Getting from East Finchley to Falconwood (the first, but probably not the last, place that I will visit on the Capital Ring that I’d never previously heard of) was surprisingly easy; Tube to Charing Cross, then a train to Dartford that happened to stop at Falconwood station. Strange, that, as getting back home from Falconwood after the last stage hadn’t been that simple.
This time, I was armed not with a print-out from a website but a book, The Capital Ring by Colin Saunders (Ordnance Survey, fully revised and updated in 2012). This taught me a couple of things I’d wished I’d known about the Woolwich-Falconwood stage; for example, the dry docks I’d been so dismissive of are actually stocked with fish so that local people can go fishing, and the decaying mosaic, which depicts the signs of the zodiac, had been installed by a society which helps people whose needs have not been met by education.
Stage 2 takes in the stretch from Falconwood to Grove Park (also previously unheard-of by yours truly) and is 3½ miles. Suspecting that I may wish to do more than that, and mindful that the next stage is more than double that, I was glad of the book which told me that Stage 3 has several options which allow the walker to duck out and get to a station. Before that, though, Stage 2 promised something interesting – while the previous stage had a castle, this one had a palace.
Having walked the short stretch from the station to where I’d left the path several months ago, my first act on re-joining the Capital Ring was to cross the bridge over the railway and the A2 to enter Eltham Park South – an open park in contrast to the mostly wooded Eltham Park North. With grey clouds overhead (rain had been forecast but in the event it didn’t materialise), I passed through a park with only a couple of dog-walkers for company, emerging onto a suburban back-street just as a hearse was driving along the road.
After following the path down a concrete track I encountered a brick structure called Conduit Head. This unprotected yet apparently listed structure used to house the sluices that controlled the flow of water to nearby Eltham Palace. After a church, a mini-roundabout and a school named after Thomas More I turned down a road called North Park which was lined with big detached and semi-detached houses from the inter-war period, some done up in the mock-Tudor style. This led onto a smaller street called Tilt Yard Approach – presumably named due to the nearby palace.
Eltham Palace, which I merely passed by, was the main country residence of English kings between the 14th and mid-16th centuries (Henry VIII wasn’t that interested in it, preferring Hampton Court after seizing the latter from Cardinal Wolsey). It was later ransacked by Roundhead troops during the Civil War and rebuilt in the 1930s – the current manor house incorporates the Great Hall, said to have the third-largest hammerbeam roof in England, from the original. It has been run by English Heritage since 1995.
From there, I followed a footpath called King John’s Walk which ran alongside a field with some horses in it, from which I had a lovely view across to the buildings of both the City and the Docklands.
After passing over a railway line (had I wished to end my walk here, Mottingham station was just half a mile away), I crossed the A20 and passed a riding school called Mottingham Farm. “Around the turn of the 20th century”, my guidebook told me, “it was the home of Farmer Brown, a local character who adopted the typical farmer’s garb of smock and tall hat, and set a fine example by living to the age of 102 on a diet of whisky, ale, steak and cigars.”
A narrow footpath took me between paddocks and playing-fields, the latter belonging to Eltham College. A concrete channel carried a stream which I was intrigued to learn was called the Quaggy River, a tributary of the Ravensbourne (which in turn flows into the Thames). As this met a road, Stage 2 of the walk ended; from here I could have walked to Grove Park station and gone home, but I wanted to carry on for a while longer.
The road took me past a hospital – or rather, a former hospital that’s been redeveloped as a residential area. I was also starting to encounter a lot more fellow-walkers, although these were not Capital Ring enthusiasts but young mothers collecting small children from a nearby primary school, interspersed with the odd secondary school pupil eating from a bag of chips while on his way home. Some of these were going my way, down a footpath called Railway Children Walk (the author of the eponymous novel lived nearby) which passed through a nature reserve and then over – appropriately – a railway line.
Once over the bridge, I noted a change of scenery – I was now passing through a built-up area comprised of inter-war local authority housing, although one of the roads did have a wide, grassy strip running up the middle; road names like Bideford and Ilfracombe led me to wonder whether the councillors who had this estate built had Devon connections.
Rather intriguingly, the route of the Capital Ring led to a tarmac footpath called the Downham Woodland Walk (also part of the Green Chain Walk which the Capital Ring was still following) which consists of a narrow strip of woodland running between the streets, a remnant of the Great North Wood which stretched across these parts until the suburbs started to expand. This path crossed several roads and at one point followed the Meridian Line for a few hundred yards. The number of such small paths that are linked by the Capital Ring is truly impressive – with it, these paths are all part of a wider, larger entity.
After crossing the Bromley Road, the route – still the Capital Ring following the Green Chain Walk – led down to Beckenham Place Park, once a private estate but now open grassland and a nature reserve (for the first time, I wondered at the small number of birds I’d seen – a few pigeons mostly, though I had spotted a jay on the Downham Woodland Walk).
At this point I opted to call it a day – Beckenham Hill station wasn’t too far off, and what with that being on the Thameslink line I reckoned it would make getting home a fairly simple task – despite the guidebook warning me that “this is not a formal Capital Ring link”. I’d just have to do this informally, then.