Writing Portfolio


The Capital Ring: Hackney Wick to Woolwich (part 2)

"This section is considered the easiest on the Capital Ring, and is almost entirely on level tarmac paths and pavements." This is how section 15 (Beckton District Park to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel) is described on the TfL website. Having already walked five miles from Hackney Wick, I didn't see this section as a problem.

In Beckton Park I encountered joggers and cyclists as well as groups of young people taking part in an organised football practice session; alongside the path ran a bridleway - somehow, I hadn't thought of somewhere like Beckton as a horse-riding part of town but maybe the people who designed the park knew something I didn't! Elsewhere, a lone man in a tracksuit with a cigarette dangling from his mouth was unloading some football equipment from his car (presumably his team would be along in a while).

The housing all looked fairly modern - postwar bricks and mortar - but that was nothing compared to Cyprus, an ultra-modern DLR station that the Capital Ring crosses over before making its was through a glass-fronted university campus - the Docklands Campus of the University of East London to be precise. Even on a Saturday morning there were some students hanging around although the main reason appeared to be a branch of Starbucks. At the end of this was a large body of water with a spectacular view of London City Airport on the other side. This, surely, is the brave new world that has resulted from the Eighties redevelopment of the Docklands.

The dock, one of London's largest in its time, was the Royal Albert Dock which was built in the 1880s as one of the Royal Docks (not to be confused with the Royal Dockyards, which were or in a few cases still are are naval bases; the Royal Docks were collectively named as such because they were named after royalty) which were a commercial success in the early twentieth century but suffered heavy damage during the Blitz and then declined after the Sixties following the rise of containerisation.

With larger ships unloading big metal containers straight onto lorries without their having to be opened, there was hardly any need for the high emphasis on manual labour that characterised London's docks, which were in any case too small for the new container ships (nowadays, the main freight terminal on the Thames is much further downriver at Tilbury), the result being high unemployment and social deprivation in places like Silvertown and North Woolwich; the Royal Albert lasted longer than most, closing in 1981.

Redevelopment was slower in the Royal Docks than in the rest of the Docklands (mainly because they are further out from Central London than the East & West India Docks), but thousands of new homes were built in Beckton in this period (the Cyprus Estate, originally built to house dock workers, was extensively redeveloped at this time), London City Airport was built on the site of filled-in dry docks, and by 1994 the DLR has been extended out to the Royal Albert. In 1999, the UEL moved onto the north side of the Royal Albert, which is now a major rowing centre (although it wasn't the venue for the rowing at the London Olympics, it was used as a base by the USA's rowing team) with the main bridge over it being named after Steve Redgrave. Future plans for the area include a new business park intended to attract more international investment.

After looking at the planes, I made my way along the side of the dock, past some modern-looking halls of residence to the Gallions Reach roundabout, ignoring a step-avoiding shortcut. Passing more modern-looking blocks of flats and the somewhat empty DLR station (this part of the modern new world of the Docklands seemed strangely devoid of people), I made my way to the River.

Standing looking out over the Thames were two middle-aged men who, by virtue of their grey-green waterproof jackets and the binoculars the both carried, I assumed to be birdwatchers. The tide was out so I presumed they were looking for signs of life on the mud-flats. Naturally, I wondered what they'd managed to spot.

"Seen anything?"

"Not much."

At this point the Capital Ring joined another long-distance path, the Thames Path (184 miles along the River from its source in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier, with a subsequent extension a further ten miles downriver to link it to the London Loop). This was no mere wander along the banks of the Thames, though, as the path - mostly enclosed and a little overgrown in places - took me over the lock gates for the Royal Albert and the King George V Docks.

I then found myself walking past riverside apartment blocks - these form the Gallions Point Estate and there were signs pointing out that this section of the route is only open during daylight hours; for those interested in doing the Capital Ring by night - and there is a long tradition of night-walking in the London area, with Charles Dickens having been particularly keen on it - there is an alternative route which crosses the Sir Steve Redgrave bridge, bypassing this part of the walk.

