Back to the Capital Ring, mindful of the fact that it is almost two years since I started out by following the green signs from East Finchley. I’d made it half-way, more or less, over the course of 2015 and by comparison 2016 was slim, seeing me cover just under 24 miles from Crystal Palace to Osterley Lock (although there were various other walks for Londonist). The next section, Osterley Lock to Greenford, promised to be a fairly easy one – 5½ miles, mostly flat and following either the Grand Union Canal or the River Brent for the most part.
My Capital Ring odyssey had thus far been a solo experience but this was now no longer the case; Dad has been doing the walk as well but for some reason we had not managed to co-ordinate our efforts thus far (although I started doing it before him, he’s actually done more of it than me because he started in Hendon). Since we’d both managed to get as far as Osterley Lock, though, we thought it would be silly not to do the rest together.
We got to Boston Manor station at just after 10am on a clear but frosty January morning – turns out we were on the same train but in different carriages, having got on the Piccadilly Line at different stations. Once at the canal and rejoining both the Capital Ring and the Grand Union Canal Walk (a long-distance footpath which follows the towpath of said canal to the Midlands), we noted that the canal was frozen over at that point; by way of prodding it with a walking-stick we found that it was very thin ice, mind you. The towpath was quite muddy, and both of us thought it was a good job we’d come wearing hiking-boots.
A waymarker proclaimed that it was 91 miles via the canal network to Braunston, which we thought was a bit odd as that’s in Devon and surely Devon is further away than that? Turns out that the sign was referring to Braunston in Northants which used to be a central hub of England’s canal system; we were thinking of Braunton where we once went on holiday!
Between Brentford and Hanwell, the River Brent and the Grand Union Canal are one and the same with the river diverting off to a weir whenever a lock appears. At Hanwell, the two split as the canal starts on a six-lock flight, taking it up over 50 feet in a third of a mile.
Much though I’d’ve liked to see a canal go up a hill (sort of), the Capital Ring breaks off after the first lock, following the river instead with Ealing Hospital to the left; had we wanted to stay on the canal towpath, it would’ve been another 16 miles to Rickmansworth, and 136½ miles to Birmingham.
We followed the river and the path, across the Uxbridge Road and onto a playing-field where we beheld an impressive sight – the Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1838 to carry the Great Western Railway on its journey to Bristol (according to a sign, Queen Victoria is said to have asked for her train to be stopped on the viaduct so she could admire the view on both sides).
Our path took us underneath said viaduct and into the grounds of Brent Lodge Park, the grounds of an old manor house in the shadow of St Mary’s, Hanwell – a nineteenth-century ‘Gothic Revivial’ church, the spire of which is something of a local landmark.
Our path hugged the Brent, taking us to the edge of the fields at the point where there was still frost in the shade.
Over the river and past a cricket pitch and a golf course we walked, to a reclaimed landfill site bearing the somewhat optimistic name of Bittern’s Field. Our chances of seeing one of those elusive birds were slim-to-none (I’ve only ever seen one once, and that was at Minsmere although I’m told they’ve been seen at the London Wetlands Centre at Barnes); on our walk we did get to see moorhens, coots, mallards, a lone mute swan, blue and great tits, a couple of robins, black-headed gulls (lots of those), blackbirds, pigeons of the wood and feral varieties, a solitary grey heron and some ring-necked parakeets flying overhead.
We parted company with the Brent by Greenford Bridge, crossing it for a last time before entering Perivale Park from which the arch of Wembley Stadium can be seen.
We took a tea-break there, marvelling at how quicker a walk can go when you have someone to talk to on said walk, even when the talk veers between such subjects as Watford Football Club, various trivia we’ve found out about London, pubs, what we’ve done with the meat we bought at Smithfield and whether or not John Keble can be classed as a saint (to which the answer is no, because the C of E doesn’t go in for canonisation, although that doesn’t stop people from thinking he is a saint because there’s a church named after him).
Carrying on, our walk, which had seemed to be almost rural in parts, took a turn for the urban as we crossed over the A40 and skirted around Northolt Rugby Club, walking through a built-up area to get to Greenford station and the end of another Capital Ring stage; Dad has two left before he completes the circular walk around London, while I have two-and-a-half to go. A quick perusal of the Colin Saunders book (London: The Definitive Walking Guide, as opposed to his more specific work The Capital Ring) tells us that the next part, from Greenford to South Kenton, is “a very interesting section with some climbing and fine views” – two hills in fact, Horsenden and Harrow. I guess we’ll need our boots for that too.
As we approached the station, it was lunchtime – and just before we got to the station we spotted a pub. That was lunch sorted out, then.