I have been training for the 2020 Hackney Half since autumn 2019, and in a few weeks it might actually happen on September 26th 2021. This means that I have been hitting pavements for two years, most of which happened during a plague. Avoiding public transport in that time, I have found routes around my neighbourhood and been sharpening, refining and honing – not my running – but my geography. I may not be faster, I may not be better, I am definitely more chafed, but if you want a route anywhere from 5km – 20km that finishes 50m from my front door, I’m your girl.
Here are some of my favourites.
Different routes serve different purposes. If, for example, I want to go fast(ish), I might head down to somewhere like Barbican. Yes, there are stairs and ramps on the route, but you can avoid them with a bit of cunning and just do laps around the highwalk, without having to worry about traffic lights, cars or pedestrians. It is a haven of brutal, aspirational post-war urban space and surprising quiet in the heart of the city, and has yet to lose its magic for me.
For long runs, the canals and the river are wonderful, but you have to choose your time and route carefully. Head out too late on a weekend morning, and the narrow towpaths around Camden will slow you to a crawl, or you’ll be weaving wildly around people visiting the farmer’s market at Victoria Park. Buggies and annoyed cyclists compete for the limited space by the water in a less than chivalrous way, although on some long runs you can at least take this as an excuse to slow down to a walk for a few meters and rest your legs – oh no, what a shame. A history of boom and bust is written in the warehouses and apartment blocks that line the water, in the graffiti and the cafes, the changing skyline as you move through boroughs and in a way, through time.
On those days when your legs are really sore doing laps of Victoria Park is a nice option, with the soft paths through grass taking you on a long, lazy loop through greenery and underneath giant plane trees. From there you can also head into Stratford and Hackney Marshes, which stretch in this long green sweep north – or you can head south towards Limehouse and the river. I usually do the latter, although there is a fascinating run you can do along another arm of canal past Three Mills Island and some preserved industrial history, which is well worth a pause on your trip.
At Limehouse the canal meets the river, and the sight of the fat rolling Thames is always a lift for the soul. At the height of lockdown the water was still and blue, the silt less disturbed by passing water traffic, and as the tide comes in you can hear the slurping and sucking of the thick mud against embankment walls.
Heading east takes you towards Greenwich, and is the route I do on those occasions now when I want to run my longest possible distances. It’s a path that takes you through Canary Wharf – always an eerie experience to pound deserted pavements through walls of skyscraper on a weekend morning – then over the park at Mudchute and under the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to Cutty Sark. Emerging from the tunnel you come out into vibrant human life and noise, the smell of the food market and usually the sound of buskers – a strange shift from the cold dampness beneath the river.
On most runs, however, I tend to turn west immediately at Limehouse and head along the north bank of the river through Wapping towards Tower Bridge. Here again you’re most likely to be slowed by people unless it’s very early – oh no, what a shame, an enforced walking break – as there are always crowds around London Bridge or the Tower of London. But it’s also where I’ve accidentally stumbled on royal gun salutes and global circumnavigators coming home, and the whole path is a mixture of history, modernism, water and cobble stone. From here you can keep going west – I favour the south bank despite its crowds, as being more interesting – or you can cut north towards home through the usually empty City of London and its glass monoliths built on Roman walls.
However, in between all this architecture and history, sometimes a girl just needs some greenery. Victoria Park is a lifesaver, and Regents Park is also within my range although, for my money, is less wonderful than its eastern neighbour, being heavily given over to open spaces and sports. I can also make it to Hyde Park, which is a wonderful place to run through as you can really criss-cross across it for a fabulously green and varied experience – but alas, by the time I’ve got to Hyde Park I’m usually having to turn around, as it’s at the maximum of my long-running radius, and the route to and from, defined largely by Oxford Street, Fitzrovia and Soho, it isn’t green at all.
The only other greenery really within my range are Clissold Park, Highbury Fields and Finsbury Park. I grew up near Clissold Park, and as a child thought it was enormous. Now I am bigger than three foot tall, that illusion has somewhat faded, but it’s still a nice place to do a lap round. The opening of the nature reserve in the old reservoirs to the north made heading that way even more appealing, and I loved doing a lap of the paths round the reed beds and along the edge of the heron-prowled water – until signs went up saying that runners were meant to walk. Which… ugh… I could spend a whole paragraph here on how unimpressed I was by that declaration….
To the west, Highbury Fields is lovely and for a few weeks in 2019 I would go there to join a very small group of other women lead by a coach from This Girl Can to do laps of it. But it is still pretty small, and there is a hidden incline which you wouldn’t necessarily notice as a walker, but which as a runner – let alone a cyclist – you suddenly realise is a flipping mountain.
Finsbury Park is the next patch of greenery within that triangle, and the biggest. But more wonderful than the park itself, is the Parkland Walk.
