This free walk has been written by Gavin, who is a freelance writer and the creator of Sketches in Travel, a travel and lifestyle blog that looks to inspire and entertain its readers to explore destinations such as London. He is available for other writing work, contact him via email.
‘Set yourself some challenges’, I said to myself. ‘Push the boundaries a little,’ ‘try to explore London without spending much money.’
All thoughts that were going through my mind as I sat contemplating what I would do. I wanted to set myself some challenges to write about, just wasn’t sure what. Jump forward a day and I’m stood outside Baker Street tube station on a cloudy August Saturday morning. I’ve decided upon some walking challenges around London. Why? I want to get a better feel for this city that I love. To try and understand it, to get too its very heart, see what makes it tick, meet some of the characters, and work out what really attracts people to visit this well known capital city.
For the first challenge I plumped for walking the Circle Line (the yellow line on the tube map), visiting each station on its route. No maps, just following the information boards outside each station and taking in my surroundings.
It’s 17 miles (27km) in distance, has 36 stations, covers many of the key areas of London, and if things got tough I could always bail out at the next station. I chose Baker Street as my starting point, as its the first station I come to when heading into London that connects to the Circle Line, you can start at any of the others of course. Just get a tube map and mark your starting point.
Before the adventure though, some history.
A Brief History of the Circle Line
The Circle Line was constructed in 1863 and completed i.e. as a circular line in 1884. It didn’t become a circular line in its own entirety on the tube map though until 1949. It’s connects all the main railway termini coming into the capital, (Kings Cross, Euston, Liverpool Street, Cannon Street, Blackfriars and Paddington). Really it’s the heartbeat of the tube system, the one line that allows access to all others. So what better line to walk around? All 17 miles of it! Here then is our story.
Stage 1: Baker Street to South Kensington
Arriving at Baker Street you’re met by the hordes of tourists, heading this way and that. It’s the tube stop for London Zoo, Regents Park and a number of other key visitor attractions such as Madame Tussauds. So its inevitable that you’ll have to fight your way through the crowds to begin with. Once negotiated the first decision is to decide which way to go, well it is the Circle Line walk! Head off in the direction of Euston Station and the city? Or head towards Paddington? For some reason heading right, as you stand outside the main entrance just seems the most obvious way to go, that’s the Paddington route. So decision made, it was time to go, stop watch turned on and the first photo taken.
Heading off down Marylebone Road, you’re struck by how quickly the tourist crowds disappear. They are all headed in the other direction of course. There’s not much to see really other than an expensive hotel and apartments that probably cost a fortune. They seem to get more exclusive the closer you edge (pardon the pun) towards Edgware Road. As you stroll by these expensive homes you do ponder ‘I wonder how much they cost?’
That thought is elevated further when you’ve headed deeper into the walk, past the redeveloping Paddington Station to be precise and into the district of Bayswater. White washed houses, stretching for as far as the eye can see down continental looking boulevards, the odd luxury car parked outside. It’s a beautiful part of the city. It was in this area that I got lost! Well I’m not using a map!
Outside each station and dotted around London, mainly close to bus stops, you’ll find map boards, showing you key features and street names. Usually within a 5 mile radius. They are a blessing and incredibly useful, not just for the walk but in general. So even if your English isn’t quite up to scratch you’ll be able to find your way using these maps. After a little re-adjustment, and a few enquires to passing locals, we were back on track.
At one stage, as we were headed towards South Kensington, we bumped into an artist, painting a street scene outside on the pavement (see below). I was a bit nosey and looked at the work, really liking it and thought I’d ask for a picture. He obliged happily. Chatting to him, he was painting a commission for the local Indian Restaurant across the road. The painting was lovely but I couldn’t take my eyes off his teeth, (he didn’t have many!) Sorry if you read this!
It brought home to me that it’s the people that make a city, going about their business, keeping everything moving, not the attractions (although they help of course). Although I never asked for his name, I felt reassured that London still has its characters. It was wonderful just to have a little chat, and I headed off with a slight spring in my step. So if you’re out and about around the Gloucester Road region then have a look out for the toothless painter, make sure you say hello and wish him well.
South Kensington is the district for some of London’s greatest museums. We’ve covered many of them here on Sketches, you’re spoilt for choice. National History Museum, Science Museum and V&A (Victoria and Albert) to name a few. If time isn’t an issue, then please pop in. They’re free and well worth a look. I didn’t have time, I was already behind on my schedule, so I bid the museums a fond farewell.
As you walk around be sure to look out for all manner of things. Sculptures, the old red telephone boxes, courtyards, old style pubs and much more. It’s what makes the walk fun, finding these little hidden treasures. So we’ve reached the end of the first stage. So you could in theory stop there if you wanted, but we’re doing it all and the next stage is the long trudge, passing many of the iconic attractions of London towards the city, the business district of the capital.
