Monday, December 12, 2011
CAPITAL RING [sections 1-15]
Woolwich to North Woolwich (78 miles)
London has seven Strategic Walking Routes (or 'long distance footpaths' to you and me). Some follow rivers, some go round in circles, and some just wiggle all over the place. I thought it would be a good idea to follow one of them, partly for the exercise, but mostly because London's a fascinating place to wander through. Not the Lea Valley Walk, because I've done all of that. Not the Jubilee Greenway, because it's a year early. Instead I've chosen to follow the Capital Ring, which is a loop roughly halfway between the edge and the centre of London. Officially it's in fifteen different sections, from Woolwich round to North Woolwich via Crystal Palace, Richmond and Hendon. The route aims to link up as many greenspaces as possible, be they parks, recreation grounds or proper woodland, and pretty much succeeds. I've walked bits of the Ring before, but this time I'm intending to do the whole thing in sequence to make one complete circuit. One section every few weeks, that's the plan, but we'll see how it goes.
I'll not be the first web presence to walk the Capital Ring, not by a long chalk. Darryl's done the whole thing, in detail, and with far more photos than I'll be taking. Tim beat me by five years, and Mark by four. John's only just finished. Stephen took Henry the dog with him, and has a rather useful Google map of the route. And you could do it too. Most sections are only 4-6 miles long, which is (probably) well within your capabilities. Each section starts and finishes near a station, for ease of access. Full details are available on the Walk London website, including directions and print-it-yourself maps. Alas WL are't sending out sectional leaflets any more, only useless summaries, but they will email you a special certificate if/when you complete the round tour. Maybe buy yourself the official book to guide you round, if you're serious. New challenge, anyone?
www.flickr.com: my Capital Ring gallery
The gallery contains 117 photographs altogether [slideshow]
CAPITAL RING [section 1]
Woolwich to Falconwood (6¼ miles)
The Pool of Woolwich on a January morning - is there anywhere finer? Yes, sorry, there is, but we'll get there later. For now I'm kicking off my London circumnavigation by walking along a less lovely bit of the Thames [photo]. On the Woolwich side a bingo hall and some orange flats on blue stilts. On the North Woolwich side a forest of dishes and the belching Tate & Lyle factory. And plying inbetween, the perennial workhorse of the Woolwich ferry [photo]. There's a certain pre-estuarine charm, if you like that sort of thing, but flats here command significantly lower prices than in Richmond for good reason. The former Woolwich Dockyard's almost all been wiped away for housing, but two 'mast ponds' survive. They look like decrepit 1960s bathing pools [photo], but were in fact used to soak ships' timbers so that the planks wouldn't split or shrink in the water. A couple of leftover cannon face out across the river, but in this low-rise landscape fail to inspire.
The next quarter mile of this long-distance path doesn't exist. It's hoped to drive a right of way along the edge of the river past a slew of warehouses, but it's been hoped for years and shows no sign of happening. Instead you have to follow the "Thames Path (interim route)" past flats, more warehouses and the busy Woolwich Road. The Thames Barrier and its grassy environs would be so much more interesting, but for the time being only if you make a deliberate diversion.
At Maryon Park, the footpath splits. One way's dull but step-free, the other fascinating with a steep climb, but there are no clues on the signposts to help you choose between them. Turn right for the view, from an unexpectedly high spur with great views across Docklands into central London [photo]. I would have climbed right to the top had I not been beaten there by three off-leash dogs, who were intent on looking at me rather than the surrounding panorama. Instead I hurried on to pass Gilbert's Pit - a geologically outstanding excavation [photo]. Various horizontal rock strata are clearly visible on its exposed slopes, and a plaque helps you pick out the Blackheath Beds from the Thanet Sands should you fancy an education. Younger walkers are more likely to be impressed by the children's zoo a little further along, most especially the (ahhhh) deer.
The parks come thick and fast, with football pitches crammed into every available space. If it's Sunday watch out for trackie-clad youths assembling by the changing rooms in Charlton Park, perhaps with a dutiful peroxide girlfriend in tow. It's such a lengthy walk around the park's perimeter, past Charlton House, that the team should be out ready for their mudbath kickabout long before you reach the other side. Hornfair Park's nowhere near as enticing. No Jacobean mansions, no budding Beckhams, just a few rusty goalposts on a municipal slope.
And so to the wilder half of the walk. You have to get past the Queen Elizabeth Hospital first, but then it's time to stride out across the Woolwich Common. This lengthy expanse of heathland stretches down toward the famous barracks, and was once used by the Royal Artillery for target practice. No such dangers amongst the thickets today. I found evidence of only one other visitor, someone who'd been round to every bench before me and left a fire and brimstone tract on each. "Death is not the end", "God can recycle too", "For a free bible please contact <an address in Northern Ireland>".
Shooter's Hill used to be a highwaymen's haunt, apparently. It's the highest point on the Capital Ring so expect quite a climb up some specially-built sandy stairs. But don't expect a view, because the summit's covered with trees, and the viewing tower's locked. That'll be Severndroog Castle, a gothic folly built by an 18th century war widow in an unusual triangular style [photo]. There used to be tearooms at the base, but today it's all boarded up awaiting the transformational magic of a Heritage lottery grant. I was particularly taken by the bleak rose garden on the other side of the summit, reached down crumbling stone staircases, which was once part of the local stately home. Castlewood House is long gone, as is the next mansion whose grounds the path winds through, but the woods are delightful.
