Five of south London’s best sightseeing walks

From medieval palaces and manicured Victorian parks to brutalist masterpieces and Black heritage hubs, these five walks pack in some of the capital’s most iconic sights.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 27 Jul 2021, 06:06 BST
South London's Crystal Palace Park is home to the world’s first lifesize dinosaur statues.

South London's Crystal Palace Park is home to the world’s first lifesize dinosaur statues.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Green Chain Walk

Distance: 5.5 miles
Start: Crystal Palace Park
End: Nunhead Cemetery
Terrain: A little hilly with uneven footpaths

South London’s Green Chain Walk is a beautifully meandering route covering 50 miles in 11 sections of the capital’s southern side. The five-mile stretch which makes up the last section, starting at Crystal Palace Park, is one of the leafiest, taking you through manicured parks and dappled woodland with a natural history museum thrown in for good measure. The Grade II-listed, 198-acre park is also the proud home of the world’s first full-scale dinosaur reconstructions. Created by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854, these comical-looking statues were surprisingly important in paleontology terms as they showcase the first three species discovered and were the most accurate constructions in existence at the time. Next, pant your way up into Sydenham Hill Wood, and keep your eyes peeled for the ruins of a Victorian folly and rockery. This quiet expanse of London wilderness was once the site of a grand house that was destroyed by fire in the 1950s. Now it’s home to bats and woodpeckers, as well as a healthy population of tawny owls. Follow a disused train track through the trees (the line once connected Nunhead with Crystal Palace), cross Cox’s Walk footbridge and continue straight on to reach the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Here, eclectic collections — including an enormous stuffed walrus — explore valuable lessons on the development of the natural world. If you still have energy left, head into Dulwich Village, a charming part of the city with an art gallery, independent cafes, Georgian townhouses and a strong community vibe.

2. South Bank

Distance: 3 miles
Start: Westminster Bridge
End: Tower of London
Terrain: Flat and nicely pathed

For this walk, which ticks off lots of the capital’s must-sees, start at the south side of Westminster Bridge. On the opposite bank stands The Houses of Parliament. This extraordinary gothic palace is the seat of government, beside which stands Elizabeth Tower (so named to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee). Although it’s commonly referred to as Big Ben, strictly speaking this is actually the name of the bell at the top of the tower. Keep walking east, and you’ll soon encounter the London Eye. Built to usher in the Millennium, it’s Europe’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel. Stop at one of the myriad riverside pop-up stalls in front of the Southbank Centre — the UK's largest arts space. On offer is everything from Pimm’s to Korean barbecue and pizza. Next up, either admire or abhor the National Theatre, one of the capital’s most divisive brutalist buildings. Continue round the bend of the Thames, and you’ll shortly be in for another dose of brutalism, in the form of the Tate Modern. The gallery regularly hosts exhibitions dedicated to world-renowned modern artists, including Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, while major installations often occupy its cathedral-sized Turbine Hall. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre appears soon after the Tate — a reconstruction of the Tudor original but beautiful nonetheless. This is followed by HMS Belfast, a Second World War navy warship that played a pivotal role in the treacherous D Day landings of 1944. With The Shard watching over you, walk across Tower Bridge to your final stop, the Tower of London, famous for being the site of numerous executions, including two of Henry VIII’s wives.

Brixton Market is a warren of alleyways and home to a brilliant array of stalls and pop-up restaurants.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Afro-Caribbean heritage walk

Distance: 2 miles with lots of stops
Start: Brixton Station
End: Black Cultural Archives
Terrain: Flat and urban all the way

Brixton has long been at the beating heart of the capital’s Black British communities. To really get under the skin of this charismatic part of south London and learn about its history, there are several brilliant walking tours, including those offered by Black History Walks and Brixton Society. Alternatively, a more informal option would be to start at Brixton underground station, weaving between the crowds and buskers who congregate at its entrance. Next, cross over to Tunstall Road, pausing to read the messages of love scrawled around the David Bowie mural (the musician was born in Brixton). Next, it’s on to Geneva Road, where many immigrants settled in the post-Windrush years, including Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival and creator of Britain's first major Black community newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. Walking towards Brixton Market, you’ll pass the former site of Blacker Dread Musik Store, on Coldharbour Lane. The shop, which closed in 2014, was once the epicentre of London’s reggae music scene, and Blacker Dread (real name Steve Burnett-Martin) remains a local legend. Take your time to really mooch around Brixton Market. This rabbit warren of alleyways is home to a brilliant array of stalls and pop-up restaurants. Finally, walk off your food at the Black Cultural Archives — a centre celebrating African and Caribbean culture, where you can learn about history-shaping events such as the 1981 Brixton riot.

With its village-like high street, grand Victorian houses and excellent pubs, leafy Richmond feels both part of the capital and totally separate at the same time.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Thames Path

Distance: 8 miles
Start: Richmond 
End: Hampton Court
Terrain: A paved towpath cutting through greenery on both sides

Richmond is the picturesque starting point for this riverside amble. This lovely, leafy area of London feels both part of the capital and totally separate at the same time. Here, you’ll find a village-like high street, grand Victorian houses and excellent pubs (get a pre-walk takeaway pint from the Roebuck). The views of the river and rolling fields beyond are among London’s finest. If you can tear yourself away, head south from Richmond Bridge. There’s only one path along the river, so it’s impossible to get lost — always a plus on any walk. The route meanders gently through greenery, passing Petersham Meadow, Marble Hill Park on the opposite bank and Ham House and Garden — a somewhat prosaic description for this stately, Stuart mansion. Onwards to Kingston upon Thames, and in perfect time for another pub stop or two. Try The Ram, renowned for its roasts, or The Mill for riverside views. To continue on the Thames Path, cross Kingston Bridge. You’re now just a short hop from the start of Hampton Court Park. The gardens of this specular palace — once home to Henry VIII — are free to wander round, but the £25.30 entry fee to go inside is well worth it: a step back in time to Tudor England.

The hustle and bustle of the city seems far away on the Wandle Trail, where the only noises disturbing your stroll are likely to be the breeze and the rush of the river.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. The Wandle Trail

Distance: 6 miles
Start: Morden Tube station
End: Wandsworth Town railway station
Terrain: Flat, but narrow and uneven in places

Ninety working mills once lined the River Wandle, a Thames tributary that powered the manufacture of products as varied as wheat and gunpowder, copper and snuff. While most of their wheels no longer turn, several still dot this path. It only takes a little imagination to envisage what life would’ve been like here during the Industrial Revolution. Jump off the Tube at the very end of the Northern Line and head to the Wetlands Boardwalk. The city seems very far away here, where the only noise to disturb your stroll is likely to be the breeze singing through the reeds that line the river. Next up, you’ll reach Dean City Farm, where the resident pigs are both friendly and greedy. If you’re there at feeding time, you’ll be welcome to muck in, but if not, linger anyway and say hello to the other resident animals. Following the river onwards, looking out for the Wandle Art Trail that runs for its entire route. Designed by Andrew Sabin, it features viewing platforms, bridges and hand-carved markers. If you’ve timed your walk right, you should reach your next stop, Merton Abbey Mills, around lunchtime. A former textile market, the site now has several pubs and cafes, as well as a weekend craft market and working mill wheel. No fewer than 10 parks line this river, and the latter half of the walk passes through four of them, each more picturesque than the last. London proper appears on the horizon as you enter your final green space, King George’s Park. As you’ve earned it, end your walk with a drink at The Ship, less than a five-minute walk from Wandsworth Station.

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