In October 2011, I completed a project that had been occupying much of my time. I strolled through a cemetery in Stoke Newington called Abney Park and, in doing so, walked the final few hundred yards of a long distance footpath known as The Capital Ring. By rights, I should have walked through the cemetery a week earlier, but was prevented by a jobsworth from Hackney council, within whose jurisdiction the cemetery lies. I was a few yards into the cemetery when the jobsworth, a Rastafarian, complete with tea cosy on his head, hailed me from the gates.
Rasta: ‘Closing de gates’.
Me: ‘What already? It’s only five o’clock’.
Rasta: ‘Yes, but dis isn’t the only park I have to close’.
Me: ‘But I’m on the last stage of this walk. I only have to walk through here and I’ve finished it. It’ll only take ten minutes.
Rasta: ‘Sorry man, you should have started earlier’,
Me: ‘What do you mean, started earlier? I started in the middle of August as it is.’
I gave up and went back the following Sunday to finish a 78-mile walk that had taken me through some of the most beautiful parts of London – and all because of a day when I had time to kill in the West End. Quite by chance, in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, I discovered a book written by Colin Saunders that described a long distance footpath called The Capital Ring.
According to Colin, you’re supposed to start this lengthy circular walk at the southern entrance to the Woolwich foot tunnel. But instead, I chose to begin walking at Hackney Wick station, heading for Beckton District Park in East London. Colin gamely suggests that you can start walking at any point along the route, as long as you complete the circle of London at the same point. Then you can write off and get a certificate. As it happens, I am a bit short of certificates. I’ve got one for passing a GCE, and one for winning an essay competition at primary school. And of course, I’ve got a birth certificate. But that’s about it. So an extra certificate would be welcome.
The first walk took me past the Olympic Park along what is known as ‘The Greenway’. This is a footpath that is several miles long, built on top of the charmingly named Northern Outfall Sewer. Sir Joseph Bazalgette constructed this sewer in Victorian times to carry London’s waste matter to the Thames below London. Along this stretch of the walk you pass Abbey Mills Pumping Station, known as the ‘Temple of Sewage’. It has to be said it is a remarkable construction, looking more like something out of The Arabian Nights than a building designed to pump shit. But Sir Joe knew a thing or two about building things. As well as Abbey Mills, he’s responsible for quite a few of the Thames bridges and for the construction of The Embankment.
The stages vary in length from four miles to just under eight. So you can easily cover even the longest in three or four hours. What is amazing is how much green space remains in London. The town planners of the past displayed remarkable foresight in preserving swathes of parkland and forest for us to continue to enjoy. And I’ve seen places along the way that I had never seen before, despite living in London all my life. Eltham Palace, for example, a favourite with English monarchs for 250 years; and, crowning a hill, a large white house called Norwood Grove, built in the 1840s for Arthur Anderson, joint founder of the P&O shipping line.
I managed to walk all the 15 stages in the correct order, in a clockwise direction, except one. Due to disruption of public transport, I was forced to abandon my plan to walk from Streatham Common to Wimbledon Park and instead tacked on the stage before Hackney Wick, a walk from Stoke Newington. (I did the Streatham to Wimbledon stretch later.)
Considering I live two miles from Stoke Newington, I discovered streets and sights that I had never seen before. Cazenove Road, for instance, where at one end of the street is a mosque and what looked to be a wholly Moslem population, while at the other end it was entirely Jewish. Maybe Tony Blair and the Middle East peacemakers should take a look at this street, to see how Jews and Moslems can live side by side in harmony.
The walk then led me to Springfield Park, again somewhere I’d never visited before. It’s laid out on the side of a steep hill, affording views across the River Lea below, all the way to the hills of Essex. After a short while, The Capital Ring joins the Lea, which I have walked many times from Hertford to Bow Locks. Even so, it’s always pleasant and a month or so before, provided some of the best blackberry picking in inner London. There’s a stretch on this part of the walk where you would never know you were in London, such is its bucolic nature.
