Leaving my overnight B&B just before 7am I headed back to the Capital Ring route at the point I left it yesterday, on North Park. The target for today was Finsbury Park in Haringey, 25 miles away and a doddle after the 35 miles yesterday. Despite that I had left early to allow a more leisurely pace.
My wet gear hadn’t dried so my new shorts and other spare clothes were pressed into service. The wet stuff was tightly wrapped in a plastic bag at the bottom of my bag. The weather forecast for today was good – no actual sunshine but no rain either. I’d had a light breakfast, had no injuries and no hangover so I could risk a broad grin as I set off east. Quite appropriate given Eltham was the birthplace of the great comedian Bob Hope. This might not be the Road to Utopia which Bob strode with Bing Crosby in 1946, but I could see it from here.
Putting nostalgia aside I set about the pavement work. There wasn’t much to note for the first hour except a small and seemingly unremarkable brick structure in the vicinity of Holy Trinity Church, known as Conduit Head. A very helpful notice nearby said it was part of the water supply system for Eltham Palace. It had probably been built in the early 1500’s by Henry VII when the palace was still a royal residence. I had passed Eltham Palace yesterday but for reasons you now understand I didn’t stop and couldn’t take a photograph.
After that, Avery Hill Park proved to be a well-signed open park and once more the squirrels were around. I followed the route through the almost adjoining Eltham Park South before dodging commuter traffic as I crossed the thoughtfully named Rochester Way Relief Road, otherwise known as the A2. Safely on the northern side of the road I made my way through a series of wooded areas and meadows. This section of the walk, through or close to Falconwood, Shooters Hill, Charlton and Woolwich en route to the River Thames crossing, was among the most green so far. First were the Oxleas Woodlands comprising several individually-named woods or parks, including Eltham Park North. The Oxleas Woodlands, some of which are more than 8000 years only, contain some of the last remaining ancient woodland in London. Eltham Park North gave a wonderful view to the City between the trees across quiet green open space, and a helpful infographic…
… and it also also had a little lake, called Long Pond, which was home to several Canada geese and their goslings.
The Oxleas Wood Cafe was open and doing brisk business with the early dog walkers of which there were many and it commanded a fine view of the downs to the south. With blue sky and only a light breeze today was a significant improvement on yesterday.Skirting the Interserv Within Memorial Hospital via Jack Wood, Castle Wood and Eltham Common brought me to Shooters Hill at its junction with Academy Road. There was an ambulance on the junction and 2 motorcycles were riderless nearby. I expected their occupants were already on board and would soon be heading to the mercifully close Memorial hospital or maybe to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital also nearby.
Off Academy Road were more green spaces in succession: Woolwich Common, Hornfair Park and Charlton Park, all beautiful and fresh in the early sunshine. Emerging from Charlton Park I heard the sound of horses hooves on the road getting louder. This was a real treat. I don’t know whether they were simply exercising, or preparing their mounts for a ceremony but 20 or so uniformed soldiers, men and women were approaching along Charlton Park Road mounted on the most sleek and beautiful horses I have ever seen. Each rider was also leading one or two other unsaddled horses and I would estimate there to have been at least 40 of them and they were as magnificent as they were haughty and dignified. With a tingle down my spine I recognised the insignia on the riders’ uniforms as Royal Artillery. Putting two and two together I realised these were the mounts of the the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery heading for their barracks in Woolwich, perhaps to take part in a significant ceremonial event later in the day. The King’s Troop are Her Majesty’s Mounted Ceremonial Battery and all its soldiers are trained to care for and drive teams of six horses pulling each of six First World War-era 13-pounder field guns used today to fire salutes on state occasions.
It was still only around 9:30 and I was making good progress. Once The Troop had passed I crossed the road north into Maryon Wilson Park, the last green space anticipated before reaching the Thames. Maryon Wilson Park, previously known as Hanging Wood, was donated to the public by the Maryon-Wilson family in 1924. It was beautifully landscaped with well-signed routes, neat pathways and plenty of greenery. In addition to this it has an animal park with ducks, geese, pigs, goats, goats, peacocks, ponies that give rides to children, and a small herd of Fallow Deer too that are the decendents of those donated almost a century ago. The park is free and open 24/7. What a joy!
After the peace of that park and the neighbouring Maryon Park it was back to pavements and traffic and noise. Espying the hoods of the Thames Barrier between warehouses and other commercial buildings I was directed to the east along main and minor roads to King Henry’s Wharf; a private housing development which nonetheless allows access to the river and the path.
From here I could look back to the west. Three of the barrier’s hoods could be seen on the left with the high-rise of Canary Wharf beyond. I thought of my friends and colleagues hard at work over there, then turned to the east and walked on. To my left, over the river, was the huge Tate & Lyle complex, while ahead were new developments and the Woolwich Free Ferry plying its trade. Between these a yacht under motor chugged by, its white hull and elegant lines a contrast to its immediate surroundings.
