L ND N

 Friday, August 24, 2007

  WALK
  LONDON


London's a great city to walk in. The centre's compact enough to cover on foot, full of sights and parks and bustle and so many things to see. And the suburbs are perfect for a ramble, full of footpaths and woodland and peace and quiet. But we Londoners rarely get out our walking shoes to explore the capital properly. Oh no. Most of us just end up sitting in cars or trains or buses instead, on our way to the same old destinations over and over again. And that's a shame.

the London LoopTransport for London agree, which is why they've established a network of six strategic walking routes across the capital. These are specially signposted routes, some walkable in a day, others requiring rather longer. They cover every corner of London, from Trafalgar Square to Cockfosters, and there's bound to be one near you. Some of the routes follow major rivers, some look a bit random, and others appear to have been sketched out on a map by someone attempting to draw a circle with a pair of wobbly compasses.

Details of all six walks can be found on the new Walk London website. There's an interactive map to help you to decide where to go. There are pages devoted to each of the walks, and in some cases to each subsection of each walk. There's another page where you can order free leaflets by post - although the service is very slow, and not terribly reliable, and restricts you to a piddling three leaflets (out of 60) in each submitted request. But never mind, because most of the leaflets can also be downloaded direct from the site, which means you could be out and walking within the hour.

I couldn't let August pass without doing something special. So I thought I'd go out and take a stroll along each of London's six strategic walks. Not the whole of each route, you understand, but a section of each. It would take far longer than a week to walk the lot... and anyway, several people have already beaten me to it. I've picked sections across all corners of London, not just in the middle. And I've had a great time so far, exploring byways, bridleways and towpaths I'd never even considered visiting before. Below you can read a report about each. Because sometimes the journey can be more enjoyable than the destination.

London's six strategic walks
Thames Path: follow the meandering banks of London's greatest river (67 miles within the Greater London boundary)
Lea Valley Walk: a waterside stroll beside East London's not quite so famous river (12½ miles within Greater London)
Capital Ring: a circular footpath around the edge of Inner London, sort of Zone 4-ish (78 miles, in 15 sections)
London Loop: a circular footpath around the edge of Outer London, sort of Zone 6-ish (150 miles, in 24 sections)
Green Chain Walk: a network of interlinked paths cutting across four SE London boroughs (40 miles, in 10 sections)
Jubilee Walkway: perfect for tourists, wandering around central London's most famous sights (14 miles, all in Zone 1)

Go fetch your trainers, and let's go for a walk...


  WALK LONDON
  The Lea Valley Walk

  Ponders End to Waltham Abbey (3 miles)


Lea Valley WalkFor starters, let's clear up the name of the river. The river is the River Lea, but the man-made channel that runs close by is the Lee Navigation. The valley is the Lea Valley, but the recreational area is the Lee Valley Park. If it's natural it's "Lea", and if it's artificial it's "Lee". Honest. Simple. OK, let's go for a walk.

cob, pen and seven cygnetsI could have gone for a Lea Valley walk a few metres from my front door, because the official route ends close by at Bow Locks. Instead I headed rather further north, to Enfield's industrial quarter, and strolled along a less familiar stretch. First stop Ponders End station, in the shadow of four landmark tower blocks, as I attempted to follow woefully inadequate signage down to the riverside. After a tour of various local dual carriageways I eventually found the pedestrian entrance to Ponders End Lock, and was welcomed to the waterway by two swans and their seven overgrown cygnets. It was a winning start.

It soon became apparent that this stretch of the Lea Valley forms a narrow north-south netherworld sliced off from reality. The western bank is hemmed in by warehouses and long thin industrial estates, while the view to the east is blocked by the grassy slopes of a giant reservoir. Everything runs parallel to the river, not across it - the roads, the railways, the cycle tracks and even the electricity. It was possible to trace by eye the route of the river for several miles, just by following the army of pylons stalking towards the horizon.pony nibbles pylon These pylons make fishing difficult - there were signs everywhere barring anglers from casting any line that might cause accidental electrocution. But horses nibbling grass around pylons' feet in the riverside meadows didn't seem to mind, and elderberries grew perfectly ripe beneath the silent hum.

The isolation ended, briefly, at Enfield Lock. This is murderous country, with the surrounding housing estates built on land previously given over to the manufacture of armaments, gunpowder and munitions. The brick-built Royal Small Arms Factory, which once produced Enfield rifles, now forms part of the shopping centre at the heart of a modern development of Courts, Mews and Closes. Elite residents enjoy a waterside location, parking up their 4x4s outside fake cottages behind secure electronic barriers. The two main attractions beside the lock appeared to be a boarded-up fun-pub, ripe for demolition, and a wildlife-free "Swan and Pike Pool". The London Loop walk crosses the river here. It is perhaps unfortunate that long-distance strollers should be forced to visit this washed-out spot twice.

narrow boats along Rammey MarshMy view of Leaside improved somewhat further north along the river. Housing faded away as the towpath doglegged around the Green Belt haven of Rammey Marsh. Scores of immobile narrow boats were tied up here, providing a home from home for smiling couples sat at picnic tables on their own patch of riverside lawn. A bit further ahead, crossing the valley on concrete stilts, six lanes of rumbling M25 severed the landscape. Somewhere in the gloom beneath the motorway bridge is the spot where London meets Hertfordshire meets Essex. It's not a charming spot, that's for sure. I stopped off at the Hazelmere Marina cafe for a well-deserved ice cream (being, alas, too late to enjoy a proper cooked breakfast). And a few steps later, past one final swan, I reached my destination at Waltham Abbey Lock. I could have carried on along the Lea for another 35 miles, to Luton, but I'm not that much of a masochist. The Abbey and its gardens were a much more pleasant target, and considerably close at hand. Time to Lea-ve.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
• More about the Lea Valley Walk
• More about Lee Valley Park
Other people who've walked this section: Urban 75, Bertuchi


  WALK LONDON
  The Green Chain
[sections 2 and 3]
  Erith to Oxleas Meadows (6 miles)


Erith waterfrontMmm, Erith. Down on the underwhelmingly flat bit of the Thames estuary, on the last bend before the eastern edge of London. We're not talking gorgeous here. Erith had a brief spell as a tourist resort in the 19th century when paddle steamers ruled the river, but most of the place was rebuilt in the 1960s and 70s, and any charm the town might have had was sucked clean away. The London Loop walk begins here, down by the muddy-brown riverside. From the end of the rickety wooden landing stage you can look straight across the Thames to the walk's finishing point on Rainham Marshes - less than a mile as the seagull flies, but 150 miles away on foot (via Uxbridge). Erith's river wall is also one of the starting points for the Green Chain Walk - a 40-mile network of interlinked footpaths sprawled across four southeast London boroughs. The first signpost is located in a particularly grim spot, well away from the town centre on the river wall beside some graffitied apartment blocks. Quick, let's walk away from the grey-brown water and try to find a view with a bit of green in it.

