Seven twenty three on Monday morning saw me leaving home in a light shower. It got worse.
I had a waterproof in the rucksack but didn’t wear it as it was only a shower. At the last minute I had jettisoned my waterproof trousers as (1) I didn’t think the weather forecast warranted the extra weight, (2) I didn’t really want to do 35 miles with plastic bags on my legs and (3) I’m waterproof. So it was that in trail shoes, shorts, my favourite red trekking t-shirt, a waterproof peaked cap and with Terry towelling wristbands to keep my blood warm at the wrist and keep my Fitbit watch in place I set of for the Dodo in order to leave there at 7:30. My bag contained, all in drybags, a minimalist wash kit, waterproof jacket, fleece, spare t-shirt, handkerchief and underwear, a few folds of loo paper, spare battery and the cables to charge phone, battery and watch, Swiss Army knife, some plasters and antiseptic cream, contact lenses, a bag of trail mix and 2 litres of water. I thought that was fair for a stroll around London even if it was going to rain a bit. I had around 35 miles to cover and assuming an average of 4mph, that start time would see me at the Rusty Bucket, a micropub in Eltham, at it’s 4pm opening time. Passing The Fox at some speed I joined the Capital Ring route on the canal spot on time. It was still drizzling but I generate a lot of heat and my t-shirt remained comfortable. My Rab event breathable waterproof remained in the bag. It’s really very breathable but not completely so and I really didn’t want to wear it as it can get a bit clammy on my skin. I also decided to keep my glasses on rather than wearing contacts on day 1. It’s not tricky underfoot so the varifocal discontinuity wouldn’t be the issue it was in Corsica, and I wanted to be able to read my paper maps and ViewRanger nav aids without having to plonk reading specs on my face every time.
Osterley Lock, the end of Capital Ring Section 7, was passed on schedule at 7:55. Section 7 starts at Richmond if you are walking The Ring clockwise as it is written. I was doing it the other way so would be walking to Richmond, 5 miles distant, with a target time of 9:10. I was walking counter clockwise so I could finish Monday with a beer at Eltham’s Rusty Bucket, as mentioned in the last blog, and as The Dodo is closed on Monday’s it opened an opportunity for others to visit the Rusty Bucket as we had spoken of doing. I explain this only so you get the logic of deliberately walking a route when all the route guidance and instruction are written to in the other direction. You can see in the picture that the canal is being liberally dappled by raindrops. It wasn’t slackening off.
From here the deafening roar of the M4 is normally a blight but today it being Monday morning, traffic was crawling. Annoyance at the noise was instead replaced by distaste of the smell of fumes that cascade down from the flyover unseen. Shortly afterwards the bumperty-bump of the Piccadilly Line tube rattling over the girder bridge returned the customary racket, followed by the truck gears grinding in the waste tip alongside the canal and more noise and fumes from the A4. Such is the serenity (not) of the Grand Union Canal in our neck of the woods.
But at least we have a canal and the swans, coots and moorhens don’t seem to mind. I even saw the stately heron.
After passing Heron’s Reach and a short stretch of the A315 as it delivers commuters into London past Majestic Wines and Pets at Home, I turned into Syon Park. While it’s grounds, rather grandly given it is 12 miles from central London, host the ‘London Hilton’ the park itself is home to a very good garden and aquatics centre and Syon House.