Noting from a nearby sign, and not without a slight regret that I would shortly leave it, that the Thames Path would continue for 10 miles, my gaze turned to the cannons. Just ahead was a two-cannon gun battery built in 1847. Each massive gun was mounted on a track to enable rapid re-aiming should Tate & Lyle prove not to be a significant national threat after all.
Further along the river, past where the Dame Vera Lynn was ferrying all traffic across the river for free I came to the Woolwich foot tunnel. Built well over a hundred years ago, in 1902, the 400 yard long tunnel is free to use and open 24/7. While lifts are available at both ends, those without buggies and other impediments may use the circular staircase. I counted 100 steps descending the southern shaft and 125 ascending on the north. In between it apparently takes 10 minutes to walk. When I was there it was pretty empty apart from one pedestrian and a couple of cyclists. Had they been going more slowly they may have seen the prominent ‘no cycling’ signs. However, in fairness to the wheeled ones, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be cycled with care. After all, I would have ignored a sign exhorting me to walk slowly. Ten minutes for 400 yards? C’mon! Thankfully I saw no-one animal fouling, littering, loitering or spitting and those heinous buskers, skaters and skateboarders were absent too. It was just me and the pesky blind cyclists.
Once topside, at what is nominally the end of the Capital Ring if you start at the beginning (the southern side of the foot tunnel) and walk clockwise to the end (the northern side of the foot tunnel) I was pleased to see the sun still shining and headed eastish. I say east-ish because due to some work being done the footpath was closed. There was no diversion but, now armed with a dry if water-stained map and fully recovered GPS it wasn’t too much of a struggle to find a way into Royal Victoria Gardens by road. This was another delightful little green space which in addition to the customary greenware (trees, bushes and grass) included tennis courts, ‘park gym’ equipment, and children’s play area and paddling pool and even several permanently fixed table tennis tables. This park was the first to have a river view though.
All too soon I was back on the pavement heading towards London City Airport, the proximity of which was becoming clear around every 5 minutes. Before the airport there was still time to enjoy views of there river, including via little slipways like this, the Bargehouse Causeway.
Then it was time to head back to the pavements. Heading up Barge House Road, traditional old terraced houses (street parking) on the left and newly built terraces (garden parking) on the right the quietude was rent as a sky blue KLM jet took off almost overhead, presumably destined for Amsterdam. From here I was unable to find the riverside route to the Gallions Reach roundabout. Don’t be confused by the name conjuring visions of tall ships and billowing sails. Gallions Reach is a stretch of the river between Woolwich and Thamesmead, named for the Galyons, a 14th-century family who owned property around here, on both sides of the river. Instead I took the alternative, over the elegantly curved Sir Steve Redgrave bridge which spans 2 massive docks. King George V Dock, home to the Cunard liner RMS Mauretania in 1939, and the Royal Albert Dock, between which is London City Airport. The docks are now empty, I guess due to the security needs of the airport. While I watched from a vantage point on the northern side of Sir Steve’s bridge, 2 British Airways jets landed from the west and, although undoubtedly noisy, the BA jet that took off was an impressive sight, Royal Albert Dock in the foreground of this photo.
Then I was in for a pleasant surprise. The northern bank of the Royal Albert Dock is home to the University of East London and its colourful white and turquoise accommodation blocks. Beyond these modern buildings are new roads and amenities in the developed areas of Cyprus, Custom House and Beckton, and a sequence of green spaces. The route passes through New Beckton Park and Beckton District Park complete with sizeable lake, and close by King George V Park, all bright and open with space to play, read, walk, learn, exercise and generally try to ignore the occasional airport noise. I was impressed. Even the dumped shopping trolley was green! I include this tongue in cheek. In fact, this was the only dumped trolley I saw and, by and large, these parks were clean and litter free and had a distinctly community feel.
Then I was in for another surprise. You may be sensing a theme that East London, at least the area I saw, was not as expected.
When crossing the A13, called the much more community-oriented Newham Way in this part of town, with noise reducing screens and a cycle path added, I espied a junction signpost headed ‘Beckton Alps’. Investigation revealed that to be the name given to the toxic spoil heap left over from the now-defunct Beckton Gas Works, now the highest point in Newham. Some bright spark decided to memorialise that in the name of the A13/A117 junction. In derision and to make a point, local people call it Beckton Alp (singular). Just after crossing the A13, I saw a sign I just have to share with you as it was on the route and I found it hilarious. I think it needs no explanation…
Anyway, back to the positives. The surprise I alluded to was the Greenway. Only a few yards from where the last picture was taken the Capital Ring joins for around 3 miles, a 6 mile long raised footpath and bike freeway between Beckton and Stratford. Initially known locally as Sewerbank as it followed the top of the embankment of Thames Water’s northern outfall sewer, it was fully renovated in the mid-nineties and recent work has resurfaced and renovated the route with gates, ramps, stairs and signs. Once more I was impressed. There is the inevitable litter along the route, but in fairness, not much and it was sweet wrappers and crisp bags as much as beer cans. Even the limited graffiti was colourful and artistic.
