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.

Monday 28 November 2016

Roaming In Romania: Part 3 - Maramures

Day 8 – Botiza to Ieud


After a fairly leisurely breakfast of yogurt and honey, bread and jam, hot milk and coffee, we set out from the pension to walk over the hills to the main village of Botiza and on to the neighbouring village of Ieud.

Our host Tudor led the way for the first part of the walk. Good job too, as the route was complex – invisible paths leading to clear tracks that were promptly left behind again – and probably only understood by someone who had spent a lifetime wandering these hills. We reached low summits, followed ridges and dropped into valleys, meeting shepherds and skirting haystacks on the way.

Near Botiza, Tudor took us to a small house that belonged to Maria's uncle until he passed away earlier in the year. Maria's mum was there, 75 years old and still working in the fields. We had a brief chat and a look round the house: but clearly, the loss of her brother was still very emotional, so out of respect we didn't stay too long.

Descending into the village, we said goodbye to Tudor and met Dan who had the lunches. We had a brief look round the village, including a rug/fabric weavers, then set off up the hill on a lovely path through pasture dotted with haystacks and fruit trees.

At this time of year, there are millions of apples. Some are for eating, but mostly they will be used for making Palinka, the favoured way of “preserving” the abundant crop.

On reaching the saddle, we stopped for lunch with one of the best views you could image, a small sheepfold behind us and oodles of silence. With great food too, it was bliss!

Unlike some of the paths we followed, the route we were now on had recently been re-signed and clearly way marked. Apparently, this was the work of a German man who had settled in the village and who was a keen hiker.

From the saddle the route took a detour from the way Ramona knew, so we decided to follow it. It was lovely as well, contouring round the valley under a higher summit, then following a ridge with wonderful views all round, especially from the final summit where we were greeted with a 360 degree panorama.

Our descent into Ieud led through pasture, meadow and wood, until a final narrow path brought us out beside one of the larger churches. We made our way through the village, crossing the river before meeting Dan and the van beside another small wooden UNESCO heritage church.

Originally built in 1364 it has also been painted,  but in this case directly onto wood, not as frescos. Restoration had taken about 8 years, but the beauty was undeniable and quite different from painted monasteries we had seen before.

Next we popped into the nearby ethnographic museum which mainly focused on use of hemp as a fabric and also held a collection of traditional household items.

Returning to our digs, we had another delicious meal – White bean soup, stuffed cabbage leaves (Sarmarle) with sour cream and raspberry and apple cakes. There was homemade hooch, too, and wine, and we enjoyed a convivial evening with Ramona, Dan, Maria and Tudor swapping stories and showing photos, the evening chill kept at bay by the stove and the warmth of the hospitality.

Day 9 – Botiza to Glod and transfer to Hoteni


We had another superb breakfast of coffee, homemade yoghurt, pancakes, bread, jam and honey, plus a vegetable paste called Zacusca made from aubergines, peppers, etc, that is a bit like pizza topping (and is another example of how to preserve an end-of-season glut of produce).

Afterwards, we said our goodbyes to Maria and Tudor and set off up the hill behind the house under gloomy skies. We passed a few ladies heading out into the fields - today's work seemed to be gathering potatoes.

Descending into the village of Poienile Izei, we visited another UNESCO church: this one a small wooden example from around 1780 whose interior had not been restored and whose painted walls were black with the accumulated grime of 230 years of candles and prayers.

Moving on, we climbed the next hill and fell in for a while with a local chap who was keen to set us on the right path. As we walked, conversation flowed via Ramona, and we got a brief snapshot of life at this end of the village.

We joined a dirt road for a while then headed off across a scrubby meadow before becoming locationally challenged in a small band of trees. Losing the path did give us the chance to see deer and a fox, so worthwhile in the end!

After backtracking slightly, we descended to a gravel road that we followed down hill and into the village of Glod (which apparently means “mud”) where Dan was waiting with the van, arriving just before a squally shower swept through.

We headed down the valley and made for the town of Sighetu Marmatiei, right in the north of Romania on the border with Ukraine. We had lunch at a nice traditional restaurant (goulash soup and potato rosti) before having a quick look round the town centre including the market, where sweet paprika tempted us into purchase.

Moving on, we took a side trip following the border to see what is known as the Merry Cemetery, where the headstones are wooden and inscribed with a short biog of the person’s life in a humorous style. Some were self-congratulatory, some slightly acerbic (one was to a mother-in-law along the lines of “please go quietly so as not to wake her”) but the majority were gently comic and mostly respectful.

Returning to Sighetu, we then made for our pension in the village of Hoteni. We had a quick wash and brush up before dinner – 4 courses, but we could choose as much or as little as we wanted, so not too overwhelming! We had bread and Zacusca and cheese to start, then pork and cabbage soup, grilled pork with garlic and potatoes, and chocolate cake to finish. Pretty good!

