Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Capital Idea – Part 2: Richmond to Hackney Wick

Day 1: Richmond to Harrow-on-the-Hill

16.25 miles

Back in the summer, we experienced a taster of the Capital Ring – the daytime activity we coordinated to go along with an evening performance of the ballet Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – with a view to continuing the project over the winter months in the same way we had with the London LOOP last year.

Now that the nights were drawing in, it was time to tackle the walk in earnest. Once again, we made our arrangements around another event – this time, a session at the ATP World Tennis Finals at the O2 – but also tacked on our one last holiday day of the year to give us a good two-and-a-half days of walking.

The Thames on a gloomy November morning

After another of the now-familiar early Saturday morning train and tube commutes, we arrived in Richmond around 9.30am and made our way to the riverside where we had left off before.

Looking back to Richmond Bridge

Setting off under leaden skies, a steady rain accompanied us as we crossed the sluggish-looking Thames by the footbridge at Richmond Lock. Flirting with the extremities of Isleworth, we followed the path across the frontage of the Town Wharf pub (a different hour of a nicer day and a drink would have been welcome) and left the riverside to enter the Capability-Brown-landscaped grounds of Syon Park. The interior of the house, which I don’t think you can go into, was remodelled by architect Robert Adam (he of Adam Fireplace fame).

Brentford Lock

Exiting the park, we crossed the road and joined the Grand Union Canal at Brentford Lock and followed this under the M4 motorway to Osterley Lock, where Section 7 of the Ring officially ends. Strange to think: you can walk all the way to Birmingham from here, if you’ve a mind to do so – 140-odd miles of canal towpath, a route perhaps best undertaken in chunks!

Houseboats on the Grand Union

Section 8 continued along the towpath, first crossing the River Brent, then veering right to follow it at Hanwell Bottom Lock near Ealing Hospital.

Passing beneath the Wharncliffe Viaduct

After passing beneath the impressive Wharncliffe Viaduct (built in 1838 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to carry the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol) we entered Churchfield Recreation Ground and took advantage of the benches for an early lunch break. It was still raining, and although our sandwiches may have got a bit soggy round the edges, it didn’t matter – just being out on a decent walk, with nothing to worry about for a few hours, was much more of a tonic than a wet day in Hanwell might initially suggest.

Having passed through Brent Lodge Park, the Brent Valley Golf Course and Perivale Park, we crossed the A40 by footbridge and made our way towards Greenford and the end of section 8.

Crossing the A40 near Perivale

Checking the time, we could see it was still quite early – with a short rest break we could carry on. The Costa at Westway Cross Shopping Park provided the opportunity, and although we looked slightly at odds with the rest of the clientele with our rucksacks, boots and soaking waterproofs, we took the chance to rest-up, enjoy an energising coffee and get warm and dry. 

Our new target was Harrow-on-the-Hill, still a good 90 minutes’ walk away. For a stretch we re-joined the Grand Union Canal – at least the Paddington Branch of it – as we passed through the Paradise Fields Wetlands (bit of a moot distinction on a day like today – everywhere was wet land, and the paradisal nature of the area camouflaged by mizzle).

Climbing to the summit of Horsenden Hill was hardly an alpine outing, but it did represent the stiffest ascent of the day. It was also the only place where we became “navigationally challenged” all weekend, as the landmark on which the instructions were based was missing.

After a couple of minutes’ searching, we guessed the right path and descended into Sudbury, weaving through the streets and past football fields before a steep-ish climb brought us out on to the road into Harrow-on-the-Hill.

This alleyway is named after the character in Anthony
Trollope's Barchester Chronicles novels

The light was beginning to fade as we made our way through the village and left the Capital Ring for the day, and by the time we reached the station it was as good as dark. It had been a long day, but a good one – we’d covered more ground than we expected, and much of that through pleasant parks or on waterside walks.

Beginning to get dark in Harrow-on-the-Hill

Back in central London, we had beers and burgers at the Exmouth Arms – a pub situated a couple of streets away from Euston Station, and full of the after-work crowd in the week – then the recollection of an early start had us heading to our hotel for a good nights’ sleep.

Day 2: Harrow-on-the-Hill to Hendon

9.00 miles

Refreshed and raring to go, we were back in Harrow-on-the-Hill well before 9.00am, climbing back up to the village to re-join the Capital Ring. In contrast to yesterday, it was a bright, late-autumn morning of sunshine and blue skies.

On the way back up to Harrow-on-the-Hill

We made our way through the village and the grounds of Harrow School. This is where the great and the good are educated: Winston Churchill and Lord Byron, the author Anthony Trollope and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan are just a few of the successful who passed through these hallowed halls.

St Mary's Church

We picked our way between swathes of morning-coated soon-to-be peers and future PMs. It has to be said, though, that despite the beauty of the setting and the academic reputation of the place, the air felt no more rarefied than elsewhere and the skies seemed no more blue.

And the grass was definitely no greener. I may not mix in such circles, but I’m proud of my ordinary north Midlands roots and happy with my life, and, at the end of the day, I think that counts for a lot.

Playing fields, with Harrow School in the background

Crossing Watford Road by the only stile on the Capital Ring (according to the guide notes) we followed the Ducker Path beside Northwick Park Hospital and soon came to South Kenton station – the end of Section 9.

