“Wonderfully unimpressive”: hill-climbing in London
For urban exploration with an ironic twist, go 'bag' all 32 London Borough Tops
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
London is an unlikely destination for hill-climbing. The local topography is mostly flat, with some soft undulations. The city’s tallest building – the Shard, at 306 m (1,000 ft) or 310 m (1,020 ft) if you include the tip – easily beats the highest natural point, Westerham Heights in the south-eastern borough of Bromley (245 m, 804 ft).
But if you’re in London anyway and you’ve seen all of the usual sights, why not seek out the highest points in each of its 32 boroughs? Yes, many are ridiculously low and obscure. Nevertheless, ‘hill bagging’ is a thing even in London, as an alternative and mildly ironic (and thus perhaps very British) form of urban exploration. Alternatively, there's the London Peaks Relay, a 240-km (150-mile) race in which a team of runners visit the highest point in every London borough within 24 hours.
Here’s an overview of the 32 tumps (1) you have to 'climb' before you can consider yourself the conqueror of London's Borough Tops. While none is a challenge individually, together they add up to 2,996 m (9,829 ft) – more than twice the height of Britain's highest mountain, the redoubtable Ben Nevis, at 1,344 m (4,409 ft).
1. Westerham Heights, Bromley: 245 m (804 ft)
The 2,141st-highest peak in England and the 13,201st-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Traffic on the A233 is lethal and the top is on a blind corner”.
- “Maybe we could petition the house owner to get a huge granite slab installed in the garden as a summit feature.”
- “Got as close as I could without upsetting people or horses!”
Westerham Heights is a separately named part of Betsom’s Hill, which peaks just across the county border in Kent. It’s both the highest point of the North Downs and of Kent. Its ranking as the 2,141st-highest peak in England (and the 13,201st-highest in the British Isles) derives from the Database of British and Irish Hills (DoBIH), as quoted by The Mountain Guide, from which the other rankings – where available – were also taken. The quotes are from climbers who have bagged the ‘hills’ in question, taken from the Hill Bagging website.
2. Sanderstead Plantation, Croydon: 175 m (574 ft)
The 3,045th-highest peak in England and the 15,722nd-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “The little hillock is clearly marked with information in a plastic wallet”.
- “Nice woods, but the brambles on the top are getting a bit long. Not one for shorts”.
- “Pleasant spot. Clearing with 2 small benches and a large tree in the middle”.
3. Bushey Heath, Harrow: 153 m (502 ft)
The 3,361st-highest peak in England and the 16,538th-highest peak in the British Isles. Also formerly the summit of Hertfordshire.
- “Nice boundary stone opposite sude of the road from the Harvester”.
- “Easy one, this: park in the Harvester car park, get a coffee and then before you drive off, hop over the road and bag yourself a county top”.
- “These sort of tump summits on totally flat urban roads are such a pointless nonsense aren't they!”
4. Clock House, Sutton: 147 m (482 ft)
The 3,437th-tallest in England and the 16,776th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Top in the corner of playing field just over the stile”.
- “Popular dog walking spot, nice high hill but no views to speak of”.
- “Glad people weren't playing football here or it could have been embarrassing”.
5. Highwood Hill, Barnet: 146 m (479 ft)
The 3,453rd-highest peak in England and the 16,811th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Access nightmare. Watch out for electric fences and angry horses”.
- “Asked to proceed to top on private land – denied”.
- “In the dark over fence from east into grassy field and up to paddock summit. Kept torch off”.
6. Potter Street Hill, Hillingdon: 134 m (440 ft)
The 3,595th-highest peak in England, and the 17,224th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Some very posh property”.
- “Short amble through Oxhey Wood from the car park”.
- “A pleasant mile uphill from Northwood Hills station. The presence of the City of London Coal Duty post near the top was an added bonus”.
7. Spaniards Road, Camden: 134 m (440 ft)
Also mentioned as Hampstead Heath. The high point is at or near where these two meet.
- “Saw several of the resident bright green parakeets”.
- “I agree on the difficulty in finding the natural top. It may be in the large building being restored next to the memorial. The gate was open, so I wandered in. Good views of London through the trees near the summit”.
- “No real top, just a bus stop and hundreds of other Sunday walkers for company”.
8. Eaglesfield Recreation Ground (part of Shooters Hill), Greenwich: 132 m (433 ft)
- “Also visited nearby Severndroog castle”.
- “Walked up from Falconwood railway station through Oxleas Wood and Oxleas Meadows - much nicer approach than most London Tumps!”
- “Nice parkland, Great views SE, interesting architecture tower”.
9. Highgate, Haringey: 129 m (423 ft)
The 3,661st-highest peak in England, and the 17,420th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Only room for one of us at a time on this tiny roundabout!”