Lesnes AbbeyThere isn't an awful lot of open space and woodland in this corner of Bexley, but the Green Chain is very good at linking together what little exists. This section of the walk heads first for Frank's Park, a tree-packed oasis atop the hilly ridge above Belvedere. Watch out for the dog mess - they don't seem to be very good at pooper-scooping round here. Next there's half a mile along suburban sidestreets, with a view to the north across terraced rooftops to an industrial Thamesside skyline. Then, just beyond a pub which the guidebook tries to make sound interesting but isn't, the walk enters the unexpectedly glorious surroundings of Lesnes Abbey Park. Follow the wooden posts up to the heathland summit tumulus, where a carpet of purple heather blooms, and then descend to view the razed ruins of Lesnes Abbey. Only the outline of the 12th century abbey remains, etched out in low stone walls across a grassy lawn. I was duly charmed. From here you can look out across the marshes once owned by the local monks - now covered by the estates of Abbey Wood and Thamesmead. An unloved information centre tells the abbey's story on peeling display cards, and directs visitors to the elevated fossil beds on the woodland plateau where shark's teeth can still be found.

Green ChainAt Bostall Common the Green Chain splits in two. It does this a lot, so you really have to know where you're going or else you might end up in Woolwich by mistake. My choice was southwest through the woods, emerging shortly afterwards at the entrance to Plumstead Cemetery. Here sat Sally, beneath a limp green parasol, attempting to sell bouquets and floral tributes to a passing trade of non-existent mourners. Up next onto East Wickham Open Space, a very ordinary scrap of common but with a newly-planted avenue of oak trees down the centre, just to give us Green Chain walkers somewhere interesting to go. The world's most pointless cycle gate has been erected at the western exit, spanning just halfway across the path so that even a motorbike and sidecar could easily squeeze by. This may be a good time to stop for a reviving shandy in the Glenmore Arms, especially if it's suddenly started chucking it down. Try not to let the pub's complete absence of punters disturb you.

Of all the walks I'm following this week, the next few hundred yards were the narrowest and most overgrown. Not somewhere you'd want to walk through in shorts, not unless you're a masochistic nettle addict. Far safer to heed the sign at the entrance announcing that "This land belongs to clients of KSLAW LLP Solictors" and warning that members of the public use it at their own risk. And then, wholly unexpectedly, the path breaks out into open farmland. Freshly harvested fields, piled-up hay bales and hilly hedgerows ripe with blackberries, all highly unlikely sights in the suburban backwaters of Zone 4. The backside of a petrol station soon ruins the rural illusion as the path crosses Watling Street in its modern guise - the A207 atop Shooters Hill. And finally into ancient forest at Oxleas Wood, its leafy bridleways reprieved from severance by an unwanted ring road as recently as 1993.

Oxleas caffThe end of the walk is marked by that most welcome of sights - a tea hut. It's tarted up as a proper cafe these days, but it still sells everything a weary long distance traveller might reasonably expect. Egg sandwiches, fried breakfasts and steaming jacket potatoes for starters. A chalked-up menu above the bar displays an impressive list of culinary options, eagerly served up by a crack team of smiling food and beverage operatives. Just don't ask for an ice cream if the tub's only just come out of the freezer, otherwise you may be standing waiting for some time. Five of the Green Chain's ten walks start or finish at this most civilised of locations - a veritable footway service station. And they'll sell you a pack of Green Chain route maps from behind the counter for just £3.50. Even better value than a cheese roll and a cuppa, I thought.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
Places of interest along the route
The Green Chain Festival (15-23 September 2007)
Buy the Green Chain information pack (a bargain at only £3.50)


  WALK LONDON
  The London Loop
[section 5]
  Hamsey Green to Coulsdon South (6 miles)


southern City outpostThe London Outer Orbital Path (or LOOP) footpath skirts the rim of London like a muddy one-lane M25. It's a marathon route, 150 miles long in total, divided up into 24 manageable chunks. The first section to be officially opened was the southernmost, scudding along the bottom of London along the border between Croydon and Surrey. This is an especially scenic section, linking four expanses of City-owned chalky downland. It's also the only section not to have a map and full downloadable directions on the Walk London website. Grrrr. I knew it would be a bit risky trying to follow the route without an official leaflet or guidebook, relying only on signposts and waymarkers. But I like a challenge.

Riddlesdown: Catch the 403 bus south from Croydon, along cosy Tudorbethan avenues, and you'll eventually reach the suburban outpost of Hamsey Green. It boasts a Woolworths (which is pretty impressive for somewhere I'd not heard of before) as well as a Co-op and the Thread Bear needlework boutique. The Loop walk begins at a signpost on the tiny village green, outside the Good Companions pub, and heads west towards the grassland summit of Riddlesdown. There's a bit of meadow first (the only stretch of the walk within Surrey) and then a glorious view out across the hills above Whyteleafe. Listen carefully and you might hear an Oxted-bound train emerging from a tunnel beneath the chalk and whistling along the valley below. The official footpath skirts three sides of Skylark Meadow, avoiding a disused quarry with sheer white cliffs. Descent is via an old Roman track, Riddlesdown Road, once the main route south to the coast but now just a leafy bridleway with well-spaced dog bins.

glider at KenleyKenley Common: Cross the valley via Barn Lane, at the top of which a staircase of 82 wooden steps leads even further up the hillside to the next downland plateau. The Loop passes through the woodland and grazing pasture to the north of the common, missing out completely on the excitement to be found on the other side of a tall hedge. Whoosh! That orange and white blur was a glider swooshing a few metres above your head, coming in to land on the runway at the old WWII Kenley Airfield. So long as you stay outside the perimeter track, the MoD don't mind you getting right up close to watch operations on the airfield itself. Look - a pack of yellow jeeps swarms around each returning craft, reattaching a rope to the nosecone ready to yank the glider back up into the sky. If the wind's right it won't be long before you see (and hear) a take-off launching steeply into the clouds, with the cable parachuting back to earth a few seconds later. Don't get too jealous, but these unpowered pilots have a far better view across the landscape than you'll ever get from the ground.