This pile and its 200-acre (80 hectare) park belongs to the Duke of Northumberland and is his family’s London residence. The house was built in the sixteenth century on the site of the Medieval Syon Abbey, and came to the family of the present owners in 1594. On this occasion ignoring the very grand Great Conservatory and Pavilion summer house by the river I pressed on to the bank of the River Thames in Isleworth, on the opposite side of the river to Kew Gardens. Passing the London Apprentice pub, apparently the place to which apprentices were rowed from the city to celebrate the completion of their apprenticeships, this establishment has another historical reference. The pub overlooks Isleworth Stairs, established in the reign of Henry VIII for the Richmond Palace ferry to take him to the north bank of the Thames. It was from here that the Nine Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, boarded the Royal Barge on 9 July 1553 to accept the throne as Queen of England, only to be imprisoned in the Tower 9 days later.￼
Moving south through old Isleworth and approaching St Margarets the intensity of the rain ratcheted up a bit. I still didn’t put my waterproof on; it wasn’t that bad and, anyway, I was already fairly damp but it was now very wet underfoot and the city gents en route to the station were all fully mac’d up and wielding infeasibly large brollies. I laughed at them quietly but then crossing the Thames via the footbridge over Richmond lock I discovered a shortcoming in my footwear. First class on dry stuff and wet stuff with some knobbly bits for the tread to grip onto, but not polished steps. Going up the steps to the gantry wasn’t a problem but I slipped down several on the other side. A lady runner was climbing gingerly up as I careened past. Thankfully I had my hand on the rail and disaster was averted. “Wow, that’s a bit slippy” I quipped breezily. “It certainly is – I’ve seen worse slips” she agreed gamely. Note to self – don’t assume these otherwise brilliant Adidas trail shoes will make up for route complacency. That matter was to return with a more undignified outcome.
Still the rain was persisting down. The beggar under the rail bridge took one look as I passed and didn’t even bother to beg. He just nodded, presumably in sympathy as he was at least dry.
Richmond itself looked splendid, the grand riverside buildings now shimmering in the rain as I passed, head down, unsure whether to admire the architecture…
… or pity the coxed eights being blasted down river by their coach in a speedboat.
South of the town and the line of fume vomiting cars queueing by Lansdowne Terrace I moved away from the river into more open ground, noting that even the cows from Petersham Farm had forsaken fresh grass for cover. Were they trying to tell me something?
It was too late now. I was pretty wet but moving fast and keeping warm with the magnificent Richmond Park coming next.
I entered the park by The Dysart and the Petersham pedestrian gate and headed uphill fast with my go-faster poles, smug that the guys running behind me and declaring just a little too gleefully that they should ‘catch the guy walking’, didn’t. Once on the top, the normally stupendous views over London were greyed out, and the herd of 600 or so Red and Fallow Deer were too smart to be out in this weather, but the ducks on the pen ponds were enjoying it.
After leaving via the Robin Hood Gate next to the Stag Lodge stables, crossing the mad A3 and passing the lush playing fields of Kingston University’s Roehampton campus I was straight onto Wimbledon Common. Whether all the squirrels had been flooded out I don’t know but I don’t believe I have ever seen so many squirrels. I tried to take a photo but my iPhone was beginning to play up a bit. My shorts were now wet and so the phone in my pocket was too. My hanky was still only damp but by the time I had dried the phone screen, and realised my finger was too wet to be recognised and tapped in the pass code, the sneaky blighters had scarpered.
Unsurprisingly there were no golfers on the course, only several dozen dog walkers and their charges, and each person was determinedly cheerful. After all, it was only a bit of rain and it wouldn’t last all day would it? Maybe not but The Windmill Tearoom by the car park was doing a brisk trade.
Next up, having been required to do a bit of pavement work and once again, this time on the steeply sloped Somerset Road which I mused should be called Summersgone Road, I actually slipped the length of a metal manhole cover. It was only 2 feet or so but it was another warning. Mercifully I didn’t hit the deck but that would have been seemly in such close proximity to The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, i.e. ‘Wimbledon’, the scene of many a slip up in the past as top seeds were upended.
Nonetheless within 10 minutes walk I was in Wimbledon Park. While the grounds are extensive and well maintained it was the lake that drew my eye. There were several sailers under instruction, several boats full of schoolchildren, boys and girls, having a whale of a time playing some kind of floating murder-ball, and sitting above it all was a swan and her cygnets.
Then I stumbled upon the Waterfall Garden designed, as was the rest of the park, by Capability Brown.
Things went a bit downhill after this. Previously, as you have now read, it was park after park but now there was a lot of road work. That doesn’t make it bad or boring, rather I had been spoiled ever since Osterley Lock.
Nevertheless in amongst the pavements I found the magnificent and very large Wandsworth Cemetery (in Earlsfield), Wandsworth Common and Tooting Bec Common. Regrettably in the middle of these was Wandsworth Prison and Balham.
