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Q&A: Where are the steepest hills near London?

Mountains in London


I had three similar questions about the ‘hilliest hills’ near London:

“A friend and I (both living and working in central London) are competing in a quadrathlon which involves a 15 mile hike over seven Munroes in the Scottish highlands. We’re looking for the hilliest/most challenging day hike that is accessible from London within one day (i.e. we’d leave early and return the same day, but with c.8hrs of very hilly hiking) for training purposes. Would you be kind enough to recommend any locations we should consider?”

“Our children like hikes that are difficult, but not long. They want to clamber up steep inclines that force them to use their hands and to argue over picking out the best path. Do you know of any particularly challenging, and preferably short, hikes that are easily accessible from London?

“I’m looking for hiking routes up steep hills, rough climbs no more than 45 minutes from West London by car. Can you suggest any routes?”

So where ARE the steep hills nearest to London?

First of all, let’s clarify what we mean by steep and hilly!

The highest places in or near London in terms of metres from sea level may not even look like or feel like a hill when you’re on top, because the height gained is so gradual you don’t notice it.

So what we’re really looking for is hills with a large relative drop (or prominence) in height from the surrounding ground.

There are names for these! Marilyns are hills with a 150m prominence and Humps have a 100m prominence.

Luckily the fantastic people over at the Saturday Walking Club have provided a brilliant, interactive map which shows you exactly where Marilyns and Humps are located, as well as minor tops (with less than 100m prominence).

Hills by prominence

[CLICK HERE to access the map on]

From the simple screenshot above, you might be able to see that the blue pins – which are the Marilyns – are very scarce around London.

If you’re expecting to find steep crags and views of mountain ranges within an hour of London you’ll be sadly disappointed I’m afraid.

But I’ve worked out the top ten hills with the biggest ‘drops’ that can be realistically reached on a day hike from London by public transport – and suggested a walking route for each which climbs UP the hill in question by the steepest route!

I’ve also added a few suggestions that aren’t in the top ten that still give you that ‘I can see for miles and miles’ feeling.

So let’s start with the biggest first.

1. North Downs: Leith Hill (246m drop)

View from the top of Leith Tower
Click here to view it on a map

At the top of Leith Hill you can also climb the famous tower which is the highest point in South East England – apparently on a clear day you can see 14 counties, the Channel and the clock face on Big Ben!

For the toughest climb up Leith Hill, approach it from the south, from Ockley station.

Here’s a circular walk (links opens a PDF document) from Ockley which includes the ascent.

Read more about Leith Hill at the National Trust.

2. South Downs: Ditchling Beacon (214m drop)

Ditchling Beacon Trig Point
Click here to view it on a map

The classic and very lovely Time Out Book of Country Walks hike from Hassocks to Lewes crosses Ditchling Beacon (you can find instructions online here).

The Hassocks to Lewes walk climbs up onto the Downs at the Jack and Jill windmills, and then you follow the top of the Downs to Ditchling Beacon and onwards. However, although there is not much in it, it does look as though the toughest, steepest climb up to Ditchling Beacon is from Wick Farm directly below the Beacon. You could perhaps follow the minor road from Clayton to take you to this point, and then climb up.

(You’re a glutton for punishment aren’t you?)

3. North Downs: Botley Hill (209m drop)

Click here to view it on a map
Video by Ultraplodderdotcom

The North Downs Way takes a path up the steep climb up Botley Hill. The top is not particularly exiting I’m afraid… the path climbs through woods on a muddy path, and at the top is a road and a car park, as you can see in Ultraplodder’s video above.

I suggest walking the North Downs Way section between Oxted and Otford to do this hill – both have train stations and this makes a great day hike.

4. South Downs: Firle Beacon (196m drop)

From Firle Beacon
Click here to view it on a map

Another beauty on the South Downs, Firle Beacon gives you stunning panoramic views – and it’s always nice to see more of the Downs ahead and behind you.

The steepest climb is on the north side, approaching from Glynde station.

For a day hike, this walk from Glynde to Seaford is a lovely option. Or you could combine Firle Beacon with another hilll by following the route suggested under Cliffe Hill, below.

5. South Downs: Wilmington Hill (192m drop)

Sheep on Windover Hill
Click here to view it on a map

Wilmington Hill is the site of the Long Man of Wilmington, a mysterious chalk hill figure.

This walk from Berwick to Eastbourne allows you to get the best view of the Long Man and climb up the steep grassy slopes to the trig point.

6. Sussex: Black Down (191m drop)

Click here to view it on a map
Video by Voxley19

The steepest / toughest way up Black Down is at the south by the car park.

Walk it via Haslemere on this route from the Time Out Book of Country Walks. If you really want the challenge of the steep route, take a detour to the car park and plod on… all the way up!

Read more about it at the National Trust.

7. North Downs: Detling Hill (163m drop)

Leaving Detling
Click here to view it on a map

This is another Marilyn on the North Downs Way. It’s possible to do this in a long day walk between the train stations of Cuxton to Hollingbourne (here’s Rambling Man’s description of his walk along this section).

