Capital Ring Day 2 (24 February 2007)
West Penge to Richmond (“official” Ring sections 4,5
and 6 & a bit of 3)
Distance: 18 miles, plus 0.6 miles of station links
Walkers: Anth & Jim, plus Dave for the second half
Wild species seen - blackbird, black-headed gull, canada goose,
coal tit, common gull, coot, crow, great tit, greylag goose, green
ring-necked parakeet, heron, magpie, mallard, moorhen, mute swan,
pigeon, robin, shoveller, sparrow, squirrel, starling, tufted duck.
How hard is it to walk? Wimbledon Park and Richmond Park were both
very muddy in places and contained some steep and uneven paths;
the path from Richmond Park to the Thames was also muddy.
For the first time in a long time, I was a bit scared of this walk.
After the first section of the Ring, my feet and ankles were suffering
serious pains – worse than I’d encountered on any walk.
My left ankle, in particular, had hurt intermittently ever since.
Whilst this may have been partially due to it being my first long
walk in four months, the main contributing factor had undoubtedly
been the unremitting concrete tarmac and concrete underfoot. It
looked like the first two-thirds of today’s trail would be
just as bad.
Other people seemed to share the same fear. Cat had even gone as
far as to stand on her glasses in order to get out her and Jus out
of walking it. However, we were very pleased to hear that, weather
permitting, my father-in-law Dave would be joining us for the last
third – the first time he’d walked a trail with us since
the LOOP, more than 2 years ago.
Once again, we left our car at Dave’s and made cracking time
across London – until we reached London Bridge station and
discovered that we had a twenty minute wait for a train. Despite
already having had porridge, Jim decided that a second breakfast
of a delicious chicken and vegetable pasty from the West Cornwall
Pasty Company (they gain the WheresThePathTM seal of approval) was
in order. Afterwards, we still had a bit of time to spare, and Jim
decided to fill it (and himself) with a chocolate twist pastry thing
from Costa (less approved – they’re better from La Baguette
(a) West Penge to Crystal Palace
Jim moaned that even the footbridge out of West Penge station was
difficult, so replete was he with his substantial second breakfast.
My ankle was already giving me a bit of gyp, and so it was with
no great urgency that we ambled out of the station and into Crystal
Palace Park, a mere hundred or so yards away. I was looking forward
to this park, for ‘twas said to be the home of giant concrete
dinosaurs and a maze.
Since seeing wild parakeets on the first section of the ring I
had also seen them in Broadstairs and Harrow. However, this did
not detract from the joy of seeing these alien birds again as we
entered the park. It was their raucous cries that alerted us, but
we soon spotted their bright green, long-tailed profile in almost
every tree, and also swooping gracefully through the air around
us. We also heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker, but were unable
to track it down. Nevertheless, it was a great start to the walk;
as we headed anticlockwise around the park, there a spring in our
step to match the feeling of spring in the air!
However, there was something fishy going on a little way along
the path, and for once it wasn’t my socks. A small pavilion
contained the ships bell from the SS Crystal Palace, now held proudly
aloft by a couple of fish as an unusual Second World War memorial.
around the northern, more wooded end of the park we passed a heavily-fenced
lake whose mirror-calm surface was in contrast to the frantic quacking
of many hidden waterfall. Shortly afterwards we came to the entrance
to the free maze, where some ridiculously early rhododendron flowers
reminded us how mild a winter it had been. The maze is (according
to some websites) London’s largest, although I’m sure
that Hampton Court is bigger. It seemed very easy to we veterans
of Longleat maze, and in five minutes we were done and out again.
This current maze dates from just 1988, and is a recreation of the
original 19th century maze that had become overgrown and was pulled
down in 1961.
Returning to the perimeter path it wasn’t long before we
came to the next sight; the astonishing concert stage. The vivid
orange colour is from the oxidised steel construction; the giant
angled, cantilevered shape needs to be seen to be believed. Fronted
by a lake and two narrow speaker stacks, this is a miracle of modern
engineering. However, despite being just 10 years old, the deliberate
oxidisation makes it appear much older, and it blends in surprisingly
well with the park’s other architecture. I can imagine it’s
a rather wonderful place to see a concert.