I could tell I was getting close to the Oxleas Wood Cafe by the increasing density of dogs. Owners seemed irresistably drawn to it, despite the fact that all canine visitors were forced to wait outside beyond a protective fence. I was happy to leave Pickle the pug on the other side of the barrier, that's for sure, because he'd been showing far too much interest in my lower limbs. The cafe's definitely more greasy spoon than elegant tearoom, and all the better for it. Fried breakfasts were being waitered out of the kitchen while I queued, each greatly appreciated by the collective clientèle. Mugs of tea for 60p, fresh pasties piled up on the counter, sticky cake... surely only its obscure location prevents this place from being any busier. [photo]
One wildly meandering woodland walk to follow, emerging eventually into Eltham Park. The long pond used to be a boating lake, but now it's home to a few ducks instead. Section 1's nearly at an end, and would be even shorter were the park not divided in half by a deep railway cutting and the A2 dual carriageway. Falconwood station is nearby, with trains back to London Bridge and Victoria for those bailing out here. Even if you're not intending to walk the whole of the Capital Ring, merely cherrypicking, I'd say this is definitely one of the more varied and interesting sections.
» Capital Ring section 1: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Urban75, Stephen, Darryl, Tim, Charlotte, Mark, Paul, John, TimS, Richard.
CAPITAL RING [section 2]
Falconwood to Grove Park (3½ miles)
One of the shortest sections of the Capital Ring, this, with a palatial treat in the middle if you want to lengthen things. It starts somewhere long-lost, which used to be the centre of Eltham Park but is now the Falconwood footbridge. You won't see the railway and A2 dual carriageway beneath the concrete span - they're well screened, and that's just as well [photo]. The southern half of the park is an above-average collection of greenspace and trees [photo], with a view of Severndroog on Shooters Hill in the distance. Less upliftingly, I got stuck behind the Greenwich Council truck emptying the litter bins, and watched as its wheels churned up mud all along the edge of the main footpath.
Next up is the delightfully-named Butterfly Lane (no evidence of flying insects mid-January). This leads to a brief spell of woodland on the edge of a sports ground, and then a most unusual brick structure round the back of some houses [photo]. It's Conduit Head, where springs that fed the fledgling River Shuttle were once diverted to supply water to Eltham Palace. The moat's now filled via the mains, but this half-buried chamber somehow survives. It's also the last interesting spot for a mile. The Capital Ring takes a nanny-ish detour round a mini-roundabout purely to hit a pelican crossing, then climbs to follow North Park which is a lengthy residential street. It'd be a much more direct route to cross the Royal Blackheath Golf Course, which is the oldest golf club in the world, but they don't permit mere ramblers anywhere near their vintage greens.
At the foot of Tilt Yard Approach is southeast London's Tudor jewel - Eltham Palace. The Ring passes right alongside, but not quite over the arched bridge and across the moat [photo]. That was just as well, because the palace is closed in January so the gate was barred shut. I'd have liked to go back inside, because I was completely wowed by this medieval/Art Deco hybrid last time I was here. My muddy boots wouldn't have been a problem either, because English Heritage make you wear protective blue plastic slippers before stepping onto the Courtauld's floors. Doors reopen next week, if you're tempted (and you really should be).
The old path from the palace to the royal hunting grounds still exists, as King John's Walk. All of a sudden it's like being out in the country, ascending a hedge-lined lane past the entrance to some stables. Ignore the horsey folk manoeuvring their 4×4s, and look out instead across the paddocks to your right. There's an unexpectedly view down towards central London, with the skyscrapers of Docklands taking centre stage [photo]. Further back are the City's clustered towers, plus the ascending Shard a standalone figure to the left. Should a huge alien spaceship ever descend and hang over the capital, like they always do in sci-fi films, I reckon these slopes would be the perfect spot for a TV news camera long shot.
King John's Walk is slightly less impressive lower down, evolving first into a housing estate and then a railway footbridge [photo]. The Sidcup Road slices it in two, where walkers can really annoy speeding traffic on the dual carriageway by pressing the pelican and waiting for the screech. Into Mottingham, up one of its nicer avenues where W. G. Grace once lived. His big house has become the Fairmount Retirement home, within which (unless there's a 162-year-old man tucked away in an upper room) no top class cricketers now reside. A confined path alongside Eltham College's sports ground follows, still with crunchy brown leaves underfoot [photo]. And on, and on, until you emerge alongside a sparkling stream. No, I'm lying. It's the River Quaggy in its early stages, scuttling along a deeply kinked concrete channel [photo]. You wouldn't picnic here, but you might chuck a trolley. Admittedly the river looks a little nicer further up but we're not going that way. Ring 2 halts here.
» Capital Ring section 2: official map and directions (see also Green Chain section 6)
» Who else has walked it? Darryl, Tim, Paul, Stephen, Charlotte, Mark, John.
CAPITAL RING [section 3]
Grove Park to Crystal Palace (8½ miles)
This is the longest section of the Capital Ring, and I suspect there's good reason for that. A lot of the walk is alongside roads, not across greenspace, so the extra length is required to make sure there's something actually worth seeing. To be honest, sorry, I've walked better.
Section 3 starts on Marvels Lane, which is badly named unless you think Bannantyne's gyms are especially marvellous. At the top of the hill is Grove Park Library - an endearing but small pre-fab which looks like it'd be more at home on a wartime airfield [photo]. The library opens for two and two-half days a week, or at least it will until the end of May and which point it'll close for good (Lewisham council decided yesterday). All the more ironic given that one of the 20th century's most-lended authors - E Nesbit - used to live just up the road. Her memorial is an alleyway down the side of some flats named Railway Children Walk, which I can't ever imagine Jenny Agutter skipping down, but does at least lead to a railway. It also leads to Grove Park nature reserve, which looked enticingly woody but alas the Capital Ring didn't go that way. Instead it was up and over the Sevenoaks line, all six tracks of it, with a fine view over Hither Green Cemetery in one direction and a rail depot in the other.