Stage 2: South Kensington to Tower Hill
Chelsea is somewhere I’ve not been to before, not consciously anyway. I felt very undressed, not fashionable. Shorts and t-shirts are perhaps not the best attire for this area of the city. I was behind my schedule at this point, and hot and sweaty! Not a good combination in such an exclusive district. Close to Sloane Square, outside the Sacchi Gallery in fact was a food market. I imagine its there every weekend? Foods and condiments from all places. There really is a food revolution going on in the UK. Locally made produce, chocolate, beers, you name it, the UK seems to be able to produce it. So if you’re in London then try and seek out the food markets, you’ll be surprised at just how good our food can be, promise. I took a quick look around, could have spent a fortune. So be warned.
After Victoria Station (another that is being re-developed), you head into central tourist district. Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, and of course the river bank of the Thames and the London Eye and the South Bank. It’s noticeable that everyone is taking exactly the same picture from the same angle, so I tried to do something a little different. Probably failing? I took a moment or two to admire these wonderful buildings, and felt proud that this is one reason why people visit. We really are quite lucky to have such famous landmarks. The stations on this section are all along the river, so although it is a long walk, its also the most beautiful part. So take your time and enjoy.
I love it here, although the South Bank is where all the action really takes place, across on the other bank. There is still plenty to take in on the North side of the river. Walking along the Embankment, you pass Universities, official Government buildings, Somerset House and more reconstructed railway stations. You pass the monument to the Great Fire of London, and then all of a sudden The Tower of London comes into view and Tower Bridge. Canary Wharf in the distance. You’re back with the tourist masses once more, you’re also in the heart of the City of London. Stage 2 complete, one to go.
Stage 3: Tower Hill to Baker Street
It’s a Saturday and once you say goodbye to the crowds at Tower Hill you head into the City of London. Aldgate, Liverpool Street, Moorgate and the Barbican. It’s noticeable how quiet it all is. Hardly any shops are open, a few cafes have a couple of customers, its a ghost town. It’s really rather nice, and with each of these stations not too far apart you can explore the streets without bumping into too many people. A few tourist groups with guides are dotted around, and it’s of course where Jack the Ripper went about placing himself into history.
I’d highly recommend doing one of the Jack the Ripper tours. They are fun and give you a real inside into the mystery. Who was he? I’ll let you decide. So there is plenty to see, historical and modern architecture mingle. You can enjoy looking at the new towers that are being constructed, marvel at The Gherkin (see below). It’s such a contrast from the early stages of the walk. The two sides of London, all witnessed in a days walk. We continue on, our end goal now in sight, almost!
After this area we’re into perhaps (depending on your opinion) the ugliest part of London, the Barbican centre and its surrounding estate. Not sure that estate is the right word really because the apartments are probably worth more than I can imagine. However its a bit of a concrete jungle, a 1960’s vision of modern life, as it was at the time. It does make for a good little adventure, (you can easily get lost too).
The Barbican centre has restaurants and cafes and you can sit out by the central pond. I take a short break, but that’s all. I weave my way through this maze towards the station, yellow lines marking the way. Spitalfields (the meat market) is locked as we pass it towards Farringdon. If you are in that area on a weekday, please take a moment to look inside. You might pick up a bargain in the process. I can vouch for the quality of the steaks. Amazing.
The final stretch of the walk isn’t perhaps the most interesting. Farringdon to Kings Cross doesn’t offer much, other than the odd cafe. So best to get to the final part as quickly as possible. From the bustling Kings Cross its a straight walk to the finish line. You pass the British Library and there is the wonderful St Pancras railway station building to admire. Say a quick ‘hello’ to Euston Station and then before you know it, Regents Park is on your right and the final few yards to Baker Street. The walk is done!
After 27km and 5 hours plus of walking we’re back at Baker Street in the hot sun. It’s early evening now and the crowds are leaving the attractions and heading towards the centre for dinner and a night at one of the west end shows. As I take a breather, I look back at the day, the contrasts in the different regions of London, the people, the sites.
Yes it was hard work, yes I have a blister or two, but I also have a far better understanding of this great city. I’ve seen parts that I’d not normally see, I’ve found quaint pubs and coffee shops that I’ll one day search for and visit. I’ve looked at the famous attractions, once again marvelling at their beauty. Always finding something else to keep me interested.
I’ve also burnt some calories and hardly spent a penny. A coffee break and a bottle of water aside. A perfect day out!
If you really want to get to the heart of London, have some spare time and don’t mind walking, then The Circle Line Walk is for you. You can of course do half or even quarter of it. It doesn’t really matter, what does matter though is that you’re getting a real taste of London, and more importantly, its fun!
I hope you have enjoyed reading this little adventure, I’d love to hear from you and perhaps if you’re in London in the next week or so then you’d be welcome to join me for the next challenge. Can’t tell you what that is yet, but it’ll be fun! Keep a look out on my Twitter and Instagram feed for details.