Most Londoners don’t drive for pleasure – quite the opposite; it’s a chore, a practicality, something to get out of the way as quickly as possible. But it needn’t be like this. For those in the know, there’s a way to seek adventure and discover corners of the UK that nobody has explored in decades, all without leaving your car.
The question is, where can you go that no one – or very few people – have been before? Hasn’t every road been travelled already? The short answer is no. There are in fact a whole host of hidden roads just waiting to be discovered. They are the countryside’s best-kept secrets: green lanes. Strictly speaking, their proper name is a Byway Open to All Traffic (BOAT). A good look at an Ordinance Survey map quickly reveals the UK is littered with these overgrown paths, enchanting forest tracks and un-surfaced rough roads.
And while it seems hard to believe, you’re legally entitled to drive along these ancient and unmaintained roads, thanks to the 1968 Countryside Act and Under Public Rights of Way Law (PROW).
So how do you go about green laning? First off, you’ll need a proper 4x4 (or trail bike), as most green lanes are deeply rutted and consist of either rough gravel, loose sand or deep mud. These lanes are certainly not for your city run-around or classic Bentley. And while it might be tempting to fire up your shiny new Range Rover, think twice... the green lanes are not named so without good reason: often, all you can see from the cockpit, especially in spring and summer, are trees, brambles and other heavy, scratchy vegetation, which will no doubt tarnish the paintwork.
A well-worn 4x4 is the best bet, one with a few dents, knocks and a good deal of life experience under its belt. Many regular green laners will have a highly modified 4x4 complete with knobbly off-road tyres for maximum traction, high lift suspension kits to give huge ride height, hydraulic winches to pull them out of ditches, banks of spotlights to illuminate the way through the dark, and inclinometers to check the steepness of an ascent or descent.
Once you’ve got your 4x4, it’s time to pack a bag of provisions and dig out an OS map (1:25,000 or closer is best). Official BOATS are marked by large green crosses and you’ll be amazed how many there are, even on the outskirts of cities. All you have to do is pick one.
The thrill of travelling these lanes hinges on the fact you never really know what you’re going to find: deep ruts, darting deer, steep banks, fallen trees, rustic bridges, the odd rabbit hole, shallow, muddy fords, slippery sand – the list is near endless. Couple this with the joy of doing something you probably assumed was forbidden and you have yourself a thrilling day out, allowing you to enjoy the countryside from a totally new perspective.
To make sure you end up with a magical day of discovery, rather than a stressful exercise in damage limitation, you must prepare thoroughly for your trip. Check that the road you want to drive along is legally classified as a BOAT, and not a bridleway or footpath, which vehicles are not permitted on. Many BOATs have been reclassified or closed, so you’ll need to do your homework before venturing out.
Double check your insurance. If you’re not covered for off-roading, contact a specialist and ask for 4x4 insurance with green lane cover.
Take a fuel can, some fix-it gear and some food and drink. Using a 4x4 in low range transmission mode, or even just its low gears, burns up fuel fast. By their very nature, green lanes are usually remote and sometimes take a lot longer to traverse than it appears on the map; it might be a long hike to a fuel station or cafe. It’s also worthwhile taking some oil, water, WD40, duct tape, tools and rope with you. And don’t forget your wellies, rain coat and a fully charged mobile phone.
When you get there, remember green laning isn’t about speeding through the countryside – that’s what race tracks are for. It’s also a lot more fun if you go slowly – this is where the skill lies: controlling your vehicle, picking the right line through the trail and staying out of the ruts – making it to the end of the line in one piece without laying waste to the countryside is an art indeed. Go fast, and you’re very likely to get stuck, turn upside down or cause damage to yourself and your surroundings.
Also be mindful of other people you may come across. You’re allowed to green lane in designated areas but this isn’t always widely understood or agreed with. You might not meet anyone or anything if your green lane is in a remote part of the countryside, but if you do come across a group of ramblers, a family picnic, another green laner, or a startled deer, go slower and be extra polite.
The last thing anyone wants in a remote and overgrown location is to have trouble. If you literally get stuck in the mud, you might need to call upon those ramblers you just sprayed with mud for help.
So now you’re ready to go exploring the British countryside, here are some great places to get you going.
WOLVENS LANE/CROCKERS LANE
There are lots of great byways east of Westcott in Surrey. One in particular is Wolvens Lane. To get there head south out of London towards Dorking by taking exit 9 off the M25. Once there head west on the A25 through Westcott. Turn left on Sheephouse Lane and continue down for half a mile until you arrive at a left hand turn called Wolvens Lane. This fantastic byway runs for 2.6 miles and will take over ten minutes at a steady pace of 10-15 miles per hour.
There are four short byways to chose from in and around the village of Saunderton. Head towards High Wycombe on the M40 and get onto the A4010 Wycombe Road. Take a left past the Chiltern Hotel onto Lee Road. If you have time, you could also head a few miles east and explore the two lanes near Chesham village.
CROWBOROUGH AND ROTHERFIELD
In the area of Crowborough and Rotherfield there are over twenty short byways to choose from. These include Lordwell Lane and Limekiln Road. Your best bet is to head to Crowborough. Take the M25 and leave at exit 5 onto the A21 towards Royal Tunbridge Wells. Continue down Eridge Road until you arrive at Crowborough. One to look out for is Brattles Lane, the longest and most popular byway, which begins on Hadlow Down Road and runs for just under a mile.