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. 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.
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 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 Flats, though with an elevation and distant views which our beloved space can’t claim.
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. 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 stage 3 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, left) 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. 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.
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 combes 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.
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. 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.
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.