Thursday, February 18, 2016

London walking guide Pt. 1: North West

A London walking guide of my favorite areas is something I'd thought about for years, but never quite got around to completing. Recently I was in London, however, and was encouraged by a friend to finally make it. So here we are.

I have split the guide into two parts. Today's part focuses on North West London, perhaps London's most pastoral area, especially in the case of Hampstead and Highgate. London Metropolitan University is based on Holloway Road in North London, so for over a year I lived just down the hill from Highgate in Archway. Just 10 minutes away, Highgate was a popular walking destination for me and I'd often continue west to Hampstead.

This guide also includes Belsize Park, Primrose Hill, St John's Wood, and Maida Vale. I cannot say with certainty that I have completed the entirety of this trip in one day, but certainly similar or even greater distances on other walks. Using Google Earth to measure the trip, it is only about 10 miles/16km, add perhaps a mile or two depending how thoroughly you want to explore the suggested streets. While certainly doable in one day, I would not recommend it for someone not used to walking longer distances, though for Londoners this shouldn't be a concern. In general something these walks will show you is just how compact London really is. Even in nearly suburban Northwest London, you're still only a few miles from Central London. You could go to and from the Thames in the span of a morning run!

First up is the map, and be sure to click on it to open the original size otherwise it'll be difficult to follow. You can then save it onto your phone for reference. 

The guide is accompanied by my photos, in this part all several years old as I did not have time to visit these areas on my recent visit. One thing making this guide has shown me is that I need to complete this walk again myself in the near future, and take many more photos, because I don't have nearly as many as I do of West London, and certainly not up to my recent standard. 

Red are my favorite streets
Blue is the recommended walking route between areas

Although for whatever reason I tended to do my walks North to South, there's no reason this walk couldn't be completed starting in Maida Vale. For the sake of clarity, though, we will start in Highgate.


Highgate is relatively easy to reach, being on the Northern line. I recommend either exiting at Archway and walking up the hill, or from Highgate station walk south along Southwood Lane until you reach Highgate High Street and the village.

Highgate is very charming, the kind of place that even a country dweller might feel at home. Although a wealthy area, it's thankfully free of the ritz and glamour prevalent in a lot of other areas in the city. The most attractive homes, in my opinion, are along the west side of the Grove, some even dating from the 17th century. A particularly nice feature is the gravel which has been retained in front of the homes, heightening the village atmosphere. 

Another attraction in Highgate, just down Swain's Lane, is Highgate Cemetery, easily the most dramatic cemetery I have ever visited.

After having thoroughly explored the back lanes of the village, I recommend heading west along Hampstead Lane until you reach Hampstead Heath, perhaps my favorite park in London. It's a lot more wild than Hyde or Regent's Parks. On a clear day you'll be greeted by a dramatic view of the city, and be sure to check out Kenwood House.

My suggested route through the Heath takes you right by Parliament Hill, another great vantage point from which to see the city. 


Hampstead is another of London's great villages. Much larger than Highgate, there are many more narrow lanes to explore, and a great variety of architecture. I've always said it's the only place in the city I'd like to live if I couldn't afford somewhere in West London. It just oozes charm with cottages, homes, and terraces all arranged in a hodge-podge manner.

Because of the sheer variety, and each street being completely different from another, I recommend exploring Hampstead more thoroughly than the other areas. You won't regret it! Particular favorites of mine include Devonshire Hill, Flask and Well Walk, Church Row and Windmill Hill. 17th Century Fenton House on Hampstead Grove, open to the public, is a worthwhile visit, as is Burgh House on New End Square, though neither is open daily.

These next areas I discovered late into my time in London, and therefore don't have too many photos, unfortunately. Belsize Park in particular I have only visited twice, but on both occasions did not bring my camera. Another reason to get a smaller camera when I upgrade.

Belsize Park

This is probably the smallest area of the ones featured today, and quite often is thrown in with Hampstead. Nonetheless there are some distinct streets which don't resemble too many others in London. Both of the ones I recommend walking through, Belsize Park Gardens and Eton Avenue, have a unique character.

If you're already familiar with Primrose Hill, feel free to take a substantial shortcut by going directly to Avenue Road from Elsworthy Road. 

Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill is the name of both the park and neighborhood. The park, like seemingly all the parks you'll walk through on this walk, has a great view of London stretching before you. Here London looks especially compact, with the London Eye so close you'll think you could get there in minutes. 

It's an eclectic area, known to be popular with artists and actors, and full of colorful Victorian terraces. Chalcot Square, in the photo below, is a highlight.

I now offer two routes. If you'd like to take a break from the urbanity, the southerly route offers a nice stroll along Regent's Canal but avoids much of St John's Wood. The northern route, on the other hand, goes via Avenue Road and Acacia Road, some of the most expensive homes in the city, and through the heart of St John's Wood. 

St John's Wood

St John's Wood was developed quite late by London standards, and much of it at lower densities than was common. Many streets are shockingly suburban considering that one is only a few minutes from Regent's Park. There are however quite a few attractive red and white mansion blocks, and the high street is architecturally very uniform, contributing to the exclusive air. Even though there are no red streets on the map here, it's still a nice area, just not spectacular unless you're a fan of detached villas. 

Maida Vale and Little Venice

We end on a high. Maida Vale is the first area today with the typical West London white terrace housing typology, and it's very elegant for it. Along the canal is Blomfield Road, an area known as Little Venice. This is the most unique part of Maida Vale, and particularly beautiful with the trees along the canal.

I hope you've enjoyed this guide, and more so I hope you will attempt to undertake it in the near future. My recommendation would be to wait for a sunny day: few cities are as transformed by the sun as London. The white terraces glow in an indescribable ethereal way and the contrast against the blue sky is striking. 

Part 2 picks up just south of Maida Vale in Notting Hill, my off and on favorite area of London. Much better photos will be a feature of that guide.