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. 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.
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 into 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!
Thursday 14 May 2015. Sudbury Hill to Kingsbury, six miles.
That Horsenden Hill view was tempting, for it scoped out the next stage: up the hill into Harrow, past the famous school (which has removed, or never allowed, Ring waymarkers on its grounds, so presumably they don’t mind if people wander anywhere in frustration) 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.
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 Brent tributary the Mutton Brook. 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. 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.
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 has been secured to allow the London Wildlife Trust to create a managed wetland here. There is much to build on: reed bunting and great crested grebe 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. Already, it’s possible that Cetti’s warbler will breed. From late autumn 2015, there will be public access here, with the formal opening due in spring 2016.
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, also run by David Mooney and due to open in 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. 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 home as the Ring gets.