Kate Lewis
Written by Kate Lewis
Published on 3rd August 2020
8 min read
As the UK continues to tentatively step out to a new normal, responsible adventure closer to home is a great option, so what better reason to explore (and be so grateful for) all the outdoor options close to, and in our capital city.

Go plogging on a plastic pick up pilgrimage 

Next time you dig out your trainers for a run, take a pair of gloves, bag and litter picker with you to become a plogger, which combines jogging with a rubbish pick up. Cigarette butts make up more than a third of all ground litter, with over 226 million chucked on the ground every year. Other culprits include food packaging and plastic bottles. The concept of plogging originated in Sweden (the ‘pl’ part of the name comes from ‘plocka’ which is Swedish for ‘to pick’) but has spread rapidly through other countries. Plogging inevitably means a slower overall run, but a more effective workout for the whole body from reaching into awkward nooks and crannies to retrieve offending items as well as lugging your haul of waste back to the where it should be—the bin. 

Where to go 

Spectacular routes within a hop and jump of London include The Old Way, one of Britain’s greatest pilgrimage routes running from Southampton to Canterbury and the 10-mile linear Chess Valley Walk in the Chilterns. The Old Way has several key waypoints, most with access to mainline stations. The Chess Valley Walk begins in Rickmansworth and ends in Chesham—both have train stations. If you fancy an organised adventure head to Plogolution, who arrange regular plogs around the country, or to seek out your own trail, look to the LDWA, which has all long-distance paths listed. 

 

Go slow on a paddle and pick up

A paddle through our waterways, clearing up discarded waste along the way is a watery alternative to plogging. Lizzie Carr increased SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) popularity when she paddle boarded the entire 400-mile length of England’s waterways unsupported in 2016, monitoring plastic pollution and raising awareness of the plastic problem along the way. Plastic bottles are the top criminals clogging our canals and rivers, followed closely behind by crisp packets and cigarette butts. The Canal and River Trust have guidance for beginner paddleboarders. The easiest way to get started is through a club or event, but if you have your own board and licence, the waterways are yours.  

Where to go 

Head to Plastic Patrol for a list of clean-up events. Active 360 also hosts events, tours and courses specifically around London. Ready to go solo? The River Thames near Richmond, heading southwest out of London is the obvious spot to begin. Outside of London try the River Arun in Sussex (Littlehampton or Arundel stations), the River Cam in Cambridge, the River Medway in Kent (Tonbridge station), River Chelmer in Essex (Chelmsford station), River Lee in Hertford, the Grand Union Canal which stretches from London to Birmingham or the Kennet and Avon Canal from Reading heading westwards.

Paddle boarding on the River Thames

Photo: Active 360

Learn how to navigate using nature 

Ditch google maps. Hell, ditch the OS map (or at least store it deep in your rucksack), and learn to find your way using only nature. Natural navigation offers a deeper connection with nature and the landscapes around us, and a slower, more mindful adventure. Tristan Gooley is the master of this. He shows how the sun, moon, stars, wind, trees, plants, flowers, birds, water and even spiders and horses can pinpoint direction. Tristan offers guided walks and courses and has written many guidebooks on how to reconnect with the natural world as a map. 

Where to go 

There’s no shortage of beautiful areas close to London to have a go at navigating naturally. Well-known spots include the ancient Ashdown Forest and the rolling green hills of the London's closest national park The South Downs in Sussex, the idyllic High Weald in Kent, and Dedham Vale in Essex. For Ashdown Forest take a train to East Grinstead, then take a bus.  There are many stations that are close to the South Downs including Winchester, Lewes, Hassocks and Eastbourne. Kent’s High Weald is accessed at Eridge station and Dedham Vale is reached via Manningtree.


Find a wild swimming spot

The late environmentalist Roger Deakin founded the wild swimming movement and it has seen a resurgence of interest in recent times. Much has also been documented on the benefits of outdoor swimming for good mental health.  The cold water is invigorating, it alerts all the senses yet is meditative—it can give you that ever-elusive ‘flow’, where the mind concentrates solely on the present and the breath. Add soothing natural surroundings and a feeling of being cocooned by the silky water and you have the ingredients for a hugely positive elemental experience. 

Where to go 

Not even outside of the M25 brings you to the River Colne near Ricksmansworth in Hertfordshire. The River Stour in Manningtree, east of London, is a bucolic spot, with Constable Country and Dedham Vale on the doorstep for an additional ramble. Novice wild swimmers should head south to pretty Shalford, near Guildford, for the River Tillingbourne. The water heads north to join up with the peaceful Wey Navigation. West, try the stretch of the Thames from Goring and Streatley to Cholsey in Berkshire. All have train stations on the doorstep. The excellent book Wild Swimming Walks also details many walks and swims within a short distance of London or try The Swimmer for lakes near to London. Alternatively, open up a map, find your nearest body of water and head there and check to see if you can take a dip, but never swim alone.


