The view from the ‘broad plateau of sorts that is Oxleas Meadows overlooking Kent and South-East London’
This was meant to be one complete post but the more I sat and typed the more I appreciated that to do this part of the walk justice it would have to be separated into two sections: south and north. As I continued to type I realised that I would have to write it in four parts (NESW) if it was to be written in any detail. One huge post would be too much of a read in one sitting!
It may not be apparent to some but London is surrounded by green open spaces and genuine countryside: miles and miles of it.In amongst its bulging suburbs and winding roads also exist the remnants of ancient woods now protected by some body or other with an interest in their preservation. There is also a body of people who are willing to put the hours in to help keep such spaces habitable for all to use and appreciate. The Capital Ring walk contributes to this sharing of our public spaces as it winds its way through a wide variety of parks, fields, commons, scrub land, urban spaces and just plain greenery than you could ever imagine! I’ve lost count of the number of parks and spaces but there’s not an existing stage which doesn’t have a green element and a variety of paths to follow. Long may it continue.
On the first part of the first leg in Charlton there are a few pieces of greenery: Maryon Park, where the murder takes place in 60s flick Blow Up (starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave) and which leads into Maryon Wilson Park. The windy expanse of Charlton Park follows leading into a ‘bland’ Hornfair Park which leads you across Woolwich Common. What could be a beautiful refuge from nearby traffic and high-rise living is a disappointing common peppered with scattered waste, beer cans and the abandoned clothing of both children and adults. One tree had so many discarded plastic shopping bags clinging to its branches that from a distance I mistook it as the site of a Tibetan monument with its prayer flags fluttering in a stiff breeze. Following this you emerge from a small, dark woods onto a broad plateau of sorts that is Oxleas Meadows which has a cafe at its ‘peak’ overlooking Kent and South-East London (photo above) . With a wide expansive view this a great place for a cup of tea whilst soaking up the vista before you.Shortly after you descend to the bottom of that view and into Eltham Park which is rather prim and pruned with diligent lady park attendants chewing the fat with local mother’s and wishing you well on your travels. Eltham Park is neatly bisected by the gargantuan A2 rumbling below it and its exit leads to an unspectacular path and arrangement of trees where jaded dog owners parade their prized pooches who bury their noses amongst the leaves and broken branches like prized-pigs truffle hunting in Tuscany. That will be the first and last time in which Eltham is juxtaposed with Tuscany.
Grove Park sounds very promising but the blight of suburban sprawl has erased all that is left of the park near the grove that so tempted planners to name it so. Is there anyone alive who wouldn’t be seduced into rural living by such a name on a prized letter head? I can think of a few. There is no park here and what glamour there was has long faded. Row upon row of housing, some smart some not, squeezed into tight spaces like a big arsed man or woman determined to have that seat on a London bus.There are plenty of playing fields,though: the preserve of the social clubs which bought them in the 1930s or of well-healed schools with wealthy pupils whose parents can afford them.
The third stage does contain one gem of a park in Downham which starts out as a huge ,broad field bordered by trees on its far side.I didn’t really expect much as the tarmac path gave way to a dirt trail and the trees obscured the light and drew me into a high wood.I walked ahead, following the path,and the trees were taller.I followed both the path and the small green Ring arrows and after skipping mud pools and swerving large, wet unleached dogs emerged next to a golf green and its pristine lawns. The path plunged down a slope towards a stream and the green disappeared from view though ahead and to the left of the opposite hill lay an even bigger swathe of verdant golfing greens basking in the morning sunshine.Once you arrive at the top of the brief climb there is a beautiful white mansion built by John Cator in the 18th century which now functions as a public golf club for those who want a game on a course that winds its way through a truly beautiful part of South London. This is Beckenham Place Park in the London Borough of Bromley and if you turn left out of the entrance you come to the High Street. Beckenham was, of course, the home and birthplace of The Beckenham Arts Festival curated by David Bowie and so has a special place in my heart.
The final part of the SE parks section takes us to the huge Crystal Palace Park which is so big that it contains a national sports stadium within it and still exists comfortably without rubbing shoulders or getting too close. You enter the park through the Sydenham Gate in the south-eastern corner. This has the feel of a large park with an entrance leading to a nearby car park and then swiftly rises up a path to the boat lake and paths that make up the functioning park. If you continue up the slope this will lead you lead you to the site where the imposing Crystal Palace stood for seventy years once it had been removed being from Hyde Park after the close of the Great Exhibition of 1851.The palace was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936.
Skirting the Athletics stadium and heading west to the railway station brings us to the end of the SE Parks and the beginning of the SW Parks stage from Crystal Palace to Richmond which I’ll post shortly. Thanks for reading.
Leg 2 Falconwood to Grove Park (3.4 miles or 5.4km)
The best view of London from the South and to all points North,West and East of the city is from the General Wolfe1 statue in Greenwich Park. At the top of a gruelling hill climb the visitor stands outside the Observatory astride the bifurcating line of the Meridian which is cauterized into the cobbles and asphalt. The burgeoning peaks of Canary Wharf loom before you like something from a Christopher Nolan set or the Metropolis conjured drawn from Fritz Lang’s imagination one inspirational day in Weimar Germany torn apart between two wars. From this eyrie London is set out before you.
From Clapham Common there is no view of London stretching before you hemmed in as you are by the touching trees and paths, traffic and five-story houses that guard the perimeter of the Common. In an article for the LRB Will Self, a denizen of these parts, remarked upon his lack of vision from the Common:
‘..there’s no real prospect of the city afforded – as, say, from Primrose Hill in the north – and if you’re inclined to claustrophobia, the very expanse seems paradoxically to reinforce a sense of being shut up inside South London.’2
Striding along the Capital Ring in the borough of Bromley you emerge from the coiffured lanes of a pampered suburb and step inside a Plantagenet masterpiece which is Eltham Palace. Later it became a hunting palace for Henry VIII before it was built upon by a modern king of commerce. The art-deco addendum pays homage to the wealth of the textile magnate of the 1930s, the Courtauld family. They made a good job of restoring the grounds and the interior of the buildings with their restoration of Eltham Palace.
The verdant fields of the South London suburbs stretch out before you and following the horizon your eyes are guided to the vertiginous peaks of London. Like looking at the Shard through the wrong end of an eyepiece. Though highlights are short on this leg and you may view houses that you think don’t belong in South London there is a genuine sense of surprise when you stumble across the Palace. Make sure you go inside as it’s always worthwhile supporting the fine work of English Heritage and, if for no other reason, there is a superb cafe with waitress service modelled on a Lyon’s tea house of the art-deco period.3
Iain Sinclair, if you didn’t already know, is a fine writer and a fine writer of walks neatly dovetailing with his wider understanding of poetry, film, literature and life. He has a distinct vision of London as do I. His vision is one and mine is another. We all view our city through eyes filtering memories and connecting neurons and it is these unique experiences that inform what we write about.
Here’s what Iain Sinclair has to say about why walking is the best way to view your town:
‘’…the changes, shifts breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself…Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together…’ Iain Sinclair Lights Out For The Territory (1997)
Part of the bank below Bittern’s Field along the Brent River Valley which was underwater days before.
Leg 8 Osterley Lock to Greenford (4.8 miles or 7.8km)
It requires no effort for Londoners to become detached from the land on which the streets and roads that we daily traverse are built. We know that if we walk a path or a pavement or a road or a track it will take us to our destination though the land on which such routes are built flows in a different direction beneath our feet. Through jaded eyes we view London as a flat plan view map and a series of lines, grids, symbols and colours on a map and grow accustomed to travelling with our finger along coloured lines punctuated with the names of streets, roads or places of interest. Often we fail to note the topography of the city beneath our feet or before our peripheral vision or, indeed, towering above our heads as we are consumed by time and the economic imperative. Very often as Londoners we go where we are herded and guided by the paving slabs and the tar macadam or now, in this age of GPS, by the pulsing Map App in our hand.
Yet there is another London we can see and touch and hear if we listen and smell and look for it. It surprises the visitor to learn that Brent is the name given to a river but that has to be understood before grappling with the concept of a river valley in Brent. The river exists and the valley through which it courses is prone to flooding in periods of heavy rain. Yet the average citizen fails to imagine London as an area scarred by a series of swollen, brooding arteries bursting their banks and saturating golf courses and flood plains. That vision belongs to the Severn or the Thames of rural Oxford or Gloucester but not inner London.
It occurred to me,as it probably does to many others, when speeding through these valleys and canopied areas in motor vehicles or aboard public transport that our vision is immune to the changes in topography unless the landscape alters visually in some startling form. Only when we begin to walk the ways and paths of London, free from the paving and the tar macadam, are we able to make sense of the topography and the simple, unspoiled beauty of such places as Brent Meadow or, indeed, the flooded plain of the The Brent River Valley.
Leg 13 – Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick (3.6 miles or 5.2km)
After leaving the bus stop in Stoke Newington High Street I weaved my way eastwards through the wide busy roads pulsing with Hassidic Jews. Within twenty minutes I stood at the gates of Springfield Park, a park I had never heard of and one which didn’t get much of a mention in my guide.
‘Inside the park there are impressive views of beautifully landscaped parkland with steep, rolling contours … and presenting pleasant vistas … east over the River Lean and Walthamstow Marshes.’ Source.
The park is a wonderful blend of woodland, grassland and wetland with manicured greens and areas of ‘managed meadow’ nestling amidst the Ash, Oak and Plane trees.It is a rare gem of a Local Nature Reserve which attracts plenty of visitors and people eager to enjoy a peaceful day behind its gates. Yet it wasn’t the paradise I was hinting at in the title.
