An Eye On London

"The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion." Thomas Paine

Wren’s Plan For Rebuilding The City Of London After The Great Fire of London 1666.

Sir Christopher Wrens plan for London

Wren’s Plan For Rebuilding The City Of London After The Great Fire of London 1666..

This original is a truly great plan that has been so well preserved and is now electronically digitised for posterity. There is not much hope for many of the buildings that lay in its path but what a different London this would have been with piazzas and long roads or boulevards and wide open spaces which Wren thought to necessary to reduce the  risk of future conflagration. The cheaper option, which the City Corporation inevitably chose, banned thatch roofs which, along with a strong wind blowing from the east, helped the fire to spread. What a different London we would have had but at what cost to our culture?

A walk in two parts : St Andrew by the Wardrobe to St Mary Woolnoth

Map of Church walk

St Andrew by the Wardrobe

This walk begins from Blackfriars station on the north bank of the Thames. Once you leave the station head under the rail bridge and up Queen Victoria Street on the right hand side of the road. Cross at the traffic lights towards the small cafe which always has a shiny table outside it and is the haunt of any number of construction workers or cab drivers. The starting point is next to the cafe.

St Andrew by the Wardrobe is a church I very much like. Firstly, it is the closest City church to my house and I have walked past it so many times and ,secondly, it has a highly unusual name which draws your attention to it immediately. For visitors it is near by Blackfriars Station, close to the Thames and a very good starting point for a walk.

A church was first recorded on this site c.1170 but the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It was re-built by Wren during the re-construction period (1685-94) and was both ‘Wren’s cheapest and last parish church.’

”Wardrobe’ refers to the church’s location beside the King’s Great Wardrobe, where royal costumes and belongings were kept from 1361 until being moved after the Great Fire.’

Leaving St Andrew’s by the Wardrobe you cross the road and past the entrance to an underground car park. Once you see the sign for the subway walk down the steps to arrive at the door of the picturesque St Benet Paul’s Wharf church. Imagine if you can that this church would have been on the foreshore of the River Thames two to three hundred years ago , busy with boats unloading materials for the rebuilding of St Paul’s and lightermen waiting to take you across to the south bank and the Bishop’s brothels of Southwark.

St Benet Paul’s Wharf is a beautiful church as my image attests (click all photos or maps to enlarge them) St Benet Paul's Wharf churchand in very good shape since Wren’s rebuilding but isolated between diabolic traffic schemes that have torn the heart of the area. Surprisingly, it is also know as the ‘Welsh Church’ and still holds its services in the Welsh language. It was re-built in ‘the Dutch style, although there is evidence that the design was principally by Wren’s assistant Robert Hooke.’

There are two ways to the next church but I’ll presume you want to travel by the pretty route. Double back up the stairs to Queen Victoria St turning right and walk up the hill. As you approach the traffic lights  a crowd of people will be queuing or crossing on either side of the road. This is the route to the Millennium Bridge driving tourists from the Tate Modern Gallery on the south bank and delivering them to St Paul’s Cathedral on your left. Walk through the crowd and keep on until you pass a silver building of metal and glass (like so many in London) and turn right down Lambeth Hill. Once you reach the bottom of the hill and look to your left you will see a wonderful church ahead and hear the cacophony of hundreds of vehicles over your right shoulder. Such a dispiriting sight.

St._James_Garlickhythe St James Garlickhythe is a sea-faring church with connections to the London garlic trade. The sight of the church was on a major wharf which was the centre of the garlic trade and the city’s links to Spain.If you look above the entrance you will see a scallop shell which is the symbol of St James and is found in the churches of Santiago de Compostela on the Galician coast in north west Spain. Imagine the smells of the boats, traders and streets surrounding the wharves! Also, from this location you may get a sense of the small, narrow London streets which somehow have survived two world wars and bombings and yet still survive. Look down Skinner St and up Garlick Hill to Queen Victoria St and it is easy to imagine just how different London looked in its Restoration pomp.You will have to exclude the numerous building sites that have sprouted upwards in the City like sores on a London plague victim.

After St James’ walk forward down Skinner St until you emerge next to St Michael Paternoster Royal on your left hand side. Sit on the wall of the park and observe the towering beauty of this church which was re-built by the four-time Lord mayor of London, Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington in the early 15th century. He lived close by in College Hill and paid for the restoration work before Wren re-built it.