We also had a glass or two of wine to help it all down, and started the meal with a glass of eye-watering home-made pear brandy and the traditional salute of “noroc!”

Tomorrow, weather and brandy permitting, we are hoping for a mountain walk!

Day 10 – Gutai Mountain


Breakfast was again ample, but today we were also choosing our own lunch from the table so we could basically take as much as we needed – something of a relief as we had been overfed for several consecutive days!

We began with a half-hour drive up to a 900m pass on the main Sighetu-Baia Mare road where Dan dropped us off, and after a couple of minutes searching behind a large pile of road gravel, we picked up a wide, clear trail through the woods.

Soon, the trees thinned and the views opened out, and we moved into more open ground peopled by shepherds and other walkers (it being a Saturday).

An old road Roman road traverses the mountain, and after a stretch of walking on the cobbled track we struck off across the grassy slopes and took a steep, rocky path through Beech woods beside the outcrop of the “Rooster’s Crest” to emerge on the summit where we stopped for lunch.

Gutai mountain is not particularly high in reality – or even Romanian in terms at a shade under 1500m – but it stands well proud of the surrounding land. The ridge looks impressive from below and is a dominant feature on the skyline when down in the valley.

After a break for lunch, we made our way along the ridge on narrow paths through low, woody stemmed growth primarily of juniper and bilberry. It’s flatter than might be expected, and takes in minor outcrops on the way until, at the far end, a second more substantial summit is reached.

The ridge is more curved than appears from valley level, with a dog-leg to the right after the second large outcrop towards a group of 3 smaller tops. We followed the path towards these, skirted round the base of each, and began to descend into the woods once again.

Once we had reached more level ground, we took a short snack break then began the task of following the path off the mountain without confusing our route with the many logging paths in the woods.

A bit of checking was required here and there by Ramona, but we made good progress and eventually reached the road where Dan wasn't waiting with the van - he'd parked a few hundred metres further down the road where another path crossed. No problem, though – we were soon reunited.

Heading back towards Hoteni, we called at another village to view a house that was for sale. Nothing special, you might think, but it was interesting nonetheless as what we saw was an authentic wooden house of the Maramures area.

We learned a bit about house buying – apparently, houses can be sold either as we do here – house, gardens, etc – or just as the house alone, which can be dismantled and shipped elsewhere! In fact Ramona and Dan bought their house in Hoteni, then dismantled it and rebuilt it in their home town like a giant jigsaw.

Returning to our pension, we had another lovely dinner – this time starter, soup, cabbage and sausage and a cake to finish, with Palinka and wine – and chatted away into the evening like old friends.

Day 11 – Busteni to Breb and to the airport.


Today was the final day of our trip, but thanks to a late flight home we had the morning free to make use of.

After another lovely breakfast, we left our pension and drove to the next village of Busteni. As it was a Sunday, what better way to begin the day than with a visit to church – this one painted, as others have been, but different because it is still in use as a working church.

Preparations for the morning service were well underway as we peered inside for a look round. Besides the painted decoration, beautiful fabrics hung from the walls and draped around the furniture, and the priest was making his final preparations in the calm before the service.

In the churchyard, an elderly lady was standing over a grave, muttering softly to herself. For a moment, we thought we had unwittingly intruded on an intimate moment – perhaps she was remembering a lost relative or passing on gossip to her late husband. But no: as she turned towards us, we caught a glimpse of the mobile phone tucked beneath her headscarf, and the illusion was shattered. Maramures, Romania in fact, is full of such contradictions.

Walking over the fields towards Breb, the bright, sunny morning was increasingly warm, and the mountains all round, including Gutai, looked glorious.

No walk in Romania is complete without a flock and the ubiquitous sheepdogs. This time we were hidden on approach, so we waited until we could be sure the shepherd could call them back before proceeding.

Soon, we reached the track into Breb. William Blacker, author of Along The Enchanted Way, spent time here, and owns a house in the village. There is also another house owned by the charity ARTTA that renovates old traditional houses, and we got permission to look inside. There was plenty to do to the two dwellings there, but the setting was gorgeous in the autumn sunshine and they will no doubt be attractive guest rooms in due course.

More time ambling between these delightful villages would have been lovely, but our trip was almost over. Setting off from Breb, we drove over the mountains towards the flat plains further south, stopping briefly by a stream for lunch and again in Dej for an ice cream.

Then, almost before we knew it, we were at the airport, and it was time to say our goodbyes to Ramona and Dan. We'd had a very special time, helped greatly by the brilliant guides and drivers who were friendly, fun, informative and patient with us all the way through, and who made our visit all the more memorable.

This trip was everything our previous Romanian outing had promised but failed to deliver. In fact we were really smitten, and, God willing, we will return one day to experience more of the traditions, history, culture and warm hospitality we’d been privileged to encounter this time.