Coulsdon Common: I got rather lost (and rather muddy) on the next short section of the walk, which deviates unnecessarily around a field close to the Wattenden Arms pub. I was back on track soon afterwards, only to find two disturbingly frisky horses guarding the next field and eyeing me with hoof-kicking intent. When even their owner failed to control them ("whoa!!!") I retreated rapidly back over the stile and hunted for an alternative route. A short detour by road sufficed, past a far more docile fox, although this meant missing out on a close-up view of the Croydon Astronomical Society's white-domed observatory. There followed a brief residential interlude up Rydons Lane past the homes of the almost-rich, including one particularly offensive bungalow with nine cars parked on the crazy paving out front. A short stroll across Coulsdon Common followed - all very green and pleasant, but still relatively ordinary compared to the rest of the walk.

Happy ValleyHappy Valley: And now the best bit - the unspoilt contours of Happy Valley and Farthing Downs. Both are easily accessible, but abundant hordes of local dog walkers seem to prefer not to venture too far from the car parks at either end. Happy Valley was an unexpected treat, with a criss-crossing network of footpaths to explore across acres of sloping wildflower meadows. A good place for a picnic, if only I'd thought to buy some appropriate comestibles in Waitrose in Sanderstead several hours previously. I thought I was alone on the track through Devilsden Woods until I came across an Indian lady gyrating by the bridleway. She stopped and yelled "not yet!!" down the wooded slope... to two men with a film camera... and then continued her silent dancing after I'd passed.

signpost atop Farthing DownsFarthing Downs: Before long the woodland track emerged onto a long finger-like ridge on the very roof of London. I don't know what I'd been expecting from the map, but this was better. One mile of chalky upland, scattered with Iron Age tumuli and grazing cattle, with an unfenced road passing unobtrusively along the centre. Halfway along stood a windswept beech glade (one of whose trees dates back to 1783), beside a much younger Millennium Cairn (recently fenced-off due to post millennial vandalism). The views to either side were a majestic mix of rolling green hills and farmland, threaded with suburban veins of white-fronted semis. Directly ahead lay the urban sprawl of Coulsdon, my ultimate destination, and beyond that something far more recognisable. A row of distant City skyscrapers, one of them definitely Gherkin-shaped, marked out the centre of London 15 miles to the north. Canary Wharf was unexpectedly far to the right, behind the TV masts at Croydon and Crystal Palace. It was then a gentle descent down the tip of Farthing Downs, past a City-of-London-owned cattlegrid (honest), before retuning to civilisation with a bump. This section of the walk ended, conveniently, at the footbridge over the tracks at Coulsdon South station. I could have carried on along the Loop for another 100 miles or so, clockwise round to Rainham, but I wimped out and returned home on the quarter past three.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
Visitor guides for the four City-owned commons

Other people who've walked this section:
John, Richard, Mark, Bertuchi, Stephen, Tom and Fred


  WALK LONDON
  Jubilee Walkway

  The Camden Loop (2 miles)


Jubilee WalkwayThey're all over the centre of the capital. They're scattered sporadically across pavements, squares and piazzas. They've been there for the last 30 years. They're the metal plaques of the Jubilee Walkway. You've probably seen them, but I bet you've never tried to follow them. Good, because you'd have failed utterly. There are no signposts, no indications of which way to go next, just a few silver circles underfoot. It's quite impossible to trace the route from one to another... unless you have a copy of the Jubilee Walkway leaflet. So, I got hold of a leaflet.

It's 14 miles altogether around the Jubilee Walkway, from Buckingham Palace in the west to St Katharine's Dock in the east. The route runs both north and south of the river, and has been designed to connect the majority of London's key attractions. Most of the walkway was established to commemorate the Queen's Silver Jubilee, but I decided to follow a more recent "Golden" addition - the Camden Loop. I hoped it would be an exciting trek through the backstreets of Bloomsbury, from Holborn up to the Euston Road and back again. Alas, it didn't quite turn out to be exciting.

Brunswick CentreThe Camden Loop breaks off from the main Jubilee Walkway beside a special plaque along Chancery Lane. This is the heart of legal London, surrounded by Inns of Court, solicitors chambers and shops that sell smart clothes for posh barristers. Look around you on the route northward and you'll probably spot some poor underpaid clerk wheeling a trolley of ribboned documents from one Georgian terrace to another. That'll be a highlight. The officially designated route manages to miss the more interesting half of Lamb's Conduit Street, preferring the "launderette & lavatory" end to the "boutique & bistro" end. It diverts around Coram's Fields - a much loved half-term haven for energetic kids and their frustrated parents. And it cuts through the Brunswick Centre - a residential glass ocean liner with a revamped shopping arcade at its heart.

Marchmont Community CentreDon't come this way expecting to walk through history. These are the genuine back streets of Bloomsbury, where residents live and shop and hang out in the local community centre. They share the area with several hotels, some aligned in elegant crescents, others crammed together in ugly terraces, but all desperately seeking to attract visitors arriving at nearby Kings Cross station. The walkway follows a seemingly random path through the backstreets, emerging briefly onto the Euston Road before plunging back into residential anonymity. British Library users should join the route here. Keep your eyes peeled and you might spot a blue plaque on a council-infill tower block, revealing that it was built in 1972 on the site of a centuries-old pub. OK, so maybe there is plenty of history here after all, just not the sort you were expecting.