Beyond the concert stage, and in fact running down the entire western
side of the park, is probably its most famous feature; the site
of the Crystal Palace itself. This grand structure was originally
erected in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition; afterwards it
was re-erected in an expanded form here. After a fire in 1936, all
that remains is the terraces with their extensive balustrading;
even these are enough to put any manor house to shame. We walked
up onto the terraces, and even in their current dilapidated state
they convey a sense of grandeur, and are astonishing in their scale.
Mostly, though, there is a feeling of sadness, and of something
amazing lost forever. The Millennium Dome feels comparable (and,
of course, had a comparable purpose). I loved my visit to the Dome
– a truly visionary building, and, of course, only the second
human construction that could be seen from space. Unfortunately
it was lambasted by the Press on the grounds of cost – as
far as I could tell, many of the journalists responsible had not
even been there. There are times when we need to forget about cost,
as there are things that cannot be measured simply by money –
national pride for one. If today’s kids could only be given
a sense of pride in their country, it would do a great deal to improve
society – far more than just a couple of new schools or hospitals.
The 2012 Olympics could be another chance for us, but I see the
press and rival politicians are already trying to destroy them just
as they did the Dome. Perhaps the decaying terraces of the once
mighty Crystal Palace are an apposite memorial for the decay in
British standards. On top of the terraces is the Crystal Palace
transmission mast, at 728ft tall once the tallest structure in London
(until Canary Wharf was built) and certainly one of the most prominent.
From a distance it looks gracefully, but close up it was a shabby
1960’s monstrosity, a tombstone to the destroyed Palace.
I’d finished ranting, we descended from the terraces on the
widest set of steps I’ve ever seen and took a wild diversion
from the Capital Ring. The Ring continues down the west side of
the park to Crystal Palace station, thus missing out the dinosaur
park. As we very much wanted to see them, I had devised an appropriate
alternative route. As this was longer than the official route, I
felt no guilt about taking it. We headed on a high level walkway
through the centre of the ugly athletics complex that dominates
the centre of the park. Like most 1960’s buildings, it was,
in the words of Prince Charles, a monstrous carbuncle on the landscape
(I don’t know why he wasted these words on the Louvre’s
innovative but misplaced pyramid when there are so many more worthy
candidates here in Britain!). It was also, like many of the park
buildings, looking very shabby and run-down. The one exception was
a colony of white pyramids neatly lined up on a roof. We couldn’t
work out if they were heat exchangers for a swimming pool below
or something else entirely, but at least they were interesting –
this is what sixties architecture should have been like!
We had now returned to the point where we had seen the parakeets,
but this time we headed south (clockwise) to reach the lakes where
the dinosaur models are located. They
were originally erected in 1854, as part of the redevelopment of
the area to accommodate the Crystal Palace. The dinosaurs and the
surrounding area have been rejuvenated in the last couple of years
and, I have to say, it’s now a splendid place for a stroll.
We were greeted by what looked like giant moose (mooses? meese?),
standing proud above a lake in which paddled an unusual assortment
of waterfowl – the tuxedoed tufted duck, the faintly ridiculous
A series of islands were linked together by walkways. Apparently
each island was meant to represent a different geological epoch
– the triassic, jurassic, and so on. The dinosaur models have
been widely criticised ever since for being paleontologically fallacious.
Jim felt that the main culprit for this reputation was probably
what appeared to be a giant gnome in a woolly jumper humping a tree.
However, correct or not, the models were an impressive sight, and
with the excellent recent re-landscaping of the area this is a wonderful
and unusual place to spend some time.
