Thursday 13 September 2012

The London Circle Walk

A few years ago (quite a number of years ago, in fact), I was sitting in The Lock Tavern in Camden with Tim Wilson. This pub used to employ the ruse of playing painfully loud polka music at chucking out time in order to get everyone to leave. I don't know if they still do, as I haven't been back there in ages.

We were several pints into the conversation and for reasons unknown we were discussing the work of the 'land artist' Richard Long. It was he who took art into pioneering conceptual realms by calling a walk 'art', and he is particularly noted for the circles and straight lines that he would trace over stretches of countryside, both in this country and across the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia.

We argued pointlessly about how hard it would be to walk in big circles in different parts of the world, given geography and rights-of-way and that sort of thing. Much easier to walk nice geometrical shapes on the flats of Mongolia, of course. But what would happen, we asked ourselves, if we were to apply a pair of compasses to a map of London? How much zigzagging would you be forced to do in order to walk as closely as possible to an imaginary circle on the ground? What would we find along the way?

Thus, the London Circle Walk was born.

The London Circle Walk (click to see full size)

The circle's position and dimensions are partly pre-determined and partly arbitrary. There can only be one viable location for its centre: the equestrian statue of Charles I at the top of Whitehall. This traffic island, south of Trafalgar Square, was the original location of Charing Cross, and is the official centre of London. A plaque marking the spot reads:
'On the site now occupied by the statue of King Charles I was erected the original Queen Eleanor's cross a replica of which stands in front of Charing Cross station. Mileages from London are measured from the site of the original cross.'
The radius of the circle is not a round number of miles or kilometres, but instead is chosen to take advantage of convenient crossing places of the Thames. A circle that uses Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge creates a walk that fills one whole day (at least six hours, though often longer, depending on how much dawdling, sightseeing and stopping for food is done). A larger circle, crossing the Thames via the Rotherhithe Tunnel and Wandsworth Bridge, for example, would look much more geometrically perfect, but would take more than one day to complete.

Tim and I have since walked the route many times in both directions. We have agreed that, for reasons both aesthetic and practical, the walk is best done in a clockwise direction, and it is best to start at the middle of Tower Bridge (at '3 o'clock', if the circle is imagined as a clock face). The route begins by working its way south among the housing and industrial estates on either side of the Old Kent Road. Skirting the edge of Burgess Park, it runs between Kennington and Camberwell, crossing several of the large thoroughfares that slice through South London, reaching the southernmost point at Stockwell. The route then zigzags in between New Covent Garden at Nine Elms and the rail junction at Battersea, before emerging into Battersea Park, where it runs around the edge of the boating lake and up the steps to the Peace Pagoda. A small detour is needed to cross the river by Albert Bridge. Then the route ascends through Chelsea and South Kensington, round the Natural History Museum, through Imperial College and past the Royal College of Art, entering Kensington Gardens at Queen's Gate. This is the halfway point.

The walk exits at Lancaster Gate, does more zigzagging around Paddington Station and under the Marylebone Flyover, then joins Regent's Canal for a short stretch at Lisson Grove, entering Regent's Park next to the London Central Mosque. It crosses Regent's Park, and runs along the Outer Circle through the middle of London Zoo, exiting the park at Gloucester Gate. Up Parkway, through the heart of Camden Town, the route then has to do a large detour around the massive construction site still occupying the area north of King's Cross, which marks the northernmost point. Residential streets then take the walk through Barnsbury, across Islington Green and down to meet Regent's Canal again. There are some interesting back streets in the Hoxton/Shoreditch area before the route abruptly enters the City of London at Bishopsgate, runs down Petticoat Lane to Aldgate and Minories, before returning you to Tower Bridge. It is always a slightly surreal experience to return so abruptly to the point you started at earlier in the day.

The London Circle Walk contains some amazing and unexpected highlights. It also runs tantalizingly close to major well-known monuments, which it blithely ignores. There are places where shortcuts could be taken, in order to get closer to the geometric circle. All involve a degree of daring and/or illegality. Hire a boat to take you across Battersea Park boating lake to avoid going around it. Bribe a security guard to let you out the fire exit at the back of the Natural History Museum. Bring a ladder to break into London Zoo. A team of parkour enthusiasts could knock miles off the total distance. Building works currently underway suggest that the route will evolve at some point in the future, possibly bringing the walker closer to the True Circle, or further from it.

It is fascinating to observe what happens when an abstract geometrical shape is superimposed on an urban landscape, which is organized along lines that are partly rational, partly organic and partly chaotic. Different definitions of the word 'natural' come into conflict. Obviously, you are forced to think about cities in a different way, following a route that no one would normally take. As a walker, you are both bound by the constraints of the route (no deviation from the circle is permitted!) and liberated from those all-too-beaten paths that others have made. The route almost takes on a ritual quality. You cannot help but become aware of time and space, observing the linear passage of the sun across the sky as you yourself perform a symbolic tour of a cyclical universe encoded in microcosm.

In addition to this pretentious arty bollocks, the walk offers plenty of general inspiration. It offers a stark illustration of different social conditions along the way, passing both the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth and Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, for example. It includes a bus garage, a museum, a university, a giraffe enclosure, a hospital, a high-security police station and a theatre – a rich resource of material for any narrative or fiction that might aim to encompass a cross-section of London life. It is made up of concrete, water, grass, brick, glass, trees, steel and earth. It passes at least fifty pubs. And below street level lie generations of souls amid fields, streets and houses that have long vanished from view, not to mention an even more ancient geology and hydrology.

Tim is leading a group who will be setting off from Tower Bridge on Sunday 30th September at 10am sharp. Do feel free to join in. Contact him on or on 07941 861806 for further details.


  1. I did both the Capital Ring and London Loop last year and really wanna do this so am trying to rearrange my plans for the 30th.

  2. This looks fab but can't make it as I'm leading walk tomorrow which I can't change at this late stage :(
    If you ever decided to do it again please let me know.
    Thanks, Eamon :)