Posted in London on Saturday 2nd September 2017 at 10:09pm
Despite my careful attempts to end the last leg of my walk somewhere I could easily pick up the threads, my arrival at Forest Hill had been a little fraught. With rail services not calling today due to planned engineering works I'd somehow entirely missed, I'd headed instead to Catford via a departure from the impressively extended and modernised Blackfriars station. While there, my bank card had been rejected by the ATM leaving me in a state of mild confusion and paranoia. I didn't even notice how bright the morning sun had turned as I headed for the bus stop near Catford Station and hopped on board. Not until I'd had managed a successful transaction at Forest Hill Sainsbury's was I assured that there hadn't been some sort of financial mishap. These things always bother me - and the prospect of a conversation with my bank instead of walking this morning wasn't edifying at all. As I stepped back out into the bustle of surprisingly gentrified Forest Hill I sighed with relief. Perhaps I was ready for this after all? Completing the circle seemed impossibly far off - but it had become something of a cause now. This leg of the trip would take me into areas I simply didn't know, and which I couldn't connect with any of my other wanders at all. That in itself felt strange - so many of the unexpected pleasures of the last few walks around the Circular Roads were in turning unknown corners to find familiar views from new angles. This was a different excursion - deep into the suburbs, in almost the opposite direction to that in which I comfortably tend to turn. I dodged sturdy designer prams and expensive bikes to gain the outer edge of the pavement in order to get an angle on the sign of 'Ferfect Fried Chicken' - this legendary local eatery was allegedly unprepared to pay to use the existing name when the shop was purchased from a group of franchises, and so a surprising accurately matched 'F' was tiled over the sign. The fact it makes absolutely no sense appears to have troubled no-one, and so in the midst of the rapidly upscaling Forest Hill townscape, opposite the rather fine old 1920s Capitol Theatre turned Wetherspoons, the errant chicken purveyor remains. This felt like the perfect place to begin walking. The beginning of the end of the South Circular...
As I climbed away from Forest Hill, still surprised by the upturn in its fortunes in comparatively recent times, I saw the tower of the Horniman Museum appearing at the crest of the hill amidst a cluster of greenery. Charles Harrison Townsend's curious 1901 design fuses Arts and Crafts decoration with a rather foresighted and clean lined modernism, making for an odd but pleasing building, sitting almost at the brow of Forest Hill. The museum itself houses Frederick Horniman's extensive collection of curiosities, purchased with the proceeds of his inherited tea trading empire. The collection majors on cultural and anthropological history, and has a legendary collection of taxidermy and musical instruments. There was no time to check out what sounded like a charmingly odd expression of one man's passion for collecting today, instead I slipped into the surprisingly capacious gardens beside the museum to find a spot to apply sunscreen and chug cold water before setting off in earnest. I found the rather beautiful grounds of the museum busy with locals out for a stroll and families working on what appeared to be an edible garden project. The pathways curled around the site, luring me deeper into the wooded nooks. The temptation to explore further was strong, especially because the northern edge of the site offers impressive views over London from the comparatively high ground of the hill. Instead I set off west, crossing the former trackbed of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway's branch to Crystal Palace High Level. Much of the railway can now be walked as part of a nature trail running between the suburban streets, and which after crossing the South Circular, climbs into the woods of Sydenham Hill. Having never recovered traffic following the destruction of the Crystal Palace by fire on 30th November 1936, the line limped on until 1954. It has the dubious distinction of being the first electrified mainline railway line to close in London. Now it's a barely discernable hump in the road, the path disappearing into the Lapse Wood Walk housing estate where some remains of the line can be spotted by the eagle-eyed.
