Anastasia French: the long walk north

Day 1: Fragile beginnings

I woke with a groan. Gingerly opening one eye, I looked at the time and knew I needed to get out of bed and get dressed if I was going to make Edgware by night time.

That’s not the start of most adventures, but that’s how this one started. 

The night before, I’d said goodbye to the best job I’d ever had as a campaigner at the Ramblers. It was a brilliant job with fantastic people. In a few weeks, I’d be starting a new job with a children’s charity. But before I did that, I had one last challenge to do - to literally walk away from the Ramblers.

Last year, I walked from my door south, until I reached the sea. Over 120 miles I fracked around in Balcombe, played pooh sticks in the 100 Acre Wood and got truly uck-ed off in Uckfield.

This year, I was going to do it again! Walk out of my door, and keep walking, until I get to the sea. But this time, it would be northwards to the Norfolk coast, approximately 130 miles away. 

Anastasia at the start of her walk, central London
The (positive?) beginning...

I reluctantly began to pack. Half of the rucksack was filled with maps – I’d need 10 Ordnance Survey maps to complete this adventure. The other half of the rucksack was filled with socks, t-shirts and random gifts my colleagues had given me to say farewell (Kendal Mint Cake, a survival pack, a poncho).

As I was attempting to eat a few bites of breakfast, and contemplating going back to bed and getting the tube to Edgware, my little sister (Margot) arrived. She knew I’d be feeling fragile on day one, and she was here to help. Plus she’s just graduated from university and didn’t know what she should do with her life, and hoped that she’d get a flash of inspiration on our walk. I didn’t tell her that few people have found inspiration in Hendon or Burnt Oak. 

We set off at midday. My sister took a few obligatory photos of me starting off, in one I managed to look positive, the other ten reflected my real mood – hungover, fragile and depressed. Not really how I should be starting this adventure.

As we walked past Trafalgar Square and through Chinatown and Soho, my sister looked at me with mild disgust. “You look like such a tourist in your get up with your walking boots, maps and rucksack."

She was right, but seeing as I’d only packed for walking, there wasn’t much I could do. She on the other hand looked straight out of an advert for Topshop – little black dress, tights and a carrier bag containing a mask, just in case she got invited to a ball in Belsize Park. I was definitely not the cool big sister that day.

We continued north, through the beautiful Regents Park. Margot had done her dissertation on London Zoo and Regent’s Park in the 19th century and so had lots of interesting facts for me. None of which I can remember.

After we passed through the park, we got to Primrose Hill. Home to all sorts of celebrities, sadly we didn’t spot any. Primrose Hill was probably the biggest climb on my entire walk, and I definitely felt like I was sweating out the night over indulgence from the night before. But I was rewarded with a stunning view of London for my efforts. 

Primrose Hill and the view across London
Enjoying the view from Primrose Hill

From Primrose Hill we passed through Range Rover central – aka Belsize Park. We walked past lots of large houses that Margot dreamed of owning, and we picked up our lunch on England’s Lane – a very posh road that intimidated us so much we ended up in Tesco.

We carried our disappointing Tesco sandwiches to Hampstead Heath. We had intended to eat them on Parliament Hill, but after about 20 minutes of wandering around the Heath in search of a hill to no avail, we decided to give up and plonked ourselves on a random bench. The walk and the food had taken it out of me, and I decided to take a nap on the heath. 

Anastasia napping on Hampstead Heath
A small time-out

While I was napping, my sister took the initiative to “borrow” my phone, take a photo of my slumbering self and then post it to the world on social media. In hindsight, I don’t blame her - this wasn’t the adventure that she’d signed up for, but I may have grumbled a bit at the time.

Eventually I woke, and we decided to continue cross country through the heath, using the compass on my iPhone to navigate north. We happened across a nice English Heritage property, Kenwood House.

It took us a while to actually find a way off the heath, and when we did, we decided to reward ourselves with a shandy in the very quaint Spaniards Inn.

After the little break, we put the exoticness of the heath and Primrose Hill behind us, and started a really long, monotonous route to Burnt Oak.

The walk took us through some top sites of suburban North London - Hendon, Golders Green and Colindale. The grey of the road was matching the grey of the sky and of my mood as we ploughed mile after mile along main roads that looked exactly the same as the mile before.

When we walked through Golders Green, we observed lots of devout Jews on their travels. Golders Green is a large Jewish area, so this was to be expected. As it was Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), most were dressed very formally travelling to and from the synagogue. They all looked so smart and formal that my sister and I felt like scruffbags

From Golders Green we walked through Colindale and then Burnt Oak. My miserable mood was beginning to reflect on my sister. “Why would anyone want to live here?!” Apologies for anyone in Colindale and Burnt Oak, I’m sure it’s a lovely area when the sun’s shining and you haven’t walked 14 miles.

We finally arrived in Burnt Oak at 6pm, and it couldn’t arrive soon enough. Hunger and boredom were kicking in, and we desperately searched for a pub and a restaurant. Unfortunately Burnt Oak just has lots of chicken shops, which for my vegetarian sister wasn’t really suitable. Eventually we found a pub that served food (Romanian) and 'buy one get one free' cocktails. 

I stayed that evening in a house on Vancouver Road that had been converted from an office for the Canadian Air Force during World War II. Vancouver Road, Romanian Burnt Oak, Jewish Golders Green, Chinatown - it’s these multi-national things that make me love London so much. I had a feeling that the further I walked, the more homogenous the culture would become.

Total distance – 13.8 miles
Highlight – The rugged beauty of Hampstead Heath.

Anastasia French walked from London to the Norfolk coast. Stay tuned for her next installment when she walks from Edgware to St Albans. You can follow her on twitter @RamblingFrench.