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Ever close your eyes and think of England? This summer, hundreds of athletes headed to London to realize their Olympic dreams. But you don’t have to qualify for the Games to enjoy a world-class running experience. Here’s your guide to the city’s finest running routes that showcase London at her loveliest.
THE ROYAL PARKS
Former hunting grounds of the monarchy, the Royal Gardens are nestled in the heart of London. These eight connected public parks—now open to nobility and commoners alike—are a pleasant retreat from the hustle and bustle of the capital’s streets. Run early to watch the famous London fog begin to lift, or venture out on a summer evening when the parks are filled with workers enjoying the late-day sun.
A circuit around two of the most beautiful gardens—Hyde Park and Kensington—is about four miles. Start at Speaker’s Corner at the Marble Arch end of the park and enjoy the lively debates from protesters and orators before heading clockwise toward Kensington Palace. The ornate gardens in the palace’s grounds soon turn into the Victorian splendor of the Albert Memorial, with spires that shine in black and gold. You can finish the loop or extend your run by delving into the parkland’s 625 acres of criss crossed paths.
Hyde Park will be hosting the Olympic Triathlon this summer. To get in the spirit of the Games, take a dip in the open-air Serpentine Pond. Complete your own triathlon by renting a bike at Barclays Cycle Hire, £1 for 24 hours (tfl.gov.uk).
Another way to make the most of the Gardens is enjoying an outing with the Serpentine Running Club (serpentine.org.uk). The Serpies have over 2,000 members of all ages and abilities. Based at the corner of Hyde Park, their signature event is a Wednesday night run. Non-members can drop by for £1 and enjoy the short 4.3-mile run or the longer 7.2-mile route, which runs past Buckingham Palace. Serpies are a friendly bunch and runs often conclude in a local pub for a restorative pint.
THE THAMES PATH
The Thames River slices the city down the middle—and it’s the basis for one of the biggest arguments among locals: whether North or South London is the better half. You can explore the cultural delights of both sides and reach your own conclusion thanks to the Thames Path that stretches along the length of the river.
Start on the south side of the Thames in the beautiful Battersea Park. Its many attractions include a zoo, a boating lake and the Buddhist Peace Pagoda. Head to the pagoda, then turn left until you reach the ornate Albert Bridge. Cross over the bridge and turn right to run along the North bank. Now very chic and expensive, this area was once the hotbed of Victorian bohemia. Continuing along the wide river path, you’ll get a great view of Battersea Power Station as featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animal.
The route soon becomes a tick list of London sights. For this reason, the scenic stretch will be part of the official Olympic Marathon course. Once you reach the imposing 17th-century St. Paul’s Cathedral, cross the river once more using the Millennium Bridge and run south to the Tate Modern art gallery. Turn right again and you’ll be running through the South bank, a fantastic cluster of theater, music and film houses. Continue running along the path and you’ll reach the London Eye, an icon of contemporary London and a complete contrast to the Gothic splendor of the Houses of Parliament across the way. Stop at Vauxhall station to have completed eight miles, or continue back to Battersea Park to make it an even 10.
An ancient park dating back to the 10th century, Hampstead Heath is a peaceful green area north of central London. Perfect for a hilly workout, Hampstead is the highest point in London, filled with paths that undulate underfoot.
The rail drops you off at the Parliament Hill track where you can rent lockers and showers. Soak in the panoramic view of London before traveling counter-clockwise down the central path. Keep a lookout for Hampstead’s famous swimming ponds. Jump in for a dip or continue along the path to finish the four-mile loop.
Hampstead Heath is one of the venues for Parkrun (parkrun.org.uk) a friendly 5k held every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. at 30 different London locations. It’s completely free: Simply register to receive a bar code, turn up at the location of your choice and run.
This lovely canal lined with willow trees stretches all the way from London’s Limehouse area to Paddington Basin. Run along the waterside path for a glimpse at life in different London neighborhoods. The first four miles take you through fashionable East London and Victoria Park where you can observe cool young London at leisure. Keep an eye out for the contemporary street art in Broadway Market, quite a contrast to the old-world locks and boats of the canal system.
When the canal disappears into the Islington Tunnel, follow the route on Upper Street until the waterway pops up again. Find yourself in Camden Town, a Boho mecca full of bustling markets. The smell of grilling kebabs and Scottish eggs may slow your pace, but you’ll soon outstrip the tourists and reach the splendor of Regent’s Park. As you run past the boundary of London Zoo, you’ll be able to see its distinctive 1960s aviary peeking over the treetops.
Keep going to arrive at your destination of Little Venice, so called because of the canals and the pretty houseboats dotting the canal’s edge. Enjoy the picturesque scene from one of the nearby cafes before getting back on the tube at Warwick Avenue to take you swiftly back to the city center.
WHERE TO EAT
Eat like a King. Tuck into local dishes at these London eateries:
The Wells Hampstead
Be wary if your legs are aching from your run: It’s a steep but worthwhile climb up from the Heath to this gastro pub serving great British grub. (thewellshampstead.co.uk)
The Cinnamon Club
Located in the heart of Westminster in a former library, this restaurant serves modern Indian cuisine in a members’ club-style environment. (cinnamonclub.com)
WHERE TO STAY
Starting to flag? Catch some Z’s at these charming hotels:
The York and Albany
A nine-room boutique inn from chef Gordon Ramsey, housed in a former coaching house. It has a relaxes atmosphere, views of Regent’s Park and as you would expect a wonderful restaurant too. (gordonramsay.com/yorkandalbany)
The Arch London
A stone’s throw from Hyde Park, this hotel combines the ambience of a Georgian townhouse with 21st-century technology. (thearchlondon.com)
Frances Ambler is a writer, editor and runner who has been living in London for eight years.