I had only the vaguest idea of Dulwich. Somehow I'd cobbled together an idea of the place through the oddest disconnected parts: Margaret Thatcher, the Picture Gallery, the exclusive, private college which produced the odious Nigel Farage. While all these things form part of this curious place, there is something stranger at work here. Dulwich, despite being sandwiched between areas not far away which are challenged and struggling, is an incredibly genteel neighbourhood. The green, wooded slopes of Sydenham Hill rise high above the broad playing fields of Dulwich College, home to the Old Alleynians - named for Edward Alleyn, actor and founder in 1619 of 'God's Gift College'. Beyond them, the almost impossibly tall transmitter tower at Crystal Palace strikes the skyline. Snaking around the edge of the sports ground is Hambledon Place, a gated community of large modern dwellings, perhaps surprisingly built by Barratt Homes, in the style of the large mansion houses which line the other side of the South Circular in Dulwich. Behind these gates, a battle-scarred Margaret Thatcher briefly reflected on her ousting from Downing Street. She had taken her husband's advice and purchased a bolt-hole to which she could escape when her increasingly inevitable downfall occurred, and the proximity to a good golf course bears his influence too perhaps? Dennis is reputed to have suggested she could wander down to the village with her basket to shop, and then a car could pick her up and take her to the Lords for a vote, which perhaps suggests more about Dulwich than it does the Thatchers. In the event, Margaret and Dennis didn't spend a great deal of time in Dulwich before their repair to Belgravia, and the local association with them is perhaps unwarranted. I lingered on the corner trying to decide if I could poke my camera through the automated gates, festooned with cameras and electronics. As I decided, a large, sparklingly clean Landrover cruised up to the gates, the driver a middle-aged Indian man wearing shades and the garb of a country gent out for the shoot. "What are you doing here? Why don't you fuck off?" - there was no pause for a response between his two plainly rhetorical questions. I silently did as I was told, cursing my failure to defend my ground on the public highway outside the gates. There was something in his response which typified Dulwich too. As I've walked the Circular roads, I've encountered a surprising number of clandestinely privatised places: edgeland strips of littered scrub protected by a forest of cameras, retail parks under constant surveillance, gated communities like Hambledon Park. But there is a more sinister edge here in the affluent south. There are areas where a tyranny of manners guards access - where you might 'look' wrong and the fear of being asked what on earth you think you're doing here guards against intrusion. Perhaps only in Britain - maybe only in London - could this work so effectively to repel the unwanted? I definitely felt that I wasn't required here in Dulwich, and as I hurried along the perimeter of the college, its beautiful gothic buildings largely concealed by scaffolding as it was buffed and repaired for another lucrative school year, I was acutely aware of the this entire area being carefully managed. The Dulwich Estate centres on the various schools and colleges, and its long and complex history records generations of very smart investment, clever capitalisation of legacies and maximisation of income. Indeed the estate still operates the only remaining toll road in London, though this most traditional but financially savvy of institutions does allow locals to pay via an electronic tag. The rigorous preservation of a certain kind of English village life, coupled with an astute sense of being an island within a vast city makes Dulwich feel self-aware, a little apart, overtly stage-managed. I wasn't sad to pass over the boundary.
The transition from Dulwich to Tulse Hill was however, something of a jolt - the quaint wooden fingerposts and crimped lawns of the Dulwich Estate gave way to the well graffitied and apparently disused Variable Message Signs which were about the only hint of the strategic importance of the South Circular. A few stray flags on lampposts urged me to 'Love West Dulwich' - an area which appeared to consist entirely of an attractive if rather sparsely used railway station and a tricky to navigate crossroads with the route to Herne Hill. The quiet suburban area clung to its eastern and more affluent neighbour desperately. There really isn't any West Dulwich aside from the railway - but they're trying really hard to believe there could be. A low bridge where sleek, new Thameslink trains passed overhead marked the boundary, and yet another badly thought-out gyratory spun the road around the Victorian centre of Tulse Hill. It struck me here that the most problematic spots on the South Circular were often where well-meaning attempts to improve traffic flow had been implemented. This area was largely undeveloped until the early 19th century, and only really became populous after the railway arrived in 1868 when the difficult geography and the straggling forested remnants of the once extensive Great North Wood finally gave way to a district of rather plain and functional terraces. The last thing I expected to detain me on this leg of the walk was surprising architecture - but descending from the heights of Tulse Hill, the South Circular curves along the edge of the Palace Road Estate. This early 1970s low rise development was built by the Greater London Council and designed by their chief architect, Sir Roger Walters. His modern but subdued buildings snake along the awkward rise beside the road in attractive zig-zagging blocks which lengthen towards the western boundary of the site. His work for the GLC is remarkably distinguished if somewhat unsung, with the Thames Barrier and the rejuvenated Covent Garden bearing his signature. He is perhaps less well known for Perronet House at Elephant and Castle, a modern social housing block dating from 1970 which uses unusual design features to give all residents an aspect at both sides of the building, uninterrupted by external communal corridors. Wikipedia, ever resourceful, reminds us not to confuse him with Roger Waters. We won't, I'm sure. As the road headed further down Streatham Hill towards Clapham, an equally curious building rose steadily above the brow. First a curious pyramid appeared, then a tall, striated brick tower and finally a squat and solidly modern looking church beneath. Christ Church by James William Wild in fact dates from 1841, and is a truly remarkable building. While now essentially an inclusive and suburban outpost of the Anglican Communion with its extensive estate of dull urban churches, this building appears to belong in another time. Meanwhile its patterned brickwork and Star of David rose window seem to come from another continent entirely. After delivering a number of solid but unremarkable parish churches in Hampshire, Wild travelled extensively in Egypt and the Middle East. A period of mysterious inactivity followed his return to Britain, after which he worked on the complex of museums in South Kensington and their outpost at Bethnal Green, now the Museum of Childhood. Perhaps the building that owes most to Christ Church though is his Italianate water tower at Grimsby Docks. The church is an arresting sight in the slightly mundane surroundings of this part of the road - a welcome relief from the suburban monotony of the hinterland separating the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth.