Welcome to Downham. Most Londoners have never heard of the place because it doesn't have a station, but this is one of the capital's largest housing estates, developed as overspill in the 1920s [photo]. It's not pretty, by modern standards, but the council houses and spacious streets would have been luxury indeed for those escaping from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. My welcome to Downham was two burnt-out cars... although one of those was within the confines of the local fire station and had clearly been used for door-wrenching practice. The Capital Ring followed what appeared to be an arbitrary zigzag path through the estate, first along two extra-broad avenues, then into a narrow strip of isolated woodland. Only close inspection of a pre-estate map revealed that this irregular tree-filled ribbon was actually perfectly preserved by the estate's planners, everything else round here having been open fields. The Downham Woodland Walk is enhanced by several carved posts, marking some sort of nature trail, plus the occasional underfoot mosaic and set of wooden teacups. I've probably made that sound more exciting than it really is, but when you live in Downham every natural retreat counts.
Hop over the busy Bromley Road for the highlight of the walk, which is Beckenham Place Park. This looks like a fairly ordinary park when entered from this angle, with the River Ravensbourne trickling alongside a large patch of grass. But that's actually a water meadow, and beyond the railway is a delightful expanse of ancient woodland [photo]. If you know what you're looking for you might spot some rare Wild Service trees, although hopefully they're not in the clearing I noticed the Forestry Commission had been chopping down. Local wildlife on my visit included squirrels, squawking parakeets and several off-leash dogs. Less wild were the golfers, out for a thwack and putt across several acres of rolling grassland. Their clubhouse is Beckenham Place, which sounds like the Queen ought to live there, or at least David and Victoria [photo]. This bold Palladian mansion was built by local timber merchant John Cator in the 1770s, and most of the remainder of this walk tramps across his former estate.
Most of the remainder of this walk is a bit dull, at least in comparison to the last half hour. There was supposed to be a highlight near Stumps Hill, just outside the park, where a Green Chain map had promised a very rare Edward VIII postbox. I searched and hunted, and doubled-back for a second look, but without a precise location I was looking in vain. On Googling later I discovered that the elusive red pillar was on the corner of Southend Road and Brackley Road, which this long distance footpath doesn't even go past (pah, but at least you'll know where to take the detour if you come). I got to walk past Kent County Cricket Club's London outpost instead, but even that wasn't as interesting as it sounds.
A gloomy subway led beneath New Beckenham station, after which the Capital Ring decides not to take the direct route. Instead it weaves north and south to take in a handful of local greenspaces, purely because they're there. Cator Park used to be a Victorian Pleasure Gardens, although the river runs in a concrete channel down the middle, and any pleasure in mid-February was sorely lacking [photo]. The fenced-off playing fields on Lennard Road were a particular lowlight, except they led to the Alexandra Recreation Ground which was slightly less so. A bowling green, a disused water fountain and a bunch of schoolboys kicking a football against a wall, that was my entrance to Penge. The official path crossed the footbridge at Penge East station, where a forlorn plaque remembered the day Frank Bruno turned up to open Tasty Toasties (now closed) [photo]. Penge High Street, Penge West... it had been an hour and a quarter since my walk had taken me anywhere thrilling. Thank goodness for the final bit.
I reached Crystal Palace Park just as dusk was almost about to start to nearly fall. Two parkkeepers were standing by the gate trying to encourage people not to enter, but I slipped by because I had a last half-mile to walk. The cafe was shuttered closed, the car park was emptying, and a few pairs of parents and children were scuttling home after a cosy afternoon out. I got to walk past the legendary sculpted dinosaurs mooching in their artificial swamp, and the fading light somehow helped to make them a little more realistic. Not difficult, to be honest. A final yomp along the edge of what used to be London's premier athletics stadium (and still is, for a bit) brought nearly three hours of walking to an end. Like I said, I've walked better.
» Capital Ring section 3: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Stephen, Darryl, Mark, Paul, Tim, Charlotte, Richard.
CAPITAL RING [section 4]
Crystal Palace to Streatham Common (4 miles)
Half as long as the last section, but at least twice as good. And much more hilly. Follow the ups and downs below.
↓ The Capital Ring exits Crystal Palace Park down the road outside the station,
↑ then heads straight back up the other side. Follow the official sign and you'd walk straight into a newsagents, whereas instead you should be taking the next street on the left. The hillside's covered with houses, one of which (nicknamed 'Fossil Villa') has a blue plaque commemorating the man who designed the nearby Park's famous dinosaurs. Thank you Benjamin - they may be anatomically incompetent but Crystal Palace wouldn't be Crystal Palace without them. The only greenery on this first stretch is a small playground with a dogmess bin. It gets better.
↓ Westow Park is a tumbling grassy slope, kicking off with a bench and a sort-of view round the back of the local Sainsburys. The park marks the source of the River Effra (which I've investigated in some detail before, so I won't here). There's no sign of its former path until you descend as far as the Upper Norwood Recreation Ground [photo], where one patch of marshy grass never quite seems to dry out. The granite drinking fountain overlooking the football pitch is unconnected to the subterranean stream, although my feet got wet on the footpath by the pavilion thanks to an unseen leaky pipe. Bursting spring flowers, canoodling dogs on heat and acres of rolling turf - it was all unexpectedly pleasant.
↑ The Ring escapes the Effra Valley up suburban Hermitage Road. At the top, on Beulah Hill, I came a cropper waiting in vain at a zebra crossing. Some four-way temporary traffic lights had been installed, and not one single stream of traffic was willing to pause during their allotted seconds to let me cross. Houses up here on the ridgetop are larger than usual, presumably because elevation commands a residential premium. One such home once belonged to Joan and Alan Warwick, founders of the Norwood Society, whose grateful members have since erected a plaque in their memory.
