The original wooden Charing Cross was erected by Edward I in 1291 to mark the final stage of the funeral procession of his wife Eleanor to London, and was destroyed by the Puritans in 1647. Its location is now marked by a plaque in the pavement immediately behind a statue of Charles I on horseback at the Whitehall end of Trafalgar Square, map reference TQ300803. All distances from the centre of London are measured from here, which is the start point of the walk.
A stone replica cross stands in the forecourt of Charing Cross station at map reference TQ301805, erected in 1864-5 when the station was built by the South Eastern Railway Company. The company was formed in 1836 to construct a route from London to Dover. Branch lines were later opened to Tunbridge Wells, Hastings, Canterbury and other places in Kent. In 1923 it became part of the Southern Railway, nationalised in 1948. Since privatisation in 1996, these lines have been included in the South Eastern franchise, currently held by the Southeastern train operating company.
Charing Cross station is located on the Strand, A4, which follows the limit of the high ground north of the Thames, and Villiers Street drops beside the railway to the Victoria Embankment, A3211. Consequently Hungerford Bridge, which carries the railway over the Thames, allows generous clearance to river traffic. The two Golden Jubilee footbridges (opened in 2002) on either side of the rail bridge command excellent high level panoramas over Thames-side London.
The railway continues eastwards above the low ground of the South Bank on an embankment with numerous brick arches and bridges. The route follows these as far as Waterloo East station, which was opened in January 1869 as Waterloo Junction. This has its main access via an elevated walkway from Waterloo station, and a modest entrance from Sandell Street.
The walking route then bears north to join the Thames Path just before Blackfriars bridges. These comprise the road bridge, the massive footings of the long abandoned old rail bridge, and the less ornamental present rail bridge. The next half mile of Thames-side path is packed with visual interest, old and new.
We then come to London Bridge station. This is the oldest station in London fare zone 1 and one of the oldest in the world, having opened in 1836. Originally built by the London and Greenwich Railway, then shared with the London and Croydon Railway and subsequently also the South Eastern Railway from 1842, it was the original terminal of the SER. It has been re-built several times. In 1864 five of the existing platforms were converted to a through station to enable the extension of the main line into central London and the opening of Charing Cross station. The latest redevelopment as part of the Thameslink Programme Masterplan is nearing completion and there is currently no direct access from Tooley Street.
The route returns to the riverside at Queens Walk and passes Hay’s Galleria, an imaginative and elegant conversion of the redundant Hay’s Wharf, dating from 1856. We continue eastwards beside the Thames for over a mile passing City Hall and Tower Bridge before turning south through an extensive off-road green corridor including Southwark Park to reach Surrey Quays overground station.
An optional diversion here goes via Greenland Dock, a watersports centre and home to plentiful wildfowl, then via residential streets and Deptford Park to meet the South Eastern main line, still on its embankment, where it crosses Trundleys Road. More parks and mainly pedestrian streets take us to New Cross station, opened in 1850, replacing a station at North Kent Junction. The original building was on the bridge of New Cross Road, A2, but the station was relocated slightly north in Amersham Vale in 1975.
The ground here is rising and the railway enters a cutting. Once across the busy route to Dover, we go through more residential streets with a couple of green oases to St Johns station, 5 miles and 47 chains* down-line from Charing Cross and opened in 1873. Our route then drops down to follow the River Ravensbourne upstream through Brookmill Park to near Lewisham station. The current station which dates from 1857 is constructed of yellow stock brick with stone dressing and has an unusual survival of a wooden clapboard building at the back. Here the fast South Eastern railway tracks bypass the station, which serves as an interchange between the north Kent and mid Kent lines, all elevated on viaducts.
We skirt round the Lewisham Gateway site, currently under development, at the confluence of the Quaggy and Ravensbourne rivers, then follow the Quaggy via the charming Manor Park to Hither Green station, (7 miles 16 chains, opened 1895). Here the Sidcup line branches off eastward. A little further south, the Hither Green rail crash occurred in 1967, killing 47 passengers.
