There is something slightly other-worldly, sitting on a tube, rucksack on back, clad in walking gear, heading off for a day’s hiking. Pulling on my battered muddy boots would normally mean a remote countryside walk, up hill and down dale, rather than a 7-mile walk through London’s outer suburbs.
But after a summer spent walking Scotland’s mountains and moors. I wanted a different walking challenge and slicing open London; letting its hidden corners, lives and secret histories seemed a perfect counter-balance. The beauty of the 78-mile Capital Ring is picking and choosing its sections, bit by bit and eating London in gourmet sized pieces, taking the paths less trodden.
We began our suburban odyssey at Wimbledon Park Tube, the start of section six of the ring. Our carriage had slowly but surely disgorged its (mainly rugby fans hitting the pub) passengers before our exit. It felt as though some Narnia metamorphosis would take place. Suburbia becoming therugged countryside we are actually dressed for.
It was a flight of imagination of course. Stepping out of the tube and outer London life hit with a bang. A procession of gleaming ’21 reg high end vehicles, making their way ant-like to the park gates, where they disgorge their children for their weekly sports lesson in the park. The fluorescent sports stripes providing splodges of colour on this grey November morning, along with the remaining leafs with their yellow, orange and red hues still fluttering on trees.
Where deer once roamed, courts and pavilions now stand, as far as the eye can see. We deviated from the official ring directions figuring we could easily make our way to the lake and water sports pavilion. Instead we weaved through a sea of parents, keeping a sharp eye on their children’s tennis. A plethora of well-behaved spaniels on leads. This is clean and tidy London, with not a blade of grass out of place. Even the muddy puddles were artfully arranged, no inconvenient straddling of paths you have to splash through, which leave their tell-tale tentacles up legs and coats.
Onwards, following the green ring signs; past the water-sports centre, the rugby and football pitches. Runners in thrall to their Strava, foolishly trying to cleave a path through the madding crowds. Everyone, looks fit and lithe, perhaps a Wimbledon by-law exists , prohibiting non-sporty people from living here. Saying that, it is a joy to see a park so well-used, so much on offer but as a place for quiet contemplation, you’d have to pick your time carefully or head to the common, next stage on the ring.
Passing along well- kept if busy streets, detached properties set back, their dominance broken up by large and small blocks of flats poking up from behind shrubbery, a fine splash of greenery piercing the gloom. Signs of normal life; a postman helping a resident who appeared to have locked herself out, More joggers, and a steady trickle of pedestrians looking down at their phones as they charge towards you, avoiding collisions with a dancers grace.
Entering the common and its straight into a wood, the trees densely packed and the sounds of the busy road running alongside are smothered. No buses, no loud engines, nothing. There isn’t even birds. Emerging out of the woods, looking out for the Wimbledon Windmill and the Common of my imagination appears Open land, with brambles and ditches, boggy parts and long grass, with some weedy looking footpaths snaking off here and there. A wild place in suburbia, somewhere you can imagine wombles cavorting. It is deserted on this November morning, despite the number of cars entering and exiting the car park by the windmill. hidden at first behind a barrier of trees. This famous landmark, built in 1817 by Charles March to serve the community, is a museum now, a fascinating visit if you have time.
But the ring was calling, its now familiar green signs leading us past the tearoom and its gorgeous smells; bacon, chips, mugs of comforting tea, past the London Scottish Golf Clubhouse, with its red lions standing proudly on the gables.
And its back to the wild common, diving down into woodland heading to Queensmere Lake; boggy pieces of ground, a carpet of brightly coloured leafs. No sounds or people, the branches meeting overhead, as if crowning us, gobbling up the people, the noise, the city.
A steepish woody hill, that disgorges you onto open heath cum golf course: a few hardy golfers waiting for us to dart down the track. Silence again but some strange markers. Hares and hounds. Wimbledon Common is a site of special scientific interest, home to a wide variety of bird, plant and animal life. But these were human hares and hounds, taking part in a 10k race. They hurtled towards us, with their shouts and pants, slipping on the mud but somehow keeping on their feet. And then they were gone, in a puff of smoke, or runners breathe and the common was ours again. The runners heading deeper into the common. Wombling Free.