At last, from Euston station southwards, the walk improves a bit. The route passes by, and through, the campus of the University of London. Ignore that, and concentrate instead on the series of leafy squares that follow. Gordon Square was once the hub of literature's bohemian Bloomsbury Group (Virginia woz ere). Woburn Square is rather smaller, and narrower, and most definitely more of an Oblong. The path skirts Russell Square, entered past the quaint green Cabman's Shelter in the northwestern corner, with a brief glimpse of the stark tower at Senate House along the way. the ceiling of the Great CourtAnd then, most unusually for a long distance foothpath, the route passes directly through a public building. When the British Museum is closed you'll have to find your own way, unsignposted, round from the back to the front entrance. But during opening hours you can walk directly through China, and Egypt, and any other ancient land that takes your fancy. Not even the Pennine Way can beat that.

After the Great Court's millennial glass triangles, the rest of the Camden Loop is somewhat of a disappointment. Streets of faux antique shops selling replica trinkets to tourists. A huge abandoned GPO sorting office whose sixth floor cracked panes are open to the sky. And the murderous thundering traffic of High Holborn and Kingsway. End of loop. It's been a two mile diversion to Euston and back, and for what? The direct route would have taken no more than 10 minutes, and passed the veritable delights of Lincoln's Inn Fields and the Sir John Soane's Museum. Next time I'll save my shoe leather and take the shortcut.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
The Jubilee Walkway (official website)


  WALK LONDON
  Thames Path

  Hampton Court to Richmond (7½ miles)


Hampton Court - through a gateThis is magnificent. A meandering stroll along the leafy banks of the Thames, out west where the river is wide and the motorcruiser is king. We're talking rustic, affluent and tranquil. Erith this is not. And where better to begin than the royal palace at Hampton Court? Don't expect to see much of the 500 year old tourist attraction, not without paying. There's a semi-good view of Henry VIII's Privy Garden through a heraldic gate on the riverside, but the path soon strides off around the edge of the estate. And the estate is huge! It takes a good three miles to walk round the southern perimeter, round the back of a hidden golf course, no deviation permitted. Don't worry, you won't tire of the view. On this side of the river there's an arboreal strip of meadow, on the other the detached marinas of Thames Ditton. The drab grey estuary is still tens of miles away.

Kingston Bridge is a scenic arched affair, and supports the only road across the river between the start and end points of this walk. The Thames Path takes this opportunity to swap banks, thrusting walkers into Kingston's vibrant retail centre. Try not to let the shops distract you. On through Canbury Gardens, looking out from municipal parkland to vast riverside mansions opposite. Those who live here have a few million to spare, plus a jetty at the bottom of the garden to moor up a speedboat or two. This stretch of the Thames is also a popular place for sculling and rowing, and you may spot several oar-ed eightsomes thrusting by. But only so far.

Teddington Lock footbridgeSluice gates jut out into the river at Teddington, channelling downstream traffic through a narrowing sidestream. Teddington Lock forms the upper limit of the North Sea's tidal influence, and it's also the site of Thames Television's legendary TV studios. Kids teatime stalwart Magpie was filmed here, as well as Monty Python's fish-slapping dance (down by the lock itself). Pause for a while to enjoy the view from the ornate spiky pedestrian footbridge, before continuing north along another mile of isolated towpath. Tracks lead off into an overgrown expanse of flood meadows and reclaimed gravel workings, now the Ham Lands nature reserve. Somewhere worth exploring in greater detail, I suspect. And out in the middle of the Thames, inaccessible from the southern side, lies Eel Pie Island - Twickenham's most unusual suburban hinterland. Its seven wooded acres provide a semi-private residential outpost for creatives and eccentrics, as well as the odd boatyard and burned-down jazz venue.

Ham HouseRound the bend, in the middle of nowhere, a grand Stuart mansion looms out of the trees. It may look inaccessible by road, but coachloads of old ladies wandering through the entrance gate tell a different story. Ham House is a rare survivor of Stuart nobledom, snapped up by the National Trust and filled with gaudy furniture and delicate hangings. There are no electric light fittings in the house (and all the curtains are kept closed) to ensure that various portraits and tapestries are protected from premature fading. The semi-darkness may also enhance the house's reputation for ghosts and hauntings (or that may just be psychic tosh). The house's famous gardens, of which there are several, are quite splendid. Some are very formal, with shrubbery laid out to pristine perfection, while others look gorgeously natural but are in fact 100% 17th century artificial. Ham House is a detour well worth taking (but be warned - not on Thursdays, Fridays or any day during the winter months because the gates are very shut).

Richmond E GrantYou can abandon the walk here by taking the foot ferry across to Marble Hill House, but it's not too much further ahead to Richmond. The path crosses Petersham Meadows, a key part of the famously-good view from Richmond Hill above. Don't be tempted to ascend the hillside, stick to the Thames-side path. It's here that the Richmond riverside kicks in, the first intrusive civilisation for miles. A new wooden cafe has just been opened beneath the tallest plane tree in London, should you be thirsty. A variety of tickets are available for cruises both down and up river, should you be tired. And keep your eyes open for local celebrity residents strolling along the towpath, should you spot Richard E Grant in a white t-shirt and jogging bottoms carrying designer shopping bags. Like what I did. See, I told you it was classy along here.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
The Thames Path (official website)
Other people who've walked this section: Stephen


  WALK LONDON
  Thames Path

  Hampton Court to Richmond (7½ miles)


Hampton Court - through a gateThis is magnificent. A meandering stroll along the leafy banks of the Thames, out west where the river is wide and the motorcruiser is king. We're talking rustic, affluent and tranquil. Erith this is not. And where better to begin than the royal palace at Hampton Court? Don't expect to see much of the 500 year old tourist attraction, not without paying. There's a semi-good view of Henry VIII's Privy Garden through a heraldic gate on the riverside, but the path soon strides off around the edge of the estate. And the estate is huge! It takes a good three miles to walk round the southern perimeter, round the back of a hidden golf course, no deviation permitted. Don't worry, you won't tire of the view. On this side of the river there's an arboreal strip of meadow, on the other the detached marinas of Thames Ditton. The drab grey estuary is still tens of miles away.

