Writing Portfolio


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?

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