I’m not writing much here, as of all the walks in the nation, this is surely the best for public transport. You’re rarely more than a few hundred yards from a bus stop, or perhaps a mile or two from a tube or rail station. So if you’re a Londoner, you can probably do stages likes those shown below on a from-home basis with no car, and if you’re a visitor, from wherever it is where you’re staying. You’re probably no further from a coffee stop, pub or café than you are a bus stop, too.
The walk is well signposted but there’s a fantastic guidebook by Colin Saunders (Aurum Press). There’s an online guide by Tfl too, but it doesn’t have nearly as much information. Much of the Ring features in my Cicerone guide Walking in London – see the references below.
Thursday 10 July 2014. Olympic Park to Cyprus, five miles.
The forecast was mediocre: grey with perhaps the chance of a few showers later on. Well, we might miss them, I thought; perhaps a few people will be waiting for me at Pudding Mill Lane DLR.
As it happens, the Met office was far too optimistic for this first stage, five miles across Newham mostly on the Greenway, which overtops Bazalgette’s great contribution to the public health of the capital, the Northern Outflow. And so was I: just one person, Geoff (whose first Wren group activity this was) sheepishly checked out whether I was Peter.
We joined the Greenway almost immediately, enjoying the rooftop-level views, picking out familiar (to us) landmarks from an unfamiliar viewpoint – what a metropolis Stratford looks these days, St John’s church almost hidden like a New York cathedral! – and stopping to wonder at the Gothic miracle of Abbey Mills pumping station. (Walk 5 in Walking in London tells you more.) And in Beckton District Park, some of the more exotic tree trail species were having a little more success in shrugging off the by now heavy rain than two increasingly bedraggled walkers. I got wetter in these few miles than I had done a month before, backpacking for six days through Sutherland.
Spooky footnote: back in Stratford, Geoff and I had a coffee, and I managed to sell him a copy of my Essex book. Signing the dedication, Geoff volunteered to spell his wife’s first name, as I wouldn’t be able to. But I could. I had worked with her 30 years before.
Thursday 7 August 2014. Cyprus to Woolwich Common, six miles.
Things were rather better for stage two, a fine and breezy late summer day greeting Kathy, Les, Paula and Ruth – an apologetic Geoff told me later that he was poised on his threshold, sack on back, when work inconveniently called with a new assignment. An excursion through the Royal Docks took us round an unpromising corner to a wide view of Gallions Reach on the Thames, the piers of the former Beckton gas works (important to me as my grandfather’s place of work – walking London can be good for personal reminiscence too) to one side, Woolwich and its ferry the other.
On the river itself, many bird species bobbed up and down, and we longed for a Wren Group specialist who might tell us which was which! We took the foot tunnel under the river, diverted to the Thames Barrier only to find the cafe shut, and then took a succession of parks, some sculpted, others largely wild, up towards Shooter’s Hill. Woolwich Common, our last open space, reminded us very much of our own Wanstead Flats, though with an elevation and distant views which our beloved space can’t claim.
University of East London, Cyprus
Approaching Shooter’s Hill
Wednesday 17 September. Woolwich Common to Grove Park, seven miles.
We were soon climbing onto Shooter’s Hill, with a choice of cafés for the coffee stop. We chose one with the dramatic downward sweep of Eltham Park before us, before a circuit of Oxleas Wood. This is one of London’s great survivors – 190 acres of pristine oak and hornbeam woodland, self-seeded for 8,000 years, and all-too-nearly victim to the road-planner’s chainsaw in the 1990s. Parakeets squawking in the branches above us were an reminder that diversity spreads to London in many ways. (The wood features in Walk 23 of Walking in London.)
Later, beyond the art-deco-Tudor mix of Eltham Palace, I’d promised a wonderful sweeping view of London from King John’s Walk, but grey clag made sceptics of my companions, until I showed the pictures from my earlier reconnaissance.
Thursday 23 October. Grove Park to Crystal Palace, eight miles.
If the stage before had at least the benefit of significant green splodges on the map, less of the wild was evident for the next two walks. But somehow, astute urban planning and no doubt a little bit of luck had maintained some delicate green corridors, such as in Downham, between the grander highlights such as Beckenham Place Park and Crystal Palace Park. The latter, a high spot as well as a highlight – we were discovering just how hilly south London can be – lends a bit of variety to wildlife-spotting with dinosaur plaster-casts, shaped according to the best Victorian palaeontology. (Crystal Palace Park features in Walk 22 of Walking in London.)
A bit of a shame that on this stage I only had Wren treasurer Norman to share them with, though since he and I had, unknown to each other, both been walking in the Skipton area the week before, we had no difficulty in passing the time.
Golf course, Beckenham Place Park. The course closed a few years ago, enabling rewilding in this part of the park.
Tuesday 18 November. Penge to Streatham, five miles.
We started with a repeat of Crystal Palace Park, for the benefit of all my companions today who had missed it last time. It also made this short stage a little bit less short. Thankfully, we saw better weather than October, and grand autumn russet and orange to accompany it. It’s through what was once the ancient Great North Wood, just a couple of remnants surviving in what were once the forested coombes and dells of northern Surrey.