Shortly after Christ Church, the South Circular crosses the A23 on its long trek to Brighton. From here, for just a short section, the road is a broad six-lane dual carriageway. Oddly, this is also one of the quieter sections with most traffic apparently content to head along the radial roads into London or out to the suburbs and the coast. The South Circular soon returns to its ponderous, pottering single-carriageway meander into Clapham, through pleasant terraces and bursts of more recent development. It strikes me that this part of the route must be more affluent - there is a Tesco Metro or Sainsbury's Local on almost every major junction, something distinctly lacking in the eastern quadrant. I'm also aware that I'm starting to head north towards the river, having passed the most southerly point of the road's curve some way back. The arc of the South Circular is shallower than its northern counterpart, returning to the Thames much closer to the West End, and stretching out an arm along the river to the western suburbs. Now though, the road arrived rather unexpectedly at Clapham Common. The junction was busy with traffic from all angles, and crossing was difficult - but sure enough, tucked away between the branches of the road was the squat cylindrical tower which signified the shaft leading to one of the Deep Level Shelters. This network of extremely deep and well-protected tunnels were built when the public demand for shelter from the blitz began to overwhelm capacity around the city. The tunnels echoed stations on the Northern and Central Lines, with the intention that they would be linked together to form an express tube network in peace time. Progress on the building was slow due to wartime labour shortages, and by their completion in 1942 the intensive bombing had largely subsided and demand for shelter had reduced. The Goodge Street shelter became General Eisenhower's wartime base, and other stations hosted troops in transit, but the tunnels were hardly used for their original purpose if at all. They also failed to live up to their intended post war use as new Tube lines, but almost all of the tunnels have found a peacetime role: as document stores, telephone exchanges or even for a brief period during the 1951 Festival of Britain, a hotel. Now however, the rather sorry looking Clapham Common entrance is overlooked by a line of very fashionable eateries and bars stretching along the edge of the common. I knew this area was becoming more desirable and the demographic changing, but to see it in such a sudden burst of activity after the resolutely suburban progress of the South Circular was a shock indeed. But perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise - Clapham has been fashionable since its earliest development as a suburb, with the spacious villas surrounding the Common providing homes for the 'Clapham Sect' - an informal but influential group of evangelical Anglicans numbering among them William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton. The atmosphere of intellectual and religious freedom which was enjoyed by the 'saints' as they were known, saw them wandering the common between their homes to discuss matters of social and liturgical importance. It was among these houses where the rigorous parliamentary campaigning was plotted which led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1807 and the later emancipation of all slaves in 1833. I followed my route around the smaller, western extension of the common, realising that I would actually lose the A205 briefly for a few miles here as it shared a route with the A3 on its western journey to Portsmouth. The South Circular was now firmly in brackets on the signs - an indignity which its northern cousin never quite succumbed to. It was hard to imagine members of the sect scurrying across this busy swirl of traffic, eager to impart their ideas on freedom and faith to each other.
The road passed swiftly through the busy crossroads of Battersea with its lines of tall, red-brick shops snaking away north towards the railway, and then crossed the northern edge of Wandsworth Common. The Common, though still a large tract of open land even now is divided by a griddle of railways and roads, with a neat arrangement of grand Victorian villas known as the 'toast rack' eating into its western edge. I strayed from the road briefly along Spencer Park to find the memorial to those who perished in the Clapham Junction rail crash in 1989. The simple curved stone commemorates both the 35 victims of the crash, and those who worked to help them on the morning of 12th December 1988 when a simple but ultimately catastrophic signal failure resulted in a collision involving four trains in the deep cutting below Spencer Park. Some of the first on the scene were staff and pupils from the nearby Emmanuel School, and as I contemplated the difficulty of clambering over the palisade fencing and down the steep bank to the railway to offer aid, some of the current pupils passed by heading back from sports practice. It was hard to imagine these young people, full of chatter and innocence, having to deal with some of the horrors that day. The carving on the stone shows a hand grasping another from above, which felt perfect for this memorial. The safety culture of British Rail was changed greatly by the crash, but just a few years later the privatised railway would need to relearn some of these lessons all over again in other parts of London. As it stands, the railway in the UK is now possibly one of the safest in the world - but it felt cruel and tragic that this incident and others like it were the necessary catalyst for this change.