To avoid a road walk all the way from there to Grove Park station (8 miles 78 chains, opened 1871), the route traverses the large Hither Green Cemetery. Soon after passing Grove Park station we enter Chinbrook Meadows and rejoin the Quaggy (formerly known as the Chin Brook hereabouts). We then enter the outer London Borough of Bromley and cross the large Elmstead Wood, where the railway tracks go through twin tunnels because the landowner would not give permission for them to cross his land.
After passing the approach road to Elmstead Woods station (10 miles 21 chains, opened 1904), we follow broad but quiet roads flanked by large and expensive houses to Chislehurst station (11 miles 19 chains, opened 1865), passing the entrance to Chislehurst Caves en route. The caves (guided tours daily) have miles of passages carved through the chalk hills, and sheltered thousands of Londoners from air raids during World War II.
From Chislehurst the route follows the course of the Kyd Brook (the upper Quaggy) through two National Trust estates: Hawkwood and Petts Wood. The opening of Petts Wood station (12 miles 53 chains), in 1928 encouraged the contrasting developments of Petts Wood East and Petts Wood West, separated by the railway line.
The first half of the route from there to Orpington station (13 miles 65 chains) is along suburban roads, the second a footpath beside the railway. The station was opened in 1868 when the SER opened its cut-off line between Chislehurst and Sevenoaks. Previously, trains between London and Tunbridge Wells had taken a circuitous route via Redhill. Crofton Roman Villa, adjacent to the station, was partly destroyed by a railway cutting in the late 1800s but was rediscovered in 1926. The remains are open to the public at times during the summer months.
From Orpington we follow quiet outer suburban roads to Chelsfield station (15 miles 25 chains, opened 1868). Immediately thereafter we reach London’s Green Belt and the foothills of the North Downs. The railway line rises steadily on a 1 in 120 gradient through the Chelsfield Tunnel beyond the station, and the ground rises to 124m / 410ft above sea level to an indicator table on a stone obelisk affording a panoramic view northward to London, Canary Wharf, the Thames estuary and beyond.
We cross farmland to Chelsfield Church and beyond on gently rising ground before dropping to Knockholt station (16 miles 44 chains, opened 1876). Here the farm bridge at the southern end of the platforms forms the Greater London boundary with the Kent district of Sevenoaks. From there the ground rises steadily southwards. We cross Broke Hill Golf Course and farmland and follow a winding road to Knockholt Pound, then climb to the crest of the North Downs, 213m / 710ft above sea level. The ground then drops sharply down Star Hill, with views of Chevening to the south-west and Sevenoaks to the south-east as we descend into Holmesdale with its sticky gault clay floor. After crossing the M25 and M26 motorways we reach Dunton Green and then its rail station (20 miles 46 chains). Here the railway is on an embankment after emerging from a one and a half mile tunnel under Polhill.
Next we follow the waymarked Darent Valley Path down to the River Darent, past Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve, through Bradbourne Park and up to Sevenoaks station (22 miles 9 chains, opened 1868 as Tubs Hill). This is also the terminus of the Thameslink line from central London via Catford, Bromley South and Swanley.
Sevenoaks station is positioned at the foot of the Greensand hills. The railway heading south soon enters a tunnel, from which it emerges near Sevenoaks Weald after nearly two miles. Our path rises over the tunnel mouth and Sevenoaks Common to an altitude of just over 210m / 700ft before descending Hubbard’s Hill to Sevenoaks Weald. We then go via footpath and quiet country lane to Hildenborough station (27 miles 2 chains). After dropping to a low and sometimes boggy patch less than 30m / 100ft above sea level, the path rises to Meopham Bank, then drops gently to the Medway valley. Here it turns east to follow the Eden Valley Walk and Wealdway waymarked paths past Tonbridge Castle (well worth a visit) into Tonbridge.
The SER first reached Tonbridge, then known as Tunbridge, in 1842 via a route from London Bridge via Croydon and Redhill. That line was extended to Ashford the same year and to Dover a couple of years later. Tonbridge station (29 miles 46 chains) was rebuilt in 1864 to accommodate the cut-off line via Chislehurst and Orpington, which opened in 1868.