St Michael Peternoster Royal‘St Michael’s is currently a Guild Church and serves as the headquarters for The Mission to Seafarers. The Mission assists over three hundred chaplains working in ports around the world.’

The evidence of Guilds and their buildings are all around this part of the City. Many people walk past these buildings each day without a second thought but if you look carefully at both ground level and upwards to the spires and the church roofs there is a wealth of architecture which has survived the wreckers of the City and its numerous building trends. After St Michael’s continue along the road to the end, turn left and walk up the incline before turning right next to Cannon Street and the station. Continue along and cross the street before turning left into Abchurch Lane.

As soon as you turn into the lane you see the church fronted by a largish square. Sitting before you are the numerous City-types earnestly engaged in conversation on their mobiles or with others and drinking coffee whilst trying to convince you that this is part of their job. There is now a mobile cafe against the church wall which appears to be semi-permanent.

The church of St Mary Abchurch is yet another church which was re-built by Wren after the Great Fire but damaged during the Blitz of World War II and was restored by Godfrey Allen between 1945-57. This, however, is one church you need to visit during opening hours just to appreciate the magnificence of its interior which a single photograph could never do it justice. The cupola is so beautifully painted that I had to sit down to appreciate its beauty. I was as speechless as I was the very first time I set eyes upon the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It is that impressive. I’ll let Wiki describe it for you:

st-mary-abchurch-interior‘The dome springs from four plain brick walls, has no external thrusts and measures over forty feet across. It was not painted until 1708 when the whole church went under repair and beautification.William Snow painted the dome’s interior depicting worship in heaven, William Grey made the pulpit, and the door cases, a font cover, rails and Royal Arms are by William Emmett. Its grand altar-piece is by Grinling Gibbons.

His original bill for what he called the ‘Olter Pees’ was discovered as recently as 1946 in the Guildhall Library. The gilded ‘Pelican in her piety’ makes its appearance both on the reredos and in the original copper weather vane made by Robert Bird, which was relocated to sit over the north door after being removed from the spire for health and safety reasons.’

‘… it is often said to be one of the least altered of Wren’s churches and employed the skills of some of his finest craftsmen. It is certainly one of the most original churches, particularly the beautiful dome not hinted at from the outside … The dome was built during Wren’s experimental period, later perfected in the much larger version of St Paul’s.’ LCC

Upon leaving this church sweep left and continue up Abchurch Lane crossing King William St where the lane continues. Once you reach Lombard St turn left until the end of the road and on your left is the rather imposing church of St Mary Woolnoth.SAINT MARY WOOLNOTH_1

St Mary Woolnoth sits astride a highly visible and very prominent site at the junction of Lombard St and King William St and outside one of the many Bank tube station entrances.It is a wonderfully imposing church which is Saxon in its origins. It was rebuilt in the 15th century, like so many other places of worship in the City, then damaged in the Great Fire before being restored by Wren and later rebuilt by a pupil of his, Nicholas Hawksmoor, in the 18th century. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Hawksmoor there is this description on his Wikipedia page ‘After the death of Wren in 1723, Hawksmoor was appointed Surveyor to Westminster Abbey. This post received 100 pounds voted by Parliament for the repair and completion of the Abbey in 1698. The west towers of the Abbey were designed by Hawksmoor but was not completed until after his death.’

St Mary Woolnoth is ‘notable for being the only remaining complete City church by Wren’s gifted assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It is also the only City church to have survived the Second World War unscathed.’ This church was one of the ‘fifty new churches’ called for by Queen Anne and built between 1716-27 when Hawksmoor rebuilt it. It is a hugely imposing church which towers over such a small space and has such stature that it was said to be the ‘equal to anything being built at the time in Europe.’

If you are a student of the Abolitionist Movement you may be familiar with the name of  John Newton who was the rector at St Mary’s from 1779-1807. Newton was one of the few Evangelical ministers in the City and with William Cowper, the poet, co-wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Newton , during this period, also became a friend of the MP, William Wilberforce, and began to preach against the Slave Trade from the very same pulpit which survives to this day.

The church can claim one further boast as it is referred to in T S Elliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land, in which Elliot bemoans the fate of many a commuter as he made his way from London Bridge to his place of work at Lloyds Bank in nearby Lombard Street.