Watch the moon and the stars 

Download a stargazing app onto your phone and pack an astronomy map and set off on a nocturnal hike for a view with a difference. Any clear night is good, but for the best chance of seeing a starry sky, go during the new moon phase because the skies will be darker. Bed down in a bivvy bag for full appreciation. Alternatively, take a wander without a torch during a clear night with a full moon for a strange, new view of a familiar landscape solely lit by moonlight. A night time walk encourages a more mindful experience, with time to slow down, reflect and quieten. The paths will have no people, but expect plenty of rustlings and squeaks from the wildlife that comes alive at night time. 

Where to go 

The South Downs National Park was awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2016, so is the obvious place to start for stargazing. Top spots include Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon, Birling Gap and Old Winchester Hill. There are many stations in Sussex with access to the South Downs. Other good stargazing locations close to London include the High Weald in Kent (train to Eridge) and the North Wessex Downs (try Hungerford station). For full-moon walking start close to home or on a trail you are very familiar with. Organised moon walks also often take place if you do not feel comfortable going solo.

Wild swimming spot

Get on your bike for the weekend

Bikepacking combines mountain biking with camping and is a wonderful adventurous way to get off fume-choked busy roads and onto quieter tracks and cycleways for longer rides. Travelling by bike with kit also gives the thrill of speed plus a greater range to explore than on foot. 

Where to go 

The best cycle path close to London runs along the banks of the Thames from Putney out past Richmond and beyond to Weybridge. If you want to head out of London first, try the traffic-free South Downs Way, North Downs Way or Viking Coastal Trail in Kent. For a truly bonkers but brilliant cycle sign up to the Dunwich Dynamo, an overnight bike ride from Hackney to Dunwich in Suffolk. 

Sustrans have a map of all the long-distance cycle routes in the UK if you want to plan your own route.


Explore an island

Finding your way to an island and exploring its perimeter on foot and shores by kayak is one of the most independent adventurous activities you can do close to London. Most islands close to London are managed by either the National Trust or Wildlife Trusts, so a visit is also supporting these vital charities too. Windswept clifftops, uncharted lands and craggy outposts are more likely to be found further from the capital but for bleak mudflats, stunning coastal wildlife and the greatest probability of experiencing wilderness near to the capital, head to the coast and one of our 6,289 islands. The trouble will be which one to choose first. 

Where to go 

Essex is full of remote and interesting islands. 6000-acre Foulness is the largest of the much-maligned county’s islands. This wild and flat landscape is only home to 160 people, but also the UK’s second-largest colony of avocets plus other wading birds and seals. It’s owned by the MOD, so watch out for missiles. Foulness lies a boat ride away from kiss-me-quick Southend and its mainline station. It is possible to walk across Maplin Sands on the Broomway to the island, but the tide comes in quickly so go with a knowledgeable guide if you want to attempt this. Mersea Island is another Essex gem. You’ll need to hire a taxi to get from Colchester Town station to the crossing. It has a completely different feel to forgotten Foulness, with A-star seafood shacks, weatherboard weekend cottages, colourful beach huts and a less perilous crossing on the Strood back to the mainland. Monkey Beach is the island’s best offering of sand, with creeks, marshland and boardwalks to explore. Osea Island, on the Blackwater Estuary, is the true Robinson Crusoe experience. Its perimeter is only 4.5 miles long, with upmarket clapboard cottages to hire, peaceful beaches, and 400 acres of saltmarsh and meadows. Head to Witham station before taking a taxi to the crossing. 

 

Take part in a citizen science project on a hike

Log what plants and wildlife are spotted on a ramble to contribute to some of the country’s important wildlife studies. Swot up on butterflies for The Big Butterfly Count which officially runs from 17th July to 9th August. Butterflies are an indicator species which means that the more there are, the healthier the environment, so understanding how well they are doing helps to assess the health of the natural world. Other species to monitor include elm trees, bumblebees, hedgehogs, coastal wildlife and bats. Even if you don’t officially register sightings, a ramble is given more depth by listening out for and spotting local wildlife. 

Where to go 

Beautiful wildlife and flower-filled trails near London include the Seven Sisters coastal path, panoramic Wolstonbury Hill in Sussex and Hertfordshire’s ancient Ashridge Estate. The Seven Sisters Country Park is easily reached by bus from Brighton or Eastbourne. The nearest station to Wolstonbury Hill is Hassocks, 1.2 miles away. Ashridge Estate is a pleasant 1.75-mile walk from Tring station. For lesser-known spots, head to one of the Home Counties Wildlife Trusts nature reserves.

