I’d been curious about the Capital Ring ever since reading an article in the Observer about two people who walked it over the course of a week. The Capital Ring is a 78 mile route around the periphery of London, linking green spaces with river-side paths, winding quietly through the suburbs from Richmond to Wembley to Woolwich to Crystal Palace. It was the idea of exploring unfamiliar parts of my city that excited me; away from the main drag, I would see London from a whole new angle. At the time I was living next to Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington, where a green Capital Ring signpost stood. I would often look at the signpost and imagine the places on it: turn left and reach the Woolwich foot tunnel in 12 miles and Crystal Palace Park in 29 miles, or turn right and reach Highgate Wood in 5 miles and Richmond Bridge in 30. Being a circle, all I would have to do was follow these signs until I reached home again. My curiosity was piqued.
It’s officially a walking route, one that people tend to complete in stages. But I don’t walk – I cycle. Would it be possible to follow the whole thing on two wheels? There was only one way to find out.
One morning Nick and I caught the train to Richmond: this would be leg one, cycling back home to Stoke Newington along the northern half of the ring. We set off along the wide Thames Path, the river flowing steady and calm to our left, the rich, green banks peppered with houseboat moorings and waterside pubs. So far, so good. But almost straight away we were off our bikes and climbing the 36 steps up and over Richmond Lock, struggling along the narrow cast iron bridge that crosses the lock and weir.
This was to be a very blue route, following the water, the Thames Path soon turning onto the River Brent at Brentford then meeting the Grand Union canal at Greenford. No longer with the powerful current of the Thames, these canals lay flat as a mirror, lined with narrowboats, every so often a lock halting the flow. We passed beneath a railway bridge as a Piccadilly Line train rattled above. The sun flecked through the canopy and birds called to each other. Welcome to hidden London.
We exited the canal and were faced with a steep climb up Horsenden Hill – not a road climb, but a grassy slope and steps. So it was off the bikes again, heaving them to the top, arriving there breathless to a view of Wembley Stadium. We looped north of Wembley along residential roads and paths through parks, through Harrow and South Kenton, then reached another climb up another grassy slope with another view of Wembley.
We soon reached Brent reservoir, the vast blue expanse dotted with the white sails of dinghies, then the River Brent was once more our guide, more narrow and winding than before, branching off to Mutton Brook, the path waterlogged and overgrown. We passed below where the North Circular turns on to the A1, drivers roaring above us while we tiptoed beneath the trees. After the suburbs of East Finchley we reached rural solitude once more at Cherry Tree Wood and Highgate Wood. On the gate at the entrance was a sign: No Cycling. The gate was narrow, beyond it the quiet paths of the wood covered with fallen leaves. We hoisted our bikes over it and began walking, then cautiously re-mounted; with no one around to complain we quietly continued.
We crossed into Queens Wood then joined Parkland Walk, an old railway branch line that once ran from Finsbury Park through Crouch End to Alexandra Palace. The entrance to a tunnel stood to our left, its blank, overgrown face silent and eerie, so we turned away from it and began the two mile descent to Finsbury Park, our wheels bouncing noisily over the rutted path. We rode between old station platforms, and soared high above or passed below the roads that criss-crossed the track on bridges reminiscent of the golden age of Victorian engineering.
From Finsbury Park the route begins once more to follow water, this time the New River, a man-made aqueduct built in the 1600s to supply London with fresh water from springs in Hertfordshire. The river flows into the East and West reservoirs, huge expanses of water across which we could see the church spires of Stoke Newington in the fading light of the day. The reservoirs are nestled amongst housing estates and residential streets, a busy road running between them, and a main route out of London to the west. I had lived in Stoke Newington for five years, less than a mile from these havens, yet had never been here. We cycled slowly along the narrow path, drinking it all in, then back through Clissold Park and along Stoke Newington Church Street towards home.
Weeks later we caught the train to Richmond again: leg two, cycling back to Stoke Newington along the southern loop of the ring. This had a much greener feel to it, beginning in the vast park at Richmond, the route following tree-lined avenues and crossing plush grass in the midst of the deer park. We took the parallel route (easier to cycle) along the undulating sweep of the Queen’s Road, accompanied by the squawk of parakeets that was once exclusive to Richmond but can now be heard all over London. Then came Wimbledon, Wandsworth and Tooting Bec Commons, huge swathes of seemingly endless green.
Up Streatham Hill, through Norwood Park, and into Biggin Wood, a remnant of the Great North Wood that once stretched for seven miles between Croydon and Dartford, then Crystal Palace park where we freewheeled to the lake to discover a family of dinosaur sculptures lurking around the water.
After Cator Park, Beckenham Place Park and Grove Park it began to rain, and a quick dash to drink tea and dry off in Eltham town centre was a stark reminder of how close to the bustle of London we were, yet blissfully unaware of any of it in our bubble of green.
We returned to the trail and entered Shepherdleas Wood, then Oxleas Wood, then Jackwood, then Castlewood, a strip of ancient woodland stretching alongside the A2. Then once more we were at the River Thames, the tide-ripped waves surging between the banks, far wider and wilder than that which we had last seen at Richmond.
The route crosses beneath the Thames in the Woolwich foot tunnel but, being nautical folk, we joined the queue for the ferry, the roll-on-roll-off vessel passing back and forth between the southern and northern banks of the Thames from morning til night. Upstream sat the Thames Barrier, beyond it the Millenium Dome and the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf. An aeroplane roared from the runway at City airport.
We traversed Beckton Park and came up to the Greenway, a traffic-free walking and cycling route built on top of the sewer that carries waste from Hackney Wick to Beckton – flat, peaceful and easily cycleable, but smelly! Then finally, up the River Lea from Bow to Stoke Newington, passing by the narrowboats and the herons, up through Springfield park towards home.
It was a terrific adventure, discovering parts of London I’d never before been to, knowing at each step that we were a stone’s throw from the familiar rush of the city, yet being fabulously removed from it all. Every so often we would emerge from the trees to see a landmark pinpointing our position, a reminder that this was London.
And how was it to cycle? There were those moments when we were asked to dismount, as in Highgate Wood or along alleyways that don’t permit cycling, and every so often we had to lift our bikes over gates or carry them up steps. Where the surface was not suitable for cycling we took a parallel road. But most of the paths were easily rideable, and we had the advantage of zooming along the residential streets that make up a large proportion of the walk. A truly special adventure without leaving home.