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               I had not thought death had undone so many.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            To where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

Elliot’s verse is a very good point on which to leave this walk and to start the second part once the walker has had the time to appreciate his or her surroundings. I am very taken by the old banking signs that still adorn the buildings on Lombard Street which was the centre of banking and coffee house culture in London for centuries. Photograph them, they are unique!

The Joy of Walking in London

Walking Around The City of London

Before I begin I feel the need to publish a disclaimer:I am not a person of faith. I endured a religious schooling but it is now behind me and no spirit can claim to occupy my heart.I do, however, have an enduring love of the spiritual and beauty in all its forms and I am able to empathise enough with the mystic pull of spirituality. Paintings, music, sculptures, buildings and other forms of artistic endeavour have won me over but religion will never do; organised religion even less so. For people of faith I respect your right to a personal belief but I do not believe you have the right to encroach upon my world nor the world I seek to shape.

What I aim to do is publish a selection of my favourite churches or buildings and connect them on this blog as the basis of a good walk for those people that want to remain within reach of a bus stop, a tube station, a coffee shop or cafe.

The City of London is a small geographical area which is rich in architecture and old church buildings. Some of these churches are built on foundations dating back to the Saxon ninth century . It is because they are churches and remain at the centre of worship for generations of Christians, that these buildings have survived the vandalism of the ‘modernisers’, though some have not been so fortunate. The churches that have survived the constant re-making and demolition that is the way of the City afford us a peek into our past at a London that has long vanished. It is for this reason that they ought to be amongst our most treasured and protected buildings.

These churches are on my doorstep, some quite literally no more than fifteen minutes walk from our front door. So, with a copy of Stephen Millar’s excellent pocket guide, London City Churches , I set out on an extended walk, criss-crossing the City, to discover these architectural jewels for myself, a great number of which were built by that imposing architectural giant of Restoration London, Sir Christopher Wren.

What I didn’t expect to discover is how well connected Londoners are to a rich and sumptuous past that survives in its churches. A past of commerce, invention, prosperity and faith that lay before me and one which is in need of a wider audience if only to preserve it from the glass fronted vandalism of ‘modernisation’ and the ever present threat of the pile-driving villain.With the price of land in the City reaching astronomical sums in 2013 it is perhaps even more necessary that Londoners and visitors to the great metropolis keep a watchful eye on these and other great buildings that are linked to our past.

The wreckers of the Victorian period tried their hardest to demolish so many of these churches as did the City of London Corporation but due to the dogged diligence of organisations such as the Friends of the City Churches and the City of London Churches they continue to prosper. Do visit them. They sit in a part of London you may never have visited before but the reward you will gain will justify the effort and the walk is wonderful.


The Capital Ring in Fourteen days

IMG_1790GrandUnionCanalHighgateRichmond Bridge looking eastIMG_2574E London Uni

Mural at Ford's Lock

Top to Bottom: The City from Woolwich; The Grand Union canal below the A40;Mural on a pub wall near Highgate; Kingston Bridge looking east; Pumping outlet station on the Greenway at Bow; Campus, on right, at East London University;Mural at Ford’s Lock, River Lee.

Finally, it’s over. I’ve completed The Capital Ring, the 78 miles or 126KM walk around the fringes of suburban London.My challenge to myself is over and I’m now looking  at something which will take longer and is further but which can be completed in stages and is not such a drain on my travelling time. For most of these stage walks begin with a tube or train journey out to the suburbs of London from my central location close to Waterloo. They are also covered by the zonal range of the Oyster card and aren’t such a drain on your wallet or purse. So, it’s either the London LOOP for me next or something further afield like the South Downs walk or the Thames Pathway walk, both equally challenging yet achievable over the course of a few days or more .

I’ve finished walking through ‘important nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest’ and across heathland and common; through pristine parks and neglected scrub, bridging brooks and marsh and untangling myself from briar’s. I’ve sunk, ankle deep, into mud below Bitterns Field on a recently drenched riverbank that had survived the floods of 2012 and scrambled across the bog the river bank had become . I’ve trampled concrete path and pavement, broken slab and gouged macadam and played hop-scotch with dog turds on a path from Eltham Palace that was close to a main road but far from regal.I’ve ascended bridges that spanned the M1, the A40, the A2, the A13 and the North Circular  before descending into the silence of the subterranean foot tunnel which burrows beneath the Thames crossing at Woolwich . I have walked in less pretty parts of London yet never failed to come across some form of natural beauty and , at times, where it was least expected. It’s fair to say that on this walk I’ve seen it all and experienced London and its urban beauty as I had never imagined it would be.