↓ The next descent is via Biggin Hill - not the famous south London airfield but its barely-known SE19 namesake. Halfway down there's a fine view over the allotments towards the plains of Croydon, with the twin chimneys of IKEA Ampere Way an instantly recognisable sight. Deep breath along the next alleyway if you like inhaling pot-smoke, or deep breath beforehand if you don't. The treat at the end, past the tennis courts, is Biggin Hill Wood. The Ring merely skims through along a tarmac contour, but I enjoyed the chirping solitude of the first decent bit of woodland since ten miles back.
↑ Back to roadwalking through the outskirts of Norbury, before another climb to the highlight of the walk, which is Norwood Grove [photo]. This early Victorian mansion occupies high ground over Norbury, and was once owned by shipping magnate Arthur Anderson. He made his fortune with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, now P&O, but chose to live landlocked in South London. The house and its estate passed to the Nettlefold family, still remembered on a commemorative plaque, and was then snapped up by the council just in time to prevent the entire hilltop being covered by suburbia. Instead the surrounding slopes are a delightful oasis of formal gardens and tumbling parkland, and an ideal spot to sit and stare across miles and miles of rooftops [photo]. Dog-walkers aren't allowed inside the fenced-off enclave around the house, so at this time of year can approach no nearer than the mudbath around the perimeter. We humans can enjoy an ornamental fountain, the orangery and the promise of summer glories. [photo]
↓ At the end of the drive, past the old lodge, are the headwaters of the River Graveney. Unless its been raining you'll not spot these at all, although recent precipitation creates a zigzag trickle across the path.
↑ Having crossed the boundary into Lambeth, it's upward onto Streatham Common. That's very pleasant, but what's really special is The Rookery alongside, behind the hedge. This hidden garden used to be part of Streatham Spa, and now boasts a selection of formal beds, herbaceous borders and general loveliness. Later in the season the White Garden is well named, and a magnet for bridal shoots, but it was the rockeries and their trickling water features which drew the photographers on my visit. Several elderly couples sat smiling on benches on the upper terrace, gazing down at the giant cedar tree and beyond, while a much younger pair flirted around the lower sundial. Must return. [photo]
→ Where the main path turns, close to the daff-filled cattle trough [photo], is the Rookery Cafe. I decided to pop in for a takeaway roll, but my bacon bap took so long to prepare that I ended staying for half an hour. No complaints. This is a proper park eaterie, officially the San Remo Cafe, with one counter for independent ice cream and another for cooked breakfasts and other snacks. Two dear ladies did their best to cope with the late lunch rush, not helped by the panini machine being on the blink and a long queue of families with bubbly children. The room's got a retro-crèche feel to it, with Barney the Dinosaur and the Rugrats painted on the wall, and everyone sat at green formica tables on wooden chairs just like I had at primary school. I sat quietly in the corner with a mug of tea and raised a toast for the cafe's longevity.
↓ Streatham Common goes on a bit, with a fast-track path known as the Horse Ride down one side. Don't rush, the view doesn't get any better. The High Road crosses at the bottom of the hill, which seems perverse, except the descent continues more gently beyond the church. Turn left just before the ice rink, assuming it's still not been closed and Tesco-fied, for the final section down Lewin Road. Ring 4 terminates beside a railway footbridge and some traffic humps, which is a bit of a let down to be honest after earlier heights. I fear Ring 5 may be mostly similar.
» Capital Ring section 4: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Richard
CAPITAL RING [section 5]
Streatham Common to Wimbledon Park (5½ miles)
Some sections of the Capital Ring are glorious, linking points of interest via a string of green open spaces. And some are merely filler, meandering from A to B along random backstreets via nowhere special. Sorry, 5's filler.
Even in bright spring sunshine, the streets round the back of Streatham Common station aren't lovely. But three needlesmiths from the Streatham Knitting Ninjas have done their best to brighten the Potters Lane railway underpass by creeping out in the middle of the night to wrap wool around the barriers at either end [photo]. Multi-coloured stripes now adorn the parallel bikebars, while a dashing pink and blue sleeve cloaks the lone sapling guarding the eastern entrance. London needs more Ninja Knitters. Over on Conyers Road is a peculiar building which looks like it could be a Gothic mosque but is in fact the Streatham Pumping Station, built by Victorians who believed in aesthetics over utility [photo]. A first suburban slog follows, up a pleasantly mixed street where the civilised homes can be identified by their garden waste recycling bags, and the squatters abode by a swastika daubed on the front door.
Tooting Bec Common ought to be a highlight of the walk, but sadly isn't. The Capital Ring manages to miss all the interesting bits, like the famously photogenic Lido on the eastern flank, or the central lake, by driving directly and unapologetically between the two. I passed by on a Friday afternoon with the common invaded by what looked like the entire local secondary school, taking advantage of fine weather to pad out the last day of term. Some kicked balls around, some perched precariously on top of goalposts, a few took the opportunity to climb trees, but most just sat around on the grass in large groups being passively social. In my day we brought board games.
Back to the road trek, left then right then left then right then left. The back of Balham isn't especially visitworthy, but attention to detail means I bet estate agents don't have much trouble selling properties round here [photo]. That's especially true at Du Cane Court - a monolithic Art Deco apartment block on the Balham High Road [photo]. It's reputedly the largest private block in Europe, with 676 flats inside, yet still an exclusive address that's been home to several top flight entertainment stars over the years. The blossom in the main courtyard is impressive at the moment - a riot of pink and white - which softens the line of the frontage somewhat [photo]. Our walk heads up one side, in Du Cane's shadow, along Balham Park Road.
Then through an alleyway onto Wandsworth Common, which is divided into several recreational fragments by a series of criss-crossing roads. The Ring hugs the railway line and even passes through the station ticket office, although it'd be much more interesting to trek across the grass a few metres to the left. The view only gets properly pretty beyond the first pelican crossing, at a series of green-edged lakes ruled by angry geese. Look carefully into the shallow depths and there are some fairly massive black fish - currently making the most of the angling close season. It's much more mumsy by the cafe, with a greater concentration of floral dresses, tousled toddlers and pregnant bumps. "Put that sunhat back on, Noah." "Try not to crash your scooter into the nice man, Alice." "When I say stop, Felix, I mean stop."
