Writing Portfolio


The Capital Ring: Crystal Palace to Balham

I thought getting from East Finchley to Crystal Palace to resume my walking of the Capital Ring would be fairly straightforward, but I'd reckoned without the southbound section of the Northern Line being down. What had been planned as a mid-to-late morning start (the intention being to knock off two stages in one day by walking all the way to Wimbledon) became a lunchtime (well, shortly after midday) start by the time I made it to the big Victorian station (with 21st century lifts) that is Crystal Palace. I used the extended journey time to calculate how much of the Capital Ring I'd walked so far, and reached the happy answer that I had already done just over half of it.

After a quick lunch - crisps and a sausage roll from a newsagent - I was ready to commence Section 4 which is described in London: The Definitive Walking Guide by Colin Saunders (Cicerone, 2002) as a "rollercoaster of a walk among the ridges and valleys". Having previously visited the area twice while doing the Nightride, though, I was already aware of the hilly nature of the vicinity.

After crossing Anerley Hill the walk took me down, and then up, a side-street that made me wonder (not for the first time) what the people who live on the Capital Ring route think of it. Do they sometimes wonder about those occasional groups of people in hiking gear asking each other if they're sure this is the right way? Have they noticed, and perhaps wondered about, those little green arrows? Do they even know it exists?

Up another street, across a road and down through a park, then following another suburban road to a recreation ground boarded by big suburban semis and a primary school. I love that recreation grounds are still called by that name rather than just parks. Several aspects of this particular rec stuck out. A set of goal-posts on a notably sloping pitch, peopled by a father and son having a kick-about. A Victorian drinking-fountain (erected in 1891 by one Samuel Southgate) that didn't work; do any of them? A dog-walker who mouthed a silent 'hello' as we passed. A single-storey brick pavilion, door shuttered and what looked like mould on the inside of the windows which, as is the case with such buildings, were high up on the walls; when, I wondered, was that last used? A line of yellow providing some colour against the grass, on closer inspection a host of golden daffodils (no breeze for them to flutter and dance in, though).

From here I could see not one but two TV transmitters (the other one, South Norwood, is a back-up for the Crystal Palace one). After the rec I walked up another incline to a ridge on which ran the A215 (Beulah Hill). There were some big houses here, and it wasn't long before I found myself on a road called Biggin Hill (another hill!) which descended steeply past some allotments while affording a panoramic view of Croydon and the North Downs beyond.

The route diverted off the road just after the allotments, running through Biggin Wood which, like the previously-encountered Downham Woodland Walk (see the Falconwood-Beckenham section) is a remnant of the old Great North Wood. I'm rather enjoying these seemingly random occurrences of patches of woodland on the Capital Ring! Robins, Great Tits and Ring-neck Parakeets were seen.

There followed a street called Covingdon Way, named (according to Colin Saunders, in The Capital Ring this time) after "a very active local campaigner who did a great deal for the area". Passing the semis with their driveways (originally front gardens that, as with their counterparts in places like Edgware and Mill Hill, were probably paved over between the Seventies and Nineties as more and more families started to own more than one car), I was struck by some of the house names - South View (that one was on top of the hill), Craigwood, Red Roofs and No Junk Mail (a popular one, that). I wonder what prompts people in streets like these to opt for names rather than numbers, and whether they have to go through some sort of procedure with the Post Office to ensure that no-one else on the street hasn't already gone with the same name?

Parkland next, with the grounds of a mansion called Norwood Grove. Known locally as the White House (for obvious reasons), it dates from the 1840s although what's there today is merely the east wing of the original. The gardens of the house have a 'no dogs' rule; for those with dogs, the Capital Ring takes a short diversion and when the two branches rejoined the path was suddenly awash with dog-walkers, including a couple of people with four each!

A small stream marked both a municipal boundary (between the London Boroughs of Croydon and Lambeth) and the border between the grounds of Norwood Grove and Streatham Common. This marked the start of a new feature of the Capital Ring. "South-west London is blessed with a string of commons, most of which were saved from development by a variety of bodies during the 19th century," states Saunders (in The Capital Ring). "All these commons were once wild places, owned by the local squire, where people from the surrounding villages had certain rights, including grazing animals and collecting firewood, berries and nuts." The Capital Ring crosses four, of which Streatham is the first; the others are Tooting Bec, Wandsworth and Wimbledon. 

My first view of Streatham was of the church across the common - an almost village-like vista that belied the area's less-than-salubrious reputation. After noting a couple of pubs - one a former bank called the Bank, the other an old coaching inn called the Greyhound, I crossed the Brighton Road and, noting that there was more litter on the pavement than there had been elsewhere, turned down a road (big terraced townhouses divided up into flats) towards Streatham Common station.

This was the end of Stage 4, but I wasn't done yet. After heading along a road running alongside the railway line, I passed under it and then came across what looked like an eastern church or maybe a mosque, although it was in fact a Victorian water-pumping station. Imaginative people when it came to constructing utility company buildings, those Victorians!

Despite my slightly-later-than planned start, I was still feeling optimistic about making it to Wimbledon as I walked along a tree-lined avenue with big houses, quite a few of which looked like they needed a bit of TLC, most of which looked to have been converted into flats. But then I noticed a pain in my foot. No benches on residential back-roads, alas! 

I carried on to Tooting Bec Road, crossing over the railway bridge and into the London Borough of Wandsworth ("The Better Borough"), turning left onto Tooting Bec Common which thankfully had a bench where I was able to sit down and take my right shoe and sock off; I noticed a large-ish blister on the ball of my foot. Of all things! I've been walking for years and have hardly ever developed one of those, to the extent that I hadn't bothered to pack any plasters. 

Wimbledon was now out of the question; another time. The next station I would encounter would be Balham, which I vaguely recalled as being somewhere on the lower reaches of the Northern Line; at least getting home wouldn't be a problem!

Walking across my second common of the day, I saw plenty of Black-headed Gulls making use of the waterlogged pitches (most of them in their white-headed winter plumage although one had already gone brown). Starlings gathered in the trees.

There followed a slightly pained walk along Victorian streets prior to my emerging on Balham High Street opposite a large Art Deco apartment block, then a hundred or so yards to the station and the train home.

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