- “Rather inauspicious”.
- “Not recommended at rush hour”.
10. Bournwell Hill, Enfield: 119 m (390 ft)
The 3,762nd-highest peak in England, and the 17,758th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Walk down hill to the top. Near gate. nearby lamp-post proclaims highest point in Enfield”.
- “Nice leafy stroll from Cockfosters tube to the top - lunch beside cricket pitch”.
- “Unremarkable. Note to self not to return”.
11. Sydenham Hill, Southwark/Lewisham: 112 m (367 ft)
The 3,857th-highest peak in England, and the 18,024th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Following a visit to the Horniman Museum & Gardens, a pleasant walk up leafy Sydenham Hill”.
- “Nice pub nearby!”
- “Could be anywhere”.
12. Westow Hill, Lambeth: 110 m (361 ft)
The 3,885th-highest peak in England, and the 18,103rd-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Busy and dangerous road top, shame the highest point not in the nearby Crystal Palace Park”.
- “By black-painted pub at unpleasantly busy road junction”.
- “I walked around the roundabout via the crossings, then seized my chance to carefully walk across the centre during a momentary lull in traffic”.
13. Havering-atte-Bower, Havering: 105 m (344 ft)
The 3,941st-highest peak in England, and the 18,306th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Highest point appears to be churchyard near SE corner”.
- “Great village sign and unusual arch and main entrance under church tower”.
- “Nice view of east London from here”.
14. Dartmouth Park Hill, Islington: 100 m (328 ft)
(near Highgate Hill, also mentioned as the borough high point, with the same altitude)
- “The high point appears to be at the boundary stones/mile posts”.
- “Excellent selection of real ales at the nearby Duke’s Head”.
- “Alongside is Highgate Cemetery (…) Notable for being a nature reserve (lots of foxes) and for some of the people buried there such as Karl Marx (…), but also Douglas Adams who I like to think would have described Marvin plodding around bagging London Borough Tops moaning that ‘the first 32 were the worst’…”
15. Sudbury, Brent: 91 m (299 ft)
The 4,084th-highest peak in England, and the 18,805th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “A glorious sunny winter day and a good little hill to mark 71st birthday!”
- “A surprisingly pleasant hill in a pleasant neighbourhood”.
- “The views over north London were spectacular”.
16. Pole Hill, Waltham Forest: 91 m (299 ft)
The 4,085th-highest peak in England, and the 18,806th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Short walk, good view, trig point an obelisk, marking meridian line and a plaque about TE Lawrence. Proper hill unlike other London ones I have done”.
- “Easy walk from Chingford station. Nice top in woods with view to Shard”.
- “Definitely one of the better London Borough Tops”.
17. Cabin Hill, Redbridge: 90 m (295 ft)
- “Parked in the car park to the north then wandered about the flattish summit. A pleasant spot”.
- “Popular recreation area with golf course approach from Havering”.
- “Very nice spot - probably my favourite of all the borough tops”.
18. Telegraph Hill, Kingston upon Thames: 90 m (295 ft)
- “Parked at pub, then up track to clay pigeon shooting ground. Nobody blasting away & spoke to two nice guys who let me cross the ground to the reservoir compound”.
- “Did not try to climb locked gate at road due to warning signs, and tales of an impenetrable inner fenced compound and security cameras”.
- “Fenced off as described by others so settled for highest point outside the fence. Shame it can't be claimed”.
19. Horsenden Hill, Ealing: 85 m (279 ft)
The 4,149th-highest peak in England, and the 19,035th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “A proper hill with good views and paths”.
- “A conservation area of woodland and rough grass. Archaeological evidence has shown that people occupied the site for at least 7000 years. The ancient plough soil on the hill top suggests Neolithic farming. The Ballet Box Public House is so called because of its use as a polling station for canal boatmen”.
- “Not a bad top apart from the shady characters in the car park”.
20. Langdon Shaw, Bexley: 83 m (272 ft)
The 4,161st-highest peak in England, and the 19,099th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Driveway of house tucked into corner (left of the fancy, out-of-place gates) seems to be summit although there could be a back garden a few cm higher”.
- “Two days ago, I was walking in the mountains around Lake Como: the contrast (is) surreal”.
21. Putney Heath, Wandsworth: 60 m (197 ft)
- “Big lump of a hillock in the middle of the heath”.
- “Wonderfully unimpressive”.
- “I returned to the Windmill Cafe with burdock seed-heads all over my rucksack”.
22. Richmond Park, Richmond upon Thames: 56 m (184 ft)
The 4,337th-highest peak in England, and the 19,888th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Who thought London could be so lovely?”
