway, follows an ancient trackway along the spine of the ridge for much of its route, starting (or finishing, depending on the direction in which you choose to walk) at Ivinghoe Beacon. I began a little way south of the national trail, climbing through gorgeous dappled woodlands to join the Ridgeway and pass close to a world-famous country residence, before following the line of the scarp slope to my destination; I’m accompanied for much of the way by what must be one of the greatest conservation successes of recent years.

Start: Saunderton Station SU813981

Finish: Wendover Station SP865077

Length: 10¾ miles/5 hours

How to get there: Both stations are less than an hour from London, served by Chiltern Railways services from Marylebone. Each stations lies on an entirely different line however, so there doesn’t seem to be any option other than to buy two single tickets.

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