Kingston Bridge is a scenic arched affair, and supports the only road across the river between the start and end points of this walk. The Thames Path takes this opportunity to swap banks, thrusting walkers into Kingston's vibrant retail centre. Try not to let the shops distract you. On through Canbury Gardens, looking out from municipal parkland to vast riverside mansions opposite. Those who live here have a few million to spare, plus a jetty at the bottom of the garden to moor up a speedboat or two. This stretch of the Thames is also a popular place for sculling and rowing, and you may spot several oar-ed eightsomes thrusting by. But only so far.

Teddington Lock footbridgeSluice gates jut out into the river at Teddington, channelling downstream traffic through a narrowing sidestream. Teddington Lock forms the upper limit of the North Sea's tidal influence, and it's also the site of Thames Television's legendary TV studios. Kids teatime stalwart Magpie was filmed here, as well as Monty Python's fish-slapping dance (down by the lock itself). Pause for a while to enjoy the view from the ornate spiky pedestrian footbridge, before continuing north along another mile of isolated towpath. Tracks lead off into an overgrown expanse of flood meadows and reclaimed gravel workings, now the Ham Lands nature reserve. Somewhere worth exploring in greater detail, I suspect. And out in the middle of the Thames, inaccessible from the southern side, lies Eel Pie Island - Twickenham's most unusual suburban hinterland. Its seven wooded acres provide a semi-private residential outpost for creatives and eccentrics, as well as the odd boatyard and burned-down jazz venue.

Ham HouseRound the bend, in the middle of nowhere, a grand Stuart mansion looms out of the trees. It may look inaccessible by road, but coachloads of old ladies wandering through the entrance gate tell a different story. Ham House is a rare survivor of Stuart nobledom, snapped up by the National Trust and filled with gaudy furniture and delicate hangings. There are no electric light fittings in the house (and all the curtains are kept closed) to ensure that various portraits and tapestries are protected from premature fading. The semi-darkness may also enhance the house's reputation for ghosts and hauntings (or that may just be psychic tosh). The house's famous gardens, of which there are several, are quite splendid. Some are very formal, with shrubbery laid out to pristine perfection, while others look gorgeously natural but are in fact 100% 17th century artificial. Ham House is a detour well worth taking (but be warned - not on Thursdays, Fridays or any day during the winter months because the gates are very shut).

Richmond E GrantYou can abandon the walk here by taking the foot ferry across to Marble Hill House, but it's not too much further ahead to Richmond. The path crosses Petersham Meadows, a key part of the famously-good view from Richmond Hill above. Don't be tempted to ascend the hillside, stick to the Thames-side path. It's here that the Richmond riverside kicks in, the first intrusive civilisation for miles. A new wooden cafe has just been opened beneath the tallest plane tree in London, should you be thirsty. A variety of tickets are available for cruises both down and up river, should you be tired. And keep your eyes open for local celebrity residents strolling along the towpath, should you spot Richard E Grant in a white t-shirt and jogging bottoms carrying designer shopping bags. Like what I did. See, I told you it was classy along here.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
The Thames Path (official website)
Other people who've walked this section: Stephen

  WALK LONDON
  Capital Ring
[section 10]
  South Kenton to Hendon Park (6½ miles)


Capital RingWhat the hell was I doing in South Kenton, up at the obscure end of the Bakerloo line? No offence to anybody who lives here, but this is not premier walking country. But the Capital Ring footpath has to circle London somehow, and if that means traversing dead ordinary suburban streets to get from one green bit to the next, then so be it. Even if the green bits are as ordinary as Preston Park. It was the first "highlight" of my walk - a very typical municipal rectangle of bowling greens and swings and tennis courts and trees. No doubt it's much loved by locals, but it wasn't worth buying a Travelcard extension for.

Barn Hill PondMore endless pavements followed, across Preston Road and along the avenues of Uxendon. At last, down an alleyway between two white-painted semis, I entered the western tip of Fryent Country Park. It was only a bit of scrubland alongside a Jubilee line embankment to start with, then opened out into an unexpected hay meadow. Here I engaged in cowardly dog-avoidance tactics by lingering and pretending to admire the view for a bit, whilst secretly waiting for two bouncy alsatians to pass by across the top of the field. Phew. There followed a woodland climb to a delightful secluded hilltop lake (where I stood face to face with a fox for half a minute and, in contrast, felt no fear whatsoever). Through a break in the trees there should have been an excellent view over Wembley Stadium, just a mile to the south. Excellent on a fine day, that is, but I'd ventured out beneath a flat grey sky and so, alas, the arch was almost perfectly camouflaged amid the gloom.

In the car park at the bottom of the hill, on a particularly uninformative noticeboard, came the official civic greeting - "Brent Council Environmental Services Landscape & Leisure Division Welcomes You". I felt duly underwhelmed. The country park continued across a busy main road, where I encountered several sorrowful magpies flapping their way through a series of muddy meadows. This is how rural Middlesex must have looked before the railways came - all hay and hedgerows. I got to see how built-up Middlesex looks today in a 270° panorama from the top of another low summit just to the north. And then it was back down, past a swooping kestrel, for another over-long walk through a maze of residential backstreets. Here milk floats whirred silently down Reggie Perrin avenues. Trainee drivers reversed L-plated cars around well-rehearsed corners. Yet another dug-up front garden succumbed to crazy paving for off-road parking. It was all so very Metroland, and so very familar.

St Andrew's, KingsburyKingsbury has two highly unusual parish churches. St Andrews number 1 is built of flint rubble with a squat short spire, and is almost 900 years old. The building still stands, but only just, shored-up by the efforts of local parishioners and the Churches Conservation Trust. Graffiti sprayed on the outside walls and a graveyard of semi-toppled tombstones both suggest that there is much expensive restoration work still to be done. Nextdoor is St Andrews number 2, seemingly a very typical Victorian building in neo-Gothic style, except that the entire church was moved here brick by brick in 1933 from its original location just off Oxford Street.

