I’ve cheated here – this is actually two sections of my Capital Ring odyssey in one – Hanwell to Greenford last week, Greenford to Harrow this week. I joined them together because they were both fairly short, largely unexciting, and because two posts about how Ealing Council clearly can’t be arsed to look after its section of the walk would drive most people to drink. Anyway, here goes…
It started out so well, this bit. Perhaps avoiding the toxic moths a billboard warned of helped. Walking from Boston Manor station, I saw something in the bushes. I stopped for a closer look – and saw a rabbit dash away. Once I’d reached the Grand Union Canal, I saw something in a clearing by Osterley Lock. Was it a log? No, it was another a rabbit! And another one, and another one… but the big-eared fellas didn’t hang around for me.
And, to be frank, on this stretch of the Capital Ring, there’s not a lot to hang on for. It starts well enough – along the canal to the picturesque Hanwell Flight; six locks designed to take the canal onto higher ground as it heads on its way towards the Midlands. There’s a pub, and a sign announcing a dog called Blunder has been found. Hooray! But then there’s a diversion. The Capital Ring follows the River Brent from this point. Which starts off all well and good, but then it follows it obsessively, round pointless meanderings through dull stretches of open space. It’s as if someone couldn’t be bothered to take the job of designing the path seriously.
Which may be true. This stretch is entirely in the London Borough of Ealing; and it is the dirtiest, uncared-for section of the route so far, with bad signage and litter everywhere in sections. From the carefully signed stretches through Richmond and Hounslow, and other councils’ pride in their open spaces, Ealing Council‘s neglect came as a jolt.
The route itself? Through a wooded section off the canal, it then hits a muddy section where it passes under a bridge dating back to 1762, which carries the Uxbridge Road over the Brent. From here, it leads to a field and the Wharncliffe Viaduct, which takes the Great Western mainline across this part of west London. The noise from Heathrow’s flightpath fades here, but the roar of diesel trains heading west soon replaces it. The impressive structure has seen better days, it carries a crumbling royal coat of arms, while taggers have attacked the top of the viaduct.
From here, it’s Brent Lodge Park, which is pretty and provides views of the old Hanwell village. “No! No! Don’t go in the river..,” a man cried, before a splash and the sight of a dog merrily playing in the Brent. It’s here the river is at its most picturesque, and if it wasn’t for the roar of Inter City 125s it’s easy to imagine being somewhere like the Forest of Dean instead of being in west London. Brent Lodge Park also has a brilliant curiosity – a millennium maze. Part of it was funded by “ITV’s Year of Promise” – presumably so that future generations can come here and ask, “Dad? What was ITV?”
But then the insistence on following the river gets boring. It goes on, and on, and on… across a bridge, through a meadow, then the signs peter out a bit unhelpfully as it reaches a golf course, and then more following the river, in and out, until Bitterns Field – a former landfill site. Welcome to Greenford. Finally, passing a section of riverside path which has subsided, the path parts company from the river.
The tidy semis close to Greenford Broadway felt like a relief, but then Perivale Park was just as gloomy – rubbish strewn everywhere, and people trying to make the best use of a neglected, partially-abandoned tennis court. Through a messy section by an athletics track, and then the noise and smells of Western Avenue. And it began to spit with rain. Nearby South Greenford station offered a tempting chance to escape, but I ploughed on, across the footbridge over the A40, looking out of town, wondering where the thousands of travellers below were heading.
Passing more semis, and squeezing down the side of a sports field, and then an unusual sight – a little two-car train pootling up the line from South Greenford, passing an old semaphore signal. I walked on, then heard a loud creak and a clang. The signal had changed. It was easy to imagine this in 1904, the year the line was built.
One observation about Greenford. Alcohol. Almost everybody I passed from Perivale Park onwards was clutching a can of lager or cider. Empty cans of Polish beer were everywhere. I hesitate before slagging off other parts of London, but maybe it helps to have a bit inside you around here; it’s not a place to lift the spirits. Back among the semis, a right onto the main road, and… a retail park. To my left, Greenford station. Halfway around the route. Time to get out of here.
