The route is 48 miles long,, none of it challenging, providing a mixture of town and country; an antidote to the rushed commute, and one that has history behind it.
Robert Walpole, the very first Prime Minister, was an active walker and he walked this route (if a distant memory of a long-forgotten lesson serves). Though he had wealth to hire any number of carriages, it is said that Walpole would frequently set off on foot from his London house, 10 Downing Street in Westminster on foot and walk home to Oxford. That was an achieving man. (I am now open to being berated by historians with better memories than mine…) The route marked on our map is close to that which Walpole must have taken from Oxfordshire to the heart of government in Westminster; or he might have gone through the middle of Uxbridge, where the Oxford road runs, so our route goes by Uxbridge. There is no reason why a man should not reach Downing Street by way of Uxbridge.
I have written before in praise of walking the suburban wild places, so let us mix town and country in a single string.
A former Member of Parliament for Henley famously wrote out in his youth a ‘route map’ that should lead him to becoming Prime Minister (an office which he never achieved). Another former member for Henley is said to have planned a route of his own. Such Machiavellian ideas pushed aside, a walk at least is honest.
It takes an appreciation of Shakespeare to find the poetry in the route, of which there is plenty, and so much of it follows Shakespeare's Way. We begin though in Henley, a prosperous town on a loop in the Thames, and head north, to avoid having to go through Maidenhead. Soon we meet Shakespeare’s Way, where the bard himself is said to have waked (with more than a pinch of imagination). The route soon enters Buckinghamshire, and runs through the southern Chilterns, a place of hills and dells, of little woods and villages, brushing the Thames bank at Marlow before heading inland again through such villages as Egypt and Thomas Gray’s Stoke Poges. The villages become more intense on the approach to the bounds of Middlesex.
The route crosses the Colne and enters Middlesex at the southern edge of Uxbridge. If the shorter route is to be taken, one beginning in Uxbridge, then it begins in the town centre and follows south on the route of the Middlesex Greenway.
Following the Grand Union Canal, which was not there in Walpole’s time, we are led into the conurbation, reaching the Thames at Brentford. The we follow the north bank of the Thames before crossing Kew Bridge, and thus entering Surrey. We then follow the south bank of the river to Hammersmith Bridge.
Walpole came this way too on a memorable occasion, having visited the King away from town. The ferryman at Putney would not leave off drinking to row him over the river, so Walpole took his revenge in the way only he could; by commissioning a bridge. We however cross back into Middlesex at Hammersmith Bridge.
From Hammersmith the route is provided by the ‘London Parks Way’, which loops through a string of parks and green spaces including Holland Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Green Park. Many a stateman has visited Buckingham Palace before moving on to Downing Street, so we pass before it, then through St James’s Park, before emerging at last at the top of Downing Street.
Downing Street itself is blocked off with guarded security gates. So, how do you get into Downing Street? That is something I will leave to ambitious politicians.
- Ordnance Survey Explorer maps (1:25 000):
- Ordnance Survey Landranger maps (1:50 000):