Soon after passing Spencer Park, the road crossed the rather grander A214 - one of the few completed relics of a scheme to connect two of the unbuilt and much maligned London Ringways, which would have included a rather steep, ski-jump of a flyover if fully realised. Ploughing south from the infamous Wandsworth Roundabout, the road is a broad dual-carriageway in a deep concrete cutting which gouges deep into the Common. Rising again to the south, the road is a broad, urban arterial with a tree-lined median - and is perhaps one of the best indicators for what the road network of London could have looked like had the Abercrombie plan or even the GLCs later revisions come to fruition. As it is, the A214 soon becomes a fairly mundane suburban route out to Crystal Palace and West Wickham, leaving this section in Wandsworth a somewhat over-engineered and marooned hint of what could have been. The A3 and South Circular continued west in combination, descending into the valley of the River Wandle which the road crosses in Wandsworth Town Centre. My only vague knowledge this area was from frequent travels on the railways which pass largely beneath the town, and I was a little surprised by Wandsworth. The eastern approaches pass the impressive Town Hall which still provides a civic centre for the Borough. A wedding was taking place in the inner courtyard, perfectly framed by the Portland stone entrance which faces the street. Along the wings of the triangular building, stone reliefs depict scenes from local history above manicured lawns and pristinely weeded flower beds. Years back, I'd stayed in a down-at-heel budget hotel a little way towards Clapham Junction and had developed an assumption from its hinterlands that Wandsworth was a grim and unprepossessing place, being swiftly encroached upon by dull riverside apartment blocks. If only I'd strayed a little further from my digs perhaps I'd have found this building and thought differently. Disappointingly there was no access to the River Wandle at present as the redevelopment of the former Ram Brewery has temporarily closed the pavement on the north side of East Hill. Behind the wooden fences a range of waterfront properties can be seen rising slowly to form the almost inevitably named 'Ram Quarter'. Wandsworth is about to change it seems - and The Ram, an inn which can trace its history back to 1550 or thereabouts, is again a central part of the story. Young's brewed their last beer here in 2006 with production subsequently moving to Charles Wells in Bedford - but the developers of the site in Wandsworth have committed to the presence of a 'nanobrewery' in the former laboratory building to continue the tradition. For now though, the northern side of the street was off limits, the old Inn's frontage disappearing behind hoardings to rise again as a protected feature of the site. Forced to cross the street I noted that the river disappears under the Southside Shopping Mall here surfacing some way south, and as I strolled through the reeking clouds pouring from a grill in the pop-up street food market on the broad pavement covering the river, I rather wished I could see it. The Wandle is possibly the very first London river aside from the Thames which I'd learned about by way of Michael de Larrabeiti's novel The Borribles which I read as a child in the early 1980s, long before I'd ever visited the capital. The vision of a dark, confusing and unforgiving city conjured in this novel with hidden layers of meaning has perhaps never quite left me. It was also perhaps the first book which treated me like an adult, refusing to pull punches or sugarcoat disappointment, and it left a strong impression of a dirty, shifting city with curious culverts and sinister people living altogether disconnected lives in the unknown suburbs. The characters squatted in derelict houses, openly questioned authority and spent their time evading the Police. It's hard to imagine the book being published for children now - the concept of young adult fiction had re-emerged in the 1960s and the discovery that there were books other than those about the triumphs and tribulations of football teams or impossible space battles arrived with my slightly advanced reading age. It's fair to say that de Larrabeiti's work stayed with me for long years after reading it, so much so that on an expedition to Streatham Cemetery to research William Kent twenty years later, a glimpse of the River Wandle played a part in reigniting a reading and walking habit which in many ways led me to this very point, hovering above the same river. I thought back to that walk from Haydon's Road station through industrial hinterlands. It took me a good while to find the nerve to make that kind of trek, and now it was practically my modus operandi. Times changed, but the oldest of influences seemed to remain. I was disappointed not to spot the Wandle today - but knowing it flowed into the Thames nearby, and passed beneath my feet was curiously edifying.