Section 10 began with a stretch through residential streets and parks. On this glorious autumn morning, Fryent Country Park was throng with joggers and dog-walkers. We gradually made our way to the top of Barn Hill, where we sat by a small pond for a coffee break. In relative terms, Barn Hill is a notable prominence, and there are good views to be had, for example to Wembley Stadium.

Pond at the top of Barn Hill

We descended through woods, then began the gentle climb up to Gotfords Hill and more long views. After another descent and more residential streets, we reached the Welsh Harp Reservoir, an attractive open water area with bird life, sailing and pleasant grounds through which to walk.

Welsh Harp Reservoir

As today’s walk was a shorter one for us, our end-of-day objective was fast approaching. Reached after crossing West Hendon Broadway and traversing further residential streets, we arrived at Hendon Station, the end of Section 10. We’d done well this morning, clocking up some 9 miles, although it was certainly made easier by such a beautiful morning – some reward for yesterdays’ soggy trudge.

Day 3: Hendon to Hackney Wick

15.00 miles

It was another overcast morning for our third day on the Ring, but we were out and about in good time despite our attending the ATP World Tennis finals at the O2 the evening before.

Avenue of trees, Hendon Park

We set out across Hendon Park, zig-zagged through a few residential streets, and entered Brent Park. To be honest, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess that one of Britain’s busiest roads, the North Circular, ran only a few yards away, such is the secluded feel of the woodland.

Heron with Water Vole, Brent Park

The route runs beside the North Circular, beside the River Brent and then the Mutton Brook, for a mile or so, then bears right towards Hampstead Garden Suburb – created in the early 20th Century and designed to offer a range of housing set amongst open spaces, pedestrian walkways and mature trees.

Lyttleton Park

Residential streets, Lyttleton Playing Fields, more streets of attractive suburban houses passed. We reached East Finchley Tube and crossed the Great North Road into Cherry Tree Wood where we stopped for coffee and jaffa cakes and a chat with the locals.

Squirrel in Cherry Tree Wood

Moving on, we followed an undulating path through Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood (remnants of the ancient Middlesex Forest) to reach Priory Gardens and the end of Section 11.

Entrance to Highgate Wood

A short, steep path through Highgate Spinney began Section 12. Then, after a short stretch of main road, we reached the Parkland Walk – London’s longest nature reserve – the bed of an old railway line converted into a recreational space after the tracks were lifted in 1970.

Parkland Walk

Navigation was easy for the next couple of miles, the only challenge being to avoid the herds of joggers and cyclists – it’s mid-Monday morning, don’t these people have jobs to go to?

Last time I was in Finsbury Park, Paul Weller was playing songs from the Stanley Road album to thousands of fans on a baking-hot afternoon in June 1996. It’s fair to say that there weren’t so many folks about on a wet Monday in November some twenty years later, but there was a café, and after an early breakfast and a good walk we were ready for food.

To be honest, the Finsbury Park café is not quite what you’d expect. It’s a lot more “locally-sourced-this” and “Fairtrade-that” than your average park caff. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that – you don’t usually get grilled tomatoes on the vine with your fry up or sliced avocado in your Cajun Chicken Burger!

Monday lunchtime saw it well-populated by yummy Mummies and au pairs with children in tow, and I learnt more about breast-feeding in public in the half-hour we were there than I might ordinarily have anticipated.  

Next, we picked up the New River Path. New River is something of a misnomer – as a four-hundred-year-old artificial watercourse, it is neither “new” nor a “river” – but it was a pleasant walk that brought us out beside two artificial lakes, East Reservoir and West Reservoir, now given over to water sports and nature, and overlooked by some nice-looking new flats.

After a short stretch of road walking along Green Lane, we crossed Clissold Park and exited into Stoke Newington beside St Mary’s Church and the old Town Hall.

Not much call for fountain pen repairs these days ...

When we passed through Highgate, I had wondered whether the route would take in Highgate Cemetery. It didn’t, but Abney Park Cemetery was an interesting alternative: a non-denominational space containing graves of all religions, there are many notable people buried here including William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.  

Grave of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army

Leaving the cemetery, we crossed Stamford Hill and began Section 13 of the Ring. For the first mile-or-so, the route took us through the residential streets of one of London’s larger Jewish communities, before bearing off into Springfield Park from where there were great views over to the Walthamstow Marshes. A handy bench provided the chance for a break – just the tonic needed before tackling the final few miles.

The Lea Valley provided the conduit for those last miles. We crossed the river by the Springfield Marina, and picked up the riverside path heading south-east. There was a little mizzle in the air, but the going was easy as we passed pubs and narrowboats and bridges and weirs along the way.

Springfield Marina

Towards the end of the section, the Olympic Park came into view, along with some of the housing and other facilities built for the 2012 games. We won’t pass the stadium until next time, but there has been a fair bit of regeneration of what must have been quite a run-down area.

That regeneration hasn’t stretched to everywhere in the vicinity, though, as the walk along White Post Lane to Hackney Wick station proved.

Back in central London, we popped across to Oxford Street for a spot of Christmas shopping. Talk about a change of scenery! There was a good display of lights, but too many people for my liking. Mission accomplished, we retired to the Exmouth Arms again for a couple of well-earned pints before catching the train home.

It’d been a good weekend – and good use of our last holiday day of the year, too. We’d completed a good chunk of the Capital Ring, which had continued to surprise and delight at regular intervals. Come the New Year, we will be back for more.

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