Today is the third and final day of my canter around London’s Capital Ring, ante-clockwise from my starting point close to the Osterley Lock, in Hanwell. The forecast today was for rain by 11am. In light of that, following a light breakfast of cereal and fruit juice I left my lodgings at 5:30 to get as much as possible of this final leg completed in the dry.
The general route to the finish from Haringey was via Highgate, East Finchley, Hendon, Wembley, Harrow and Greenford. A distance of around 25 miles.
Retracing my steps to where I left the route yesterday, I entered Finsbury Park at 5:45 and it was surprisingly busy for that time of day with dog walkers and joggers. Finsbury Park was one of the first of the great London parks to be laid out by the Victorians. It tries to offer something for all tastes, including open green space and extensive mature trees including an arboretum. There was also a cafe (closed at this time of day), a lake, a children’s play area and sports facilities including football pitches an athletics track and a skatepark. The photos that I took don’t do justice to the size and range of the park facilities so I will show you only the cafe. If only it had been later I might have been tempted.
While the park was good within itself, it’s most important aspect for me was as the start of the Parkland Walk. The Parkland Walk is a 2.5-mile (4.0 km) linear green pedestrian and cycle route which follows the course of the old Edgware, Highgate and London railway line that used to run between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace, through Stroud Green, Crouch End, Highgate and Muswell Hill. The Capital Ring uses the section between Finsbury Park and Highgate. The walk was declared a local nature reserve in 1990 and is London’s longest such reserve.
Upon starting the walk immediately after crossing main railway line into Kings Cross, the birds were plentiful. Typically robins, blackbirds, crows and wrens but with magpies and others birds less easy to identify too. For most of its length the scenery was unchanging; the unprepared earthen and stony broad pathway flanked by grass and bushes backed by deciduous trees, most commonly oak. However after about half a mile, shortly after I passed under the A1201 my eye was caught by the Cape Adventure Playground at Crouch Hill. This play and youth project building was renovated and reopened in 2013 and offers opportunities for children to explore nature and be adventurous outdoors. That struck a chord with me. This photo shows only a part of the extensive treehouse, zipwire and walkways.
On reaching Highgate I walked through Queen’s Wood, thought to be a direct descendant the original British ‘wildwood’ and so alive with birdsong at this early hour and I was to have progressed through Highgate Wood to Fortis Green. But that was not to be. Highgate Wood was locked until 7:30 and it was only 6:45. I found an alternative, pavement, route to Fortis Green and rejoined the Capital Ring just before Cherry Tree Wood, nestled at the end of a wide sleepy road lined with trees, cars and well-to-do houses with gardens. Cherry Tree Wood was not all trees and included a wide open space and a well-kept childrens’ play area. It also included a little while building offering facilities that I should have used prior to leaving Haringey, and the door was open and the inside uncommonly clean. I liked Cherry Tree Wood very much.
After the peace, solitude and relief of the little white building and the surrounding park it was a bit of a shock to emerge into full rush hour East Finchley style. It wasn’t unpleasant but it was very busy indeed at 7:15. I didn’t loiter as I had a lot of pavements to beat before the next green oasis in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Finding my way through the maze of clean but narrow alleyways in a very nice area of East Finchley just north of Falloden Way (otherwise known as the A1) was fun but not conducive to speed. Eventually, having crossed the A1 to the Lyttleton Playing Fields and the quaintly named Mutton Brook I was back into green space, albeit a noisy green space as it ran beside the A1 heading west. But it was a delight. The birds and squirrels didn’t seem to mind the road noise, or were used it. I mused how lucky I was to be down in the little strip wood and wondered how many of the drivers rushing past were aware of this little bit of heaven barely 30 feet from their exhaust pipes and impatient horns.
At the junction of the A1 and the North Circular Road, i.e. the A406 – allegedly Britains noisiest road – a signpost told me I was on the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. This is a footpath route in Barnet between the Moat Mount Nature Reserve in Mill Hill and Hampstead Heath and is about 10 miles long. I was grateful for the information but at the time was focusing more on crossing the road. At approaching 8am the rush hour was at full swing.
Without tarrying I headed to Hendon, just north of Brent Cross, anxious to use the pavements to gain some speed before again being distracted by greenware. I was approaching home territory and knew where I was again – an odd feeling following the last 24 hours or so. I recognised the A41 Hendon Way and crossed it quickly before crossing the M1, the mainline to St Pancras, and the A5 in rapid succession. Ahead the A406 flyover at Brent Cross was evident. The scene was at odds with what I had become used to and I was glad that the greenware to which I had become accustomed was much more extensive that the concrete and asphalt. Indeed, there was even greenery forcing a life between the concrete and asphalt.