Climbing up West Hill out of Wandsworth, I began to realise just how far I still had to go. The sun was still bearing down on me, and the long, flung out arm of the South Circular seemed endless. I was determined to reach the end of my walk today if I could. I bought more water from a Tesco nestled uncomfortably into a tiny, rather quaint corner shop building and set off again. It wasn't easy going, in part because it soon became apparent that this section was going to be relentlessly suburban and featureless. I put my head down and walked, crossing the site of Beverley Brook which was now in culvert with only an old bridge wall remaining beside the road, and skirting the wild and interesting edge of Barnes Common to the north of the road. Here the Thames, the railway and the road ran in parallel along the same flat plain, and signs frequently directed me to stations for places which were notionally on my route, but were in reality just a little way from the South Circular. The lack of importance of the road explained its largely unimproved state here in the west. There were always other routes to get to places more quickly or directly. The A205 was a bypass for nowhere. At East Putney, the Underground provided a brief distraction with an intriguing pagoda sitting in front of the brick built station entrance, while white stuccoed totems declared the station name across the broad V-shaped gap between the lines. Entirely over ground here, two fine old iron bridges pass over the road - the easternmost arm of the junction carrying the little-used curve from TfL's network to the mainline railway at Point Pleasant Junction - one of the few pieces of track in London which I haven't travelled on. Putney straggled along the road a little, the main and far more affluent centre a little to the north around the mainline railway station. Soon the road returned to suburbia. I began to seriously wonder if I would complete the walk today - my feet were tired but still game for the walk, I was hot and tired but not unexpectedly so. It was the sheer unrelenting suburbanity that was sapping my will. The suburbs of the south are different to those of the north - often more uniform, less grouped into villages defined by ancient geography. The south benefited from large swathes of common land which have been worried away at over the year to produce vast estates of visually similar homes ranked in long, straight avenues. It felt like I was walking directly across one of these. It felt never-ending.
The South Circular ploughed on through a place which might have been East Sheen or Mortlake, the main business streets of the latter having moved south, away from the river over centuries in favour of riverside dwelling opportunities. The A205 now formed the long and pleasantly prosperous High Street, traffic sluggishly navigating the side-streets, nosing into unlikely parking opportunities. At Milestone Green, the road from Mortlake Station to nearby Richmond Park crossed, and I realised an odd thing about the South Circular - in the effort to give the road a much-needed identity in the absence of an actual coherent route junctions have been 'named' like those around other major routes. However, the names appear to have little local resonance at all. The last few miles had produced numerous named 'gyratorys', 'Red Rover' and now this junction - none of which seemed to have gained any traction as a local feature or even any obvious history. The South Circular's disguise was wearing ever thinner as I approached its ending. It had one more trick up its sleeve though - up ahead, as the shopping area of East Sheen dwindled into the ubiquitous run of small offices and tyre dealers, it made its last abrupt ninety degree turn to the north. The road ahead continued, unperturbed to Richmond while I was directed to turn right for Ealing and the M4. I climbed a railway bridge and passed between Fulham and Mortlake Cemeteries on a lazily curving trajectory along the tongue of land on which Kew nestles, in a broad meander in the Thames. The National Archives were held here, beyond the perimeter of an unprepossessing and oddly sited retail park. The solid, concrete block giving an assurance of the safety of our history despite much of the collection now being digitally stored of course. A final railway crossed the road - bringing the District Line and Overground from Gunnersbury where this whole sorry enterprise had begun for me. I could smell the Thames now. Around Kew Green, the road developed a new character - artisanal stores, little bistros, gastropubs with deliberately distressed furnishings and lots of grey paintwork. It felt oddly familiar - distinctly like North London, and a jarring change from the quiet suburbs I'd just crossed. As I navigated around double-pushchairs with wheels built for off-roading, complicated families groups filling the entire width of the footway and endless pavement cyclists with no regard for humanity, the appeal of quiet suburbia began to feel stronger. Across the street, my walk had one final surprising building too - St Anne's Church, built in 1714 but much extended by the patronage of both Kings George III and William IV. The red brick and verdigris of the church winked between ancient, swaying trees as I pushed on, asking my feet to give me just another mile or so if they could. The sun escaped from cloud cover again, and the church glowed on the green. It was a curiously inspiring sight.