At which point, I went home. Eight days later, I came back. The learning spires of Harrow would make a fine ending, surely?
I returned to Greenford by Tube, which, oddly, is quicker than the little diesel train I’d taken to go home via Paddington the previous week. Ahead of me – Horsenden Hill, which apparently offers one of the finest views in Greater London. Would this be a green oasis after the previous few miles of uncared-for, unloved open space? Like heck it was. A new London fact was learned today: in the London Borough of Ealing, you are never more than 200 metres from an abandoned can of Tyskie. So through Paradise Fields, as scrappy and litter-strewn as the parkland that preceded it, with signs covered in graffiti, until the Grand Union Canal – this time the Paddington branch of it.
It was pretty quiet – kids on bikes, bored families on summer holidays, bored-looking families of ducks swimming around. The noise from a nearby car sound system gave this stretch a menacing air. Then the 18th-century Ballot Box Bridge marked where the path started to climb Horsenden Hill proper. The road which the bridge carries, Horsenden Lane, has a rural feel about it, but the bridge itself carries so much clutter – it can only carry one lane of traffic, so is equipped with traffic lights, CCTV and an unnecessary “Welcome to Perivale” sign – it felt like a border crossing into some kind of restrictive state.
Then – despite a lack of signage – it was up Horsenden Hill, pausing a little way up to see planes land at Heathrow before guessing “it must be that way up” and reaching the summit. The view out west is impressive, although admittedly it wasn’t particularly good weather for it – with rain clouds looming and the wind getting up, I felt a bit like Ted Moult in the 1980s Everest ads, even though it was July. But the views on the information boards at the top didn’t match what I could see with my eyes, and was this going to be a good place to sit and rest? Not with one battered old bench it wasn’t.
Horsenden Hill Wood, by contrast, was a genuine oasis of tranquility – full of birds, and more or less deserted. And then it was back to pounding suburban streets, traffic using Horsenden Lane as a rat run. A sign pointed right, and I turned right. And then… lost.
I fished out my guidebook, and tried to get my bearings. Out came my iPhone with its GPS, and I’d wandered a little off course. Why? The sign pointed the wrong way. I retraced my steps, and found a second sign pointing the wrong way. I simply can’t understate how little attention Ealing Council had paid to maintaining the route. Its section of the Capital Ring is grim. I used the same iPhone to report the broken signs, and finally, after what’d seemed like an eternity, saw a sign which made me smile. “London Borough of Harrow. Welcome to Sudbury Hill.” And guess what? The skies cleared too.
I passed one of London’s least-used train stations, Sudbury Hill & Harrow (if it’s any more than once an hour, you’ll be lucky) as a handful of commuters, and turned left to climb Sudbury Hill itself, heading into a wooded stretch, with a cricket match taking place in an adjacent field. Now that was more like it.
Further up the hill, and finally… Harrow on the Hill. I’d been through the station a few times, but never visited the town itself. It’s unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited in London – a village seemingly built solely around Harrow School, whose buildings are everywhere. It’s twee in the same way that Dulwich Village is twee, but while Dulwich is flat, the steep hill here at one point reminded me of a seaside village.
Despite regular buses – double-decker 258s looking completely out of place squeezing through the village – I’ve never seen so many occupied black taxis anywhere outside central London before. It’s an incredible place – almost a memorial to an England that long ago ceased to exist – and one that must be surreal during term times. After the drudgery of the last few miles, this was somewhere that really took my breath away. At 10 miles from central London, this is the furthest out of town the route goes.
The top of Football Lane, aptly, offers a tremendous view of Wembley Stadium, and provided a sensible place to stop and wander to Harrow to catch the Tube home, passing a brilliantly-named off-licence, Hill Street Booze. Next time it’ll be downhill from Harrow – and hopefully in a good way.