1. Blackheath, Greenwich
One of the best places to run in London is Blackheath. Many runners know it as the starting point of the London Marathon, but year round it is a great place to head for. Thick with history, it is good for long and short runs. Not only is it a wide open space whose depth of view reaches to the very edges of London (and stretches your eyes into widescreen mode) but it is well connected, allowing you to work your way down through Greenwich Park with its trees that date back to the Tudors (don’t miss the Rose Garden). For those on longer runs, there are facilities available. And if you fancy it, the cafe by the Observatory is quite nice for a quick cuppa. Exiting the park at the north end allows you to jump on a train home, or head further out of London on the luminously odd and creepy (in a good way) Thames Path that takes you out to the Thames Barrier. It’s all very Ballardian and if you get a runner’s high out there, it is all the stranger.
2. Downe, Kent
Just outside London is this charming village that was for many decades home to Charles Darwin. It is a great place for runners to explore because there are so many intersecting pathways on either side of the village. If you’re quick, the bluebells will still be in flower and the nettles haven’t yet taken over in Cudham Wood which is a great place to head to on hotter days as it’s always cool in the shade. The wood is wonderful with lots of paths to get lost on, and if the mood takes you, there are some great Macedonian Pines that are as easy to climb as a step-ladder.
3. Wolstonbury Hill, West Sussex
Another wood that’s good to head to on hotter days is the one at the base of Wolstonbury Hill in the South Downs National Park. It is little visited, and by late spring the bridleways, that can be unbelievably mushy, will have dried up. If you’ve got strong legs, you can run straight to the top of the hill, and as you snake your way down enjoy the scent of wild garlic, which loves the chalky soil and the shades of the high beeches whose trunks look like giant elephants’ feet. Head to Hurstpierpoint afterwards for a cream tea.
4. Darent Valley, Kent
The Darent Valley Path is a great vein to run this time of year. In covering only a few miles of it between Otford, Shoreham and Eynsford, there are numerous points of interest. The low-running river has proved inspirational to many. Artist Samuel Palmer lived in Shoreham for a time, the same village which is said to have inspired the Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’. Edmund Spenser in The Fairie Queene (1576) felt there was a ’continuall spring, and harvest there’. Along the route there will be reams of blackthorns that flower so fulsomely they will look like they are covered in snow. If you go a little later in the year, you will run by a fully-functioning lavender farm. Lullingstone Roman Villa is also worth stopping in to see. It was vacated about 1,700 years ago. And of course, whichever direction you go, there will be village pubs to reward your efforts at the end of your run.
The still Darent, in whose water cleane Ten thousand fishes play, and decke his pleasant streame. - Spenser
5. Devil’s Dyke, Sussex
This is one of the most profoundly rewarding places to run in Britain. The car park and pub often look busy, but once you get a couple of hundred yards under your feet they will all be gone. Connected to the South Downs Way, you can run for miles in either direction. Or, if you are feeling energetic, run down the valley and circle back through the villages where at an absolute minimum you will be entertained to see what the local youth have done to their village sign that week: the place is called Fulking.
Devil’s Dyke is the longest and deepest dry valley in the UK. Legend has it that the Devil himself dug this mile-long 300-foot trench to flood the churches on the Weald. He was disturbed in the act by an old woman who tricked a rooster into crowing. Thinking morning was about to break, the Devil fled. The last shovel of earth thrown over his shoulder landed in the sea to become the Isle of Wight which you can see on clearer days.
I have run there hundreds of times, and I have never once seen the 1,000 square miles of Sussex and Surrey looking the same.