The arrival of the Thames was heralded by two events - a sudden cool breeze drifting from the east, and the arrival of a noisy group of over-dressed wedding-goers attempting to have their picture taken on the busy riverside path. The bridge arched gently over the silvery surface of the river, and I dodged oncoming pedestrians to get a picture looking eastwards. The wooded thicket of Oliver's Island divided the flow of pleasure craft, now largely a nature reserve but historically a toll booth for river traffic with legends of Civil War era tunnels to Strand-on-the-Green on the northern bank. I paused for a while - this wasn't quite the end of the road, but it was a significant enough milestone to make me reflect on this trip. I summoned the will to push on, tired and beginning to feel the effects of a cold which had dogged me for the last few days, but which I was determined not to succumb to. Landfall brought me to the boundary between the boroughs of Hounslow and Brentford, and the busy junction in front of the Express Tavern. The view to the east was dominated by the tall water tower of the Grand Junction Waterworks Company - now the London Museum of Water and Steam. I however, needed to turn west along the final section of the South Circular. Now the road was north of the river, it had become a busy and businesslike continuation of the North Circular at last - a four-lane dual carriageway running between dilapidated shopfronts and retail parks. It seemed comfortably familiar, and the sight of the towering glass hotels and offices around the beginning of the M4 up ahead felt almost like coming home. I picked my way around the south-eastern quadrant of Chiswick Roundabout, alongside Surrey Crescent - the remnants of a row of once rather fine houses which were largely demolished to create the flyover, opened to much ceremony and glitz in 1959 by Jayne Mansfield in a 'skin-tight crimson dress'. These slightly grubby but grand homes have survived in its shadow against the odds. I turned the corner onto Chiswick High Road and rather suddenly found myself at a familiar spot. Above me was the roadsign which I'd taken a snapshot of before heading off to walk the first section of the North Circular. I recalled the amused tourists from the nearby hotel who had sniggered at me for taking the picture, and wondered if they'd imagined I'd planned to walk all the way around the city, back to this spot? I'm not sure at that point whether I'd even quite formulated that idea fully then. Certainly, there were times - especially on this tough final leg - when I'd wondered why I set myself projects like this? When I had complete control of the rules, why would I make them harder than they needed to be? This walk had taken me into southern suburbs I'd been content to 'know' only through passing by train, areas where I felt alien and uncomfortable, where I was in many ways, lost. I'd seen places which perhaps only locals would normally regard, and then only with the tired eyes of the familiar. I'd surprised myself by finding places I'd wanted to revisit to explore, ideas for future excursions and connections back into my past reading which intrigued me. I stood beneath the sign and felt the need to celebrate - I contemplated emptying the refreshingly cold contents of a bottle of Sprite Zero over my overheating and aching head, but I thought of the tourists and figured I shouldn't give them the excuse for another chortle at my expense. I calculated that the journey around the North and South Circulars totalled around fifty-three miles of walking which had taken me into the depths of suburbia, into the forest, along the banks of hidden brooks and through the complex geography of the city. It felt like a strange privilege to be able to make this circuit, and to spend time researching and recording what I'd seen. I often questioned if my records of these walks were ever read by anyone, but figured it didn't matter. I wasn't the first to walk around London, I wouldn't be the last and I had few original insights to impart. But I'd honoured a city with which I've had long and complex dealings by walking around it. For a few moments at least, while my aching feet were forgotten in the thrill of completion, It felt like an entirely sensible thing to do.
I shuffled the short distance to Gunnersbury Station and caught a train, deciding to cross the street and change for the Circle Line back to Paddington when I reached Hammersmith. As I sat on the train, trundling quietly over the rooftops on a viaduct with the sun picking out the yellow London Brick of the rows of houses beneath, I suddenly realised my route would pass the wreckage of Grenfell Tower. As we left Latimer Road station, the blackened view into the lower floors of the block filled the windows of the train, shockingly close to the line. Stripped back to the concrete core on this flank, the gaping windows gave a view entirely through the gutted structure. It was horrible to behold, and terrifying to imagine being within the conflagration. As the line curved to the west and the building slipped slowly into the distance the full horror was revealed, standing like a single dull, dead tooth in the blue sky. I looked around the sparsely filled carriage, but everyone else was busy reading, talking to their fellow travellers or just looking at the floor in the time-honoured way of the Tube. I wondered if I was perhaps the only one who hadn't seen this before? The only one who hadn't had to live with this expression of loss and death above me on my daily comings and going? It was a haunting image - so different to seeing it on the screen and often reduced to a backdrop to a political dialogue - either a timely reminder of inequality or a tragic bandwagon jumped by protesters depending on one's viewpoint. I don't think I'll ever quite forget the sight of the tower, abandoned but still glaringly present in the skyline. It haunted my dreams on the sleepy train ride home, vying with the views of collapsed viaducts in Los Angeles back in 1994 for its utter alienness and unreality. Whatever the outcome of the investigations and discussions which the fire has precipitated, whatever the fate of the officials and trustees who appear to have slalomed around regulations to create the conditions in which this could happen, these events are an exclamation mark in the story of London life. A point for pausing to consider the gravity and complexity of life and death in the city. As a full-stop for a circumambulation of London, it was both fitting and sobering. I hadn't just walked around a landscape or a museum, I'd circuited a living and dying metropolis of diversity and disparity, where eight million souls struggle beside each other. When I'm next asked the question 'why?' I make these walks, perhaps I have the beginnings of an answer...
