Hill Walking: A Manifesto for Londoners

I’m sitting in an Ibis Styles hotel on Southwark Bridge in London as I write this. I miss the hills…

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ll admit: I own a tweed blazer and a flat cap, and my idea of ‘smart casual’ is essentially looking like a Geography teacher who discovered Timberland chukka boots. If you were asked to imagine a country bumpkin, I’d forgive you for imagining me.

That said, if you’ve been to London in recent years, you’ll see numerous manicured dullards flocking into Pret on their lunch break dressed roughly the same way, and I find it hard to imagine that they’re all doing it ironically. I also find it hard to imagine that many of them have seen a hill or indeed driven anywhere near one in their polished Land Rovers, which get more use driving little Hugo to his nanny somewhere off the King’s Road.

I’m not suggesting that wearing tweed and a flat cap is cool, or indeed that Londoners are the benchmark for what’s currently on trend. I’ve only been ahead of a trend once and it definitely wasn’t this one. But I’m convinced that if more people took their North Face softshell out of the city and into the hills, they’d fall in love with it like I did. Walking is great. Hill walking is even better.

If you’re a Londoner and you’re reading this, I warn you now: people in the north (it’s outside of the M25, somewhere near Mordor) are kind; they’ll say hello when you pass them, they’ll enquire about your day and anticipate a conversation. I also warn you that the kind of walking we’re discussing here is the kind where you look forward and around you rather than down at a glowing screen while you bump into people and mumble ‘prick’ under your breath at anyone who isn’t inclined to give way to your inattentive power-trundle.

It really is great, you’d like it! I promise. I feel like I’m winning you over already…

Ladybower Reservoir
Winter Walks at Ladybower in the Peak District

I think it’s fair to say that many people have a misconception about our fair and beautiful land in the UK, which is surely symptomatic of the impact of city living. By way of illustration, Ipsos MORI asked the British public what percentage of land in the UK they think is densely built up – the average estimate was 47%. The accurate figure, based on satellite images and highlighted by Alasdair Rae, is 0.1%.

0.1%! Surely that has to be the 2017 Statistic of the Year?! (It is.)

A Land Cover Atlas of the United Kingdom

Even if you don’t live on the doorstep of the Peak District (the first and best National Park*) like I do, that’s an awful lot of green space to explore.

*Author’s opinion.

There are in fact fifteen National Parks in the UK. There’s the aforementioned Peak District, but there’s also the Brecon Beacons (an International Dark Sky Place), Broads, Cairngorms, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Lake District, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, New Forest, Northumberland, North York Moors, Pembrokeshire Coast, Snowdonia, South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

UK National Parks
Just look at it: it’s riddled with the buggers!

I assure you, there are so many reasons for you to get outside and visit whichever is closest to you. For one, there are the views. Once, twice or three times a year, I like to cheat on the Peak District and head for my mistress, the Brecon Beacons. She’s beautiful and she’s an International Dark Sky Place. I don’t care how flashy the top of the Shard is, it doesn’t do this:

The Brecon Beacons showing off.

Though I go there less frequently, my bit on the side of the UK, the Lake District, is stunning. It’s dramatic and imposing – you’re all at once reminded of history, of generations working the land, of the millions of people who walked where you stand. It’s breathtaking.

One of the panoramic views from Scafell Pike in the Lake District.

The hills in the picture above can’t have escaped your attention, which leads me to the next reason to get outside – it’s bloody good exercise. Sure, you could pay some/all of the money to sweat in a gym with other people at the weekend before you get into your Land Rover to pick up Hugo from junior squash lessons, but walking up those hills will tone your legs up just as well as any Boris Bike. The last walk we did in the Peaks burned just over 1,400 calories in less than 3.5 hours, which is probably about half a Nando’s or something. All this while breathing fresh air that doesn’t feel like soup going into your lungs! What a time to be alive.

There’s more good news for you folks spending £2,000pcm for studio flat: hill walking is free. Thanks to around 400 enterprising and determined locals who, in 1932 in an act that became known as The Kinder Mass Trespass, decided that they’d actually quite like to walk across the acres of moorland that had been denied to them throughout their lives, landowners are now obliged to allow walkers to roam the hills for free. With the exception of some walking boots and a waterproof coat (that really expensive ski jacket you bought to go to Pret in is probably fine), you can get outside to your heart’s content. I’d also recommend waterproof over-trousers as the weather can change in a heartbeat and break your phone. There’s no such thing as bad weather in the UK National Parks, only bad clothing.

Please though, and this is important: please go prepared. The weather really can change in an instant. Paths get slippy and muddy. The views are impressive because some of those are genuinely stomach-churning drops. Make sure you know how to read a map and have a compass, have enough water, and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be home (you might not get a phone signal while you’re up there). Know how to contact Mountain Rescue if the worst should happen: dial 999 or 112, ask for the Police, then ask for Mountain Rescue.

And the final two reasons I think it’s great: it’s a fantastic way to spend a day with your mates that won’t leave you incapable of crawling out of bed in the morning and using Uber Eats to get a McDonald’s delivered by some poor chap on a moped who has to see you in vomit-stained pants at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon. Hill walking can be highly social. It can also be entirely solitary. It can be whatever you want it to be, and you’ll love it. If you have a competitive streak, you can try hill running instead (only for people who are slightly bonkers), or maybe take part in the Three Peaks Challenge, where you’ll walk 23 miles, ascend 3,064 metres and drive 462 miles within 24 hours.

And that other reason? Mental health. But that, my city-slicker pals, is for next time. There’s far too much to say about how hill walking can improve your peace of mind for this post…



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