I followed a pushchair convoy off the common, past a bright pink van promoting "pre/post-natal fitness" and "lifestyle MOTs" for local princesses. But life in southwest London isn't all sugar and spice - on the next corner came Wandsworth Prison. This is brightened somewhat by a display of windowboxes and hanging baskets, but still has the fearsome look of a Victorian asylum-cum-castle.
The Ring then follows arrow-straight Magdalen Road for three-quarters of a mile. Ludicrously the official path hugs the pavement all the way, while an unsigned "alternative route" enters Wandsworth Cemetery and follows that parallel downhill instead. The cemetery's lovely - more than a plain of gravestones deserves - and its well-tended grounds are blessed at present by a riot of spring buds [photo]. It's unusual for London to see gravestones dated within the last few months, as there are in the top corner, but also heartbreaking when one's to Baby Frankie who "Lived 14 hours". And OK no, you couldn't even get a baby buggy through the cemetery's bottom gate, let alone a wheelchair, but the other 95% of Ring-followers would surely appreciate being directed through the nice bit.
Earlsfield has a safeguarded library (hurrah), a rather busy high street, and the Wandle. That's one of London's not-lost rivers, which in places is rather picturesque, but not in this place. Look down from the bridge on Penwith Road and all you'll see is two segregated concrete channels... plus, ooh look, there's a heron, so maybe not so ugly after all [photo]. If you find Amy's Ray Bans which she left under a tree in Durnsford Recreation Ground on Mother's Day, please give her a call. You might then need a pair of sunglasses when looking at Wimbledon Mosque - it's very white, and a bit Moorish [photo]. And that's it, apart from a traditionally pristine shopping parade in Arthur Road, leading up to the Ring's first tube station at Wimbledon Park. That's 5's filler finished. Rest assured, 6 looks glorious.
» Capital Ring section 5: official map and directions (or the much better old leaflet)
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Richard
CAPITAL RING [section 6]
Wimbledon Park to Richmond Bridge (7 miles)
If there's a better section of the Capital Ring, I'll be surprised. A three hour trek that's almost entirely green, all the way. A lengthy trek across undeveloped open space, far from the madding crowd. Indeed, most of the way it's hard to believe that this is London at all. Parks, commons, meadows, ponds and rivers - what's not to recommend?
One of the first things you see as you enter Wimbledon Park are the tennis courts. Not the tennis courts, those are further along, but twenty municipal courts for the benefit of local extremely-amateurs [photo]. Only one knockabout was taking place when I walked past, whereas the neighbouring playground area was packed out with parents and little children busy making a racket. The park's flowerbeds are pretty, but the new Waterfall Garden is prettier, very recently renovated and restored with tropical foliage and a meandering bridge. Beyond the trees lies the first lake of the day, landscaped by Capability Brown, now home to umpteen sailing boats and some very cute ducklings.
That's the proper Wimbledon tennis place across the lake - the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The Ring doesn't quite go that way, which seems a shame if you've come all this way and never seen the place, but you'd never see any Tennis from outside through the fortress walls anyway. It's a different matter with the Croquet. These lawns are perfectly visible through the railings at the foot of Queensmere Road, laid out with hoops and flags in front of the old clubhouse and lovingly tended by diligent groundsmen [photo]. Properties along the road up the hill are as exclusive as you might expect, hidden behind electronic swing gates through which cars with very personalised numberplates occasionally vanish.
The path onto Wimbledon Common features the first decent stretch of woodland since Oxleas, twenty miles back. Before long it emerges at the windmill, still the major landmark round these parts, and inside which (a plaque tells us) Robert Baden Powell knocked up Scouting For Boys [photo]. Even if the museum's not open, the chalet-style cafe round the back probably is. This place is everything good about a greenspace tearoom, with homemade hot food up for grabs and an entire display case stacked with sliced-square cakey goodness. I exited with a double cornet, but only because they didn't do bakewell tart and custard as a takeaway.
Those who spent their childhood watching The Wombles might think that Wimbledon Common was mostly open space, but no, it's mostly trees. Allegedly there are a million of them, but I doubt anybody's ever counted. So, after the windmill, the Ring enters Wimbledon woodland and stays there for a good half hour. There are some glorious paths up, down and over, turning left at an unexpected lake and crossing a secluded circuit of the London Scottish golf course. My walk was blessed with bluebells, blossom and wafts of fragrant perfume, but the lush foliage of summer would be just as impressive. Cyclists beware - there are relatively few paths you're welcome to ride along, and I passed more than one party bemusedly trying to find a route that wasn't prohibitively labelled.
The Beverley Brook marks the western edge of the common, itself the route for a fine long-distance walk, and this you follow northwards. Crossing the busy A3 used to involve a footbridge detour, but now there's a convenient double set of traffic lights - one for pedestrians and another for those on horseback. Which brings us to the Robin Hood Gate and the highlight of this section - the crossing of Richmond Park. You could fit the City of London three times inside its borders, so it's a bit of a triumph that this old royal deer park remains undeveloped. There's so much to see that the Ring's course merely scratches the surface. Just make sure you follow the correct path out of the car park, otherwise you could find yourself wandering miles off course.