The North Downs Way climbs up to Detling hill from the village of Detling. A short detour from the Way will take you up to the top.

8. South Downs: Butser Hill (158m drop)

Heading down from Butser Hill
Click here to view it on a map

This is yet another gorgeous location on the South Downs. The top of Butser hill is flat, with excellent views north. It’s a popular location for kite flying!

It’s easy to get to from Petersfield. I was unable to find a good circular walk description taking in Butser Hill so here’s my suggestion for a walk that takes the steepest and toughest climb up the hill – via Ramsdean Down.

From Petersfield cross the A3 and follow footpaths west to Stroud. Follow track south-west to Ramsdean village, and from there head south to take the steep climb up Butser hill. Follow the South Downs Way south and down off the hill, crossing the A3 again and entering Queen Elizabeth Country Park at the Visitor Centre. Now follow the Hangers Way roughly north-east all the way back to Petersfield, passing through the village of Buriton.

9. South Downs: Cliffe Hill (150m drop)

Kingston and Lewes in the distance
Click here to view it on a map

Cliffe Hill lies directly above the Sussex town of Lewes – you can see the top above the chalk cliffs in the picture.

Try the Lewes Circular Walk to tick off Cliffe Hill. (This walk also gives you the opportunity to extend to climb Firle Beacon – number 4 in this list!

10. South Downs: Littleton Down (149m)

Source file for Littleton Down Panoramic
Click here to view it on a map

This hills just misses out on being a Marilyn by 1 measly metre. But it seemed unfair to miss it out.

It is possible to climb this hill on a circular route from Amberley station, making use of the South Downs Way for part of the outward journey. This route from Walking Britain contains all the details.

Some final comments… and suggestions.

The ten hills above are purely taken from the list of Marilyns and Humps. They are ‘technically’ the steepest hills but aren’t necessarily the best walks or nicest walks to give you that ‘I can see for miles and miles’ feeling.

So I wanted to give you some of my best suggestions to satisfy your hill walking cravings or provide you with a challenging walk.

This walk from Winchelsea to Hastings is the ‘toughest’ walk in the Time Out Book of Country Walks Vol 1. They describe it as “The hardest walk in the book. A gentle start with the 1066 Path and a great pub for lunch. After lunch, a great coastal cliff walk with 4 steep climbs.”

Hope Gap

The hardest walk in Volume 2 of the Time Out Book of Country Walks is Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s a fantastic walk that takes you past the Seven Sisters, one of my recommended ‘must do’ places to visit. It’s supposed to be 9 out of 10 toughness; I personally don’t think it’s that hard, but it certainly gives you a great day out and truly wonderful views.

Box Hill is another great location for a steep climb. There is a really steep climb up to Box Hill coming from the train station over the stepping stones (take care in rainy weather as they can be submerged). You could do a circular walk taking in this climb two or three times I guess…! At the top you are rewarded with great views. At the top there is a cafe, and several walking trails of various lengths, many designed with families in mind.

Cyclists on Devil's Dyke

Hassocks to Devil’s Dyke. Another walk from the Time Out Book (Vol 2). But it has 3 steep climbs, the last one being Devils Dyke, a major beauty spot. Devils Dyke in particular is extremely steep and they could try to scramble up the sides of it to the top or walking up the middle of it. You can cut the route short by getting a bus to Brighton from the pub at the top of Devil’s Dyke.

The Shoulder of Mutton Hill on this walk from Petersfield to Liss is a tough pull up, if memory serves me rightly.

I’m conscious that most of these hills are south of London – and unfortunately north Londoners that’s just the way it is! But I have got one suggestion for you: Ivinghoe Beacon – a steep hill you can get to from Marylebone. Read more about it here.

Here are some more suggestions from Twitter!

My thanks to Rambling Man for the use of several of his photographs.

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Escape to the Forest of Dean: a landslip, a Loop, and a little leap

St James's Church

St James’s Church

For her first solo walk, Charlotte Rixon escaped London for a day hike in the Forest of Dean. Here she tells us how she tackled a landslip, a Loop, and a little leap.

One sweltering Saturday in July I slipped out of London and escaped into a forest. I was seeking solitude and adventure and had been dreaming of getting lost in the woods since reading Sara Maitland’s beautiful book about the roots of our fairy tales, Gossip from the Forest.

That said; I didn’t want anything too taxing or off the beaten track for what was to be my first solo hike. So I picked a walk called the Lancaut Loop in the Forest of Dean. At just 9km long, it would be easily manageable in a day trip from London, plus as a circular walk that began and ended at Chepstow Station, I wouldn’t have to worry about buses or pickups.

Then again, described it as ‘not for the faint-hearted or weak kneed’, so perhaps it would deliver something of the thrill I was after.

Crossing the Wye Bridge

Crossing the Wye Bridge

Hopping off the train, I followed signs for Chepstow Castle, passing bunting-lined streets with pastel-coloured houses, before reaching the banks of the river Wye. As I strode out across the Old Wye Bridge, with blue skies above, the castle crumbling in the sunshine behind me, and the forest stretching out endlessly before me, I felt that I had truly escaped.