The parks were extensive and beautiful, even in the rain. Unfortunately I was hardly able to take photos any more as my camera phone was too wet. I was even having to wring out my hanky before wiping the screen and I had nothing with which to dry my hands even on the few occasions I got the phone to wake up. I do have this one though, of 2 happy ducks on the pond in Wandsworth Common.
That’s it i’m afraid. There are no more photos. I was half way with around 16 miles done and 16 more to do. At my speed that’s about 4 hours. You’ll just need to imagine the next bit.
As I was approaching Streatham Common the heavens opened. I was soaked through. Even more than I was before. People around me were running for cover but there was none, other than trees, and there was a rumble or two of thunder! There was nothing I could do but try to make progress. It still wasn’t cold and I couldn’t get any wetter. My paper map was sodden and unreadable. The phone was unusable and, I knew, very low on battery. Then towards the top of the common on the road to my right, a Godsend appeared. At the top end of Streatham Common South Rd., just past Covington Way on the right: The Rookery Cafe. It was quite full of course but I found a small table among some odd looks, me being in a t-shirt and shorts. I just dropped into the floor and had a black coffee and a chocolate cookie. Eventually I switched on and used the napkin to dry my phone and to my joy found the spare battery was still dry in my rucksack so plugged in in to try to breathe life into the phone. I figured I’d better have another coffee to eke out my time. I really wanted to wear my contact lenses instead of glasses as they were rain spattered and constantly steaming up but I would have to use the readers so I would be no better off and with worse vision. So, tempted though I was to stay longer I had a deadline to keep and I don’t give up easy.
After 30 minutes and with a bit of power in the phone (crazily I hadn’t thought to plug it into a socket!) I put my bag on my back, my wet hat on my head, and walked out into the deluge.
I was now 30 minutes behind schedule, feeling a bit chilly but ok, with no reliable navigation aids, reliant entirely on the Capital Ring waymarking, some of which were hard to see being green among trees and bushes and being viewed through wet and steamed glasses. Some I had seen to have been tampered with. You know, for a laugh. I’d had to check and correct them on a map.
But it was that or go home. This was now a personal challenge!
So I ran. No uphill but all the downhills and much of the flat. I ran to keep warm and to make up time, and to make up for the inevitable route errors I would make. I ran to keep my spirits up, to be doing something positive. Something other than shivering on bus fretting that I was letting people down.
I was already towards the top of Streatham Common so I ran down to Norwood Common. I got lost in Biggin Wood but had just enough print on the map to see roughy where the route went so I returned to Norbury Hill and picked up the route again on Beulah Hill. The signing was good through the rest of Norwood so I was able to follow. The running was going well too. Last weekend in the Lake District I had seen a fell runner running with poles and I copied his style. It’s fine as long as you have very lightweight poles, which I do. The worst thing was the additional effort of running was making my specs steam up. Well, at least I was warm.
Crystal Palace started badly, got better, then I came a cropper. I found the football stadium ok as it was hard to miss, but then I couldn’t find where to go after. The paper map was useless in that area and I went a long way out of my way before realising and going back to the stadium. Luckily there was a bridge under which there was some litter rubbish, including some tissue. Don’t ask! But at least it had dried and I was able to dry the phone and a finger to stab it with. Result! I now knew where to go and found the lost route. It was a mapping inconsistency. The paper map, though sodden, showed the route clockwise round the studio while the ViewRanger route went the other way. I still don’t know which was right but I knew where to end up, straight down the Grand Centre Walk. It was mostly downhill and I was on a roll. I played the same trick with discarded tissue at the railway bridge by Penge West station. Over the road and down the hill; second left. But before I got to the second left I slipped on a metal manhole cover and went down. Thankfully my foot slipped forward so I went down on my back, which was protected by the rucksack. No harm was done and, although the rain had eased a little, the streets were still quiet. So, jump up and go on. Carefully!
