Writing Portfolio


The Capital Ring: Woolwich to Falconwood

Resuming the Capital Ring from where I'd left off meant returning to Woolwich, a place described by the late archtecture critic Ian Nairn as "a provincial centre that has got embedded in London by mistake" (his classic work Nairn's London has recently been republished and I am very much enjoying it; another gem is his description of Hampstead as "a bit of a joke, though many of its inhabitants are deadly serious about it").

It was getting on for 2pm on a hot June Saturday by the time I disembarked at Woolwich Arsenal station, and I was in need of some lunch before commencing on the next section of the Capital Ring, a seven-mile walk to Falconwood (not a place of which I had previously heard; if nothing else, doing the Capital Ring is certainly increasing my knowledge of London!) which would, so my print-out from the TfL website informed me, take in a castle. 

When I'd finished the previous section at Woolwich (also on a Saturday), I'd noticed a Nepalese food-stall in the market-place next to the old Royal Arsenal gates and that, I thought, would be ideal for lunch. Sadly it was not there this time, and the only stalls at Woolwich Market on the occasion of my second visit were selling goods that couldn't be eaten - cheap clothing, cheap jewellery and mobile phone covers were the most popular items. A nearby sandwich bar looked promising but it was closed, and in the end I had no option but to make do with a kebab-shop; I got a battered sausage and a can of ginger beer to go, and with that I was on my way!

I needed to rejoin the path by the entrance to the foot tunnel, and my easiest route was along Powis Street, described by Nairn as "a commercial gold mine from end to end"; maybe that was the case in the Sixties, but what I saw was the usual contemporary high-street mixture of bookies, discount shoe-shops and charity-shops, with a couple of boarded-up establishments thrown in for good measure.

By the River, the Capital Ring was once again sharing path-space with the Thames Path (which, it seems, runs on both banks). I had views across to the Tate & Lyle processing plant on the north side, while my view upriver took in the Thames Barrier, the Dome and the tall buildings of Canary Wharf in the heart of the redeveloped Docklands.

My route took me through the old Royal Dockyard, now mostly long gone to make way for housing but there are a few remnants, most notably a pair of canons pointing out onto the River and a couple of small dry docks now being used as ponds. These were fenced off but that hadn't stopped several local boys from getting in for a spot of fishing (still the biggest sport in the country in terms of participation); I wasn't sure what they were hoping to catch, though, as the water looked fairly stagnant and had several items of rubbish floating in it. 

Elsewhere was a mosaic that had been created at ground level, presumably when the area was being redeveloped; I guessed that this had at the time been an admirable community project intended to install some sense of local people working together to improve the place where they lived, and maybe even foster some civic pride in a new housing development, but it was sadly in decay. 

Further along, a man was trying to teach his young daughter how to ride a bike; she did not appear to be enjoying the experience. Most of the flats had their windows open - it was a hot day - and the sound of a party emanated from one of them.

The path turned inland shortly before the Barrier, taking me through a quiet housing estate, past a disused factory and along the A206. A pub called Clancys claimed to offer Sky Sports and karaoke on Fridays but it was boarded-up (although some open first-floor windows told me that the building was still inhabited), while further along the White Horse (rebuilt 1897) had bingo, bed & breakfast and the advantage of being open; this pub also had a white ensign in the window with "RIP Lee Rigby" written on it; appropriate, really, as it was Armed Forces Day (and, of course, his brutal murder had happened in Woolwich, just outside the barracks).

Not long after this the path veered left, away from the road and into the first of a series of parks connected by a route called the Green Chain Walk on which the Capital Ring piggy-backs as it had previously done with the Parkland Walk, the Lea Valley Walk, the Greenway and the Thames Path; no doubt there will be others and why not? Part of the point of the Capital Ring was to connect green spaces. 

I passed some tennis courts and a circular patch of grassland on which a running-track had been marked out (briefly making me think of school sports days, long ago) before climbing a steep path through the surrounding woodland. The path reached a ridge on which a quiet road ran before descending into another park. 

This one, which was heavily wooded, had what I assumed (from the sound of a cockerel) to be an urban farm but which was in fact a small petting-zoo with a herd of fallow deer.

The route continued up a hill to another road and then another park, the Capital Ring living up to its billing as a connector between London's green spaces. This park, though, was of a completely different sort from its predecessor; no woods, hills or deer here but flat, open grassland, turning brown in the sun, cut short and with athletics markings painted on. A cafe stood next to a play area frequented by kids whose parents ranged from the burqa-clad to the scatily-clad, neither looking entirely comfortable in the heat. Two lads in football shirts and shorts kicked a ball around in desultory fashion (both West Ham fans, I couldn't help but notice), while elsewhere a young woman read a book under a tree and a cricket match was in full flow.