Ascending gently towards Spankers Hill Wood, only the distant tower blocks of the Roehampton Estate give any hint that civilisation lurks beyond the treeline. There are several fallen tree trunks here, great for kids to play on and also an important habitat for the endangered stag beetle. As the centre of the Park approaches, suddenly there's a big car park - a reminder that most people only start walking once they get here. There follows a large expanse of acid grassland, allegedly scattered with nesting skylarks, so dogs on leashes please. And straight across the causeway between the Upper and Lower Pen Ponds, originally dug for the extraction of gravel, now scenic home to a broad cross-section of friendly waterfowl. Hillocks, plains and plantations - everything about the middle of Richmond Park is on a grand scale yet still delightfully natural. And, for London, amazingly remote. [photo]
Eventually, definitely eventually, the Ring emerges onto the Queen's Road on the western flank of the Park. Here you might be lucky enough to meet some of the deer who roam freely, assuming you haven't already met them elsewhere on the way over [photo]. You're also much more likely to meet people, because there's a refreshment kiosk (and wedding hotspot) at Pembroke Lodge, along with some splendid ornamental gardens. The Ring passes beneath the Lodge's outer boundary, with excellent views from the upper slopes across outer-southwest London. If visibility's good, every take off and landing at Heathrow is easily witnessed. The view northwest from King Henry's Mound is more famous, and protected by law. No high buildings are permitted to be erected anywhere along the 10 mile line from here to St Paul's Cathedral... although I've only once stood here in atmospheric conditions sufficiently crystal clear to see Wren's dome in distant miniature.
And down, steeply down, to Petersham. Here there's a rare main road to cross, and the first pub of the walk, then a narrow passage through to the edge of Petersham Meadows. These grazing lands are protected by Act of Parliament, and look best from Richmond Hill (but we're not going there). Instead the designated path follows a "dry route during flood" before aligning beside the River Thames for the final stroll into Richmond [photo]. Suddenly there are cafes and boathouses and reclining sunbathers (weather and flooding permitting), plus a series of pubs ideal for riverside drinking. If seven miles of semi-rural walking have tired you out, these urban comforts will be a welcome sight. Me, I'd happily have delayed my return to reality a little longer.
» Capital Ring section 6: official map and directions (or the much better old leaflet)
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Kate
CAPITAL RING [section 7]
Richmond Bridge to Osterley Lock (4½ miles)
After the very-green section 6 comes a very-blue 7. The first half's along the Thames, the second's along the Grand Union Canal. It's another winner.
Time to leave the pubs and shops and boatyards of Richmond behind. The towpath heads north, a bit parched at the moment, but there's plenty of water in the Thames alongside. There are a couple of bridges to duck under, the first (Richmond Railway Bridge) for trains, the second (Twickenham Bridge) for an arterial road. And then, as the Old Deer Park spreads out to the right, a mysterious line crosses the path [photo]. If this were Greenwich you'd know precisely was it was, but that's fifteen miles east so how could it be? Ah but it sort-of is, it's the Kew Meridian, which was the line of longitude preferred by King George III. He built an observatory in the park (it's still there), specifically to observe the Transit of Venus in June 1769. There are also three obelisky meridian markers, one very close to the Thames if you fancy nipping into the neighbouring recreation ground for a look.
That's South London finished with. Here's where the Ring crosses to the north bank of the Thames, which hasn't been in sight since the very beginning of the walk three dozen miles back. It's a memorable crossing too, up and over Richmond Lock which is a magnificent Victorian structure built to maintain river flow upstream [photo]. At high tide the sluice gates are opened and boats can sail through unimpeded, but at other times they have to use the lock (charge £5). Pedestrians get to walk along the top, between the globe lamps and swirly metalwork, with a chance to scrutinise the machinery or peer down at passing river traffic [photo]. You may also be distracted by the roar of aeroplanes flying low overhead. The next bend north is directly underneath the Heathrow flightpath, so a steady succession of Jumbos and Airbuses shatter the calm every 90 seconds or so.
A detour inland is required to negotiate the mouth of the River Crane, which is a shame because walking round Isleworth isn't quite as pleasant as walking by the water. But Old Isleworth is picturesque, ably assisted by its Thamesside location and what looks like an old church on the riverbank. On closer inspection, however, the tower is the only part of All Saints to have survived an arson attempt in 1943, and the rest is a strikingly modern rebuild. And that's not really the river either, it's a semi-drained channel round the back of Isleworth Ait (one of the Thames's longest islands) [photo]. When the tide's low it's possible to walk out on the mud and across a ramp of stepping stones to reach the tied-up boats and nature reserve on the other side [photo]. Possible, but perhaps not advised. Safer to take a seat on the terrace at the London Apprentice pub, so named because wannabe City tradesmen used to sail here to celebrate the end of their apprenticeships. A long way from the City, but a fine place to celebrate.
One last glimpse of the Thames, then the Ring turns unashamedly into Syon Park. I must admit I was expecting prettier, but the offical route hugs a wall between the public park and the private gardens so never quite feels special. There's one point where the vista opens out across the front lawn to reveal the facade of Syon House - a bit like a rather bland castle [photo]. But then it's swiftly back to an extensive car park, and lots of metal railings, and a very big garden centre. The Duke of Northumberland opened Britain's first horticultural supermarket here in 1968, and just one Spring Sunday's takings must provide a tidy sum towards the upkeep of the estate.
Here's the edge of Brentford, but more importantly here's the Grand Union Canal. The Capital Ring will be following that for a fair few miles (though not all 93 to Braunston), joining the waterway at seriously-modernised Brentford Lock. Don't think ramshackle gates, think spruced-up canal basin surrounded by shiny apartments and cosmopolitan dining opportunities [photo]. But this imported affluence doesn't last long. The towpath suddenly snakes through a large gloomy warehouse, whose girders and corrugated iron walls creak and rattle menacingly when the wind's up [photo]. I can't imagine why this ramshackle structure has somehow been allowed to survive here, but I fear it won't be long before it becomes "high quality public realm".