Reluctantly dragging ourselves away we finally left the park, passing
a colourful mural of dinosaurs riding a train. Crystal Palace Park
had been jammed full of interest, but it was a shadow of its former
one point it apparently had over 11,000 fountains, and the dinosaur
lake had simulated tides – to say nothing of the Crystal Palace
itself. It was a shame that such a national treasure had been allowed
to degenerate so much; it was possibly even more of a shame that
the 1960’s planners committed the heinous crime of allowing
the pig-ugly (sorry, pigs!). At least some work was being done to
restore the place – hopefully the work completed on the maze
and the dinosaurs will lead to –one day – the whole
park being renovated.
(b) Crystal Palace to Wimbledon Park
From the maps, it looked like we’d be road-walking for a
considerable length of time. It was just as well; we’d spent
a lot of time in Crystal Palace Park and would need to pick up the
pace considerably if we were to meet with Dave for the second part
of the walk. So it was at a brisk march that we set off through
the houses; in Palace Square we took a short cut up a steep and
slippery embankment causing my damaged ankle to twist under me and
nearly deposit me on my face. Fortunately I was still okay to keep
walking, albeit a little gingerly at first.
A couple of turns later and we found that the Capital Ring was,
as always, better than it looked from the map. Far from slogging
along roads, we were now taken into the narrow Westow Park. The
top part was rather pleasant, if you ignored the tower blocks to
one side; the bottom half was just a standard municipal recreation
ground with playground. I remarked ironically to Jim that the Capital
Ring sometimes felt like a grand tour of the slides and swings of
London. The secret greenery kept on going as we headed across the
bland Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, which according to a planning
application nearby was about to be built on by an “education
centre” (surely this means a school?). I don’t understand
how they can get away with allowing building on any of the limited
green space in our cities.
Sadly this was the end of the parks for a kilometre or so, and
I’ll skip mentioning the torrid 1 kilometre walk along the
A215, save to say that you don’t ever quite get the views
that you feel you’re about to. We finally escaped down a side
road and turned off on a path round an irritatingly shut toilet
block to take our first break of the day on a bench overlooking
tennis courts. The two guys playing were rather good, and seemingly
not at all put off by their new spectators. One of their friends
turned up, and chatted briefly to the players and then to us before
going off for a warm-up jog through the woods. Wee soon strode off
into the woods after him, on a path that was needlessly and annoyingly
tarmac’d over, like so much of the Ring. I mean, what sort
of nonce puts tarmac through woodland? We met the friendly jogger
on the way back, just in time to see his phone falling out of his
pocket. We called him back to retrieve it; the chap was effusively
grateful, whilst Jim was a mite despondent, for it was a phone that
he had been hankering after.
short walk along a residential road took us to the next park. A
spot near the entrance could have been used for mud wrestling, but
beyond that the park grew steadily more pleasant as we ascended
gently through a small copse. We emerged to formal raised flowerbeds,
attractive even in winter, with a large white house as a backdrop.
This was Norwood Grove, after which the park is named, and was built
for Arthur Anderson, the founder of P&O. Apparently what remains
today is just one wing of the former mansion.
We took a wide fenced path away from Norwood Grove, which headed
into woodland. It was impossible to tell the point at which we crossed
into Streatham Common, but we eventually arrived at a car park.
A large group of elderly folks were evidently about to head off
on a guided walk – they were clutching information sheets
and being lectured on potential health hazards. We made a special
point of marching past at high speed, flashing our GPS and hiking
boots as we went. To our right there was an odd, small observatory-shaped
building, but we were now up to an enjoyable yomping speed and didn’t
want to break our stride. The same went for the supposedly renowned
Rookery Gardens to our left. The remainder of the Common was a large,
sloping grassy area, blighted by noise from the surrounding roads.