Spread over a calendar year  it took fourteen days in total to complete the fifteen stages though I originally planned to it finish inside a month. The mangling of my schedule was down to the organisers of the London Olympic games (which closed the tow path on the Lea Valley Walk and made an alternative route through Hackney Wick too much to bear) and the disintegration of my right knee ligament (see post below) which made walking too painful. Otherwise it wasn’t a particularly difficult walk but a walk which revealed a verdant beauty to London that will surprise you.

The Slow Road To Recovery



Virgil wrote that ‘The greatest wealth is health’. Whilst I fully concur with the Greek sage I have to say that my right knee was never the same after I flew over the handlebars of my bike one sunny August morning last year. A raised kerb, hiding in the shadows of a huge oak, propelled me over my handlebars and onward like a geriatric Buzz Lightyear. I saw the funny side of my horizontal launching (and quickly checked to see how many people saw me fly; it was only a few!) but between grimaces of genuine pain. In fact the pain was so bad that I had to wait whilst sat on the kerb until my eldest son arrived to help me home.Thankfully, as we don’t live too far from the scene of my embarrassment and so he straightened my handle bars and supported me as we walked but I was not happy.

My knee didn’t heal but became progressively worse and this condition stayed with me for some time. It now appears to be as well as it ever will be. I have a couple of stages of The Capital Ring to complete so I thought now was the time , metaphorically at least, to get back on the bike and share some of the notes I wrote in my notebook at the time of my rehabilitation. It had been a dark period in my life. Hopefully, my next entry after this will be notes on the completion of The Capital Ring.

Monday 24th September 2012

My knee is getting progressively worse. On the 13th September 2012 I had to attend A & E at St Thomas’ Hospital as the pain in my knee was now at a very uncomfortable stage. I cannot turn whilst standing still as the pain is insufferable. I sat for three hours and the very helpful GP told me that it was more than likely that I’d torn some of the fibres in my medial ligament on the right knee. The damage to these ligaments will not show up on an x-ray and need an MRI scan and so she referred me to attend the Knee Clinic at the Hospital.

It is now more than a week since I attended A & E and my doctor has not received the paper work. My GPs surgery is no more than a five-minute walk from A & E and therefore It’s not too much to expect the paper work to be sitting on his desk awaiting his action. Meanwhile, I sit at home and the knee hurts and I’m taking anti-inflammatory tablets to reduce the pain.
I phoned my surgery and they assured me that no paperwork has arrived and they will get on the case for me and contact the hospital. Something needs to be done soon or I’ll not last the week. The appointment needs to be made soon as my condition is worsening and it will have a domino-effect on the rest of my health and well being. I’ll explain how:

If I am unable to walk I have to sit indoors;
If I sit indoors and do not exercise then I will gain weight, moreover my ankles will start to swell;
then my mental wellbeing starts to get worse as I cannot allow my ankles to swell and this makes me feel morose. I cannot bear feeling unfit and this injury continues to make me feel so.

I am now awaiting a phone call from the surgery to tell me what’s happened and how this problem can be resolved.

Saturday 29th September.

I walked home from Waterloo Station and it appears that a combination of rest, tablets and limiting the distances I walked is having a positive effect and the knee appears to be improving. At the moment I no longer have any back pain though there is every chance this happy circumstance will change by next week. What I plan to do, therefore, is walk sparingly but regularly and slowly build up my tolerance and reaction to miles walked.If I do this correctly it could be a profitable winter for me: one where I may build my walking fitness … The ankles also feel sore and the cracked and broken skin on both heals needs urgent attention. Another job on the list.

Tuesday 16th October

I attended the Musculoskeletal Assessment Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital to get to the bottom of what it was that is causing me so much discomfort.Getting an appointment so quick is great news but I have to say I’m not looking forward to the examination!