The ridge of Upper Norwood, alas now the A215, gives a sudden and dramatic view south to the City, and then a moment or two later across modern Croydon to the North Downs – surprisingly evocative. Finally, we swept down Streatham Common, a fine lung for south Londoners.
Crystal Palace Park
Norwood Grove House
Wednesday 7 January 2015. Streatham to Wimbledon, seven miles.
In all honesty this section does not count as one of the highlights of the Capital Ring. Pleasant as Tooting and Wandsworth commons might be, they’re over in something of a flash (despite harbouring some very good coffee stops), and are linked by some of south London’s more prosaic streets (though it’s always remarkable how vernacular architecture differs across the capital).
But there’s always an older, wilder London beneath the surface, here shown by the slow descent to the River Wandle – till Victorian times, this stream, the fastest-flowing in the capital, was home to many watermills, and it’s still famous as a home to kingfishers. Indeed the Wandle has its own trail – it’s Walk 19 in Walking in London. From Wimbledon Park one can look west to the tennis arenas; but for us, the views were eastwards, back to the high ground around Crystal Palace where we had been a month before.
A grey day in Richmond Park
Thursday 12 February 2015. Wimbledon to Richmond, five miles.
This walk, perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated of the whole Ring, took us through Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park, some of London’s most open ground, before a brief Thames-side finale. Alas, it took place on one of the greyest days of the winter.
The Common is less well-known than the Park, despite the Wombles, but there’s plenty of interest; in direct distinction to the two commons we had walked the month before, which are manicured urban parks, it’s been left semi-wild, and like our own Epping Forest, survives thanks to a late-Victorian Act of Parliament.
As a Royal Park, Richmond Park has a different legal status entirely. It’s large enough, just about, to harbour secret places where one doesn’t know one is in a capital city at all. It’s famous for its herds of red and fallow deer, though it was a little unnerving to read the warning notices about the night-time cull (though without it, there would in a few years be little significant vegetation left). It’s not difficult to spot them, though much harder to get close. Just by Sidmouth Wood, we saw a small herd of fallow in the mid-distance, and spotted too a human, leaning silently against a tree, just a few yards from the pack.
Walk 17 in Walking in London takes you through both the Common and the Park.
Tuesday 10 March 2015. Richmond to Hanwell, six miles.
This is an enjoyable few miles river-side, first by the Thames – with one of my favourite Thames views, of Isleworth – and then joining the Brent close to its confluence at, well, Brentford; here we saw waterfowl including pintail and tufted duck. A loop in this area, using part of the Ring and also the Thames Path, is Walk 18 of Walking in London.
The Brent is important in the Capital Ring, which will follow the (often very narrow) corridor through which it runs many times on the way to north London. On this first stage, the Brent is in part canalised, forming the Grand Union Canal at the start of its journey to the Midlands. Canal and river part company at the Hanwell locks. Soon after, we crossed beneath the Wharncliffe viaduct, one of Brunel’s great masterpieces, on our way to the Brent country park not far from Hanwell station.
The Thames at Richmond
Wednesday 15 April 2015. Hanwell to Sudbury Hill, six miles.
Not far from Hanwell, London does its good cop, bad cop thing again – pollarded willows and a water vole site on our side, a waste transfer station the other, from which plastic bags have drifted over to nest in the trees. We’re still following the Brent upstream, but we leave its course as we enter Perivale Park, basically a big recreation ground. With a brook. Not even the Brent itself; just a little side-stream which wandered a mile or two towards Northolt. And from it, a regular chirruping sound, which many – your writer included – might well have thought was a very brave grasshopper, this being April.
But we had Wren President Richard and sharp-eared Anita in our number, and they stopped. “Grasshopper Warbler?” “Could be …” And we hung around to check, Anita making a quick recording on her phone for confirmation later. No visual siting, but good enough to post on the web for this rare summer visitor. Soon, we headed along the Grand Union Canal to climb Horsenden Hill, with a magnificent panorama before us. How inviting the next stage was!
Grand Union Canal, nearing Horsenden Hill
The view from Horsenden Hill
Thursday 14 May 2015. Sudbury Hill to Kingsbury, six miles.
Barn Hill pond
That Horsenden Hill view was tempting, for it scoped out the next stage: up the hill into Harrow, past the famous school (which had removed, or never allowed, Ring waymarkers on its grounds, so presumably they don’t mind if people wander anywhere in frustration – a few years later they lost an appeal to divert the rights of way out of their hallowed grounds) before a plod through north Wembley, a quick jaunt up Barn Hill and a finish across the grassy open ground of Fryent Country Park. And it would be May, England’s precious spring time. Quite a group I might have with me, I thought.
But it rained. These days, the Met Office pretty much gets the day forecast right, so one by one on the eve and morning of the walk, apologies were given. Now the rule is, one other person turns up, I’ll walk with them. And there waiting for me was Nev, who’d not had a chance to join a Capital Ring walk before. So off we went, and had a thoroughly good time. Rain wind or shine, the Ring has plenty to offer.
Tuesday 23 June 2015. Kingsbury to East Finchley, six miles.
