James Cracknell: How I walked London’s Capital Ring

James Cracknell: How I walked London’s Capital Ring

To my immediate right, out of sight up a short slope but certainly not out of earshot, was the North Circular. To my left was a little egret, staring down into the shallow waters of Dollis Brook, keeping an eye out for its next meal.

Little egrets are fabulous birds – small white herons more commonly found in continental Europe, having only started breeding in the UK in the last few decades. They love the coast but will venture inland along waterways. To see one in London is always a delight; to see one so close to one of its most polluted roads is extraordinary.

I wouldn’t have had this encounter with nature were it not for the Capital Ring. Cycling through Finsbury Park back in spring, I noticed one of the route’s many green fingerposts, which told me Woolwich was 15 miles in one direction and Richmond 28 miles in the other. My curiosity piqued, I decided to take on the 78-mile circular walk around London as a summer challenge – something to occupy me on weekends when the football season had finished.

The Capital Ring is a surprisingly recent addition to London’s signposted walks. It was officially launched in 2005 by the London Walking Forum and maintained in its early years by Transport for London. These days, its upkeep is the responsibility of the boroughs it passes through – 18 of them in total – but it’s the volunteers of the Inner London Ramblers we have to thank for an excellent guide to all 15 sections of the Capital Ring.

The group manages a website kept well up-to-date with any enforced changes to the route, such as when footpaths are closed or diverted, while regularly publishing new versions of the guide (the current one dates from the start of this year). Although the walk is well signposted, I made sure to download the relevant section of the guide before setting off each day. It shows you the best options along the route for toilet breaks and refreshments, and even includes accessible alternatives if you want or need to avoid steps.

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Like the London Loop, its older and bigger sibling, the Capital Ring takes a circular route around the capital. But while the former is confined to the very edge of Greater London and even crosses into the Home Counties, the latter follows a path I would describe (clumsily) as outer inner London, linking together many well-known green spaces. Even if you are a Londoner who’s seen most of the best of what the capital has to offer in terms of parks and waterways, I would recommend the Capital Ring for the added value it brings and the unexpected discoveries you’ll make along the way.

Starting, logically, with Section 1, I set off from Woolwich’s still-gleaming Elizabeth Line station on the first weekend in May. As well as pointing the way along the route itself, the ring’s waymarkers helpfully direct walkers to the nearest stations at the beginning and end of each section, which in the case of Section 1 is a short and pleasant walk through Woolwich Arsenal to the riverside.

The first major landmark on the route is one of my favourites – the Thames Barrier. It’s here that the path turns away from the river and heads south towards hilly Maryon Park, where I enjoyed the first of many incredible views over the city. Charlton Park and Woolwich Common follow, before the Capital Ring climbs into the ancient Oxleas Woods, where an unusual “castle” awaits.

Section 2 passes Eltham Palace, one of London’s many former royal residences dating back to the medieval period, but the section highlight for me comes shortly afterwards, with the view from King John’s Walk somehow combining a horse paddock, post-war suburbia and The Shard.

Section 3 is a mini-epic of its own. It begins with The Railway Children Walk in Grove Park, the inspiration for Edith Nesbit’s famous novel. After crossing the railway, I stroll through Downham Woodland Walk, a slither of ancient woodland sandwiched between residential areas. The Capital Ring then arrives at Beckenham Palace Park, a stunning green space that’s benefited from a number of improvements in recent years – not least the addition of a wild swimming lake. The section ends at Crystal Palace Park, home of the dinosaurs and one of my favourite railway stations in London.

Section 4 is a short but hilly route encompassing Upper Norwood Recreation Ground and Biggin Wood, a remnant of South London’s once-dominant Great North Wood, before ending at Streatham Common. More familiar commons follow in Section 5 through Tooting and Wandsworth, but a highlight for me is the awesome Art Deco masterpiece of Du Cane Court in Balham. At Earlsfield, the route passes a cultural landmark, Tara Theatre, the only UK venue to focus exclusively on South Asian artists and stories, before ending at Wimbledon Park Station.