The beauty of seeing a specialist at a hospital is that they know their specialism inside out. The physiotherapist that examined me knew her job so well that she was capable of diagnosing very quickly what she believes has happened to my knee.I first filled in a questionnaire … Next was the examination. For thirty minutes I had to perform leg stretches, achilles stretches and squats to demonstrate that my balance was not impaired and that basic functions of the knee worked without pain.I lay back on the examination couch and she stretched the knee joint and twisted it; probed and prodded the joint in search of floating parts or a knee joint incapable of functioning correctly. All appeared well but she did detect a problem: I had undergone some form of fibre tear on the right-knee which was now almost healed and would account for my improved mobility. After a range of stretches, pulls and exertions she announced that the fibre tear was the most likely explanation due to a lack of swelling after any physical exertion. She would sign me up to a physiotherapy group which would  heal the problems of the knee.She recommended swimming, cycling and re-visiting my own gym which I have been paying for without using for the past six months! Exercise is what is needed but it has to be slow and gradual and not in one leap which may damage me once more. My target is therefore to do cycling in the gym and build up my fitness before finishing the last leg of the Capital Ring sometime over the half-term holidays at the end of the month.
With that I thanked her and walked home to contemplate the first stage of my rehabilitation.

Thursday 8th November

Physiotherapy appointment at St Thomas’ Hospital.

On physical examination, there were no abnormalities observed and no tenderness on palpation. Ege’s test was negative… his injury appears to be well into the healing process as he is self-managing very well. There is however some core weakness and so with that in mind he was given some core strengthening exercises to supplement his current gym programme.’

Post-Hospital recovery

Finishing the last leg of The Capital Ring at half-term didn’t happen. I’d gone off the idea and the rehabilitation to this point has consisted of walking and gym work in between bouts of supply teaching.I’m not a very consistent gym person but I do try my best. I am now at the point where I try not to think about my knee at all but there is always that unease lurking within my psyche that my knee will never be what it was and at some stage will restrict me from doing what I love to do: walk. I understood some time ago that I am mortal (doh!) and that ageing is what we humans do. So, if I am able to I shall get out and walk the paths across our beautiful landscape and I shall appreciate what I can do and not what I cannot. Walking is a simple act of placing one foot in front of the other and yet at times we don’t realise how fortunate we are to walk.

Next: The completion of The Capital Ring.

The Woods Of Finchley and Highgate

The path through Highgate Wood leading to Queen’s Wood Nature Reserve

Though it is hard to imagine today North London ,very much like South London in this respect, was once covered in a thick canopy of trees and ancient woodlands, some dating back to prehistoric times and beyond . Modern house building, suburban sprawl and the expansion of London and its artery of transport networks have done for most of these woodlands and geographically altered the ecology of the city for ever. From Dulwich in the south to Highgate in the north and all points in between there once existed a thick spread of mighty English Oak trees alongside Hornbeam,Mountain Ash, Silver Birch, Elder, Hazel, Sycamore, Maple and Hawthorn to satisfy the cravings of the most demanding of carpenters. In North London this Great Park, as it was known, sheltered life and gave life though nearly all of it is now gone and yet in places and by foot the visitor is able to glimpse the tiniest surviving remainder of the once ancient and mighty woods and marvel at what once filled these parts.

Cherry Tree Wood, a small though partially dense wood, is squeezed into green space between suburban housing sprawl and the track embankment opposite East Finchley underground station. At first glance the park appears to be popular amongst mothers and their young children until you realise that all parks, woodland or green space with a play area is popular with all parents in all parts of London. It’s not a large park but it’s very hospitable and at just over five hectares there isn’t that much of it left. It is a reminder of what once was. A short walk away down a suburban avenue is Highgate Wood which, at thirty-eight hectares is bigger, denser and darker. Once inside Highgate Wood it becomes apparent that this was once even more substantial than it is and though teeming with dog walkers at various times of the day it has the feel of a great wood. Highgate Wood is cared for and looked after by the ‘Friends of Highgate Wood’ who do a worthwhile job of maintaining the paths and ensuring that the trees are trimmed when they need to be and the paths maintained and that everything within its confines runs tickety-boo. As I walked though the ‘friends’ were hard at it maintaining a fence and repairing a damaged thicket.