I passed down the lane beside the twin churches and approached the shores of northwest London's largest reservoir - the Welsh Harp. It was constructed in the 1830s to feed the Grand Union Canal, later becoming increasingly popular as a site for fishing and funfairs. The opening of a local station in 1870 brought Londoners flooding to the banks of the reservoir for picnics, racing and general frolics. More recently the Welsh Harp has evolved into a site for watersports, notably sailing and canoeing, as well as becoming an important wildlife reserve. I was expecting rather more impressive views across the water, to be honest, but the northern path ran behind a screen of trees for most of its 1km length so I was mildly disappointed.

Welsh Harp reservoir

I should have cut and run at the eastern end of the reservoir, after a particularly hairy crossing over a very narrow road bridge. But no, I was stupid enough to continue along the Capital Ring path until the end of this section, along various residential streets with no redeeming features whatsoever. Here the car is king - this is no place for walkers. I crossed three major roads in fairly close succession, first the A5 (a busy high street), then the M1 (in embryonic form, slightly north of Junction 1) and finally the A41 (a jammed-up dual carriageway). I passed very close to Brent Cross shopping centre, without ever noticing it was there. And I ended up in Hendon Park, another pleasant but non-special grassy quadrant. The Green Belt, alas, is several miles further out. But if you want suburban realism with the occasional rural treat, the Capital Ring's the way to go.

Follow in my footsteps [map]
Other people who've walked this section: Mark, Bertuchi, Richard
Lots more about Kingsbury and the surrounding area (from Jag)
I've been taking photos along these walks (and here they are on a map)

 Monday, August 20, 2007

compass pointsCompass points
(an occasional feature where I visit London's geographical extremeties)
SOUTH London - Chaldon


South LondonWhen you think of South London you probably don't think of rolling cornfields and verdant hedgerows. But that's exactly what the southernmost tip of London is like, 15 miles due south of Charing Cross, down on the border between Croydon and Surrey. See the tree marked in my photograph with a green circle? That's as far south as Ken Livingstone's influence extends. It's the spot in London closest to the equator, where the sun rises highest in the sky during the summer, and where daylight is longest in midwinter. Of all the locations south of the river, it's the ultimate place that black cab drivers will never take you. [map]

The border between London and not-London sweeps in across this cornfield via woodland on the outskirts of Caterham. Then it turns right, at the aforementioned tree, and follows a leafy country lane north towards Farthing Downs. Ditches Lane is a picturesque rat-run, much loved by motorists "out for a drive", but it's only a single track road with passing places and therefore a potential accident blackspot. Locate the passing place closest to the border, and the tarmac alongside reveals clear evidence of the precise spot where south London terminates. Council operatives from the London borough of Croydon have painted a white line down each side of the lane, whereas their Surrey counterparts have not. Where the fading line disappears, that's outer London. photos

I arrived on foot, down the hillside from the country park at Happy Valley. The footpath descended across an idyllic hayfield, between newly-mown stalks of harvested corn. The field was flanked on either side by thick green woodland, within which the occasional gunshot could be heard as some local landowner revelled in murderous sport. The sky was abuzz, not just with disturbed birdlife but also with helicopters, gliders and the occasional biplane. To the west, beyond the shrouded lane, another golden field rose up to a low tree-topped ridge photos. And a few steps ahead, invisible except to cartographers, the dashed line marking the fringe of Surrey.

Chaldon village signFurther ahead, at the foot of the freshcut slope, lay the northern edge of the village of Chaldon. A few nondescript cottages could be seen, but the village's pride and joy - the historic parish church of St Peter and St Paul photos - was shielded behind a screen of trees. I'd been hoping to look inside to view the church's 12th century mural, reputedly the earliest known English wall painting , but alas I was thwarted by a badly-timed wedding. Damn you, oh happy couple and your be-hatted congregation. Instead I was forced to turn round and head back up the lane, and back into the cornfield, and back across the border into the capital. Maybe I'll get inside the church next time... assuming there is a next time. I can't ever imagine returning to this remote corner of South London by accident.

See also
NORTH London: On the clockwise hard shoulder of the M25 between junctions 24 and 25, just north of Crews Hill station [map] (I visited in 2004)
WEST London: At the exit for Poyle on the roundabout above junction 14 of the M25, close to Heathrow Terminal 5 [map]
EAST London: Just off Fen Lane between North Ockendon and Bulphan, east of Mar Dyke but west of the Dunnings Lane crossroads [map]
» see all four geographical extremities on a Google map

 Monday, August 13, 2007

Not every battle against mobile phone marketing is won.

Here's a new road sign that's just appeared beside the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Approach road (close to Bromley-by-Bow tube station, outside my local supermarket). Sigh.
A12 Blackwall Tunnel Approach, Bromley-by-Bow E3
This is what six million quid a year buys you. Not just a Teflon-coated millennial structure, not just a station on the tube map, but your company's name emblazoned across an official government roadsign. The signwriters have even gone to the bother of writing the chemical symbol using the mobile company's chosen typeface, and not the Department of Transport's official font. No doubt O2's marketing team are delighted at prostituting themselves even further into the East London consciousness. They may not be quite so happy with the squashed hedgehog logo - presumably they'd have preferred the "unique ergonomic form" of a Motorola Z8, or something similar. But they'll be happy enough.

There's no mention on the sign that visitors still have more than 2 miles to drive, nor that queues are likely through the Blackwall Tunnel and they might miss the start of their chosen gig, nor that they'll be expected to fork out an exorbitant £20 for parking once they arrive. Drivers don't need such important information, it seems, they just need to be reminded which phone network to use. I may not have a car, nor any desire to spend £150 on a ticket to see the Rolling Stones, but I'm still going to have to look at this branded monstrosity every time I go shopping. At least until O2 plc goes bust, or gets renamed after its parent company, or finds something better to spend its marketing budget on. Here's hoping.