Halfway across I passed from Wales into England, then reaching the other side followed the road uphill, looking out for what my instructions intriguingly referred to as a ‘squeeze’ style on my left. Finding it, I opted to scale the gate.

Squeeze stile

Squeeze stile

Springing down into the field beyond I felt myself grinning. Everywhere I looked was green, the hedgerows thronged with birdsong and the air carried a faint whiff of cow pat – infinitely nicer than the dog turds I usually see. Meadow brown butterflies led the way past derelict cowsheds, over gates and through fields (all open access under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme) until two white houses emerged on the horizon.

This is where I joined the Offa’s Dyke Path and paused uncertainly because I was expected a well-worn path and not the faintly foot-marked track I found. I carried on until I spotted a green-topped stone ruin, thought to have been a lookout tower or windmill in days gone by, and gave a cluster of sheltering cows a wide berth before passing through the first of many kissing gates.

Two kissing gates and two fields later and I found myself at the official start of the loop and the entrance to the Lancaut Nature Reserve. That was when I saw the sign, alerting walkers to a landslip that posed a ‘significant additional hazard’ and urging them to turn back before it was too late. While I was digesting this information, two female walkers with a small dog appeared from the other end of the loop and informed me that one of the paths was “very dodgy”. But there was no turning back, so I thanked them for the warning and plunged into the forest.

Sunlight and Shade

Sunlight and Shade

The path descended quite sharply for around 250m and was so tangled with tree roots and overhanging branches that I had to watch my footing in between catching glimpses of the river to my left and 300ft limestone cliffs rearing up through the trees to my right. A robin flitted between birches while seagulls screeched out across the river. Whenever I hear a seagull, I smell the sea, and as the path wove in and out of the woods, flashing between sunlight and shade, I had the curious sensation of being by turns deep in a forest and out on the coast.

At one point the path spattered out between buddleias onto a sea of boulders, which originated from an old limestone quarry in the cliffs, and I leapt across, pretending I was rock pooling. I was glad then that I hadn’t brought my hubby along. We’re not sure why, but our feet seem to be suited to different terrains. He’s great on hummocks, but terrible on rocks, while I’m the reverse.

The landslip

The landslip

After the boulders, the path resumed, but only for a few steps before it dissolved into 20m of loose scree, sloping down into the muddy riverbank below. So this was where the landslip had occurred. It was really nothing. With a few carefully positioned footholds, a slight lean into the hillside and a few tree roots for balance, I was safely across, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The path then took me beneath a stretch of cliffs known as Wintour’s Leap, named after Sir John Wintour, a landowner and royalist from nearby Lydney who was said to have escaped pursuing Roundheads during the Civil War by flinging himself across the cliffs from horseback. Though perhaps not as daring as Wintour had been, I felt chuffed to be taking my own small leap into the unknown, on my first walk alone in an unfamiliar area.

Above Wintour's Leap

Above Wintour’s Leap

I met just one other walker on the loop (a wildlife photographer with a lovely Gloucestershire accent who told me to look out for deer munching on sloes across the water) but I often heard voices echoing eerily off the cliffs, accompanied by a tinkling cowbell sound.

The path ended with a wooden gate guarded by ancient yews, beyond which stood the ruin of 11th century St James’s Church, the only remains of the settlement of Lancaut, which is believed to have once been a leper colony. I ate my packed lunch on a shady bench overlooking the ruin before embarking on the steady climb up to the clifftops. There was something irresistibly romantic about the path as it wound upwards through woodland, always hinting at delights just out of sight, like a derelict limekiln around one bend or a patch of pure white stonecrop around the next. Plus, on a hot day, it helped that I could never see quite how far I had to go.

Beneath Wintour's Leap

Beneath Wintour’s Leap

Once at the top, I had to walk along a short stretch of road before rejoining Offa’s Dyke. As I was looking out for a sign, I went to look out over Wintour’s Leap from what I took for a viewing platform, and solved the mystery of the voices and bells when I spotted climbers. I was about to turn back when I noticed tiny, mossy steps spiralling temptingly up the edge of the cliffs and my heart gave a little leap for joy.

Little mossy steps

Little mossy steps

The steps led up to a series of long, cool, green tunnels that seemed to propel me magically forwards, so that in no time I was back at the beginning of the loop, laughing at the warning sign and pleasingly clanging the last kissing gate closed behind me. I then retraced my steps back to Chepstow where a delicious local ice cream awaited followed by a long but restful train journey back to London.

Path down to the river

Path down to the river

More information: Lancault Loop – Forest of Dean

Charlotte Rixon
Charlotte Rixon is a London based freelance journalist who writes about wildlife, gardening, country walking and all things green and outdoorsy. A volunteer for the London Wildlife Trust, she delights in discovering hidden wilds in unlikely places, but also likes to escape into the countryside every now and again. She guest blogs at and

Follow her on Twitter @CharlotteRixon

All photographs are copyright of and used with permission of Charlotte Rixon.



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