Talking of which, the most remarkable stage of the whole walk is without doubt the section between Wimbledon Park station and Richmond Bridge. For the most part, you wander through what is to all intents and purposes open countryside. In order of appearance: through Wimbledon Park, across Putney Heath, through Putney Vale, into Richmond Park and on to Petersham Park. You then arrive on the banks of the River Thames below Richmond Hill, after, in my case, enjoying a pub lunch sitting outside The Dysart Arms on Petersham Road.
Just after I completed this stage, the Indian summer arrived. Grabbing the good weather, I covered four more stages in three days. From the Thames, I walked through Syon Park and followed the course of the River Brent, passing under Brunel’s magnificent railway viaduct at Hanwell, climbing Horsenden Hill, followed by Harrow-on-the-Hill, then two other less well known hills, Barn Hill and Gotfords Hill.
The Harrow bit was astonishing as the walk takes you right through the famous school, following what is described within its grounds as a ‘permissive footpath’. The buildings of the school are in themselves worthy of a visit and the playing fields appear to stretch away forever. The view from the top, behind the school chapel (I have seen cathedrals that are smaller) across North-West London lets you see as far as Crystal Palace, another place I had walked past. The new Wembley Stadium with its distinctive arch is clearly visible in the foreground.
One of the more eccentric sights was to be seen on the steps of the school chapel. Three piles of lever-arch files, each with a straw boater perched on top, obviously left there by pupils inside the chapel.
After Gotfords Hill, my route took me along the banks of the Welsh Harp, a large triangular reservoir that I have gazed down upon many times from aircraft as I approached Heathrow, but never before set foot near. It’s a lively place on a Sunday, the day I covered this stage of the walk. Families enjoying picnics sat on the banks; sailing boats scudded through the water; and dog walkers were everywhere. The downside of this popularity, though, is all too easy to see. In some places, abandoned drinks cans, food wrappers and cigarette cartons seem to litter the walk every few yards. In fact, rubbish is a recurring theme of certain parts of The Capital Ring. Some of the most beautiful places I saw were marred by heaps of discarded rubbish. Generally speaking, the less affluent the area, the more rubbish I saw. In Wimbledon, Putney, Richmond and Harrow the paths I trod were pristine.
The penultimate stage of my walk brought me close to home. I live a short bus ride from Highgate Wood, but had never before walked through it, nor Queen’s Wood, which lies adjacent. At five in the evening, wandering through these ancient woodlands, I could have been a hundred miles from London. Only the wail of a distant police siren brought me back to reality.
And so to the final stage: Highgate to Stoke Newington, and my encounter with the Rastafarian park keeper. For a couple of miles, this stage follows what is known as the Woodland Walk, in reality an abandoned railway line, now opened up to walkers and cyclists. It is apparently London’s longest linear park and, like many of the places I walked through, acts as a nature reserve. The Woodland Walk led me directly into Finsbury Park, and then on to a footpath that accompanies The New River, an artificial watercourse constructed in 1609 to bring clean water from Ware in Hertfordshire to London.
The New River originally finished near Sadler’s Wells, but these days ends its aquatic journey in Stoke Newington at a pumping station known as ‘The Castle’. I will leave you to guess what kind of building this edifice resembles. From The Castle, it is a relatively short walk to Clissold Park, Stoke Newington Church Street and the Rastafarian-guarded cemetery.
This whole walk, inspired by a book, is like a book. I felt a terrible sense of loss when it was over. Each stage was a chapter that marked a late summer or autumn day. Every chapter had its own distinctive characters and events that led me from one place to another, like the middle-aged Chinese lady I met on a deserted stretch of the Grand Union Canal between Isleworth and Hanwell. She appeared out of nowhere ahead of me, dressed to the nines, and asked me if she was walking in the right direction for Brentford, where she intended to go shopping. ‘Yes it’s about two miles that way’, I said, pointing back to where I’d come from. ‘It will take you about 40 minutes to walk there’. Then, looking at her high-heeled shoes, ‘maybe an hour, maybe more’. I watched as she teetered off into the distance. That’s The Capital Ring for you. You never know who, or what, you are going to see.
Copyright: Michael Everett 2012