 Sunday, August 12, 2007

  I SPY Almost-LONDON
  the definitive DG guide to places a few yards over the border into Essex
  Part 1: Gunpowder Park

Location: Sewardstone Road, Waltham Abbey, Essex EN9 3GP [map]
Very nearly in: the London Borough of Enfield
Admission: free
5-word summary: reclaimed firing-range, now arty park
Website: www.gunpowderpark.org
Time to set aside: an afternoon, maybe

Gunpowder ParkOn a sunny summer's day, there are few things better (and cheaper) than visiting a country park. Gunpowder Park is one of the newest, opened three years ago on the site of an old munitions testing ground near Waltham Abbey. Don't worry, they've removed all the unexploded nitro-glycerine shells and tarted up the 250 acres a bit, because nobody would come and visit otherwise. Although it was a bit quiet here yesterday, with just six cars in the car park, so I had vast tracts of land all to myself for a lot of the time. Magic.

An awful lot of effort has gone into making this a 21st century park, even if at first glance it looks like a few fields and some woods. The park has been zoned into four distinct bio-regions, each with its own ecological identity. There's a "comprehensive network of surfaced paths accessible in all weathers", because cyclists and pushchairs are very important these days, and because some people hate mud. And there's a visitors centre in the top right hand corner of the park, cunningly constructed out of caged rubble, where you can use the toilets and change a nappy. I was expecting a café and gift shop but no, the shutters were down and the "exhibition space" was closed. At least the invisible park rangers had kindly left some maps in a waterproof box outside the door. Do take a map - you might miss some of the good bits otherwise.

red berriesSomebody let a crack team of landscape artists loose on Gunpowder Park. This is no ordinary country park, oh no, this is a "physical and virtual focal point for exploration, innovation, communication and collaboration.". Yeah, right. And that's why there are big swirly earthworks and lumpy mounds everywhere across the top half of the park - supposedly an arty manifestation of a "dynamic landform explosion". The design looks great on an aerial photo, but I must say I never realised I was walking around a giant picture until I got home and looked "from above" on the internet. The scorched landscape in the northern meadows has a "not quite all grown yet" feel to it, and a large area has had to be fenced off recently while some suspect underground utility shafts are investigated.

Further south is a large area of wet woodland, once the dominant ecosystem across these parts of the Lea Valley. I wandered into the heart of the Osier Marsh, along specially constructed wooden walkways, to view the wildlife in some old flooded gravel pits. They look far lovelier now that the Ministry of Defence has left and indigenous wildlife has taken over. A notice attached to one of the hides overlooking the East Pool advised us to look out for a pair of Mute Swans and their "three signets", but I couldn't see them. Nearby a French artist had set up four fluorescent tubes on a white board and called it a "Love Motel", in the hope that it would attract nocturnal insects to mate and feed on his sculpture. Alas the only animal life I spotted in the area were an Essex family out walking their pitbull, and an old man taking his poodle for a ride on a mobility scooter.

meridian hedgerowThe remaining quadrant of the park is given over to arable farming. There are seven fields, each currently teeming with something thin and stalky that isn't quite ripe yet. I particularly enjoyed walking along the central footpath, up to the highest point of the park with views in all directions. To the east are the rolling hills above Sewardstone and Gilwell Park, to the south a chain of pylons snaking down the Lea Valley towards Ponders End, and to the north an utterly huge Sainsbury's warehouse conveniently located for the nearby M25. But best of all was that the footpath precisely followed the Greenwich meridian. I'm a sucker for any physical manifestation of the line of zero degrees longitude, and this mile-long rural trackway was a right charmer. South of the summit the path skirted the edge of one of the fields, along a precisely aligned "meridian hedgerow". What an utterly delightful idea. Why stand straddling the brass line in the tourist-packed courtyard at Greenwich when you could stand in an empty Essex field and pick zero-degree sloes and red berries instead?

Don't bother making the effort to visit if you're a confirmed townie or seek only some genuine countryside. But if you enjoy the experimentally rural, Gunpowder Park might well be worth a few hours exploration.
by train: Enfield Lock    by bus: 121, 491, 505
by bike: National Cycle Route 1    by car: M25 J26


 Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gallowatch: This is an email from the other side of the street. I live one side of Bow Road, the side that's part of the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency. My MP is therefore notorious Scottish loudmouth George Galloway. I've just wandered across the pelican crossing to the other side of Bow Road, the side that's part of the Poplar and Limehouse constituency. George holds no sway here, and I can sit in the bus shelter without fear of electoral embarrassment. Over here, on the even-poorer side of the street, the current MP is Labour Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick. But maybe not for much longer. Mr Galloway has announced that he's crossing the road for the next election, and taking up the fight in Poplar and Limehouse instead. He always said that he wouldn't fight another election in Bethnal Green & Bow, but he's only travelled nextdoor to find his next target seat. George's new battleground constituency includes several impoverished chunks of Shadwell and Poplar, as well as the shiny highrises of Limehouse and Canary Wharf. In this part of the East End there's a solid core of voters who appreciate everything his Respect Party stands for, as indicated by a local by-election win this week. But will the wealthier Docklands element fall for his beguiling cat-licking charm? One hopes not. As soon as the next election is called, my side of the street will finally be free of an MP who's treated his constituents with self-obsessed disinterest. But the other side of Bow Road may not be so lucky. At least they have the chance not to vote for him in the first place. Come on Gordon, name the date and bring it on! And let's make both sides of my street a better place to live.

This is an email from a nightbus - a nightbus that talks. Don't expect to sleep past your stop any more, because this bus wakes you up every couple of minutes by telling you where you are and where you're going. "This is route N73 to Walthamstow Central" "Marble Arch station" A friendly but narcoleptic female voice keeps interrupting my night-time journey to announce every passing bus stop with unconvincing enthusiasm. "This is route N73 to Walthamstow Central" "Selfridges" I'm on board a double decker that's been fitted with Transport for London's new iBus service, featuring scrolling text and aural prompts. They call it passenger empowerment, and it must be extremely useful if you're blind, or deaf, or a tourist, or new to the area. But it's bloody annoying if you know where you're going. "This is route N73 to Walthamstow Central" Yes I know it is dear, you've told me several times already, and it said so in big letters on the front of the bus when I got on. Please shut up and let me drift off into sweet thoughts about getting home and sleeping for the rest of the night. But no, you're going to drone on and on and on, stop after stop, forever and ever until the end of time. Because, as TfL gradually roll out their iBus system across nigh every vehicle in the network, there'll soon be no escape from your patronising voice telling us something we already know every step of the way. "This is route N73 to Walthamstow Central" "Oxford Circus" I'm sorry love, but this is where I get off and change onto another nightbus that your pre-recorded tones haven't yet polluted. I'd rather listen to the drunks and flirts and snorers than listen to you telling me where we're going, over and over again. Enjoy the silence, while it lasts.