North Circular Road not far away!
Just past Kingsbury’s two churches – a Victorian one for the then new suburb, and adjacent its tiny Saxon predecessor – the Ring comes out above the Welsh Harp reservoir, formed by damming the Brent. It’s a good site for waterbirds which we keenly sought at the places where the walk gets close to the shoreline. Alas thereafter is one of the Ring’s grimmest High Street crossings, of the Edgware Road in West Hendon, followed by some of the less inspiring residential streets. Indeed, this is a good stage to map social geography, as the housing becomes steadily more imposing. The coffee stop was in the Brent Cross shopping centre!
A few more streets, and the Ring comes out to the North Circular Road, by one of its ‘unimproved’ stretches. No gleaming modern grade separations here; just the original A406, widened by accretion, coexisting as best it could with pedestrian crossings and local semis. And nature. We walked along it for a few yards, and turned down beside the Brent into a local park hosting the pretty Decoy Pond. There was traffic rumble, but it did not seem to disturb the heron as it lazily took off.
A low bridge took us under the North Circular and onto a green corridor beside the Brent to where it splits into two streams, the Dollis Brook and Mutton Brook. Here we joined the Dollis Valley Greenwalk for a while – its full 13-mile course, which links to the London Loop at Barnet, features as Walk 12 in Walking in London.
Staples Corner, where North Circular meets A1, was just yards away. Soon, we closed in on Hampstead Garden Suburb, still close to the Brook but in quieter surroundings; and the last few yards took us through the 1930s re-creation of the English village idyll that is the northern part of the Suburb, complete with village green, just inches from East Finchley tube.
Thursday 16 July 2015. East Finchley to Finsbury Park, four miles.
The shortest stage of our circuit, but one which packs a lot in. Immediately, the Ring enters the little park of Cherry Tree Wood, and soon after takes in Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood. These two survivors of London’s woodlands are thick with hornbeam, oak and beech and are relics of the former Great Forest of Middlesex – a northern counterpart to the Great North Wood of Surrey which we remembered from the earlier on the Ring.
Briefly thereafter, we came out to the busy Archway Road just above Highgate station, but only to drop down onto the southern section of the Parkland Walk. The Walk follows one of the few abandoned rail lines in London, which once ran through Muswell Hill to Palace Gates; it might have become part of the Northern Line, but lost out in wartime. Nowadays, it’s the longest linear nature reserve in the capital – there’s more description in Walk 9 of Walking in London. Our tree expert Jackie gave us an impromptu tree class as we dropped gently down to Finsbury Park, choosing to walk through the Park to the New River on its northern edge, where we would re-commence next month.
Crouch End station
Wednesday 19 August 2015. Finsbury Park to the Olympic Park, eight miles.
I’d planned a treat for the group on this our last stage, and was rewarded with a biggest-ever 11-strong group. Soon after the start, David Mooney of the London Wildlife Trust met us at the Woodberry Wetlands, a project he was leading for the London Wildlife Trust, and gave us a privileged preview on land not yet open to the public.
A bit of context: the New River, the extraordinary 17th century watercourse that still brings fresh water from Hertfordshire to the capital, has two reservoirs in Stoke Newington. They mark the effective modern termination of the river, for it is from here that water is taken to Walthamstow for treatment and onward to taps. The West reservoir is now given over to water sports, but the East reservoir has been less tended. In the complex ecology of a modern city, such neglect does not necessarily lead to a flourishing biodiversity.
With aid from Hackney Council and the developers of the adjacent Woodberry Down Estate, £1.3m of funding was secured to allow the London Wildlife Trust to create a managed wetland here. There was much to build on: reed bunting and great crested grebe had already make it their home. But with new channels being laid down to discourage fox and cat from predation, there is much hope that new visitors will arrive. The formal opening took place in May 2016, and the site is now fully open to the public.
David Mooney talking to the group
After this, we continued into one of London’s best urban parks, Clissold Park, and one of London’s ‘magnificent seven’ Victorian cemeteries, Abney Park, where General William Booth of the Salvation Army is buried. The cemetery is returning gracefully to nature now, and it was a shame that we could not spend long here, but we’d spent a good hour at the wetlands and had some way still to go.
Through Upper Clapton – orthodox Jew and devout Muslim living side by side, Middle East leaders please note that it can be done – Springfield Park gave us a sight of our home geography, across the valley of the Lea, the ancient barrier between London and Essex. We joined the river just south of an even larger wetlands project, Walthamstow Wetlands, which was to open in October 2017. The river, or strictly the Navigation as the river proper now runs in a channel a little to the east, runs by Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes; the former hosts grazing Galloway cattle, which I had looked for but did not see two months earlier when walking across their county on the Southern Upland Way; the latter holds the greatest concentration of football pitches in, I believe, the world. I describe a walk along the Lea, partly using the Ring, as Walk 6 of Walking in London.
Just south of Old Ford Lock, the Ring joins the Greenway through the Olympic Park, itself being prepared with the sensitivities of wildlife in mind, and we were soon back at Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, as close to my then home as the Ring gets.
Belted Galloway on Walthamstow marshes