- “A deer stepped out of the margins of the wood quite close to me in the twilight. Admired the view from King Henry's mound and toured the potential high points. Either the grassy road verge or the ground by a tree 50 yards North West of the trig, near the fence, for my money”.
- “I'm glad I live in Scotland. These English hills are just so difficult. Finding the exact top is like being blindfolded and trying to stick the tail on a donkey in a spin dryer”.
23. Lauriston Road, Merton: 55 m (180 ft)
The 4,343rd-highest peak in England, and the 19,925th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Wandered over from an afternoon drinking in the Crooked Billet - fine pub, dull hill”.
- “A blue plaque at the road end marks a house where the WWI war poet Robert Graves lived”.
- “Very flat area, posh but not scenic for a top. Highest lump on road marked, maybe appropriately, with a pile of horse dung today”.
24. Boundary Road, Westminster: 52 m (170 ft)
Also mentioned as St John's Wood Park Road. The high point is at or near the junction of these two roads.
- “Reckon the actual top is the base of the Plane tree or perhaps even the junction of Boundary Rd and The Marlowes. Took in the Abbey Rd zebra crossing for good measure”.
- “Seems to be at end of the block paved drive to me. It's all debatable as both pavement and block-paved drive are man-made”.
- “I had the impression that I was walking downhill from Swiss Cottage for this one”.
25. College Park, Hammersmith and Fulham: 45 m (148 ft)
The 4,397th-highest peak in England, and the 20,191st-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “The high point is by Travis Perkins it would appear. I liked the house just down the road called 'Belle Vue'. Maybe once upon a time!”
- “Combined with the adjacent Harrow Road top outside the intriguing Kensal Green Cemetery which is well worth exploring for its history and wide range of different grave styles from different faiths”.
- “A short walk from Kensal Green station. Seems to be the Portuguese/Brazilian quarter around here”.
26. Harrow Road, Kensington and Chelsea: 45 m (148 ft)
The 4,398th-highest peak in England, and the 20,192nd-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “An engraved stone on the wall of 691C appears to show a boundary line. Otherwise, the topographical excitement around here is limited”.
- “Really not worth the time and effort in getting here”.
- “Bagged on way back from board meeting. Rubbish but slightly better than the one up the road”.
27. Marks Gate, Barking and Dagenham: 43 m (141 ft)
- “Easy approach as downhill from Havering Atte Bower church”.
- “Easy parking in nearby Billet Road, which about the only good thing I can say about this top. A boring and busy main road. The nearby McDonalds is named after the top - is London Borough Top bagging really getting that popular?!”
- “Highest spot in the new part of the cemetery or across road in quarry site”.
28. Seven Sisters Road, Hackney: 39 m (128 ft)
The 4,429th-highest peak in England, and the 20,358th-highest peak in the British Isles.
- “Yippee, yet another road junction! At least it was only a short stroll from the tube”.
- “Rather dull”.
- “Pleasant park nearby”.
29. The Vale, Hounslow: 35 m (115 ft)
- “The high point appears to be in an industrial estate at 34 metres, although it's all flat there too so near impossible to pick the highest point”.
- “Every day at Heathrow 1,400 flights take off and land – one every 45 seconds which is nearly half a million per year and all of them fly low over here as the end of the runway is only 2 miles away and points this way”.
- “I think this need to be validated - Hard to believe this is a top of anything”.
30. Beckton Alps, Newham: 35 m (115 ft)
- “From Beckton DLR station via zig zag path and gap in fence. Great views over London!”
- “Popular spot judging by the amount of litter on top, which is not surprising given the fantastic 360-degree views”.
- “A wonderful sense of dereliction”.
31. Swanfield Street, Tower Hamlets: 18 m (59 ft)
- “Highest point is the bandstand in the small circular park”.
- “Beaten to be first to log this hill by my daughter and then only by 10 minutes”.
- “A quick detour on a sunny evening, bound for City airport”.
London has 32 boroughs, but the map (and this list) has only 31 tops. That’s because Sydenham Hill, on the border between Southwark and Lewisham, is the highest point in both boroughs. Not mentioned on the map is the highest point in the City of London, which is a separate and independent entity, not part of Greater London as such.
Chancery Lane/Holborn, City of London: 22 m (72 ft)
- “Cheating really. I was on a 25 bus”.
- “Climbed up the steps in Holborn Station from the lowest platform just to get a sense of altitude gain. Oxygen tanks and crampons not needed”.
- “I'd walked across this pavement summit several times whilst working in London, without realising it was a high point. How strange to revisit it now in a stolen moment of a day trip from Scotland to London for work”.
Strange Maps #906
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(1) In England, a hillock, mound, barrow or tumulus. May be related to the Welsh twmp.