The short walk from Cherry Tree Wood to Highgate Wood allows you to imagine a London nestling between two great ridges at Highgate and further south at Dulwich, below the Crystal Palace transmitter. London sprawled across further smaller mounds and hillocks and marshland, rivers and streams. The view from Highgate Village is an outstanding vista across the artificial peaks of the City of London and beyond towards Blackheath, Woolwich and Kent.

Highgate Wood is dark, nestling in the hillside then descends down into what feels like the bottom of a crater in Queen’s Wood. Both woods are separated by the main Muswell Hill Road which connects the upper end of the Archway Road to Muswell Hill Broadway. Both are different woods and have a different feel about them. Queen’s Wood has a lively cafe which doubles as a Visitor’s Centre, of sorts.On the day I passed through there was a meeting in progress of ‘The friends of Queen’s Wood’ who, I’m assured, do a lot of good work and maintain the cared-for feeling that the Wood has. As I sat with my tea and cake they debated and deliberated and nodded earnestly to this proposal and that and ended by talking to a young father who thanked them for their hard work. All cooed appreciatively. Like Cherry Tree Wood the Queen’s Wood has spent time and energy planning and building tree-walks and other activities for youngsters to enjoy. This is what gave it, to my mind, an advantage over those that govern Highgate Wood.

‘The wood is an ancient oak-hornbeam woodland, which features English oak and occasional beech which provide a canopy above cherry, field maple, hazel, holly, hornbeam, midland hawthorn, mountain ash and both species of lowland birch. The scarce Wild Service Tree (which is evidence of the Woods’s ancient origin) is scattered throughout the wood.’ -Wiki

Emerging from the south-eastern side of Queen’s Wood I climbed a stiff path into Priory Gardens and at the end of the road sits Highgate Underground station. A great walk over: three different woods and a great cafe in which to end your tramp. Hard to beat, really.

Rory Stewart Reflects On Walking Whilst Walking Across Afghanistan

I decided to include a post on the renowned diplomat, long-distance walker and former Deputy Governor in Iraq, Rory Stewart, as I’d just finished re-reading his great book The Places in Between. He’s a fascinating character with an interesting background and if a man deserves a wider audience then it is he. I recommend his book, heartily, and if you do read it I hope you get as much enjoyment from it as I did.

Rory Stewart is a Tory MP for Penrith and the Border and a former diplomat who has an unusual background. He is a supreme long-distance walker and wiki informs us that ‘from 2000 to 2002 he made a series of treks in rural districts of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey totalling around 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses’ . He walked across Afghanistan in January 2002 just as the post-9/11 Allied bombing of Afghanistan began. He covered the distance entirely on foot following the route taken by the Mongol Emperor Babur the Great. In extremely hostile conditions and at high altitude Stewart survived by living off the generosity of the Afghan people to shelter and feed him. When he sat down to write ‘The Places In Between’ he dedicated the book to ‘…the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal…never in twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me.’ His dedication gives you an idea of the hazards he faced and the tight prose chronicles his every misfortune, scrape and slice of good fortune. No doubt, the film will be in production soon as it is rumoured that Brad Pitt has bought the film option and was in the process of casting. We shall see.

So why walk? And why walk such long distances, day after day? Well, a long-distance walk gives an individual time to think and the space to let the imagination reign freely; it gives you time to reflect upon your life or to contemplate the meaning of human existence or to merely escape from the everyday and the mundane. With so much time to ruminate long walks can evoke new ideas or change an individuals perspective on the world. A long walk gives you plenty of miles to free the clutter and see the world clearly. Rory Stewart put it slightly more eloquently:

‘I felt quite detached from the landscape. I wondered how I might connect my Afghan walk to my walks in Iran and Pakistan… I redesigned a journey around the world, which would finish where I began in Turkey.

I thought about evolutionary historians who felt that walking was a central part of what it means to be human. Our two-legged motion was what first differentiated us from the apes. It freed our hands for tools and carried us on the long marches out of  out of Africa. As a species we colonised the world on foot. Most of human history was created through contacts conducted at walking pace, even when some rode horses. I thought of the pilgrimages to Compostella in Spain; to Mecca; to the source of the Ganges; and of wandering dervishes, sadhus and friars who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the lakes.