Section 6 follows a path well-trodden – that which passes through both Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park, London’s largest open space. Aside from one busy road between these two famous parks to negotiate, this section is about as green as the Capital Ring gets. If you have time, I recommend a quick visit to the museum at Wimbledon Windmill.

It’s time to cross the River Thames in Section 7, utilising the Victorian-built Richmond Lock and Footbridge, whose height affords superb views. From there the path continues along the Thames through pretty Isleworth, before entering Syon Park, somewhere I knew absolutely nothing about prior to my Capital Ring challenge but which I can now confidently tell you is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland. The route then arrives in Brentford and follows the Grand Union Canal, passing underneath the Piccadilly line and M4 motorway in quick succession.

Section 8 continues along the canal, which at this point is contiguous with the River Brent. It is distinguished by another marvel of Victorian engineering in the form of Wharncliffe Viaduct, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first major structural design, which carries the Great Western Main Line over the Brent Valley.

Section 9 is a story of two hills, Horsenden and Harrow, that have little in common except for their stunning views over west London. The former is an open space bisected by woodland with links back to the Iron Age, the latter is known mostly for its boarding school and picturesque village. This also marks the Capital Ring’s furthest point from the centre of London – ten miles.

There’s more climbing needed in Section 10 on the way through Fryent Country Park, with an unlikely lake at the top of Barn Hill and views of Wembley Stadium. A steep descent then follows, towards Brent Reservoir – also known as Welsh Harp Open Space – where I’ve previously enjoyed the pleasure of a paddle boat. Sadly, there was no time for such frivolities on this occasion, but the reservoir makes for a fine walk nonetheless.

Picking up Section 11 in Hendon Park, it was on this part of the route that I found myself photographing the little egret, so unperturbed by the the North Circular. The road’s noise accompanies you for much of this section, but such is the joy of Dollis Valley Green Walk, which forms part of this piece of the Capital Ring, that it falls into the background of an otherwise peaceful stroll. Finally getting away from the dual carriageway, I pass through one of London’s best-known suburbs – Hampstead Garden – before ducking underneath East Finchley Station, a Charles Holden masterpiece, and entering the magnificent ancient landscapes of Highgate and Queen’s woods.

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Section 12 follows Parkland Walk, a north London nature reserve created in the 1980s, along the route of a former railway line between Muswell Hill and Finsbury Park. It’s a path I’ve walked many times, but never tire of. From Finsbury Park, the Capital Ring joins the New River Path. Here it skirts Woodberry Wetlands, another London nature reserve that wouldn’t exist without a piece of man-made infrastructure. It’s also one of the city’s newest, having been opened in 2016 by Sir David Attenborough (thanks to my previous employment with London Wildlife Trust, I can even say I was there).

Section 13 starts in Stoke Newington, passes through Clapton, and enters the Lea Valley at Springfield Park, which boasts excellent views across East London. While many sections of the Capital Ring require careful directions from the Inner London Ramblers, this one could not be simpler, as it follows the River Lee Navigation for two-and-a-half miles before ending adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

With the new football season fast approaching, I decided to complete the final two sections of the Capital Ring – numbers 14 and 15 – on the same day in early August. The ten-mile trek begins with The Greenway, a lovely footpath if you can ignore the whiff from the sewer pipe the embankment sits above. From there the route turns south, towards the Royal Docks, passing through East London University, where a shop offers discounted snacks to anyone who looks vaguely young enough to pass for a student (I passed).

Enjoying my Dairylea Dunkers, I watched planes landing and taking off from London City Airport before reviving my sore feet just enough to walk through the modern (and still under construction) housing estate at Gallions Reach and arrive back at the  Thames. From there, looking up, I pointed my camera lens at an unusual flock of birds perched atop a residential tower. Zooming in, I finally realised they were house martins taking turns to dive down for another mouthful of insects.

The Capital Ring ends back at the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, completing its circuit of London, and providing me with a deeper knowledge and respect for this fine city than I could have ever had without it.

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James Cracknell is editor of the Enfield Dispatch. He took all the photographs accompanying this article. Follow James on X/Twitter. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s Substack. Thanks.

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