There were a few boats out on the river, ranging from small sailing craft to the Thames Clipper operating out of Royal Arsenal Woolwich, the easternmost point to which this service goes (although there's only a limited service between here and North Greenwich). The other major transport service on this part of the River is the Woolwich Ferry, a free service which is operated under licence from TfL. Interestingly, there has been some sort of ferrying service operating on this particular part of the River since the fourteenth century, although a regular free service didn't come about until 1889 (there's even an Act of Parliament which states that tolls can't be charged for it). It's the only means of crossing the River by car between the Blackwall Tunnel and the Dartford River Crossing - plans for a bridge nearby were cancelled in 2008.

Pedestrians can also use the ferry, but Woolwich also has a foot tunnel and I reasoned that, as I was walking the Capital Ring, using a ferry would be a cop-out given that there was a viable walking option. I, therefore, made my way along the riverside path to a bus terminal, taking in the Royal Victoria Gardens, a disused train station (North Woolwich, which after closing became home to a small railway museum which has also closed), blocks of flats and signs informing me about Crossrail's impact on the area; the Custom House to North Woolwich section has involved an extensive renovation of the Connaught Tunnel - which featured on last year's excellent BBC documentary  The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway - and the brand-new two-mile Thames Tunnel starts at North Woolwich. London: It's going to be great when it's finished!

The entrance to the tunnel looked impressive - a circular brick building topped by a copper and glass dome; it and its southern counterpart were opened in 1912 and were subject to extensive renovations 98 years later and became the subject of controversy as the renovations went on the much longer than expected (as these things sadly tend to do), with those lovely entrance buildings covered by scaffolding.

Opting for the stairs rather than the lift, I entered and descended a wide spiral staircase, noting as I did that while in the tunnel I would not be allowed to smoke, cycle, busk, allow animals to do their business, litter, loiter, skateboard, skate or spit in the tunnel. Inside, the tunnel under the Thames was well-lit (reassuring) and I encountered few other people - just a few guys in hi-vis clothing and a couple of tourists, although one of the former clearly hadn't read the rules as he was riding his bike.

I called it a day at the other end. Another section of the Capital Ring completed! From the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, it's 35 miles to the Capital Ring's next crossing of the River (at Richmond), and by my estimation I've completed around three-quarters of the route. I made my way to the nearest station (Woolwich Arsenal), passing as I did the gatehouse to the Royal Arsenal, once a centre of armaments manufacturing and now mainly home to residential and commercial buildings (the football team takes its name from this, having started as the factory team; it moved to North London shortly before the First World War). There was a market taking place on Beresford Square; this, I noted, is Woolwich Market which has existed since it was formed by Royal Charter in 1619. I lingered for a while, and then went to have a coffee before catching a train to London Bridge.


The Capital Ring: Hackney Wick to Woolwich (part 1)

A grey-overcast Saturday morning in East London. At Hackney Wick, the Overground train to Stratford pulled into the station. Not many got out, and those who did looked up at the sky and wondered when the intermittent drizzle would turn into something more. I zipped up my fleece and walked down the slope to the streets with the boarded-up Lord Napier pub, the closed caf├ęs and the scrap metal dealerships. A sign pointed to something called the Wacky Market, but there was no sign of any market. Or wackiness, come to think of it.

On the bridge over the River Lea (or Lee) navigation channel, I got a view of the Olympic Stadium amid the almost-empty plastic beer glasses that hadn’t been cleared away from the previous night’s drinking. The river looked as grey as the sky, although still the only rain was the sort of light drizzle that makes you wonder if it’s worth the effort of breaking out the waterproof jacket. I didn’t.

Following the Capital Ring from where I’d left off, I headed south along the towpath, past locked-up narrowboats whose occupants had either got up early or, if they were sensible, were still in bed. Views from the water pointed to the buildings of the City or the Docklands, depending on which way you looked. The waterside warehouses looked disused to me, but that could’ve been because it was a Saturday.