Once upon a time, there was a plan to have a railway line from Finsbury Park to Highgate, and the path was cleared and platforms built. However that plan faded and now instead there is a wide path heading through abandoned stations, entirely shrouded in gorgeous, luscious green, that plods its way north west towards Highgate in a thin haven of nature. It is beautiful, an absolute joy to run – and it is secretly really quite uphill.
It’s a subtle uphill at first. The kind of uphill that a train would be able to pull off easily enough. But after a few kilometres, you’re feeling it, and when you finally break out of the path at Highgate and look down the main road over your shoulder, a burst of “oh goodness, I’ve climbed!” runs through your body.
Now at this point, you have some choices. You can go back the way you came; you can continue north and then northeast along the second part of the Park Walk, or you can turn west towards Hampstead.
If you turn northeast, then after only a few hundred metres you hit Highgate Wood, a square of woodland encased by the city that within a few steps makes you feel as if you’ve entered another world. The air is cool, the path is soft with fallen leaves, and though you absolutely have to swerve to avoid dog walkers, the sheer peaceful incongruity of it is entirely worth it. Exit the woods and you can slip into another of London’s hidden trails of encased greenery to follow the northern branch of the Parkland Walk towards Ally Pally. Do you keep on climbing? Oh yes you keep on climbing and goodness, by the time you actually see the bizarre, wonderful face of Alexandra Palace itself looking down across London from on top her hill, you know you’ve done some up. But with the city beneath you, trees and long swoops of overgrown grass all around, you hopefully don’t care.
If your legs are still feeling ok, at this point you can cut down to Wood Green – and what a lot of down suddenly starts happening – and follow the hidden backstreet alley ways through suburban London history all the way back to Finsbury Park, tucked away from Green Lanes and the roar of traffic for a residential romp back to where your climbing really started.
If however you turned west at Highgate, then other hills await you. A deceptive bit of down leads to a cruel stretch of up as you cut through some of the poshest streets of London towards Hampstead Heath. The houses themselves vary from the absurd to the pretty mundane, but the location – the location! The view! Anyway. Then a swoop of down takes you through Waterlow Park, as you struggle to control your legs on the steep curve past tennis courts and flower beds and thick, lush lawns. On the other side you pelt past Highgate Cemetery, a huge overgrown stretch of life and death tucked behind railings and walls, until you hit Hampstead Heath.
The heath is wonderful, and you only have to go a few metres into it to feel like you’ve left the city altogether and are pounding through countryside. The heath is also bumpy. Up and down you bounce through overgrown grass and beneath huge tunnels of thick-leafed trees, until eventually by a miracle of navigation you curl round the western ponds and out the other side, heading towards Tufnell Park and Primrose Hill. Now the down begins in earnest, and frankly after all that up, you’re here for it. The sluggish pace you had in your legs for the slow climbs and the steep climbs now gives way to pavement-pounding as you swerve past white-washed villas and expensive coffee shops to Primrose Hill, there there’s one last, very short climb up to the top for one of the most famous views in London.
Do you stop to appreciate it? Hell yes. Not just because your legs are like “what the hell is even happening?!” but because you are a connoisseur having an experience, not some mere slave to your watch damnit. From here there’s another burst of very steep downhill indeed, until you hit the canal and Regent’s Park just a few short minutes away. Finally – flat. Although after all that up and down, flat feels a bit weird, frankly.
At this point, I personally am going east. And there’s a fair bit of east to go, either following the canal for the architectural and cultural mix it always brings, past the redevelopment of designer shops and restaurants at Granary Square and on; or I’ll go through Regents Park itself and see if I can see anything interesting through the hedge that surrounds London Zoo, before turning east through Bloomsbury whose main appeal, not gonna lie, is the cookie shop. Either way, eventually – home! At any distance over 15km, home means I need to immediately take on fluids and electrolytes to avoid spending the rest of the day with essentially a running hangover. I have tried electrolyte powders but my goodness they’re horrid – just so unpleasant – so these days instead I rely on a combination of the true sporting goods of excellence towit bananas and Monster Munch. (Pickled onion flavour, of course. I’m not a barbarian.)
There are some routes which for me will require a bit of walking or, in recent months with great caution, public transport at the end to get me home. At the end of the half marathon runs that take me through Greenwich I will stop and eat food around Tower Bridge, before walking home after with my very supportive partner. In winter that’s less easy to do – though I warm up fast enough once running, the second I stop my body temperature plunges. Thankfully this winter – 2021 – I am going to not be signed up for a spring half marathon for the first time in two years, and thus plan on spending it doing shorter runs that can absolutely, 100% finish back at the flat with a hot shower and cuppa tea ready to go. Because while all the running has been wonderful and I love my routes across the city, there are also other, more civilized ways to have an adventure. I’m told.