The next building's in complete contrast - the global headquarters of pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline. Employees work in and around a 16-storey curved glass tower block, with a small waterfall and a weird sculpture plonked outside by the canal for good measure. The towpath passes beneath the Great West Road - the interesting stretch with all the Art Deco offices, but we're not going there. Instead there's all the twists and turns of an urban canal, which means trees and bushes shielding a succession of industrial units, railway lines and secluded meadows. At one point, by a weir blessed with swans, the M4 scythes shamelessly past atop a low viaduct on concrete stilts. It's not as ugly a stretch as you're thinking, at least not in leafy spring. But the next wiggles of canal will have to wait for section 8 - Osterley Lock's as far as this walk goes.
» Capital Ring section 7: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Tetramesh, Richard
CAPITAL RING [section 8]
Osterley Lock to Greenford (5 miles)
Section 8 of 15, that's halfway round. Slightly more than halfway round already, if you total up all the mileages. Far across the capital from Woolwich, and still half a loop to get back.
Canalside again, with a fair chunk of Grand Union still to go. Osterley Lock is reassuringly remote, at least on foot, so long as you can ignore the thundering M4 crossing the Brent Valley alongside. It's also the only place in London where I've ever seen a dog on wheels - two legs at the front, two wheels at the back - with a joint scampering/rolling motion when lunging forward across the towpath. You may not be so fortunate. A twisted green stretch of canal lies ahead, with only the occasional warehouse as intermission. On one bend, incongruously dumped, is a most peculiar British Waterways remnant from 50 years ago. "Kerr Cup Pile Driving Competition Prize Length Of Piling 1959" it says. A Google search for further information alas reveals nothing more than a litany of other passing canal users who've been equally baffled.
Hanwell Locks are up next. That's the over-optimistic name given to a new residential development cramming 30 houses and some flats onto a canalside meadow. There'll be water at the bottom of the garden, for some, but the locks themselves are a fair trek round a couple of bends. They're an impressive sight, London's longest flight of locks (OK, so there's only six, but in the capital you take what you can get). Alas the Capital Ring only permits close-up sight of one [photo] before veering off right through the trees to follow the River Brent instead. I'd recommend a brief diversion to the top, far faster than any narrowboat could negotiate the same, because it would be a shame to come so close and miss out.
The River Brent is shallowly pleasant, which is just as well because you'll be following it for a couple of miles. What you won't see in this early stage is Ealing Hospital towering behind a wall, nor the Uxbridge Road careering up ahead. If it's dry you might be able to follow the arched brick underpass beneath Hanwell Bridge [photo], but until the apologetic council get round to replacing their burst water pump it's far more likely you'll be forced up top to cross via busy traffic lights. A far more impressive arched brick structure is the Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel to carry his Great Western Railway across the valley. One of the first structures ever to be Grade I listed, the path across Brent Meadow enjoys an excellent longitudinal view [photo]. That's the Wharncliffe coat of arms on the side, flanked by some talentless graffiti sprayed by misguided aerial daredevils. [photo]
Nip underneath, and you're in Brent Lodge Park. Locals know it as Bunny Park, because of the long-term children's zoo at its centre, although the current residents are a little more exotic. There's also the Millennium Maze, probably second only to Hampton Court as London's best labyrinth, but which I've never yet managed to try out for myself because it's always full of young children and I'd simply attract withering stares from their parents. The Capital Ring avoids both maze and zoo, preferring to follow the river's edge slavishly round at least two meanders too many. Go on, take the shortcut, you'll not be missing out.
It takes a golf course to divert the footpath away from the water, steering safely between the greens and the fairways and the businessmen discussing motor insurance. And then, slipped back across a footbridge, my favourite part of the entire walk. Ealing Council have erected a sign - red ink, laminated - warning that due to natural erosion the riverbanks ahead have become unstable. They want you to divert into Bittern's Field, and so too does the Ring, because "this section of the River Brent is impassable". Obviously I had to test that claim out. The path continued for some distance, narrowing slightly, then slightly more, until the aforementioned obstruction appeared. One crumbly riverbank, one footpath much narrower and closer to the edge than usual, but all perfectly passable on foot with a smidgeon of care [photo]. You wouldn't think twice if you stumbled on this supposed obstacle up a Welsh mountain, but you certainly would stumble with a bike or pushchair. I enjoyed the sheer inconspicuousness of it all - the rippling shallows, the lush undergrowth, even the rear view of a council waste dump. It hit home that the Capital Ring has to be an all-purpose accessible pathway throughout, so must never venture into characterful on-foot-only sections such as this. Well go on, you stick to the official route through the meadow, it's pleasant enough [photo], but I was much happier down with the dustcarts and ducklings.
After almost ten miles of watery walking, time to move on. The Ring leaves the Brent behind at Greenford Bridge - almost civilisation again, and the ideal spot to catch an E-numbered bus. The last bit of decent greenery on the walk is Perivale Park, one of those municipal sports grounds you'd never visit unless you were local. The path crosses a concrete tributary, then zigzags around the edge of a few football/cricket pitches (season depending). In the far corner, between the tennis courts and the athletics track, lurks a cluster of dirty-streaked cream containers. The exterior says Portaloo, but closer inspection reveals several numbered doors labelled Male and Female Changing Rooms. It might be luxurious inside, who knows, but everything about the exterior suggests rank fetid gloom and the stench of damp footie socks.
Bonus interlude: It won't happen to you, but as I was passing through Perivale Park there was a sudden hum in the sky, then a rumble, then a roar. Four black shapes zoomed precisely overhead, which I swiftly deduced to be pairs of Typhoons and Tornados exiting the Queen's Birthday flypast. Next up were two HS-125s heading home to RAF Northolt, directly up the road. And finally, whoosh, the Red Arrows giving a private show for the inhabitants of UB6! The Capital Ring's always full of random surprises but rarely quite so right place, right time as this.
