Most of my past Capital Ring wanderings seemed to make some kind of geographic sense to me. I can place Wandsworth on a map and know that if I keep going in one direction I’ll get to Wimbledon, and so on. Sure, getting there from Crystal Palace confused me a little bit, but that was about travelling between parts of south London which meant – and still mean – completely different things to me, and not being familiar with what lay in between.
But six hours’ strolling on a gorgeous autumn day took me on a wildly diverse 11 mile walk, where I still can’t quite work out how I started in the morning close to the end of the M1, and ended the afternoon in Stoke Newington. Outer London to inner London, west to (almost) east, with a familiar stretch in the middle through Highgate. London doesn’t always seem small on foot; but for me, this stretch of the Capital Ring shrunk the city a bit.
There’s not much to see in Hendon – unfortunately, the first couple of miles are dominated by the roar of roads. The peace of Hendon Park is put in context by noise from the M1, and a near-complete lack of signage (thanks Barnet Council) makes navigation through suburban streets tricky. The River Brent homes into view again, but the poorly-kept parks alongside it seem to be there just to offset the grimness of the adjacent North Circular Road. Two crumbling gazebos, remnants from a hotel demolished in 1974, seem to sum up the attitude here – cars first, people second. The ducks in the Brent have it better than they used to – the ponds in the Decoy, Brent Park (not to be confused with the retail estate in Neasden) were once there so they could be hunted. Not any more, and they seem to be the most content creatures for miles around.
The Brent splits in two here, and the path follows the Dollis Valley Greenwalk by Mutton Brook, underneath a CCTV camera and signs warning of pollution in the water. The noise from the A406 and A1 continues to dominate, until the route finally gets to Northway Gardens, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Once a brave social experiment in creating a classless community where all were equal, it’s now a highly desirable place to live. A Porsche pulled up alongside me as I wandered out of a Jewish mini-market bearing beigels and kosher chocolate, and people took tea in a cafe by the park. Immaculately-kept, big, suburban houses surround you here. Who lives in a house like this? Someone with more money than me, that’s for sure. The traffic noise fades here, as another form of transport starts to dominate thoughts.
Through an alley and into East Finchley station, looking as spotless as the day this big, bold building reopened in 1939, when the Northern Line first reached these parts. Above the Underground roundel, the lozenge of the LNER – whose steam trains last ran here from King’s Cross, Finsbury Park, Crouch End and Highgate in 1941 – remains in place, a reminder of the dramatic changes the Tube brought to these parts of north London. Above the platforms, an statue of an archer prepares to fire an arrow towards Highgate – but that’s something we’ll get to later. Next door is the surprisingly anonymous UK headquarters of McDonalds, strangely out of place in this aspirational corner of the capital.
The name “Dirthouse Wood” would sum up a couple of the places on this stretch so far – but not Cherry Tree Wood, which used to have that name and kicked off the change in fortune for this stroll. Children playing, couples strolling, rich autumnal colours everywhere. A little cafe was doing a roaring trade, and even though it’s a tiny little place, this park was enough to lift my mood. Better still was the words on a street sign upon leaving – “London Borough of Haringey“. Finally, I could put the map back in my bag, because the Capital Ring signs were back again.
Suddenly, familiarity. Six months ago, I’d met a pal for a walk along the disused Finsbury Park-Highgate Northern Heights rail line – where those old steam trains ran to East Finchley, as well as round to Alexandra Palace. We’d got lost in Highgate Wood and almost failed to find our way to Alexandra Palace. And here I was at the spot where we’d got stuck – at the entrance to Highgate Wood. I could definitely relax for a while. The approach to the wood passes over the old Alexandra Palace line, with the bridge turned into a mini-park. Peering down from the bridge though…. there wasn’t much to see. Now that was why we’d got lost.
Like much of the southern stretch of the Capital Ring, the northern stretch meanders through what’s left of long-gone forests. Highgate Wood was once part of the great Forest of Middlesex. Full of well-to-do families taking the kids for a half-term walk, it, and its sister Queen’s Wood, are wonderful places to wander around. The steep exit from Queen’s Wood certainly made me feel like I’d got some exercise. From here, it’s up a hill onto the Highgate Road, and then onto that disused rail line to Finsbury Park.
When the Northern Line was extended to East Finchley, and onto Edgware and High Barnet, the job wasn’t completed. Among the bits that didn’t get done were converting the Northern Heights line to part of the Northern Line, linking it up with the old Moorgate-Finsbury Park Tube service (which in itself became a mainline route in 1976). Tube trains from Moorgate to Alexandra Palace were meant to start running in 1940 and much of the work was already done – the old station at Highgate was rebuilt, and a start was made on electrifying the lines. World War II intervened, work stopped in 1940, and even the steam trains which were still running along the line were cut back. After the war, the Tube extension scheme was scrapped, and the old steam service limped on until 1954, when the line and its stations closed to passengers. The rebuilt Highgate station still sits derelict above the Tube station, an eerie monument to a future that never was.
In 1972, the tracks were lifted, and the route was gradually adopted by Haringey and Islington councils as the Parkland Walk. Some of the fixtures and fittings installed by London Transport remain in place, the platforms at Crouch End are still there, and a never-used substation at Crouch Hill is now a youth club. But nearly four decades after it saw its last trains, shuttling empty to and from a depot, the Parkland Walk has gone back to nature. A group of children collected worms as joggers passed by. On my last visit it was crowded with Sunday walkers. On a Monday afternoon it was a peaceful oasis above north London. Given the choice between the Parkland Walk and having a railway back, I wonder what locals would opt for?
The sight of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, looking like an extra-terrestrial invader to the south, was a reminder of how close to central London I was getting. Finsbury Park‘s somewhere most non-north Londoners only visit when there’s something on – like the late, lamented Rise festival – but this great slab of green is a terrific big city park; large enough to explore yet small enough not to get lost in. From here, it was across the road, into another borough – Hackney – and alongside the New River.
First constructed in 1613, it takes drinking water from Hertfordshire into the capital. SIgns warn you that this is north London’s drinking water, so not to let your dog do its business on the banks. It’s unnavigable, still, and clear… and looks bleak on its raised banks heading towards Stamford Hill. It ends in two reservoirs by Lordship Road, where I was greeted by the sight of a dead rat. Just as unsettling – the Capital Ring signs had vanished from this stretch. I took a mini-detour trying to get back on track. A white minibus pulled up alongside me, deposited a very, very small orthodox Jewish boy by the side of the road, who then stood looking lost and confused as the bus drove off, before finally realising after 30 seconds or so that he was meant to walk home down Queen Elizabeth’s Walk. That was the way I should have gone, but I found Clissold Park all the same. I could have done without seeing the day’s second rat, alive and well and darting out of one of the ponds, though.
It was only 4pm, but the sun was already low in the sky, treating hordes of families and kids to another array of autumn colours. A big cafe, built in a 1790s mansion house, was full of customers. From here it’s along Stoke Newington Church Street to end this section of walk at Abney Park Cemetery.
This is a real hidden gem, chaotically laid-out and largely overgrown, with fascinating headstones telling stories of this area’s past as a haven for Protestant dissenters. The most notable graves are of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth, just by the Church Street entrance. An unexploded World War II bomb is believed to be buried somewhere in the cemetery.
Outside the cemetery, on Stamford Hill, nature was back at bay again. With the light fading, it was time to head home. The next leg would throw me into even more unfamiliar territory – before giving me a glimpse of home. But I’d learned more than enough for one day.