It was a shame – simply planting a bounding hedge would improve
this area no end.
pedestrian crossing of the A23 was ridiculously awkward, with cars
coming from unexpected directions. Feeling lucky to be alive we
tramped down the residential road opposite, where the guidebook
highlighted the red-brick Streatham Baptist Church. It was quite
attractive, but we were more interested in the Christadelphin church
opposite, which had a dial-a-verse service that you could ring up
to get a bible reading of the day. We wondered if any churches in
Britain were even more up to date and offering texted or e-mailed
There now followed a mile of dull roadside slog. This was plenty
long enough on its own, but we managed to make it longer still by
missing the turning into a railway underpass and heading off up
a long Victorian terrace-lined street. Rain started to fall with
increasing intensity and by the time we realised our mistake, I
had taken the skin off my knuckles on a concrete lamppost. I was
to leave a trail of dripping blood for the next hour. Things were
not going well.
That was the low point of the walk though. As we retraced our footsteps
to the underpass, and passed through to the correct side of the
railway, the rain started to ease. Here, too, the houses were larger;
we’ve noticed that where urban road walking is completely
unavoidable, the London trail designers have a preference for posher
streets. This is fine on my part, as there tends to be more to look
at. Here, for example, lay the Streatham Pumping Station, with it’s
dome-topped towers making it look more like a mosque. Nearby one
of the big houses had a huge stained-glass window of a boat that
would have done any church proud.
finally left the roads behind as we sprinted across the busy A214
and into Tooting Bec Common, an uneasy mix of semi-wilderness, football
pitches and the inevitable playground. At the heart of the common
is a small, tree-lined pond rumoured to contain terrapins –
we took time out to circumnavigate it and peer into its murky depths,
but couldn’t see any of these particularly unintelligent reptiles.
Tooting Bec Common continued on the other side of a road, but this
northern section was little more than a boggy strip of grass bounded
by a behemoth of a path, and crawling (or maybe hopping) with magpies.
In the old rhyme of “one for sorrow, two for joy”, we
wondered what 30-odd magpies represented. We entered a long stretch
of nondescript residential walking, enlivened only briefly by Jim
tripping over a deceptively flat and unimpeding bit of tarmac and
reminding me of the time he felt flat on his face in a puddle on
Margery Hill, causing me to burst into hysterical laughter. At one
point we saw the most brobdingnagian block of flats we’d ever
seen; not particularly tall, but covering an enormous area. Apparently
Du Cane Court’s 600 flats, when built in 1937, were one of
the most desirable blocks in London; even today it remains the largest
privately owned block in Europe. Nowadays it’s starting to
look a little shabby around the edges. Give it twenty years and
it will no doubt descend into some inner-city ghetto of drug dealing
and casual violence, before being gentrified and the whole ghastly
cycle starting again.
were glad to move on from this section into Wandsworth Common, where
we had to negotiate a small construction site to gain access. As
we had not yet heard from Dave, and I’d failed to bring his
mobile number with me, I called my mother-in-law Maureen to find
out when he’d be arriving. I was surprised to find out he’d
left forty minutes before; we were now in a real race against the
clock to reach Wimbledon Park station by 2pm to meet Dave. Nevertheless,
we found time to wander around the boardwalks around and –
surprisingly – across the Wandsworth Common ponds.
What could have been a very long section of roadwalking was broken
up by an alternative route through Wandsworth Cemetery. We saw no
particularly spectacular gravestones, just endless, sad memorials
to lives passed. By the time we emerged from the gate at the bottom
(after a worrying moment in which we thought we’d have to
retrace our steps all the way back to the top of the graveyard)
we were in a sombre yet reflective mood.
now the race was on; we route-marched the next couple of kilometres.
I don’t think we missed much though; the only points of note
were the curiously bifurcated River Wandle and the Wimbledon Mosque,
a big square white building that, despite tiny minarets looked less
like a mosque than Streatham Pumping Station had done. We’d
walked seven miles without a break since watching the tennis game
but it had worked. We marched up the hill to Wimbledon Park station
just as Dave emerged from it. Perfect timing – the only trouble
was, we urgently needed to stop for lunch. Fortunately we immediately
walked into Wimbledon Park itself, where there are a plethora of
bench options. We chose one overlooking the lake.