You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 5th August 2017 at 11:08pm
I've never considered myself a particularly superstitious or ritualistic person - but there are some things I like to do just right, often boxing myself with arbitrary restrictions in the process. Readers of my last piece on the walk around the North Circular might recall that I pushed on to Ilford, as much to end the walk somewhere I could easily get back home as anything. However, that day I'd also made a considerable effort to begin the second part of that walk from almost exactly the spot I'd left the road weeks before, unwittingly binding myself into a set of rules which would make the start of today's jaunt a little more complex. I arrived in Ilford in surprisingly fine weather and surfaced from the station just in time to catch a single-decker 366 bus which swiftly whisked me east, deep into the hinterland of the town centre and between huge cinema and shopping developments. We emerged onto a more traditional suburban terraced street near the prosaically and perhaps optimistically named 'Cost Effective Newsagent' and plunged into the huge expanse of late-nineteenth century development which sprawls south of Ilford and into Barking. I was beginning to get restless - I wanted to be walking, and the bus appeared to be wandering off route around endless diversions. I was distracted, at least momentarily, by the appearance beside the road of the Loxford Water - a tributary of the River Roding which flows above ground for only a very short stretch. Thus we pressed on into the suburb of Loxford - once an ancient manor in the ownership of the ever powerful Abbess of Barking, now a collection of schools, clinics and homes which range along the edge of the borough boundary. Arrival at Barking was disorienting - the looping bypass always appearing to deliver me at the station from an unexpected angle. The bus had no opportunity to wait here in a crush of terminating routes and so we set off again, passing the site of the Abbey and crossing the Roding to Highbridge Road which runs parallel with the North Circular. At last the relentless stream of traffic I'd been tracking these past few walks was beside me. I couldn't easily walk the stretch between Ilford and the end of the road at the Thames, beyond re-treading the very approximate routes I'd already used to walk the Roding and Barking Creek, but I could at least ensure it was part of my journey. This missing link, connecting the arc I'd begun at Chiswick back to the Thames felt like an important way to begin today's venture.
The bus left the thundering A406 behind to skirt the industrial sites of Fresh Wharf and the Police Custody Centre, while the road rose, carriageways dividing in preparation for the huge interchange with the A13 a little way south. We meandered around the private roads which allow access to the Newham Borough Depot at Jenkins Lane, skirting the inlet of Hand Trough Creek, and reappearing south of the A13 amidst the retail parks of East Beckton. This part of the trip was intriguing to me - I'd walked some of these areas in attempts to stay close to road or river and usually felt deeply unwelcome in these odd public/private interzones. Today I was being chauffeured around their perimeters, untracked by cameras and uninterrupted by security guards. It felt like a luxury. My immediate impression of the area, now I could see how the various zones fitted together, was how little of it has actually been developed. Ghost exits leave roundabouts for development opportunities as yet unrealised, provisional concrete roads to nowhere crack to reveal nature creeping through. This area, first an ancient marshland and then a safely distant haven for the most unappealing of industries, is now beginning its third life as an investment - a valuable but unrealised asset on a balance sheet. The roads between retail parks retain all the characteristics of these areas: a margin lined with wild flowers and weeds, an eddy of litter swirling around the gutters, dust and particulate matter settling on the remarkably hardy marsh plants which prosper because they're left to do so. Occasional lay-by middens mark areas where truckers park up for the night - piles of food wrappers, beer cans and discarded low-rent pornography. What's possibly most disturbing is how reassuring all this feels after the artificially sculpted world of the retail parks. Pylons stalk across the marshes towards the river, and a partly-finished luxury housing development appears on the horizon. I'm almost at my stop...