The route wound through a couple of suburban back-streets of post-war but pre-Sixties local authority housing before another park which looked almost deserted. It had what looked like a BMX track and a sign placed there by Greenwich Council advised me that that is what it was, "A 2012 legacy", so the sign proclaimed. But why, on such a lovely Saturday, was no-one using it? I had a BMX bike when I was a kid and if there had been a BMX track nearby I'd've been all over it. Crossing the next road, I saw a child on a bike heading towards the park and I hoped he was going to have a go on the track.

Next up was not so much suburban as almost rural as the route took me onto Woolwich Common. Any sense of peace and tranquility was short-lived, though, as on the other side was the junction of the South Circular and the A2 in the form of Shooter's Hill Road, the former the southern half of the inner London ring-road, the latter following the route of a road first built by the Romans.

I had encountered Shooter's Hill not so long ago when I had played in a cricket match in Greenwich Park. In the car on the way there, my team-mates and I had idly speculated where it had got its name from, and had reckoned that it must have had something to do with highwaymen. I'd looked it up out of curiosity after getting home, and had found that this was indeed the case, partly at least; this particular part of Watling Street had been known as a venue for archery in the Middle Ages but had become a notorious haunt for highwaymen by the 17th century and it was also the location of a gibbet, positioned there to deter others from a life of crime; the Restoration-era civil servant, man-about-town and (most importantly from an historical perspective) diarist Samuel Pepys describes riding "under the man that hangs on Shooters Hill, and a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to his bones" (a man of his time, Pepys was no stranger to public displays of violent death and the gore that went with it, having witnessed both the beheading of Charles I and the hanging, drawing and quartering of Major-General Harrison). Much later, Shooter's Hill once again lived up to its name as the location of an anti-aircraft battery during the Second World War.

I headed up Shooter's Hill but soon diverted across Eltham Common, into dense woodland through which an uphill path ran. The wood was Oxleas Wood, and my immediate target was the castle on the top of the hill, literally the high point of the day.

To call it a castle is a bit of an exaggeration. Severndroog Castle is in fact an 18th century Gothic folly, built by the widow of Sir William James, a naval officer who in 1755 had attacked and destroyed Suvarnadurg, an island fortress located between Bombay and Goa on the Indian coast (the name of the castle is an anglicisation of that of the fortress). Nowadays, having been saved from redevelopment, the main function of this three-storey triangular building is to serve as a tea-room in the woods. One thing I was particularly looking forward to was the view from the top; seven counties are supposed to be visible, and it is said that on a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle.

Alas, a sign advised that the public could only access the roof on Thursdays and Sundays (I was there on a Saturday) and no amount of persuasion could get the waiters to turn a blind eye and let me climb the stairs; deprived of a view of seven counties, I settled for a black coffee and a biscuit.

View-less, I continued, heading through a well laid-out rose garden occupied by a pair of picnickers and then through the woods (a gap in the trees giving me a glimpse of the Crystal Palace radio mast) until I emerged at the top of what was not so much a hill but a gentle, south-facing slope overlooking a field called Oxleas Meadow and, beyond that, south-east London and the North Downs.

A lovely vista (as somebody once said, there is nowhere lovelier than England in June) but I was still feeling cheated by my not having been able to look out from the top of Severndroog. People were scattered across the field, some walking dogs, some walking children, others relaxing. A solid-looking building at the top had the word 'cafe' painted on the roof and it looked so inviting I went in and asked for an ice-cream; I was offered a choice of six flavours and addressed as 'love' by the girl behind the counter.  

Outside, as well as the view, was the inevitable green sign which told me that the Capital Ring was still sharing a path with the Green Chain Walk. I had, according to the sign, come 4 3/4 miles from Woolwich, and I had 1 1/2 to go to Falconwood at the end of the stage. I made that a 6 1/4-mile walk for the day; wasn't it meant to have been seven? Where had the other three-quarters of a mile gone? 

Not for the first time, I wondered at the total distance of the Capital Ring which is officially given - on the TfL website and in the walking guide published by the Ordnance Survey - as 78 miles, although for the Woolwich-Falconwood section the two sources vary between seven and 6.2 respectively. That said, every section distance doesn't include the extra bits where you have to leave the official route to get to a station at the end, so maybe I'm over-thinking things.

Another wooded section, which brought me to the bottom of Oxleas Meadow, followed before I crossed a road to get to the final wood of the day (Shepherdleas Wood, this one). In this one I encountered a tree leaning at a 45-degree angle with half of its roots sticking out of the ground, and then I came to some open parkland where, finally, I got my view of Central London. Looking north-west over the roofs of some semi-detached houses, I took in a vista that included the Eye, Wembley Stadium, the Shard and the Post Office Tower.

After checking out the birds on the small lake (mallards going through their summer moult, and tufted ducks going for a dive), I trudged on towards a bridge that went over a railway line and the A2. The Capital Ring runs south across this bridge but I didn't take it. Instead, I carried on walking east to Falconwood station.

No comments: