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The Slow Road To Recovery

                        

Photo: http://www.healthtap.com

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.

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.

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.

South Eastern Parks of The Capital Ring

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.

How do we imagine The Brent River Valley?

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.

John Furse

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