Another year dawns and there’s a new adventure on my horizon: a trek to Everest Base Camp at Easter. I jumped at the chance to trek alongside a fully fledged summit expedition, but on sober reflection it struck me that the whole ‘summit expedition’ thing could be a double-edged sword: surely anyone seriously attempting to climb to the Earth’s highest point is going to be WAY fitter than me?! To maximise my chance of keeping up, it’s time to remind my legs that they’re good for something other than resting on the sofa while my upper body takes the strain of consuming Christmas delicacies and ‘Dexter’ box sets in equally lavish quantities. Enter the Capital Ring: ’78 miles of footpaths through inner London’s green spaces’, on a route which ‘takes in some of London’s most outstanding attractions…and encounters little-known treasures’, all within 10 miles of Charing Cross. Although it’s a relatively modest distance, the route is – coincidentally – almost exactly as far as a round trip to Everest Base Camp (though quite a bit nearer sea level of course). I set off yesterday with high hopes that it would make an interesting – and convenient – way to pass the time and strengthen my legs ready for Nepal.
The route officially starts on the south side of the Woolwich foot tunnel, but the trail is designed so you can start and stop at any point on the circuit. I opted to begin at the spot closest to my home in North London: Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Undoubtedly considered one of ‘London’s most outstanding attractions’ by oniomaniacs*, it wasn’t quite the kind of attraction I’d had in mind, but the excellent transport links made up for any lack of romance. And if nothing else, Britain’s first major shopping mall (opened in 1976) contributed to my objective of exploring parts of London I haven’t been to before. After a quite disproportionate amount of wandering about, dodging women determined to spritz me with perfume or thread my eyebrows, I eventually found my way from the bus station at the front to the exit at the back and spotted my first way-mark! I was on my way…
…through a malodorous subway beneath the A41, through some nondescript residential streets, over the Northern Line, and along the side of the North Circular (which my guidebook informed me ‘has the dubious distinction of being the noisiest road in Britain’). Not, perhaps the most edifying start, and I began to wish I’d set off from Woolwich after all. It was with some relief that I arrived at Brent Park, whose pretty tree-lined paths run alongside the river Brent to meet it’s tributary, Mutton Brook. The remains of an alligator were apparently found near here in 1996, though I encountered nothing more aggressive than a quite surprising number of midges. But while I was happy to see an the increase in greenery, the thunder of traffic and the stern warning signs shattered any illusion I might have nurtured of a rural idyll.
As the path turned into the peaceful back streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb, however, I could easily pretend I’d strayed into an English country village. Such tranquility, of course, does not come cheap in inner London. After passing the third Bentley it was hardly necessary for the guidebook to note that this is one of the most affluent areas of London.
From there is was just a short stroll to Highgate Wood, where the Capital Ring was formally launched in 2005, and – at last! – to something approaching actual countryside. And the walk got better and better through the adjacent Queen’s Wood and onto the south section of the Parkland Walk. Running uninterrupted for nearly 2 miles along a disused railway line this was the most enjoyable stretch so far, and even the abundant graffiti added a splash of jaunty colour on a gloomy January day.
At the end of the path, another pleasant surprise awaited me. Finsbury Park, it turns out, is not just a handy transport interchange, but an actual park – one of the largest in London, in fact. Who knew that as I caught the train up the East Coast Main Line all this was directly overhead? And who knew that just around the corner from the throngs of happy families jostling for space in the well-appointed playground was the alarmingly deserted – and horribly muddy – New River Path? Squelching along the grassy banks of this 17th century watercourse in the already-failing light, past the perimeter of Hackney’s Woodberry Down – Britain’s largest council estate – with only discarded cans of Special Brew for company, I felt a certain amount of anxiety. Hackney Council’s decision to allow private developers to replace the run-down blocks with swish new apartment complexes has attracted some criticism but I was more than a little grateful to emerge unscathed in front of Berkeley homes’ luxury development, Woodberry Park, not least because they’ve surfaced the waterside path.
Resisting the urge to rinse off some of the sticky clay clinging to my shoes in the futuristic fountain, I instead set off around Stoke Newington’s West Reservoir to the equally grand but more historic 19th Century pumping station (now a world-class indoor climbing centre) known as The Castle. And from there it was just a short step across Clissold Park to Stoke Newington village. I felt at home ambling up Stoke Newington Church Street, perhaps because the independent shops and nonconformists past and present reminded me of living in Cambridge. Even the extensive Abney Park Cemetery at dusk provided only the most comfortable of frissons in artsy, middle class Stokie. Weather permitting I’m looking forward to returning next weekend to start the next leg….
* The technical term, apparently, for those with an uncontrollable desire to shop.