Bruce Chatwin, who was very interested in these things, concluded from all of this that we would think and live better and be closer to our purposes as humans if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth. I was not certain that I was living or thinking any better.

Before I started, I had imagined that I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or write a novel set in a Scottish village which would become more rooted in a single place as I kept moving. In Iran I tried earnestly to think through philosophical arguments, learn Persian vocabulary and memorise poetry. Perhaps this is why I never felt quite at ease walking in Iran.

In Pakistan, having left the desert and entered the lush Doab of the Punjab, I stopped trying to think and instead looked at the movement of the canal water and peacocks in the trees. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Baghvad Ghita open in my left hand and read a line at a time. In the centre of Nepal I began to count my breaths and my steps, reciting phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way in which some people meditate. I could only feel this calm for at most an hour a day. It was , however, a serenity that I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.’

Rory Stewart The Places in Between (2004)

Horsenden Hill – The Highest Point in NW London

Photo by Vin Miles – BBC Website

Horsenden Hill with a view of six counties and ten London Boroughs from the top

Horsenden Hill is neither mountainous nor is it hard to climb and it may not be the first name that springs to mind when planning a walk in north west London but it is worth your time and the effort to walk to its summit. Its location provides a wonderful antidote to a trudge through the hinterland of warehouses, business parks and over burdened roads which sit north of the A40 London to Oxford road. I approached the Hill after a morning jaunt along the Grand Union Canal followed by a quick turn northward and across the fields.Though it’s only 85m in height the walk through the woods and across the meadow had me breathing shortly. As you clear the woods there are a couple of benches which those with the time use to watch the planes landing and taking off at Heathrow Airport. After a couple more gates you reach the path that takes you to the top of Horsenden Hill. The hill is a scenic spot which is a great place to eat your sandwiches, have a picnic or just lie on your back and watch the House Martins and Swallows swoop above you or trace the vapour trails of competing planes.

The hill has been in use for some seven thousand years from the original Stone Age dwellers to troops manning a gun placement during the Second World War. The hill’s connection to the Roman era was that it was the site of a small fort or a look out post. By the fourteenth century Medieval farmers had control of the site and archaeological finds indicate that a wide range of crops – wheat, barley, corn, rye and peas – were grown here.The hill is above the remains of Horsenden’s Ancient Wood which is now so small and has been reduced to a small copse which the Capital Ring cuts through.

As the hill sits north of Wembley Stadium it is hard to avoid noticing the ‘stadium of the bland’ and it’s banal archway but there is also a visitor’s centre, a cafe, craft shops and a public toilet to wipe away that particular memory once you descend.

Wimbledon Common on the Capital Ring

The Windmill on Wimbledon Common

I love this description of Wimbledon Common by Walter Johnson in 1912 and as it can’t be bettered I’ll include it in it’s entirety:

“He does not know Wimbledon Common who is not familiar with its labyrinths of leafy glades, its tangled thickets of wild red rose, bramble, and honeysuckle; who has not often traversed its turfy plateau and had the perfumes of odoriferous herbs borne in upon his senses; who has not pondered over its rusty pebble, and wondered whence they came; tried to acquaint himself with what may be gleaned of local history; First of all, to the Conservators of the Common, to whom we really owe very much, one may appeal for the preservation of the heath in its wild state… one prays earnestly that the Common be not vulgarised… by making this lovely spot ordinary – a kind of level, well-ordered suburban park, for this windswept Common is not ordinary; it stands alone, and is therefore priceless”.

The Common is anything but ordinary nor what I would consider suburban. It attracts visitors who come to exercise, stretch a leg, yarn, ramble or just pass time under its shaded boughs. Types of person drawn to this beautiful managed woodland range from earnest dog walkers of all ages (and some considerably older than you might imagine!), walkers brandishing maps (and those without) , horse riders, coach trippers and denizens of the local elderly care homes for whom the Common provides a fantastic opportunity for exercise, pleasure and an alternative to sitting indoors and slipping from view of the world.