Colourful huts at Mersea Island and Osea Island, Essex

Find a wild (or slightly wild) campsite

Though it’s technically illegal in England (except for Dartmoor), wild camping is a fantastic way to have a microadventure close to London. No crowds, no noise, simplicity, freedom to move, closer to nature and, hopefully, great views. For responsible wild camping, choose a spot that is remote, and arrive late and leave early. Travel as light as you can and leave no trace. 

Where to go 

The beauty of wild camping is that you can camp (responsibly) pretty much anywhere you see fit, and part of the adventure will be working out how to get there. Alastair Humphreys has a detailed blog post on how to find good wild camping spots. Spots of particular remote beauty that work well for a night of wild camping include Stone Point on Walton on the Naze, Broxbourne Woods, near to Ermine Street, Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns, Pegsdon Hill in Bedfordshire, the lost village of Northeye or Beacons Hill in Sussex and Walland Marsh in Kent. If you don’t fancy breaking the law, there are many campsites that offer a wilder camp experience such as Lee Valley Almost WildLittle Ropers Camping in Suffolk and Beech Estate in Sussex. Alternatively, stay somewhere a little more unusual such as one of The National Trust’s bunkhouses or Canopy and Stars’ boutique shepherd’s huts. 


Find adventure on the doorstep

Don’t fancy trekking past the rim of the M25? Offbeat adventure can easily be found in London. Experiences just need to be seen or done differently. Just don’t tell anyone else.  

Where to go 

London has a network of hidden rivers including the Fleet, Effra, Wandle and Tyburn that make a fascinating hike with a difference. The Wandle, which runs from Croydon to the Thames at Wandsworth, is the easiest to follow as there is a waymarked trail. The capital’s original highway, The Thames, also has much to offer adventurous souls. Hire a unique skiff, a large wooden rowing boat that doubles as a tent, to explore and sleep out one weekend along the river, take to the waterways at night on a kayak or discover the secrets of the river through mudlarking. Our capital also has some intriguing islands to hop onto including Wilderness Island in South London, a tiny nature reserve and Crane Park island, a 30-acre wildlife haven, just outside Twickenham. For new experiences in familiar places, there’s kitebuggying in Richmond Park, orienteering in Hampstead Heath, and wild swimming in Hampstead ponds or Beckenham Palace Park, which has recently opened to swimmers.

Hampstead Heath Ponds

Head for the coastline

There is something deeply connecting about being next to the sea, whether it is wild and crashing waves or soothing, gently-lapping waters. For further immersion into the coastal environment, try a meditative beachcombing walk, wild seafood forage or test your nerve coasteering. Head into the water to kayak, kitesurf, swim or surf. For a more unusual experience, stay overnight in a lighthouse. 

Where to go 

Beautiful but slightly wilder beaches close to London, unfortunately, do take a little more effort to reach by public transport, but that’s all part of the fun. Top spots include Botany Bay in Kent (Broadstairs station then change onto the branch line to Friends Corner or Yardhurst Gardens) and East Head, West Wittering (Chichester station then take a bus). For a bleaker stretch of coastline try Dungeness in Kent (Appledore or Rye station then a bus) and Beaumont Quay in Essex (Thorpe-le-Soken station then a bus). Camber Sands (train to Rye then a bus) and Lancing Beach in Sussex (train to Lancing) are excellent for kitesurfing. For surfing, Littlehampton, Brighton, Broadstairs and Eastbourne (all have stations) are your best chances of catching some waves. 


Get off the beaten track

It’s pretty difficult to find remote spots in the congested southeast, but there are a few locations which do feel a little more end-of-the-world than most. With pressure on the region’s most well-known beauty spots to keep numbers lower than normal, this is the perfect opportunity to venture sideways to corners that are lesser-known. Being in a place of peace surrounded by nature but away from the crowds helps to decrease anxiety and depression, and is the perfect tonic for a weary soul. 

Where to go 

Tiny Ray Island Nature Reserve in Essex is an evocative saltmarsh filled with birdlife and big skies. Access to the reserve is by boat only, so bring a book and binoculars for an atmospheric day out. To get to Ray Island, take a train to Colchester, a bus to Mersea Island, then a boat to Ray Island. 3,200-acre Elmley National Nature Reserve is the only nature reserve in the UK where it is legal to stay overnight. It offers beautiful solar-powered shepherds huts situated in true wilderness with vast views and crammed packed with birdlife, yet lies only an hour away from London in Swale on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. 

Camber Sands, East Sussex

Photos: Chris Mitchell and Dorin Vancea