The ‘beauty where none was expected’ was when I first sighted Walthamstow Marshes. The photo (above) I shot at eleven in the morning and its simple beauty is something I didn’t expect to see in London. The Marshes at Walthamstow, nestled beside the River Lea, are the last remaining natural marshlands in the London region. The campaign which saved the Marshes from the gravel extractors in the 1970s listed some 350 species of plants growing at the the time along with 17 species of butterfly, Herons, Warblers, Jays and Kestrels amongst the 30 odd type of bird spotted.
‘Wetter parts of Marshes have beautiful mixed-fen vegetation, i.e. large expanses of sedge (beautiful in flower in May) distinctly zoned from stands of Reed Sweet Grass (Glyceria maxima) and Reed Grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Latter grow to 5 and 6 ft. Two large Reed Beds – North Marsh (3 acres) and South Marsh. Reeds grow to 2.5m (8ft) and are at their best in Winter.’ Source Here.
If you have the time pay a visit. There is an official website Visit Lee Valley but I prefer the left-field version of events in the Marsh from Marshman.
Leg 6 – 6.9 miles or 11.2 km
The day I walked this leg of the Capital Ring (May 25th) was the hottest day of walking so far this year.
Dry and very warm the temperature climbed as my walk progressed. I walked the distance in just over three hours but that included time to drink a cup of tea, stop and take photographs, chat to people and admire the wonderful views along the route.
Once clear of Wimbledon Park Underground station on the District Line and the signage is good (see photo in the header of the blog) and a short cut through brings you onto the fringe of Wimbledon Park itself.I interrupted a school PE lesson that was taking place in one of the corners and worked my way out of the park to the main road and down hill into the posh housing. You switch a gear here and begin to weave your way uphill through the tightly packed houses and the tennis courts of the All-England Club at Wimbledon.
My first visit to Wimbledon Park begins with a walk through a light wood on Putney Heath. The path is clear and straight and as I leave the wood behind I can now see the Windmills which are the dominant feature of Wimbledon Common. On such a warm day the cafe which sits close to the windmills attracts a lot of visitors and the tea was nice but the flapjack nicer! Sitting in the garden you see how the cafe attracts a lot of dog-walkers and older people coaxed from their cars. The occasional horse trots by kicked into action by an overheating owner or rider.
The wooded walk across and over Wimbledon Park which winds towards the A3 and the entry to Richmond Park is covered by a green canopy and so keeps the walker cool and sheltered from the blistering sun. When walking across that park there is no cover at all and the walker will surely pine for the woods of Wimbledon Park as you surely must if the heavens opened.So far, so green.The path narrows and the sound of a rugby team training to my right and the traffic roaring ahead down the A3 ends the tranquility of the woods and the constant birdsong. You cross the main road at the traffic lights at this very busy road junction.
The visual beauty of this walk is apparent as you enter Richmond Park through the Robin Hood Gate. You pass a stables on your right and before you stretches the rolling hills of the park. The park deer squat under a spreading Oak tree and carefully examine visitors using the path heading north in the direction of Spankers Hill Wood. Once clear of the first slight incline you cross a road and keep walking towards the emerging Pen Ponds seen above in my photo.
At this stage I’d walked slightly over four miles and my feet were a bit sore so I sat on a bench on the hill above the ponds and ate and drank whilst cooling my feet. The cyclists struggle up the hill to your left but the view does not disappoint and there’s a breeze that cools you as you rest. Over the cusp of the hill to the Oak Lodge before the path winds downhill heading across Pembroke Lodge Gardens towards the village of Petersham.There is a wonderful view of distant Richmond as you head downhill.
Once you have left the park you wind along a narrow path heading for Petersham Meadows before reaching the Thames. The meadows are a wild delight and very cool underfoot as you glimpse the Thames, for the first time since leaving Woolwich, sparkling through the trees and bushes. There’s a further mile to walk along the river path before reaching the centre of Richmond which gets very busy on a warm day. Have no fear as the walk is now over and there is a wide choice of pubs that will gladly help you quench your thirst before catching the train back to London.
Once you’ve completed this wonderful walk you’ve earned that drink.Cheers and enjoy!
Capital Ring and its distinctive sign nailed to posts and trees along the route.
The reason I chose to walk The London Ring is that I hate gyms. I always have. I don’t like paying for them and I have little in common with the people who go to them.
The idea of walking around London really appealed to me for a number of reasons:
1. It requires no special equipment other than a pair of comfortable boots.
2. It begins the moment you set foot outside your door.
3. You are walking in parts of London that may be totally unfamiliar to you and will surprise you.
4. It’s outside in the fresh air and whatever the weather.
5. You meet some interesting people.