Getting out of London is remarkably easy. Sure, unless you’re taking a train, you do have to wind your way through the endless suburbs first. But once you cross the busy M-25 ring road, the scenery changes dramatically. Suddenly, you’re in the English countryside of Jane Austen novels.
The best way to explore the bucolic rolling hills, sheep farms, and stone villages outside London is not behind the wheel of a car, but on foot.
I had my first experience with country walking last weekend. My boyfriend and I rented a City Car (London’s version of a Zipcar) and drove about an hour to the west to the Chiltern hills, where I’d read there was good walking. We grabbed a footpath map and walking directions at a shop in the village of Hambleden and off we went. Seven miles seemed like a good enough challenge. We’d be back before dinner, no problem.
I should have known it wasn’t going to be that easy from the first set of instructions on our map: “At a right-hand bend, fork left onto the right-hand of two paths (LE38), a gravel drive. Now go straight on, soon joining and following a left-hand boundary bank and ignoring a crossing path.” We must have looked for that stupid left-hand boundary bank for a good 30 minutes.
We eventually got the hang of it, though, and figuring out the directions became part of the fun. Plus, the scenery couldn’t have been more magnificent.
Because the public is legally permitted to cross all private land in the countryside, the footpath cut right through people’s farms, bringing us up close and personal with the cows and sheep. It also took us into beech-tree forests that were so dark and dense, they felt almost primeval.
Here are some tips on taking your own countryside walk:
1. Get a good map
Many footpaths are not signposted, so you need to find a map that includes very clear instructions on how to find your way. In most larger towns, you’ll be able to find one at a tourism information office; in villages, look for a food shop.
The Chiltern Society has 27 different walking maps of the hills west of London. Another good resource is the Guardian newspaper, which published an excellent series of “Great British Walks” this summer.
2. Be prepared
It should go without saying, but don’t embark on a five- or seven-mile hike without proper walking shoes, water and a cell phone in case you get lost. (Some guides even recommend bringing a compass.) The weather in England is famously unpredictable, so plan for the possibility of rain even on a sunny day.
If you do lose your way, look for a well-groomed path (the larger ones are called “bridle paths”) and follow it until you reach civilization. England is a small country—every path leads somewhere.
3. Respect people’s property
When entering a farm, make sure to close and latch the gate behind you. And keep a safe distance from cattle—there have been isolated incidents of people being chased and attacked by ornery cows. Most importantly: Never get between a cow and her calf unless you are looking for a fight.
4. Dress for the conditions
Footpaths can be overgrown with grass and prickly weeds in the summer and fall, and you may have to make your way through dense vegetation or even crops. Long pants and a long-sleeved shirt are recommended.
5. Don’t drink and walk
You’ll regret having that pint of beer with lunch when you’re three miles into an afternoon trek. Save the country pub until after your walk. A great pub in Hambleden is The Stag & Huntsman, which has picnic tables in the large garden out back and serves a delicious pork and apple burger.