10 car-free autumn days out for Londoners

Emma Featherstone
See autumn arrive in London's most scenic spots - getty

Autumn is here, with Monday’s equinox marking the official start of the new season. Together, the crisper air, golden leaves and sense of back-to-school energy make this the ideal time to explore the capital and its surroundings by bike or on foot.

Such healthy endeavours are helped along by London’s annual Car Free Day, which takes place on September 22. With over 16 miles of roads closed to traffic from 10.30am to 5pm, and 15 boroughs across the capital running car-free events, it’s the biggest yet.

The event, World Car Free Day, is marked across the globe, and aims to raise awareness of air pollution – a persistent problem in UK cities. Sunday will provide freebies to enhance your journey, including free 24-hour Santander bike hire and a two-for-one offer on Thames Clippers.

Here, we pick some of the best walks and cycle rides in the city, with a few options beyond (via train) for a countryside escape.

It's breeding season for deer – spot them in Richmond Park Credit: iStock

1. Hampton Court to Putney Bridge, by bike

Combine Tudor history with wildlife on one of London’s most scenic cycle rides. Start in the tranquil borough of Richmond and head to Hampton Court Palace (a quick walk from Hampton Court train station) where you can explore the eerie halls, meander the maze and wander the gardens.

Stop for a coffee in the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames, before continuing to Richmond Park, where you can admire the population of red and fallow deer, and might even see stags rutting (autumn is the breeding season – keep a safe distance).

To finish, set aside time for a spot of bird watching in one of the London Wetland Centre’s six hides, or simply park your bike and wander some of its 105 acres (44 hectares).

You can follow the Sustrans Hampton Court to Putney Bridge route; trains run from London Victoria (with a change at Clapham Junction), taking 48 minutes.

Finish up a sail along the Thames with a cable car ride Credit: iStock

2. The Thames by boat, with Open London stop-offs

What can beat gliding through central London on a Thames Clipper? Take a friend and you can make the most of the two-for-one river roamer trips on offer this Sunday, which allow you to hop on and off between 17 river piers.

Take a tip from Telegraph Travel writer Sophie Campbell when you reach Greenwich and take the cable car over the river from the O2 to the Royal Docks to enjoy the view of Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud.

Got tickets for Open House London? The Clipper stops at some of the major buildings included in the event, such as Portcullis House (nearest pier: Westminster) and the Old Royal Naval College (nearest pier: Greenwich).

Board at 17 points along the river; see the Thames Clippers website for more information.

Picture life on a London canal boat Credit: iStock

3. A canal-side walk through Little Venice

For a Sunday stroll, you can’t go wrong with this picturesque canal-side route (2.3 miles). Taking in the house boats and grand terraced houses of Little Venice (supposedly named by the poet Robert Browning), you’ll clock up a couple of miles between Warwick Avenue and Camden Lock without noticing. The canal itself is teeming with birdlife, including tufted ducks, moorhens and Egyptian geese.

You can easily whittle away a few hours strolling around Regent’s Park or head straight for Camden Lock and people watch in a craft beer pub, a street food market or an al-fresco restaurant.

Start the walk at Warwick Avenue underground station (Bakerloo line) or Paddington and jump back on at Camden Town (Northern Line); see the TFL website for the full route.

4. Start walking the London Loop (London Outer Orbital Path)

Keen to commit to rambling this autumn? This Sunday could be the time to get started on the London Loop. There are 24 sections to conquer, 150 miles in total, and as you tick each off, you’ll get to know the city a little better.

You might take like to conquer its legs in numerical order, or else pick out your first section based on its wealth of pubs, green spaces or historical significance. If you’re going for the former strategy, you’ll begin in Erith, in the borough of Bexley. Starting at the train station, you’ll face down 8.5 miles, finishing off in Bexley Village. Pack a picnic and dine in the grounds of Hall Place, a Grade I-listed country house built in 1537. Americans were stationed here in the Second World War when it was given the codename Santa Fe.