 Friday, August 10, 2007

Snuffing out the oxygen of publicity

There's one particular page on the revamped London 2012 website that pleases me very much. It's the page describing one of the places where an Olympic event will take place. It's the page devoted to the basketball and gymnastics venue. It's the page about the O2.



The London 2012 website duly enthuses about North Greenwich's famous spiky arena. It was "originally built for the Millennium celebrations", the site explains, and it's been "transformed into a sports and entertainment arena with shops, restaurants and more." A recent entry by Neil on the London 2012 blog goes one step further and declares "WOW what a superb venue!" He and his wife were very impressed indeed after a recent visit to see Prince. "As we left we both agreed it was a shame we live just a little to far from the venue, else it would become a regular feature of our lives." Yes, really, that good.

And why do I love this particular London 2012 webpage? It's because the venue being described is called "The Dome". There's not a mention of an oxygen molecule anywhere, nor any reference to a mobile phone company with millions of pounds to spend. Nowhere is this arena described as "The O2". It's just "The Dome", like it always used to be, before the marketing fatcats moved in.

There are very strict rules on Olympic sponsorship. Sporting venues used for the Games aren't permitted to carry the name of a sponsor or a brand, not even one that's paid to be an official marketing associate. So the Olympic basketball and gymnastics events won't be held in "The O2", because that name's not allowed. And the London 2012 website will have to carry on calling it "The Dome" for at least the next five years. And I like that. Oyes, I like that very much indeed.

 Monday, August 06, 2007

The London Triathlon

Marathons are for wusses. For a true test of all-round fitness and stamina there's only one true test, and that's triathlon. First a swim (of up to 1500m), then a cycle (of up to 40km) and finally - assuming you're not completely knackered already - a run (of up to 10km). That's a very long way, especially on the hottest weekend of the year, which made competing in the London Triathlon a real test of character. More than ten thousand competitors took part, split into 37 different waves across two days, with many raising considerable sums of money for good causes. I went down to the ExCel Centre in Docklands to view the spectacle photos, and I couldn't fail to be impressed.

a seething wave of triathletes in Royal Victoria DockStep 1: Swim
With the temperature nudging thirty degrees, what better start than a refreshing dip in the Royal Victoria Dock? Competitors zipped up their wetsuits, slipped into the water and swam out to the starting position beneath the Britannia footbridge. I watched from above as "Male Olympic 40-54 Group 1" trod water behind a row of buoys and canoes, waiting for the race to begin photos. A jovial pink-haired fellow roused the waiting paddlers with the odd "oggy oggy oggy" through his megaphone, before the siren sounded and a seething shoal of swimmers set off determinedly through the water photos. Only 30 miles to go. A plane heading for City Airport flew screamingly low directly overhead. The swimmers splashed on, turning back at an orange buoy just before they reached the runway. On arrival back at the dockside they were helped from the water and ran up a ramp through jets of showered spray photos, before being urged to remove their wetsuits and drop them in a plastic bag. The event was organised with military precision.

Step 1½: transition
There's an added difficulty in multi-discipline sport, and it's switching from one mode of transport to another. You can't take your bike for a swim, so you have to find it inside a giant bikeshed before you can continue the course. A huge cavernous expanse of the ExCel Centre had been given over to this function, with about quarter of a mile of bikeracks laid out in long rows to create the world's largest changing room. Dripping wet competitors jogged in, located their bike somewhere down one of the dark aisles and switched into cycling mode. It's no good just being a mega-athlete in this sport - you have to be a speedy quick change artist too.

cyclist departing ExCelStep 2: cycle
It's a two-wheeled London summer. Everywhere you look, it seems, there are lycra-clad thighs vigorously pumping atop a streamlined saddle. Yesterday, at ExCel, there were several thousand. It was no good attempting to drive between Docklands and the City yesterday afternoon, because the roads had been given over to manic pedalling. North of Canary Wharf the cyclists enjoyed three lanes to themselves, while four-wheeled traffic was corralled into a single bumper-to-bumper crawl lane alongside. Some of the cyclists were heading for Tower Bridge, twice, while others sped as far as Westminster. It looked to be a most glorious route in the cloudless summer sunshine, but for the participants there was no time to stop and admire along the way.

bin full of discarded hydration vesselsStep 3: run
After a second transition stage (dump bike, remove helmet, put trainers on) it was time for the final run. I can't even manage half a mile these days, but these elite Olympic-level participants still had six and a bit to go. Luckily, by ambling over the elevated footbridge across the docks, I could reach the turn-round point in Britannia Village before they could. Here a giant orange bottle proclaimed the name of the event's sponsored energy drink, and sweltering athletes grabbed a cup (to ensure "hydration") before dashing back around the water's edge (past not terribly many spectators) to the race's finish. Unusually the finishing line was indoors, inside the ExCel Centre itself, next to a small exhibition of triathlon-related stalls. Here you could buy figure-hugging wetsuits and heart-rate monitors and nutrition supplements, amongst other specialist fare. The Territorial Army were recruiting, presumably because ultra-fit athletes require less training than their usual lager-drinkers and kebab-munchers. I walked away with a goody bag containing a free baseball cap, a bag of nuts and a bottle of the sponsor's beer - an alcoholic beverage that no true triathlete would dream of drinking on a race day. And I walked away with enormous respect for anyone sufficiently fit and motivated to take on such an enormous physical challenge, all for a cheap metal medal and the satisfaction of having completed the course.


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