If you're getting tired you can break your walk here at South Greenford station. You'd most likely be alone - this is the second least used station in the whole of London, meriting a couple of raised platforms and nothing much else [photo]. (Note to self: come back and do a proper write-up one day.) More likely you'll continue via a lofty footbridge over the rushing A40, a six-lane superhighway lined by Metroland semis [photo]. It is at least a view. The backstreets of Greenford aren't overly photogenic at street level - Cayton Road Sports Ground trebly so. Follow the railway embankment round and you'll reach the end of the line, and the end of section 8, at a grim Greenford crossroads. Back soon.
» Capital Ring section 8: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Mark, Stephen, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Jo, Tetramesh, Richard
CAPITAL RING [section 9]
Greenford to South Kenton (5½ miles)
The crossroads east of Greenford station doesn't look the most promising spot to start a walk. Busy traffic, a railway viaduct and a retail park through the trees - it's not lovely. But divert off down the cycleway and things get lovelier fast. This is Paradise Fields, the slightly over-the-top name for a golf course left to nature, now a wetland area with ponds, reed beds, hedgerows and wildflower meadows. This month it's a riot of purple and white, frequented by cartwheeling butterflies, best experienced down the narrow footpaths that thread off to each side. Mid-January, maybe I wouldn't have enjoyed it so much.
And back to the Grand Union Canal. This is the branch from Paddington, unlike the arm from the Thames which the Ring followed two sections back. It's tempting to cross the bridge and caper off into the open land beyond [photo], but don't, stick to the towpath. It's leafy and shaded along here [photo], and quiet enough that I managed to get right up close to a heron before an approaching jogger startled it into swooping flight. The only other souls I met were two workmen with chainsaws hacking excess branches and a lone teenager throwing bread at a clump of moorhens. Cross at the hump-back bridge (old, weak, single lane only), then continue past a hamlet of homely narrowboats. Small visitors will appreciate the children's playground blessed with sturdy models to climb on, most notably a wooden canalboat pulled by a wooden horse.
Here, at the foot of Horsenden Hill, Ealing Council have kindly thought fit to build a visitor centre. I was expecting a cafe and a rack of souvenir pencil sharpeners, but instead found a few locked buildings and a painted shed [photo]. It's a very nicely painted shed, complete with Horsenden mural on one end, but inside nothing but a few information panels and a trio of long-empty Capital Ring leaflet dispensers. Better than nothing, for sure, but the only 'welcome' was carved in wood over the gate at the entrance. The hill, however, is a real treat. It rises fairly steeply on all sides - unusual for London - with a couple of grassy plateaux on the way up and at the summit. Ideal for dog-walking, kite-flying and probably a few unmentionable after-dark activities. There's no 360° panorama, there are too many trees for that, but stare one way for a sea of Metroland roofs, turn another for Wembley Stadium, look beyond for the City, squint back for Heathrow [photo]. When you're finally ready to leave, and not before, the Ring descends through an ancient forest, then back past bushes of immininent blackberries. Oh yes, Horsenden Hill is this walk's 'best bit'.
And then, ah, it's road-walking time again. It's been 20 miles since the Capital Ring last retreated to suburbia quite so relentlessly as this, so don't expect to be thrilled. It's also been 20 miles since the last parade of shops, way back in Wimbledon, so this might be an ideal opportunity to break off for supplies. Sudbury Hill's busy retail strip is bookended by two very different stations - a Charles Holden Piccadilly cuboid at one end [photo], and a deserted Chiltern outpost at the other. Ignore both, continue. A brief respite from pavement is provided by an ascent up Green Lane, known locally as Piggy Lane, better described as Mundane Footpath. And then Sudbury Hill itself, a relentless meandering climb between villas, courts and cottages, and a streetscape to make estate agents salivate. Alas this was the first section of Ring to be inadequately waymarked. Don't rely on green signs, bring a map, else you're going to get lost.
Here's highlight number two, Harrow-on-the-Hill. Arrival is somewhat unexpected as the street suddenly morphs into the heart of an academic village [photo]. Here benches are dedicated to old masters, bistros frequented by past pupils, and shops devoted to boaters, blazers and cricket whites. It's not what you'd find outside a typical London secondary school, resembling more the precincts of some provincial cathedral. I got lucky, I arrived on the last day of term to find children pouring out of Speech Room into the arms of their parents [photo]. Proud sons clutched merit shields while Father took a photo, beaming daughters massed on the steps for a last pre-summer gossip. Hang on, daughters? These weren't Harrow's boatered boarders, these were maroon-blazered scholars from some other local private school whose headteacher had paid to hire the facilities. I followed them down Football Lane, then Music Hill (where James Blunt learnt to sing), to the car park at the bottom where everyone had left their vehicles.
Ah, the glorious playing fields of Harrow [photo]. As a rambler I got to cut across a permissive path between pitches, whereas the day's educational visitors were forced to queue in their 4×4s and estates to exit. The groundsmen work fast here, already painting next term's white lines as rugby posts replace wickets. Still to be cleaned off, the scoreboard announcing Harrow 60 Visitors 69. Still to be cleared up, a lone gumshield decaying in the long grass. School's out.
But enough of history. Nip over a stile, the only stile on the entire Capital Ring, and the last mile of section 9 is far more mundane. A long brambly path slips apologetically up the back of Northwick Park Hospital (number of architectural awards, nil). You'd never spot the entrance if you walked the other way, and I suspect the adjacent golf club prefers it that way. Welcome to Northwick Park, a featureless greenspace bounded on two sides by tube lines... one of which will shortly take you home. I wouldn't hang around. But weren't the two hills great?
» Capital Ring section 9: official map and directions
» Who else has walked it? Stephen, Mark, Darryl, Paul, Tim, Jo, Tetramesh, Richard
[To read sections 10 to 15, click here]