Choose which section of the London Loop using the Tfl website.

Finish your bike ride in Victoria Park Credit: Getty

5. Cycle along the River Lea

Take advantage of the River Lea towpath to explore north-east London. Starting at Tottenham Marshes, make your way along to Hackney Wick station, where there are plenty of canal-side restaurants and cafes to sample. Next, head along the Hertford Union Canal to Victoria Park where you’ll be spoiled with coffee shops and pubs to relax in, from the People’s Park Tavern (which has its own microbrewery) to the Pavilion Café (cake and beer would make an ideal pick-me-up).

Make the most of the 24-hour free Santander bike hire – park up at a docking station, then spend the afternoon boating around the lake, or watch others’ attempts (the Pavilion Café is right next to it).

For more information on cycle routes along the Lea River, see the Canal and River Trust website.

A corner of calm: St Dunstan in the East Church Garden Credit: Getty

6. Find tranquility in the Square Mile’s Gardens, on foot

For something less strenuous join a free, organised walk around the Square Mile’s clutch of small gardens, many of which have sprouted in the ruins of churches and cemeteries. The guided ramble starts at St Paul’s Tube.

If you prefer to make your own way around the city’s hidden pockets of greenery, places to stop include the Smithfield Rotuna, between Smithfield Market and St Bart’s Hospital, and St Dunstan in the East Church Garden where a variety of plants have been left to wind their way through the ruins of the former church. If you work in the City, this stroll may offer up some fresh spots to spend your lunch break.

The Ramblers tour starts at 11am at St Paul’s Underground Station (Central Line), finishing around 2.30pm it’s around 3.5 miles. More information.

Yoga fan? You could try a sunrise class on Tower Bridge Credit: Getty

7. Loop the Thames, by bike

Take to two wheels in the City with a ride along this riverside cycle route. Carved out within the car-free zone, the loop (a little over two miles) crosses over London and Tower Bridges.

It’s perhaps the only time each year you can enjoy clear (weather permitting), views along the Thames without the noise and hassle of traffic. You could start your day with sunrise yoga on the Tower Bridge, from where you can pick up a (free) hire bike.

See the cycle route here, with more information on the London Authority website.

Bookham makes for a proper country escape Credit: Getty

8. Stroll Bookham Commons, via train

A lesser-known Surrey escape, Bookham Commons on the North Downs is just over an hour by train from London Waterloo. See autumn leaves beginning to turn around its 450 acres of ancient oak woodland.

It’s a twitcher’s delight, with resident birds including the rare hawfinch, nightingales and a whole host of ducks. Amateur historians will also find plenty to recommend it. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, what’s left is a mere remnant of woods that spanned southern England and were home to bears, boars and wolves. It was popular among Victorians looking to escape the capital for the day, so why not follow in their footsteps. 

The fastest train from London Waterloo to Bookham Station is 1hr 9 minutes.

9. Walk in the woods of Morven Park, via train

Head north of the city for a woodland escape to Morven Park, which dates back to the 14th century. Less than a 20-minute walk from Potters Bar rail station, there are more than 20 acres to roam.

Potters Bar itself was a medieval town and the remains of the original settlement are buried beneath Movern’s grounds.

Trains to Potters Bar depart regularly from Kings Cross (17 minutes) and Moorgate (37 minutes).

Soak up this famous view Credit: Getty

10. Discover Constable country, via train

This idyllic spot was immortalised by 18th-century painter John Constable, who depicted many of the area’s views in his six-foot canvases. A National Trust-mapped trail will take you past Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s Cottage – recognisable from The Hay Wain painting. Beginning at Manningtree train station, you’ll cross Cattawade Marshes to reach the mill. The seven-mile trail also takes in the picturesque village of Dedham, where Constable went to school.

You can follow the National Trust trail. Trains depart regularly from London Liverpool Street to Manningtree, with the quickest route taking 58 minutes.