I looked down on London from The Shard recently. London – from some 300 metres up – is serene. It is also appallingly flat. Even the Crystal Palace ridge, away to the south and positively Ben Nevisian (to the Londoner) is smothered by perspective. It made my plan – a London equivalent of the great mountain rounds of the Highlands, the Lake District and Snowdonia – descend further into the realms of nonsense.
I was to run between the summits of the 12 Inner London boroughs, starting in Hammersmith and Fulham, travelling east to the Isle of Dogs, passing beneath the Thames to Greenwich, then turning west to gain Wimbledon Common. Together, these dozen summits add up to 957m – a slouching Scafell Pike. At no point would I venture higher than 134 metres above sea level. Utterly pointless. But then, is not that the point?
You will have heard of some. Hampstead Heath? Crystal Palace? Shooters Hill? Familiarity is likely to dry up there.
Down here in London, we are stuck with the capital’s vertically-challenged undulations, while our highest points have been built over, buried under concrete or adorned with telecommunications paraphernalia. The highest point within the M25 circle, far away from urban chaos in the North Downs, is 270-metre Botley Hill. They stuck a telecommunications mast there, naturally. I could hanker for the airy heights of the Lake District. Or I could make the most of what London has got.
There was no rationale. I had a free day. And having completed the Bob Graham Round in 2012, I liked the idea of satirising the iconic Lakeland loop in the streets of London, swapping mist-shrouded summits and knife-edge arêtes for iPad-touting tourists and cracks in the pavement.
I would travel solo, unsupported and Alpine-style with a budget of £15, a topped-up Oyster card and an iPhone. If and when I needed food and water, I would stop at a shop. You do not get that luxury on the Helvellyn range. While the Bob Graham Round commences in Keswick, beneath the imposing Skiddaw, I found myself in grey Harlesden on a Tuesday morning, feebly equipped with a wad of maps photocopied from a London A-Z. A yellow highlighted line indicated a proposed route, linked with red crosses that marked the dozen summits. Apart from a two-mile stretch around Streatham, I had not run a step of what I reckoned would be a 35-40 mile route.
Finding the summit of Hammersmith and Fulham – a roadside close to a Travis Perkins depot – and soon after Kensington and Chelsea – the exit to West London Crematorium – set the tone for the day. Great dollops of poetic licence cannot dress-up what was to come: lots of pavement-trudging, lots of head-scratching, lots of reflecting on the sense of all this. Even the highest point of the day, Camden’s Hampstead Heath, is located arbitrarily on the side of Spaniards Road, rather than the heath itself. Once around the heath, I was flying down Highgate Hill, past the summit of Islington and down into the recesses of London’s great smog-filled bowl. Dashing through Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Along the Regent’s Canal. Into the Isle of Dogs. Places I had never seen before, places I may never go again.
A school pupil on a trip jogged alongside me in the Greenwich foot tunnel. ‘Where are you going?’ he demanded. ‘Wimbledon Common,’ I said. ‘Coming?’ He stopped abruptly, laughing at the unfathomable notion.
The pavement radiated heat as I ran the first mile of the London Marathon en route to Shooters Hill, the distant summit of Greenwich. Then came an unremitting, sweltering slog to Crystal Palace and – as I climbed Sydenham Hill, the exertion of the day beginning to overwhelm my legs – I moved past the 30-mile mark. My left foot had felt uncomfortable for some time and as I ran along Crystal Palace Parade a mild niggling became a sharp, sudden pain. I sat on a wall on Westow Hill, the meeting point of four boroughs but the summit of just one, Lambeth, feeling sorry for myself – a feeling that intensified to Streatham Common. I thought of Tour de France riders who continue hopelessly with broken bones. They get back on their bicycles, nonetheless. I gulped the long-distance runner’s equivalent of a shot of EPO – a can of Coke – and vowed to get on with it and get it done.
I did. The last five miles through Tooting and Wimbledon were not pretty, but Putney Heath, the last of the dozen, was mine. The top was a prominent tump, a rare non-concrete summit among the Inner London boroughs. On closer inspection, a lump of concrete jutted from the summit. The irony was not lost on me. It had taken me a shade over six hours to get here, running 41 almost-exclusively pavement miles, powered only by a cheese sandwich and copious amounts of caffeinated liquid. My feet were pulsing. Still, I have had worse Tuesdays.
I recommend no-one to repeat this endeavour, not unless you happen to share the inexplicable desire to visit the summits of the Inner London boroughs in one continuous loop. I think of it now as a journey, not a run: a journey that brought me closer to this complicated capital city. I glimpsed the best and worst of London: from the genius of the Greenwich foot tunnel, the towering symbols of business that rise from the Isle of Dogs and the near-wildness of Hampstead Heath, to the sprawl and stench of London’s takeaway culture, the Eltham street on which Stephen Lawrence was murdered and unceasing groan of traffic.
A grand tour of Inner London. Going as high as geography will permit. Re-discovering a city. Sometimes the most pointless of exploits serve the greatest purpose.
The summits –
- Hammersmith and Fulham – Harrow Road (45m) – the road-side opposite a block of flats
- Kensington and Chelsea – Harrow Road (45m) – exit of West London Crematorium
- City of Westminster – St John’s Wood Park Road (52m) – road junction of St John’s Wood Park Road and Boundary Road
- Camden – Spaniards Road (134m) – the road-side above Hampstead Heath
- Islington – Highgate Hill (100m) – road junction of Dartmouth Park Road and Highgate Hill, close to Lauderdale House
- Hackney – Seven Sisters Road (39m) – the road-side overlooking Finsbury Park
- Tower Hamlets – Bethnal Green (16m) – a road bridge over the Regent’s Canal in Bethnal Green
- Greenwich – Shooters Hill (132m) – the highest point of Eaglesfield Recreation Ground
- Lewisham and Southwark – both Sydenham Hill (112m) – road junction of Crescent Wood Road and Sydenham Hill, close to the Dulwich Wood House pub
- Lambeth – Westow Hill (110m) – road junction of Anerley Hill and Church Road, in front of the Grape and Grain pub
- Wandsworth – Putney Heath (60m) – a prominent tump at the northern end of Wimbledon Common
A version of this article featured on the Guardian running blog in July and the November issue of Men’s Running.