Then came Sydenham and New Beckenham. Both were ok with good signage. But it went horrible in Beckenham. Firstly I followed Capital Ring sign to Beckenham junction station. It was a valid sign if you were ending the walk at Beckenham and needed the train or tram station. It indicated right at the top of Stumps Hill Lane and I followed it all the way. That was a kilometre in the wrong direction. My route was left at the top of Stumps Hill Lane. It took me quite a few minutes to work out what I’d done wrong. All I knew was that the signs stopped at Beckenham Junction. I tried desperately to get some life from the phone, constantly drying it as best I could and trying to dry my finger in the underside of the rucksack strap. Then I got lucky. For some reason the phone worked and I was able to tap in the code. All became clear and I tried to memorise as much of the next few moves as possible then ran back to where the error had occurred. Just beyond that I turned into Beckenham Place Park and things went wrong again.
There were some works being done on the roads around Beckenham Place Mansion and to my horror I espied this. I know I said there were no more photos but I saved this blurry treat which somehow I managed to take. There I was, with no maps worth looking at, a phone that would only work fleetingly if dry and I had nothing dry to use other than my spare clothes, and trying to see through smeared and steamed-up glasses. I was totally reliant on signage, and to my right, this is what I saw:
Some selfish imbecile had thrown the sign on the ground. I could have cried. I tried the phone again but it was dead. Then I played my last card and got lucky. I remembered from the snatched view in Beckenham that the route was complex through the park but it emerged on a road to the north east. Maybe if I went back to the road, turned right down the hill and went over the railway line, then took the first decent right turn and kept going maybe I would bisect the route at a signed junction. If I didn’t find it the game was over. But it was there. I was speechless and very relieved.
And that was the last problem I had. There were still several miles to go but the rain was less torrential and the signage was good. The route through Downham Woodland was good and even though it was uphill I kept running. From joy probably. Grove Park was also easy to follow and that was the end of the section. All I had to cover now was 2 miles or so through Mottingham and Eltham Palace.
I checked the phone and it kindly told me the time. To my astonishment it was 3:15 and I was ahead of schedule. I had 45 minutes to do 2 miles.
I arrived at Eltham’s Court Road at 3:45 and decided to do some of tomorrow’s route today. I didn’t want to be sitting on the Rusty Bucket’s doorstep dripping so I went along North Park and turned left into Passey Place and followed it to Eltham High Street. In front of me, slightly to the right was Marks and Spencer’s and it was 9 minutes to 4.
You can guess the rest. I knew exactly what I needed. Dry shorts. I had everything else in my bag, but there were no shorts.
Five minutes later I had them in the bag, much to the amusement of the shop assistant who suggested I put them on there and then. But I had a deadline to meet.
It was off at the trot, down the High Street to Court Yard, turn left and go past Wetherspoons to the Rusty Bucket.
I practically fell through the door at exactly, and I mean exactly, 4pm.
That was quite an adventure. From inside my soggy shoes it was an epic. I couldn’t recommend it. But I’m so glad it happened and that you came with me.
Oh, you want to know about the evening?
Well dear Lucy, proprietor of our beloved Dodo had travelled nearly 2 hours to get to the Rusty Bucket and have a drink or two with me but far more importantly with Rachel and Stuart, co-proprietors of the Rusty Bucket. Presumably through some 6th sense Lucy arrived about 4:05 which gave me time to change and we proceeded to sample some fine ales in cask, keg and bottle. We laughed a great deal with Rachel and Stuart, bought some t-shirts, met 2 chaps who are in the final throes of buying a micropub and among others were were entertained by a lady who writes satirical material for the BBC. She asked us for inspiration but the best we could manage was irony, which apparently isn’t quite the same. I guess that’s why she works for the BBC and I write a blog.
After a while I was getting a bit worried that my B&B owner would be concerned that I hadn’t shown up when I said I would and it was now after 7pm. I was just drafting a grovelingly apologetic email with a promise to be there soon when he phoned me. He was very sorry but he had to go out for a while. He asked me if I would mind delaying my arrival until after 9:15. Result!
After a good start and end but a distinctly wobbly middle, Day 1 on the Capital Ring turned out all right didn’t it?