The Capital Ring follows the same route as the Lea Valley Walk (fifty miles, Luton to Limehouse Basin) as far as the Old Ford Lock, where I saw a cormorant diving for fish , a couple of moorhens and a swan. One of the green signs told me that I was 9¾ miles from Highgate Wood, and 4½ miles from Beckton District Park, the end of section 14 of the Capital Ring. 

The sign to Highgate Wood got me thinking … briefly. Since I’d done my first part of the Capital Ring back in March, it had started to pop up everywhere. Someone did the walk for Time Out, and my Dad, who just happens to own a copy of the Capital Ring guidebook, had a go at a few stages; he told me that in Highgate Wood he’d seen a tatty-looking plaque commemorating the launch of the Capital Ring in September 2005, its launcher being a Greater London Assembly Member called Jenny Jones (of the Green Party). An odd place to launch it, I’d thought – especially given that, according to the section numbering system it’s supposed to start and end at the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. Perhaps that was deemed insufficiently green for the big opening. I, naturally, had somehow managed to overlook the plaque completely when I walked through Highgate Wood.

Old Ford Lock is where the Lea’s navigation channel merges with the rest of the River Lea, and it’s also where the Capital Ring leaves the Lea and turns eastwards. Specifically, it joins onto another path, the Greenway. This is a raised footpath-cum-cycleway which dates back to the Nineties when it was built (if a footpath can be ‘built’) on top of the Northern Outfall Sewer, which takes all manner of effluent from Hackney to the sewage treatment plant at Beckton; like many of London’s sewers, it’s the work of that Victorian civil engineering titan Joseph Bazalgette and it works by gravity.

From the Greenway I got a great view of the Olympic Stadium and the construction workers who were hard at work converting it into West Ham United’s new home (as with the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, it seems like one of the main beneficiaries of the London Olympics is going to be a football team). Unlike Dad, I didn’t have a guidebook; I had a print-out for the relevant section of the walk that I’d downloaded from the TfL website that was getting progressively more damp. According to it, I would be following the Greenway for about three miles but just after crossing Stratford High Street I encountered some barriers blocking my access to the next section of the path and a sign telling me to “KEEP OUT!”.

Being Victorian, the Northern Outfall Sewer needs some maintenance every now and again, and Thames Water is at present carrying out some renovation work. The accompanying notice had a diversionary route which took me along an urban back-road called Abbey Lane which passes the Abbey Mills Pumping Station and emerges onto Abbey Road (no, not that one). At some points I could even see the Greenway, tantalisingly out of bounds and (just) out of reach. I somehow managed to get a bit lost amid the terraced houses, and was briefly distracted when the road I was on afforded me a glimpse of a series of back gardens serving a row of two-up, two-down terraced houses, many of which had extensions at the back; interestingly, the gardens ranged from the well-kept to the astonishingly overgrown (one of them had a mattress and a sofa in the undergrowth). Briefly, it put me in mind of the views of back gardens that I’d experienced on the Parkland Walk section.

The drizzle thickened sufficiently to persuade me to dig my waterproof out. Eventually I made it onto Manor Road, which I followed down to West Ham station (Tube, DLR and BR; not, though, the nearest station to the football ground) where after diverting into a nearby park I made it back onto the Greenway. 

Back on a path running between back gardens, but much more exposed than the Parkland Walk. That didn’t stop a few hardy dog-walkers and joggers, though, as I followed the Greenway east – wondering at how a walk through an urban area like Plaistow could result in my encountering so few people. I could see the Beckton treatment plant looming in the background, but the Capital Ring left the Greenway long before it got that far.

Following the green signs, I took a left that led my to a nondescript back-street called Stokes Road which in turn led me onto a footbridge over the A13. After this, I made my way through a park which apparently contains species of tree from around the world. Alas, tree recognition is one of my blind spots as far as nature is concerned so this was rather lost on me. I’d reached the end of another section of the Capital Ring and could, if I so wished, call it a day and get the DLR out of East London. Or I could carry on walking; according to the sign, it was only 3½ miles to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel.

Another 3½ miles? Why not?