The community orchard is coming along nicely and runs for several hundred years on the southern side of the Greenway at the Beckton end. The photo below is only a snapshot. There were locally-made signs encouraging a community spirit saying: “Enjoy the space … feel free to pick and harvest crops … but just a little bit … leave plenty for others 😀”. The notice in the picture below advertises a ‘Green Gym’ every Thursday from 11am to 2pm. It offers the opportunity to develop confidence and group skills in a friendly and informal group planting, pruning, maintaining, building, weeding, planning and harvesting. Seeing this I was uplifted as I sped by East Ham, Upton and West Ham and Plaistow.
One of the best things about being on an elevated path is uninterrupted views. Those across the rooftops of East London were fascinating, while those to Canary Wharf in the south were stunning and the evidence of many parks and playgrounds were there to see. Although the view of ‘Waterworks River’ at low ebb was unedifying…
… the palatial and elegant Abbey Mills Pumping Station was a beauty.
On Stratford High Street, which the Greenway, and the Capital Ring, crosses a few hundred yards after the pumping station, the Greenway normally continues directly across the road. At the moment there are works afoot which forces a diversion. This was made clear on the excellent TFL Capital Ring website but I could see no diversion or sign indicating the alternative route on site. All I could see was this, blocking the route. The bugs and butterflies were cute but no help if you hadn’t checked beforehand.
However, I had checked so disappeared down the road and through an industrial site, by the Pudding Mill Lane DLR station. I reappeared up the bank onto the route to be faced with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, especially the magnificent ArcelorMittal Orbit (the big red helter skelter) and the London Stadium, now the home of West Ham FC.
From the olympic park it was a few strides on the Greenway to my turn-off point, onto the River Lea at Hackney Wick by the Old Ford Lock. Talk about different. In a few yards (ok a hundred or so) I had gone from the openness and modernity of the olympic park to an eclectic canal-side scene and community. Anyone familiar with breakfast TV may have recognised the Lock Keeper’s Cottage as the setting for the Big Breakfast Show until it ended in 2002. For the first few hundred yards the right and bank was lined with a varied collection of river craft, some neat and some less so, while the other bank was more commercial.
Further on, with the Hackney Marshes on the right, warehouses were more in evidence on the left and there were fewer craft.
Further still the character turned more colourful and bohemian. I snapped a quick photo and didn’t linger.
Eventually the scene returned to that of any canal in the country. A meandering waterway with occasional moored craft and various styles of buildings periodically looking on. There were occasional waterside pubs offering food and drink but, amazingly, I resisted suspecting that getting up again would be tougher than sitting down.
Where the modern world was less intrusive I saw a cormorant dive into the water and emerge with a fish, position it correctly while it was still thrashing, then eat it in a single gulp. In the same area a squadron of swallows were diving and weaving for flying insects, possibly dragonflies as these were abundant. I tried to get photos but the cormorant and the swallows were too quick. Instead I snapped a pair of swans with their cygnets.
At the Horse Shoe Bridge my route turned into park and woodland in Stamford Hill’s Springfield Park. The park was typically green and well tended with woodlands and open spaces but also had a great little pond with ducks. You’ve seen enough photos of this type of park so I won’t trouble you with another. But it was a lovely park nonetheless and was being well used this lunchtime.
The subsequent walk through the streets of Stamford Hill was an education. I suspect the area is popular with Hasidic Jews given the preponderance of their traditional clothing and hair style here.
Close to Stoke Newington train station I commenced the final leg for today, via the distinctly gothic and fascinating Abney Park Cemetery. Abney is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ garden cemeteries of London, being a woodland memorial park and Local Nature Reserve too. As I walked through this wonderland the words ‘don’t blink’ were uppermost in my mind.
Clissold Park followed, and it was fine, but I was feeling a bit ‘parked-out’ for the day. Equally the East and West Reservoirs between Stamford Hill and Finsbury Park were vibrant with little yachts being thrown about by enthusiastic youngsters and canoeists doing their thing. It was all completely wonderful but I think I had just had enough green for one day. These little creatures summed it up for me nicely.
My B&B on Green Lanes beckoned. I was ready for a sit down refreshment (beer rather than another draw from the bladder of orange squash in my rucksack), and some food. My bowl of muesli and orange juice in Eltham at 6:30 this morning seemed a long time ago. Actually it wasn’t that long ago as it was still mid-afternoon, but it was 26 miles and over 51,000 steps behind me.
The two-day total is 60 miles and 116,000 steps and I’m beginning to feel them all. But what fun!
If you’ve made it this far thank you so much. Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow for the final leg.