From Tonbridge our route rises from the Medway valley into the hill country of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with its sandstone ridges and steep-sided clayey valleys. We join the waymarked Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk to High Brooms station (27 miles 2 chains, opened in 1893 as Southborough) in the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. We then go through Grosvenor and Hilbert Park, recently restored with a grant from the Heritage and Big Lottery Funds, and including the wooded Hilbert Nature Reserve. There is a final mile of road to Tunbridge Wells station (opened 1846).
The station is located in an open cut with tunnels at both ends, and has entrances at two levels. From here the route rises rapidly through the outskirts of the town and into open country. We join the undulating course of the waymarked High Weald Landscape Trail and cross the county boundary from Kent into East Sussex. To reach Frant station (37 miles, opened 1851 when the line was extended to Robertsbridge) there is an unavoidable one mile’s walk along Bayham Road, B2169, but the rolling landscape either side is attractive.
After passing through Bells Yew Green we take an attractive and quiet country lane heading south, then branch off on a cross-country undulating and partly wooded course to Wadhurst station (opened 1851, Grade 2 listed buildings and footbridge). From here the B2099 rises to the high ground of Durgates and Wadhurst, while the railway to the west goes through a tunnel over two thirds of a mile long. Then the cross-country route passes through several miles of undulating and remote farmland interspersed with woods to Stonegate station (opened 1851).
From Stonegate station the route crosses further undulating terrain, descends to the Rother valley, rises to the crest of a hill ridge running eastwards, drops to the Rother valley again, and then follows the railway to Etchingham station (1851). From Etchingham to Robertsbridge station (1851) the route is solely on footpaths, without a single road in sight. We cross a series of streams in steep-sided valleys called gills, with some good views over the Rother valley from the undulating paths. Alongside the Robertsbridge mainline station is the station for the Rother Valley Railway being reconstructed as a heritage railway from Robertsbridge eastward to Bodiam where it will join the restored Kent and East Sussex Railway.
Southward from Robertsbridge, after a level section alongside the railway, a path leads sharply uphill to Mountfield and its church, with another rail tunnel nearby. Further paths lead down to cross London Road, A2100, close to the railway, where Mountfield Halt was situated from 1923 to 1969. The path continues alongside the River Line to Whatlington, from where the occasional bus service 304 runs to Tunbridge Wells via Robertsbridge, and to Hastings via Battle, enabling a break between stages at this point.
We continue beside the River Line for a while before joining undulating paths to Battle station (1852, Grade II listed and considered to be one of the finest Gothic style small stations in the country). An optional diversion via Battle town and the famous 1066 battle site is recommended.
The route then rises to the crest of Telham Hill before falling to Crowhurst station, whereas the railway skirts the base of the hill and avoids the need for a further tunnel. Although the section of the Hastings line through Crowhurst was completed in 1852, no station existed at this location until the South Eastern and Chatham Railway built a branch line to Bexhill West in 1902, which closed in 1964. Crowhurst served as a junction station.
We then descend to Crowhurst village and follow the waymarked 1066 Bexhill Walk for a short distance before taking the Crowhurst Road and paths beside the railway to West St Leonards station and our first glimpses of the sea. Immediately beyond the station at Bo-Peep junction, just before it enters Bo-Peep tunnel, the Hastings Line is joined by the East Coastway Line from Brighton.
We then head uphill and inland for a while before descending to St Leonards Warrior Square station (1851), at the end of a three quarters of a mile tunnel. The ground rises steeply immediately beyond the station, and the railway enters a further half mile tunnel. We head inland and uphill to Bohemia before turning down through Summer Fields to Hastings station, recently rebuilt. The arrival of the railway in 1851 began Hastings’ heyday as a seaside resort.
From here it is merely one third of a mile to journey’s end at the water’s edge. Given sufficient time and energy, a further walk eastwards into the Old Town and a possible return over the East and West Hills can be recommended.
* Distances along railways are traditionally measured in miles and chains. A surveyor’s chain is 22 yards, one-tenth of a furlong, or one-eightieth of a mile.