In this year which is now nearing completion, I completed the London Countryway. Like the Capital Ring and the London Loop, the London Countryway is a long-distance path which encircles London, but it differs from them in two ways. The Capital Ring and the London Loop are both within Greater London; the London Countryway is indeed in the country outside it. And the Capital Ring and the London Loop are official long-distance paths; the London Countryway is not.
The London Countryway is some 205 miles long, enclosing an area bounded by Box Hill, Marlow, St Albans and Tilbury. It was devised pretty much by one man, Keith Chesterton, who published a short guide to it in 1976, and later a book. I have not seen the book, but my mother bought the guide when it appeared, more or less as a curiosity and without thought of doing the walk, at least in full. It sat on the family shelves for 40 years until I, enthused by the other two circular walks, took it down and decided to walk the route. In format the guide shows its age: it was produced on a typewriter, photocopied and stapled. The outline map of the walk is hand-drawn. The front cover photograph of Ranmore Common was, like the text, reproduced on a photocopier, a process which, to put it politely, removes all subtlety from a photograph. But cottage-industry publication could do little else back then.
This guide was the only guidance I had; being unofficial, the route is not shown on maps or signage. So the night before I walked each section I had to co-ordinate the directions it gives with the paths on the map and commit to memory the paths I should use. What surprised me was how relatively straightforward this was – the paths have changed very little in forty-odd years. The completion of the M25, and some lesser road-building, sometimes required me to negotiate junctions and footbridges where Chesterton referred only to a track or minor road. Some fields in south Essex can now be crossed by a more direct route than the more circuitous one specified by Chesterton (which appears no longer to be usable). Chesterton recommends using Brookmans Park station (Hertfordshire) to reach the starting point of one section, but Welham Green station, a good deal nearer the route, has been opened since he wrote, so I used this.
The rights of way the London Countryway uses have remained rights of way for the most part. But I wonder how far the route can be said still to exist as a unified long-distance path when it is unmarked, guides to it are rare and obtained only by chance unless you know anyway what you are looking for, and it appears few people walk it nowadays. Is a written record of something such as this necessary to reify it, even when the tracks which make it up still exist, so that to constitute the route as a whole we need only keep their connections in mind?
We might compare the London Countryway in this wise with the Greensand Way, on which I have now embarked. This is an official long distance path. It is marked on maps and is well signposted. But there is currently no guide to it in print. In this it contrasts with the North Downs Way, to which it runs parallel, and from which it is never more than a few miles: chalk is more obvious, and so more glamorous, than glauconite. I had to search for guides second hand. So while many people living near the route or exploring the countryside there must be aware of the Greensand Way because of the signposts and map legends, how many people have a sense of it as a whole? How many people walk it end to end compared to those walking the North Downs Way? Again, is its existence less definite because a written record is hard to come by?
It was instructive too that the guides I found were published by the Surrey (1989) and Kent (1992) county councils. This sort of thing was once a common local government activity, one means among many of promoting the well-being of an area and so of improving its economy. Would such guides be published today?
Well, memory and tradition too can preserve the vitality of a thing – but a written record spreads knowledge widely, preserves and hands on memory, can both keep alive traditions and establish new ones. In their turn written records themselves need to be remembered and kept alive. So here is a written record of sorts to help all this.
I need only add that the London Countryway is well worth walking. It will take you through the North Downs, the River Thames in both its placid and its estuarial manifestations, the Chilterns, and rolling Hertfordshire with a seamless transition to Essex, before that county gives way to flat marshland. You will also pass through the middle of some towns, most notably Windsor, Marlow, St Albans, Broxbourne, Waltham Abbey, Brentwood and Gravesend. Seek out the guide if you can. Start and finish at any point on the circle, but start soon!