Then, in no time and little distance, it was almost quiet again. Around 300 yards from the concrete and asphalt, down Cool Oak Lane, I came to the Brent Reservoir, more informally and whimsically called the Welsh Harp Reservoir. This 420 acres of open water, marshes, trees and grassland is less than 10 miles from the centre of London, just a stone’s throw from a major road and rail corridor and is adjacent to the massive Brent Cross shopping centre. It is designated a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ and it is home to the Welsh Harp Sailing Association. I designate it magic for it is nothing less. The photos below are just two small parts and regrettably don’t do this beautiful area justice.
There followed just 15 minutes of pavement work to reach another huge natural open space. Fryent Country Park is 250 acres of unspoilt countryside amidst the suburbs of Brent just north of Wembley Park; not somewhere I had expected to have such a lavish spread of green. Bisected by the A4140 Fryent Way, the park consists of meadows, ponds, lakes, hedges and woodland, and is a designated nature reserve. Apparently over 800 species of wildlife live here, amongst them 21 types of butterfly and 80 birds. Some of these were perhaps still asleep as I passed between 9:30 and 10:00 but it was a fantastic area of wildness to walk through. The area to the right of the road is predominantly open grassland with lanes cut to enable easy walking.
The park is open 24/7 and there is a small area for ponies to graze on as there are stables nearby. There is a car park off the road through which I passed when moving to the area of the park on the left hand side of the road. This area, seen towards the top of the photo above, is quite different in character to the other side, being predominantly wooded and on a hill. At the top of the hill is the delightful little Barn Hill Pond from which there are superb views across Wembley Stadium and further across London if, as today, the weather is fine.
From the park my route continued through unnamed greenery alongside the Wealdstone Brook. Trapped between residential housing and the Jubilee line from Kingsbury to Wembley Park the noise level rose but it was nonetheless a pleasure to be in light woodland rather than on pavements.
Unfortunately this didn’t last long and I was back to roads around Preston. After a quick stop on a welcome bench near Preston Road Metropolitan line station to clear my shoes of grit I was off to Preston Park. In comparison with recent experiences this was a small and well kept local park with scattered trees, two sports pavilions and a childrens’ playground. My route took me straight through the middle and then through a tunnel under the Bakerloo line at South Kenton station towards the next massive green spaces: Northwick Park, which almost surrounds and dwarfs the huge hospital of the same name, and then the playing fields and surrounding woodlands of Harrow School.
Harrow on the Hill was a busy little urban village which I reached via Peterborough Road, which took me through the school buildings including the grand Harrow School chapel. Harrow School was founded in 1572 under a Royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. At that time attendance would have cost a little less that todays c. £35,000 per year. At the time I passed the streets were full of schoolboys dressed in the traditional daytime attire of blue jacket, black tie, white shirt, light grey trousers and black shoes, completed with a straw boater nattily trimmed with a blue band. Besuited schoolmasters in flowing black robes sailed by between lectures. It was like a scene from ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ although Mr Chipping was long gone.
There followed more pavement pounding and, being anxious to meet my target of a beer in The Dodo Micropub before it closed at 2pm, I pushed on. Unfortunately pain in the lower calf muscle to the left of my left calf bone that had started earlier in the day got considerably more intrusive. Despite my trail shoes performing really well all things considered, continued walking on hard surfaces rather than grass was taking its toll but with only 8 miles to go I wasn’t about to catch a bus. I took every opportunity to walk on grass and tried to walk flat-footed with my left to avoid straining the muscle further. That technique got me home. Heading south from Harrow there was precious little relief from the pavement and I was glad at last to have cleared Sudbury Hill railway and tube stations and gone through Greenford Green to Horsenden Hill.
Horsenden Hill, broadly surrounded by Wembley, Alperton, Perivale and Greenford Green and with a hight of 276 feet, is the highest land and largest open space in the Borough of Ealing and provides one of the finest natural viewpoints in London. Settled 2500 years ago by Iron Age people whose pottery artefacts have been found in some numbers, it is now an English Heritage scheduled Ancient Monument. During the First World War a horse-drawn anti-aircraft gun on the high-point offered protection against German airships. Today this wonderful green space of around 250 acres comprises areas of meadows, woodland, grassland and wetland attracting a wide variety of wildlife. This is the view from the summit. Home is out there somewhere.
