To Wimbledon on a very warm September day, from whence I hoped to complete another stage of the Capital Ring. Expectations were high, for this part of the Capital Ring – according to my copy of London: The Definitive Walking Guide – is “possibly one of the finest walks in the whole book, with glorious scenery wall to wall”. Here was a walk with the promise of not one, but three open spaces – Wimbledon Park, Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park.
I am, it seems, not alone in my love of walking. In fact, it’s practically a national trait for us English! I am currently reading a really good book called How England Made the English by Harry Mount (the son of Ferdinand Mount, as it happens). When talking of the weather, he observes that: “Our temperate climate … makes the English obsessive walkers.” Later, he continues: “Because the English weather is so temperate, and the landscape so accommodating, there’s no need for walking clothes, luminous body socks or special shoes … The English walk long distances because nowhere really seems very far from anywhere else, and you’ll never get fatally caught out by the weather or the terrain … Walking has always been our thing – from the Canterbury Tales, through to the Jarrow March and the charity walks of recent years; and walking in all weathers too, because we know the weather’s not going to be that bad.”
For me, though, this was a walk that I approached with some apprehension, for last month I had managed to do myself an injury by going for a quick single during a cricket match; in so doing, I badly pulled my calf which had a knock-on effect on my Achilles tendon and resulted in ‘retired hurt’ going against my name for the first time. After several weeks of icing it and various stretching exercises, I hadn’t done much by way of walking and, although the limp had worn off, this would be my first post-injury big walk.
Having got the Tube down to Wimbledon Park, I set off into the park of that name; a pretty-looking waterfall garden led up to the lake, on which were three types of geese (Canadian, Egyptian, greylag) and across which could be seen the tennis courts of the All-England Club, then diverting around a watersports centre and then across the grass to come out of the park on the other side. Six-and-a-half miles to Richmond Bridge, my target for the day.
After a couple of suburban back-roads, it was onto Wimbledon Common – through the woods to the windmill. Bird-life abounded, with robins, great tits and chaffinches spotted in addition to the much more ubiquitous jackdaws and magpies; a green woodpecker was heard – that distinctive laughing ‘yaffle’ call – but not seen. I’d been told to watch out for wombles, although in the event I did manage to spot a fox. (As well as those creatures who used to collect and recycle rubbish, by the way, my TV-memory of this large piece of open space also includes that episode of Bottom where Adrian Edmondson and the late, lamented Rik Mayall attempted to go camping – the one which wasn’t broadcast for two-and-a-half years due to a particularly brutal murder having been committed on the Common not long before it was originally due to be shown.)
The windmill, as it happens, was covered in scaffolding. It is, apparently, the last hollow post flour mill (whatever that means) in the country; Robert Baden-Powell wrote part of Scouting for Boys there, and it’s now a museum. I passed on by, also passing the club-house of the London Scottish Golf Club before heading downhill to a small lake called Queensmere (also spelled as Queen’s Mere on some maps); there, I saw a grey heron. I then continued, across the golf course – spotting a male kestrel flying overhead and crossing Beverley Brook (which has its own accompanying walk, from New Malden station to the point where said brook enters the Thames near Putney) before crossing the A3 at the Robin Hood Roundabout.
And so to Richmond Park – London’s largest Royal Park, a designated Site of Specific Scientific Interest and, at around 2,500 acres, the largest urban park in Europe. Within minutes of entering, I spotted a red deer – the largest mammal native to Britain; this one was a stag, sitting under the trees. Deer played a major role in the park’s establishment, for in the 1620s Charles I took his court to Richmond Palace in order to escape from an outbreak of the plague in London, and turned the area into a deer park so he could go hunting; just over a century later, the White Lodge in the middle of the park was built as a hunting-lodge for George II.
I followed the path up the hill to the oddly-named Spankers Hill Wood, having lunch on a bench at the top of the hill with a glorious view laid out before me. What a great day for a walk through this place!
After lunch, I had an ice cream at a nearby café before walking between the Pen Ponds, spotting more deer (fallow deer, this time) under some trees. There were plenty of ducks on the ponds – all mallards, from what I could tell – and ring-necked parakeets could be heard and seen overhead.
The signs took me across the Queen’s Road to the top of a slope with a good view to the west – although the view is better from the nearby King Henry’s Mound, a brief diversion from the Capital Ring path itself. This high point – a Neolithic burial barrow, it turns out – is named for Henry VIII and is said to be the spot from which he waited for a signal to tell him that Anne Boleyn had been executed at the Tower; there is, though, no actual evidence for this, with some sources claiming that Henry VIII was actually in Wiltshire, busy wooing Jane Seymour, on the day when his second wife went to the block. What is true about King Henry’s Mound is that it has a protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral, 12 miles away, which can be seen through a deliberate gap in the hedge (called ‘The Way’) and a specially-maintained avenue through Sidmouth Wood. To the west was a wonderful panoramic view – on a clear day, you can see Windsor Castle on the horizon (it was a sunny day for me, but the horizon was hazy; I could only just make the castle out with my binoculars).
Then it was downhill to the gate, and past Petersham Meadow to the path along the Thames. A very nice day for it, with some people hiring out the rowing-boats (£7 per adult per hour, half-rate after the first hour, users are advised to take the tide times into account). I continued past the elegant Richmond Bridge before making my way into town, with a view to getting the train back into Central London. I hadn’t had any trouble from the Achilles tendon, thankfully.