For some time the Textiliste and I (with a couple of close friends) have been indulging our love of a good walk. We completed the Capital Ring in March 2008; and the LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path) in June 2011 and we are now well through the Thames Path (Oct 2011 to date) that leads from sea to source (or source to sea, depending on your east-west orientation).
The Capital Ring runs a bit like the North and South Circular of footpaths, from the Woolwich Foot tunnel that crosses under the Thames (one of two old Victoria pedestrian tunnels, the other being at Greenwich). They are pretty manky (well, the Woolwich tunnel was when we did the walk – it was closed just prior to the Olympics so may have been spruced up a bit, but back then it was easily the longest urinal in Europe). I’m not selling this well, am I?
I’ll try again. The walk is about 75 miles and tries to link up as many green and open spaces around the City as it can. There are some real gems: Eltham Palace; the extraordinary Water Works in Streatham, like some Moorish palace; a walk across both Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park that takes you to sections you rarely visit if you do a circular walk; the beautiful nature reserve that lies along the Grand Union Canal and Brent River as they run under the elevated M4 motorway, the New River that scouts round one of the largest housing estates in Europe and which was built in the seventeenth century to bring fresh water from the hills near Luton to the City; the Count Dracula castle that is now a climbing centre but was once yet another Victorian water works; Abney cemetery, one of the Magnificent Seven (if you want a crazy day out, go and spend an hour in one of London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries) with its dissenters corner (the Booths, founders of the Sally Army are buried here) – it is always being used as a film set for creepy vampire films; the Greenway, a three mile path on top of Joseph Bazelgette’s magnificent Victorian 90 inch sewer pipes that saved London from the Stink and which run through the bottom end of the Olympic Park.
It really is a great treat and the sections are easily manageable in a session.
The LOOP is more of a challenge (170 odd miles, more like the M25) and has some duller bits (Sidcup – not great; Feltham – no wonder the Young Offenders get sent there; Dagenham – a tad past its best) but none the less it has some really fantastic walks through Keston and Kenley, Uxbridge and Rainham to name but four.
If you are interested have a look at these:-
Capital Ring – http://www.walklondon.org.uk/route.asp?R=1;
LOOP – http://www.walklondon.org.uk/route.asp?R=5; and
The Thames Path – (http://www.thames-path.org.uk/)
I can’t rave about these walks enough. The mapping and signage is great and you can really do them all over a series of Saturdays or Sundays very easily. You will, I guarantee, see bits of London you never knew existed and learn some of the history of our incredible city. And the cafes and cakes – don’t get me onto those. I even enjoyed being north of the river – sort of – if you are not from London you have to realise what a barrier the Thames creates; the idea of spending time north (if you live south or vica versa) is like aiming for Seoul and finding yourself in Pyongang . There are pubs, too, especially along the river, blissful havens from any hustle and bustle that serve damn fine grub – you sort of get the picture by now.
We always use public transport where we can (we did a weekend in Gloucestershire to tick off the sections from the Thames source – bit of a disaster that, because of the flooding, but hey, they’ll be another time). And we take the dog (cue cute picture – in this one, he’s about to be kidnapped by aliens; that happens a lot I find). Any way, today the dog stayed at home and he wasn’t expecially happy. There was a reason; the journey to our start point (Tilehurst) involves a tube (Brixton to Paddington) and two trains (Paddington to Reading, Reading to Tilehurst). He’s a good traveller but this was a bit much.
So we four set off unaccompanied and eyeing the weather anxiously, given the forecast for some heavy showers and chilly winds wasn’t promising. But the water stayed above a thousand feet, the dire prediction of various locals we met that ‘oh, we’re alright here, but further along it’s closed and/or too boggy’ proved unfounded; we even found a great café/bistro in the Boat House Streatley for lunch – http://www.theswanatstreatley.com/hotel/boat-house-deli-cafe – they did us proud with some fine nosh, good hot drinks and essential supplies of chocolate buttons.
I am getting ahead of myself. From Tilehurst the Thames Path fiddles a bit through Purley-on-Thames – the name alone was a bit of a memory jogger since my first two years at senior school back at the end of the 60s were at Purley Grammar School (naturally not in Purley but in Old Coulsden) – this being in Surrey but same name. I spent those two years essentially terrified and playing rugby was probably all that saved me from a monstrous fate at the hands of a school bully who seemed well ‘orrible. I digress. Purley on Thames, of the bits we saw, isn’t lovely. Nuff said.
Down to the river though and it is splendid. Walkers, dogs, the odd brave or fool-hardly (certainly hardy) rower and narrow-boat crew were out enjoying themselves. The guide book told us to look out for this or that stately home but I managed to miss them as I spent my time in a day-dream replotting my current book. We followed a long meadow of buttercups round a three mile left hand bend. The buttercups were magnificent; why this year? Is it because of the flooding? They are exceptional.
On we plodded; to Pangborne and Whitchurch. It’s all rather Wind in the Willows hereabouts – Kenneth Graham is buried in Pangborne. In fact this was a literary walk. Agatha Christie’s grave came later and HG Wells wrote the History of Mr Polly in Moulsford – frankly he shouldn’t have bothered. I ‘studied’ it for O Level English, though ‘suffered’ it would be more apt. After the Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and the First Men in the Moon I was expecting a lot more from him, quite frankly and was a mite disappointed.
At Whitchurch there’s meant to be a working toll bridge, only it’s currently being deconstructed. A shame because it costs a halfpenny per sheep to cross – according to my guide book – the toll booth itself told of recent inflation. It is here that you get a bit cheesed off with the Thames Conservators and landowners. Now I’m not your archetypical socialist and I doubt I would have been involved in the mass illegal rambles of the 1930s that preserved our rights to roam in this country (though I am damn grateful to those that did) and I’m very pleased that there is a Thames Path… but I do get a touch cheesed when we have to detour away from the river. It’s not that the detour isn’t in and of itself perfectly splendid – a walk though the Chilterns is blissful and I like a chalk down and a hanging wood as much as the next man but, well, you follow a river like the Thames for a reason and that’s because it’s flat, level, sans undulations and this detour was hilly. The views back to where we should have been were fine and dandy but still. C+ and could do better, I think.
Back on the path and we approached Goring. Now, we had been told the Goring Gap was worth the entrance money to the Thames path on its own – a magnificent approach to a lovely town we had heard. Was it washed away in the floods? Frankly I’ve seen bigger gaps in Jade Jagger’s orthodontics. The lunch was good but the gap was missing.
Post lunch stops are, these days, something of a pain and the chocolate buttons were much needed to keep us from going from dead slow to full stop. We passed, at last, some small evidence of the floods – reeds hanging from barbed wire; the clean up has been successful, at least to our eyes – and a man with his bouncing young Alsatian. From a way away the straining dog and the obvious sleeve of tattoos on the man made us wonder if we were about to encounter someone rather, shall we say, rough? Well, he was polite and well spoken, the dog a delight and another stupid stereotype bit the dust – they just ain’t what they used to be, stereotypes.
By the time we had meandered through Moulsford and down past the railway we were pleased to see the station ahead. Cue picture of happy hiker. 11.75 miles; I will sleep well tonight.