Writing Portfolio


The Capital Ring: East Finchley to Hackney Wick (part 1)

“Where does that go?”

It’s an age-old question which I found myself asking the other week when I noticed a green signpost outside the Causeway entrance to East Finchley Tube station for something called the Capital Ring. The name rang a bell somewhere in the back of my head but I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d heard about this before.

A quick bit of online research told me that the Capital Ring is a 78-mile circular walking route which, in the words of TfL, “offers you the chance to see some of London’s finest scenery”. Encircling inner/central London and passing through urban and suburban areas with an emphasis on parks and nature reserves, it was first proposed in 1990 but did not become a reality until 2005. It’s divided up into 15 sections, each of which begins and ends at or near a Tube or railway station – making it easy to pick and choose which bit you want to do, or even do the whole lot in several day-walks. It is in many ways the inner London equivalent of the 150-mile London Outer Orbital Path (better known as the London Loop) which makes its way through the outskirts and the point at which the suburbs peter out into the countryside; to put it another way, the Loop is the pedestrian equivalent of the M25, and the Capital Ring is the walkers’ North (and South) Circular. But hopefully with less congestion.

Having realised what the Capital Ring is, and that it’s more or less on my doorstep, I naturally wanted to have a go and see where those green signs would lead me. East Finchley is located on section 11 (Hendon to Highgate), and indeed the walk passes through the Tube station itself (although there’s a diversion route just in case someone decides to do the walk when the station is closed – a good bit of attention to detail on behalf of the walk’s organisers), and I figured that as that’s where I live, that’s where I’d join the walk.

Which, early one Saturday morning, is what I did.

After the station, the walk crossed the High Road and went through Cherry Tree Wood, a favourite birdwatching venue of mine and the location, every summer, of the East Finchley Festival. But for the birds, I had the place to myself (I’d gone for an early start), and although I could only see pigeons and a couple of mistle thrushes I could certainly hear robins, blackbirds and blue tits (evidently my ear for birdsong, one of the weaker elements of my birding, is getting better).

Coming out the other end, I found myself in a back-street street of suburban inter-war semis not dissimilar from the street on which I grew up; most of the front gardens had been tarmacked over to create driveways, although this one had a few more mock-Tudor gables. One doorstep, I noticed, had a couple of bottles of milk on it; did I imagine that, or do early-morning milk deliveries still exist? I thought they’d gone the way of the football pools, VHS tapes and cars like the Austin Metro – once part of the fabric of British life, now all but forgotten.

From there, it was a surprisingly short walk – via a footpath between two houses – to Highgate Wood. Owned and managed by the Corporation of London, it’s a surviving remnant of the ancient Forest of Middlesex and there are plenty of signs to show that this is the property of the City. 

While walking through the woods, adding crows, robins and great tits to my list of bird sightings, I encountered a couple of dog-walkers and, rather curiously, a child’s woollen glove which someone had hung on a low-lying branch. I’ve seen this sort of thing before in parks (and I would see it again during the course of the day), and it always strikes me as evidence of peoples’ good nature; someone obviously saw it on the floor and, rather than just leave it, took some time to pick it up and place it somewhere nearby so it wouldn’t get dirty. The fact that people do this is, in my opinion, cause to feel optimistic about life in general. A bit like strangers wishing each other good morning when they pass by. Sometimes it really is the little things that count.

Moving on, the walk crossed Muswell Hill Road (the traffic consisting mainly of buses) and entered into Queen’s Wood, where I saw some blackbirds and a flock of chaffinches, managed to identify a thrush-like bird as a redwing and heard the laughing call of a green woodpecker. Another dog-walker passed by (“Morning!” “Morning!”) and I spotted my first major Capital Ring signpost; a pair of arrows giving directions and distances to walkers. I had 2½ miles to go to Finsbury Park, 4½ to Clissold Park and, depending on which way I was going, either 34½ or 43½ miles to Crystal Palace Park.

Priory Gardens, a combination of big inter-war semis and earlier terraced houses,  marked the end of section 11 of the walk (Highgate Tube station is quite literally at the end of the road) and the start of section 12 (Highgate to Stoke Newington) which would, as I found, cover a path that I had trodden before.

From Priory Gardens, where I encountered my first cyclists of the day and an Ocado delivery-van, it was a steep climb up another footpath between two houses; is it just me, or are there more of such footpaths than most people realise? I bet someone could live on a road like Priory Gardens for years and not realise that there was a footpath path on the street that gives a shortcut to Shepherd’s Hill, emerging by Highgate Library. Heck, you could probably live on a street like Priory Gardens for years in blissful ignorance of the fact that it’s part of the Capital Ring. After all, it took seven years of living in East Finchley for me to realise that it passes through there.

A brief stint along the Archway Road would mark the last bit of street walking for a while before the Capital Ring joined onto the Parkland Walk, that stretch of disused railway line from Highgate to Finsbury Park that these days has the distinction of London’s longest nature reserve. I walked along this back in the summer of 2012, and this time I noticed something new straight away; the Highgate Tunnels, merely fenced off to deter the curious back then, have now been bricked up in order to protect the bats who use them to roost.

The Parkland Walk was easily the busiest part of the walk so far. Joggers, now doubt preferring the softer going to pavements, like to use it as do dog-walkers, and as it passes between back gardens, over side-streets (some of which can offer tantalising glimpses of the skyline of the City) and under a couple of main roads it can be a busy place. By way of neither running nor being accompanied by a dog, though, I was in a distinct minority; even the man doing his bit to keep the litter under control had a dog with him. As the day grew warmer, I shed my fleece as I walked along the platforms of what used to be Crouch End station.

to be continued...

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