From Horsenden Hill there was a short walk along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal (Paddington Branch) which I recognised – just over 5 miles to push.
The final section of my walk started shortly after the Westway Shopping Park in Greenford. After skirting the Northolt Rugby Club ground and crossing the A40 I followed footpaths around Perivale Park. This is a very good facility for local people with its wide open spaces, football and cricket pitches and childrens’ playground. In the the context of my walk it was however unremarkable. What followed was not.
With a tingle of anticipation I walked through Brent Valley Park broadly following the River Brent. Being only a mile of so from my home I know this delightful park very well. It is a beautifully tranquil riverside park with meadows, extensive scattered trees. It houses Ealing cricket club and two golf courses, Brent Valley and West Middlesex. I have run and walked here, with friends, family and alone, many times. In my view it crowns many of the parks and green spaces travelled in the last 3 days and I was really pleased to be here.
But there is a jewel in this crown. Adjacent to Brent Valley Park, formally entitled Brent Lodge Park, it was very fitting that my final significant green space on this walk would be the park that local people know very simply as Bunny Park. My pulse quickened.
Still containing the River Brent this beautiful urban countryside park has extensive grassed areas and many trees along the riverside. There is a large maze with a raised viewing platform, there are two children’s playgrounds one including a death slide, or zipwire as I am often urged to term it before boosting the grandchildren along it. Every few minutes high-speed Great Western Main Line trains can be heard in the distance as they scream towards Paddington station over the Wharncliffe Viaduct. This viaduct was the first major structure designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Built in 1837 it carries trains across the lower part of Bunny Park at a dizzying hight of 65 feet. But the occasional whoosh doesn’t detract from the pleasure given by this park. This really is the green green grass of home.
But the best thing of all is Hanwell Zoo, which is part of the park. Indeed some people think that the zoo is Bunny Park, but that’s not the case although there are rabbits in the zoo just after the entrance opposite the budgies. This little gem, open every day except Christmas Day from 10am and very reasonably priced, has recently been reinvigorated. It has a wide variety of exotic birds and small mammals including meerkats and lemurs, reptiles and butterflies and also has a sand play area. It is a really popular local attraction and after an hour or two you can relax in the lovely little cafe next door.
You will be waiting for the inevitable photos but I have to disappoint you, not out of carelessness but because I know they would be inadequate. Please go and see it when you are in the area – you won’t be disappointed. Or google Bunny Park Hanwell.
But I do have this for you. The view of the viaduct from almost under it, by a bridge that my family and I know as Pooh Sticks Bridge as we never fail to play pooh sticks with the youngsters as we pass over the River Brent.
Following the Brent through the tunnel under the A4020 Uxbridge road, between the Viaduct Pub and Ealing Hospital, took me down the last few hundred yards of the river before it joins the Grand Union Canal in Hanwell.
At the junction is part of the Hanwell Flight. This attractive flight of 7 locks joins the Grand Union Canal with the Thames. It has an end-to-end height difference of 53 feet over around a third of a mile. The scene was painted by JMW Turner around 1808. He called it, a little enigmatically given he must have know where he was but was working a few years before GPS-stamped photos, “A Windmill, Locks and a Bridge, Probably on the Grand Junction Canal at Hanwell.”
From the junction I turned left and my end-point was in sight; the footbridge over the little river offshoot that leads towards The Fox Inn and home. I term it the Fox Footbridge but there may be another name, or none at all. It was just starting to rain; rain that had been forecast for 11 am and mercifully hadn’t materialised.
I last saw this little bridge shortly after 7:30 two days ago.
Since then I have walked 85 miles, a few longer than the official length of the Capital Ring due to some navigational challenges on day 1, over two and a half days. My step count was approaching 160,000 and with any luck I will have lost a pound or two, and I don’t just mean those spent in the Rusty Bucket on Monday or on the new shorts.
But my memories are not now, and I don’t think those that endure will be, about the distance, or the steps, or the pounds, or the increasing discomfort in my left calf or anything transient. It will likely be a far better and deeper understanding of how green London is. Look at the photos or, better still, walk a section or two. It really is very green, more than many people who perennially occupy cars and buses will appreciate.
The best section of all? That’s tough, because they were all completely brilliant, through the green spaces and the urban, the quietude and the noise, the rain and the sunshine. But I know the best of all was the green green grass of home. It was nearing home through Bunny Park. And the welcome at The Dodo, exactly on time, at 13:20 on Wednesday.
Thank you Hanwell. It’s good to be back.