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Up and Over the Hill at Horsenden

Some of London's best grassland and its wildlife are to be found on this walk with an extensive view.

Distance 2.7 miles (4.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 180ft (55m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Mainly woodland tracks

Landscape Woods, meadows, tow path and extensive views

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 173 London North

Start/finish TQ 162845; add 650yds (594m) if joining the walk from Perivale tube at Point e

Dog friendliness No particular problems

Parking Car park at Horsenden Hill

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park walk back towards the road. At the metal barrier turn right down some steps and continue along a tarmac path that runs parallel to Horsenden Lane. Continue in front of the Ballot Box pub to reach a tarmac path just past it.

2 Turn right along this tree-lined path and keep ahead as it passes Ridding Wood on the left. After ¼ mile (400m) turn right, just before a metal gate and a row of houses, to enter Horsenden Wood.

3 Within a few paces take the left-hand path at a fork and keep ahead as it climbs steadily uphill then crosses a tarmac path. Bear right at the row of trees ahead of you that marks the boundary of the golf course. When the ground levels towards the top of the hill, go to the viewpoint ahead on the left.

4 Head for the triangulation pillar behind the viewpoint in the middle of the grassy plateau. Take the footpath on the far right that leads to a flight of steep, wooden steps going into a thickly wooded area. Continue down the steps. At a crossing of paths keep ahead, passing to the left of a solitary oak tree, to reach the road.

5 Turn left to cross a footbridge over the Grand Union Canal (Paddington Branch). Just after this turn left again, down some steps, to the tow path. Continue under the bridge along this peaceful stretch of the canal, which later widens and passes Perivale Wood (and the neighbouring Royal Mail postal services depot).

6 Keep walking straight ahead for another ¼ mile (400m). Turn left after a wooden footbridge to go through a kissing gate. Carry on over the bridge (Horsenden Hill is now visible again in front of you) and follow the winding footpath to go through another kissing gate. Turn left along a footpath to the right of some playing fields and continue ahead.

7 At the end of the fields bear right to go through a gap in the trees, then turn left over a footbridge and keep to the right edge of the next meadow. Keep going towards another meadow and head for the building beyond its left diagonal corner, the Ballot Box pub. Cross the road and turn right to retrace your steps along the tarmac path to return to the start.

The summit of Horsenden Hill sits 276 feet (84m) above suburban west London, making it one of the highest points in the capital. It is also the largest open space in the Borough of Ealing. At one time this area was dense woodland where wild boar, bears and wolves roamed, but now the wildlife is much less aggressive. If you like a hill to be a hill and want a steeper uphill walk for a better workout, do this route in reverse. (Reversing the directions will tax your brain a little more too!)

The best time to see the diversity of wild flowers and invertebrates, such as butterflies, is from June to August, when Horsenden Hill is transformed into a landscape of colour. Small copper and common blue butterflies are often seen in the area by the series of steep steps leading down to the solitary oak tree, because their caterpillars like to feed on plants from the dock and pea family, which grow here in abundance. Dyer's greenweed also thrives here, although the plant is quite scarce in London. Its yellow extract was once used to dye cloth and was mixed with a blue extract from the woad plant to make a green dye.

Unlike most agricultural grasslands that have been fertilised and sprayed with herbicides, the grasslands here have simply been left to develop naturally, first by grazing and then by hay cutting. In this way, wild flowers have prospered.

The traditional methods of cultivating the land also extend to the woodland. A good example of this is the ancient Perivale Wood, which becomes a sea of bluebells in spring. As you walk along the canal beside the wood you may notice that some of the willows have been cut to a height of about 7ft (2m), or 'pollarded'. This management technique ensured that when new shoots grew they were out of reach of cattle. Now it provides a habitat for beetles and other insects. It makes a good nesting area and food supply for birds, too. Lichen is growing on some of the tree trunks, which is an indication of good air quality because the organism, a mix of algae and a fungus, can only grow successfully in clean air. Although rangers are sometimes accused of felling trees unnecessarily, it is an important part of woodland management since it means that trees do not have to fight for light. There remain many 'standards' in the woodland - oak trees that have been left to grow for more than 100 years. Another conservation technique carried out is the old craft of hedge laying. The slim trunks of the hedging trees are partly cut (but not severed), then bent over to allow new growth to appear from the stump. The extra sunlight allows flowers such as cow parsley and red campion to grow at ground level.

Where to eat and drink

The Ballot Box pub takes its name from a hotel that once stood 300yds (274m) south of the present building. This was where boatmen in the 19th century voted after walking from the nearest canal, about 600yds (549m) away. Lunch is served all day and the pub has a family dining section and an indoor play area for children.

What to look for

If the weather is hot then you'll notice that the ground has wide shrinkage cracks, whereas after rain it becomes waterlogged and muddy. Blame this on the geology of Horsenden Hill and the thickness of London Clay here. The difficulty of working this soil was the main reason for the change in agricultural practices in the 19th century when wheat growing (to make flour) was largely replaced by hay production (to feed animals). Walk in this clinging mud on a rainy London day and you may feel some sympathy for the ploughman of old.

While you're there

Take a look at Paradise Fields, a newly developed area of agricultural land to the rear of the wooden bridge crossed after Point 6. There's a lake that attracts lapwings and swans. Other wildlife includes, snipe, linnet and goldfinches, and foxes. On the opposite side of the bridge, Canal Pond provides a wetland habitat for dragonflys. Common terns are often seen fishing near here and herons are regular visitors in winter.

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