The wild untamed beauty gives way to a more park like feel as you pass the triangular clearing that is at the bottom of the woodland. A sports pavilion slides into view, more fixtures being played on sporting fields that lead out to an arterial route
The A3 with its the incessant buzz of traffic heading in and out of London. The great divide between the common and Richmond Park. As the lights change to green, cars roar to a stop, drivers tapping impatiently on the steering wheels. This is London where everyone needs to be somewhere in a hurry.
Over the duel carriageway and sanctuary: Richmond Park via Robin Hood Gate -named after a local inn which was demolished in 2001.
First impressions; busy. As if tentacles from the nearby main road had drifted in. Cyclists everywhere on park roads, a full car park, horses picking their way carefully.
We didn’t need to walk far to shake off the crowds – after all this is the largest urban park in Europe. A few other walkers made their way uphill towards the ponds with the gloriously named Spankers Hill Wood to our right. We were looking for the trees. The glorious oaks that are over 700 years. This was open heathland, in the distance two deer paused to enjoy a council meeting.
We paused by the ponds as amateur photographers lined up their shots of White Lodge. The home to the Royal Ballet school is glinting in the distance, resembling a castle from a Hans Christian Andersen story. Overhead a flock of parakeet, joyously singing and providing colour to the bare pondside trees.
There’s a well situated bench on the brow of the hill, by the side of a gnarled old oak tree. A view fit for a queen spreads out below you, providing a true insight into the vastness of this former royal hunting park. A fractious pre-schooler furiously proclaiming she is walking no further as parents encourage her on.
Peace. Perhaps a royal hunting party could storm through the empty heath below us. A sight the old trees around us must have witnessed.
Onwards through the park that slowly seeps back to the urban with an an ugly tarmac access road leading to Queens Road, On crossing, and darting back to the rural, there is a treat in the form of a natural viewing platform, giving views of the distant Surrey Hills, fluttering like ribbons in the hazy light at the foot of London.
And Father Thames itself, snaking a silvery path on its way to central London. On the path we twist and turn, heading to Petersham Meadows. immortalised by Turner that lay under the shadow of Henry’s Mound.
London’s past colliding with the present day. A young man races up and down the hill leading to the mound, almost as if he’s history’s messenger, coming to give Henry news. He’s engaged in a most modern of pursuits, training for a 24 hour marathon in his native South Africa. “It,s intense” he tells us, as his breathe leaves its tendrils in the chilly air. “The Richmond Hills are no comparison to the mountains he will run up.” He adds. ” But it all helps. Especially doing them over and over.”
It seems appropriate we chat to this modern gladiator, that we chat gazing over Twickenham. The stadiums floodlights blinking on, ready for the international combat taking place later.
One of London’s great trees a mammoth plane tree stands sentry at the start of the final section, marching along the Thames Path that leads inexorably, to Richmond Bridge and the finishing line for this 7- mile section.
Back to crowds, meandering along the Thames Path, excited children running in and out between the more sedate adults. Dogs , dogs and more dogs. More joggers. Urban life alive and kicking.
The Thames calm today, cleaving its path as it always has, unbothered by the activities of humans; a plethora of brightly coloured canal boats moored up on the far bank. Rowers coming in and out the water carrying their infeasibly narrow boats ashore to the boathouse and in the distance gleaming white and bright; Richmond Bridge – our final destination. it is fitting as we shake off the country and return to bright city lights that the bridge is showcasing a daily frustration for Londoners. Traffic at a standstill in both directions.
Good-natured rugby fans flocked around the cafes and bars in the underpass, getting in the spirit for the big kick off.
We found a small spot, in a riverside bar. A haven amidst the crowds and the fans. We sip our beer and eat our chips, looking over the river. Taking the weight off our not so aching feet.
Wimbledon to Richmond. We saw hares and hounds, vast houses and cosy boats, great gnarled trees and tiny shoots, deer roaming free and dogs shackled on leads. It is ‘chocolate-box’ London, how tourists imagine it to be, a Richard Curtis theme park, wearing its wealth and privilege like armour.
The true delight is shaking off suburbia and walking on the wild side. Its 7-mile route takes in some steepish inclines and rough pathways. But its doable and there are plenty of pubs along the way. It is also a joy dissecting a London area, slicing it open and seeing its layers.
The Capital Ring is funded and promoted by Transport for London. It is divided into 15 sections stretching from Woolwich to Beckton District Park. For full details and route maps click here.