The car park is a good starting point as it is there that the cafe, toilet and entrance to the windmill museum all cluster. The tea and flapjack I can recommend and do so! Once you set off then head in the direction of the Queen’s Mere which takes you rambling through the woods, down and up the hill, following the path and across the golf course. There are many paths to choose from once you’re in and most seemed peaceful, smothered in leaves and very quiet on the day I visited: less dogs unleashed here, also. On a very hot day twisted bracken and leaves lay strewn around and after taking in the lay of the land I decided there and then that I can’t wait until winter to re-visit here, to see it stripped of its summer clothing and bare. You see, a fresh perspective in a new season is not just the obligation of a photographer but of anyone who has a love of the landscape and this Common has a handsome prospect apparent from the moment you dig your heels into its rich, loam soil. There are plenty of benches within the woods to sit and gather your thoughts or to simply watch the geese or just people-watch: whiling away some time on the tree tinged shore of the Queen’s Mere is probably the best use of a walker’s time.

A very English setting for a pathway

When you’re up for moving you may set off down the slight incline which ultimately leads you to the A3 and the Robin Hood gate and entrance to Richmond Park. As you descend the slope there is a rather large war memorial on your right shielded from view by the tall thicket of bushes and towering trees which make this path such a pleasure. This is also close to Putney Vale Cemetery, slightly further up the incline and close to a different path.

I have mixed memories of the cemetery as this was the site of a memorial service and burial I attended with some forty to fifty others of a good friend of mine. His name was Sam and he was in his late thirties. He died from mental health complications that none of us seemed to understand nor know about and with neither parents alive nor his family in attendance it was us, his loyal but ill-informed friends, that had to see him off to the next world. The vicar assured us that it had been the best turn-out he had seen for some time considering he was to be buried in a rather un-assuming plot. If nothing else we ensured through our collection, the last big whip-round, that he would have a grave stone and be remembered with some dignity despite the condition in which he died.This walk was the first time I’d been close to the cemetery since his burial some years ago.

Ahead lies the A3 and Richmond Park and I’ll end the South-Western Parks at this juncture as I’ve written a fairly long piece on Richmond earlier in the blog.Once I tired of Richmond town and its various and numerous watering holes it was across the Thames and onto the paths of the Regent Canal to the west of London and the path to Harrow-on-the-Hill.



South-Western Parks of the Capital Ring

Norwood Grove and its gardens near Streatham

Once I had decided to use the cardinal points of the compass as the easiest method to organise my writing about the countless parks and green spaces I passed through it became a simple matter of sorting out what to include and what not. Geographically the south-west begins at Crystal Palace rail station as it sits roughly in the centre of southern London below the Thames on the Ordinance Survey map.

The television transmitter mast at Crystal Palace (the most visible landmark in South London and visible from all points north and south) sits on top of a narrow ridge which descends eastward in the direction of Streatham. Ahead of it lies the remnants of an ancient forest which once densely choked the slopes between Norwood and Peckham Rye: a huge expanse of woodland which helps explain why Peckham acquired the old English name of ‘the settlement by the wood’. The same land is now choked with inner-suburban housing, sports grounds, graveyards, blocks of flats and social housing.

Striking out westwards heading for Streatham Common and onwards towards the river lay many small pockets of green, urban land. The first hidden park is Norwood Grove and the building at its centre (above) resembles a southern American plantation house. The type of dwelling where Rhett Butler whispered sweet nothings into the ear of Scarlett O’Hara. Alas it is closed with no plans to open it to the general public. Shame really. The house and its beautiful gardens once formed part of the much larger Streatham Common which lies a short walk ahead along a narrow canine-trod path. Both the house and grounds remain part of a ‘hidden South London’  which requires some local knowledge or it may be missed if your excursions don’t veer from the well trod paths and tracks of the Common. At the end of the path as the thick wood ceases to shelter you and the asphalt road abruptly ends your solitude sits the Rookery cafe. It has outside seating and is stuffed with cakes and other things and , most importantly, a good mug of tea which is always what you call for when you take a break.

Thames Water’s Streatham Pumping Station

I nearly stumbled past this unique building which I initially mistook for a temple  or some form of prayer house.It sits back from a suburban road, nestled closely to other less grand dwellings but has a unique presence. The green copper cupolas give it a Moorish feel and there is no denying its exotic architecture but the original owners of the pumping station clearly gave some thought as to how this would blend with the surrounding environment when they built it in 1888. It sits on top of the embankment and close to the main London-Brighton rail line. Ahead, at the end of the road, lies Tooting Common Woodlands which is another green area close by but only a small part of the land it used to be.

John Furse

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