Galleon's Reach DLR Station sits above the roundabout where the North Circular arrives - now known as the A1020 or Royal Docks Road but still signposted as part of the great semi-circle around the city. It's a much quieter proposition here too, as the A13 has taken up the main flow of traffic east and west. The road that I join to head south is signposted 'North Circular, Woolwich Ferry' and immediately rises to cross the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge over the Royal Albert Dock. It feels good to be walking at last in the morning sunshine, the heat haze rippling the runway of London City Airport as I take in the impressive, sweeping view - the distant city, the towers on the Isle of Dogs and the bulk of Tate & Lyle's plant in Silvertown. Beyond them I see green tree-lined slopes on the south bank of the Thames and I realise that I'll soon be climbing into those unknown parts. 'South of the River' - an old cliché, but a strangely accurate one perhaps. Who goes south of the river in lieu of the apocryphal unwilling taxi driver? Shady characters with bodies to bury, corrupt coppers working a scam and selling the story, semi-gentrified comedians and artists who grew out of Shoreditch? I'm aware of my prejudices and trying hard to push them aside. When I've walked the Thames Path or the Ridgeway I've found the southern boroughs surprisingly diverting - but gazing at my map before leaving I see only an unknowable expanse of suburban streets. I have to convince myself that the East felt equally impenetrable and blank once too. The road is silent as I turn west into North Woolwich. I can hear distant giggles and shrieks of playing children in Royal Victoria Gardens and smell late breakfast being prepared in the fine row of redbrick terraced house on Barge House Road, but there is no sign of anyone on the street. This is still the North Circular - as confirmed by the signs for the Ferry which impose prohibitions on explosives, corrosives and other dangerous materials. Such cargoes are consigned to heading east to Dartford to try their luck on the bridge, or the Blackwall Tunnel which is inexplicably signposted hereabouts like it's just around the corner. Nowhere on the circuit has the road ever been deserted completely, until now. I passed the impressive columns of the 1854 railway station building, now derelict yet again after the closure of the museum, and beside it the site of the tiny utilitarian platform I'd used just before the railway closed here in 2006. At this point I had a decision to make: to take the foot tunnel under the river which descended from the solid, brick rotunda ahead of me, or to turn the corner and wait for the ferry. I decided to stay above ground - true to the route of the road, and to take advantage of the rare chance to cross the Thames by boat. The rather workmanlike ferries are not designed for sightseeing during the brief crossing, and with a small group of other pedestrians I was directed below deck and told to remain seated while cars and trucks rumbled onto the ferry overhead. From the open side of the ferry I could see us slowly pushing away from the north bank, passing the former Steam Boat Pier which once served the Great Eastern Railway's short-lived competing ferry service, and turning south. The silvery carapaces of the Thames Barrier gleamed to the west and the forest of tall, new buildings which now formed an almost unbroken chain into the city marched into the middle distance. And so, as we docked at Woolwich Pier the missing link was complete - by means of a convoluted bus ride, a walk and a boat trip I'd approximately tracked the final few pedestrian-unfriendly miles of the North Circular to the banks of the Thames. Beyond the ferry terminal a long straight road could be seen heading uphill and away from the river. It was time to explore new horizons...
And so the South Circular began. It's important to note just how different this road is to its northern counterpart. While long stretches of the North Circular are purpose-built to near-motorway standard using the geography of London's brooks and rivers to snake swiftly around the suburbs, the plan for the South Circular never quite made it that far. While some sections where the route crossed open, easily purchased land were improved in the early twentieth-century zeal for roadbuilding, other sections simply plot a tortuous route through suburban streets climbing steep hills and crossing major roads at junctions which regularly snarl into long traffic queues. The South Circular isn't so much a road as a route - a collection of sign-posted fragments which attempt to provide drivers with a barely optimal route through a dysfunctional network. Skipping from urban centre to urban centre, the road was only ever going to be a temporary measure. Patrick Abercrombie's ambitious Ringways should have swept all this away - including great chunks of the suburban sprawl I'd be walking through. This ambition for clearing a new path never chimed with public opinion, and was ultimately the downfall of the plan. By the early 1970s the road's fate was sealed - there would be little done to improve the South Circular beyond minor tweaks to priorities at junctions, and while each was probably a minor triumph for a harassed planner, there was no overall strategy. A final attempt to radically alter the road network in the south was detailed in the Roads for Prosperity White Paper in 1989, but like many of the schemes in that ill-fated document, they had disappeared by the change of government in 1997, quietly disposed of to avoid further public disquiet and an emboldened environmental lobby. My walk around this odd historical aberration would be different too - indeed it felt more like the process of charting a lost river running between suburbs than that of walking a grand highway around the city. The road did however have a somewhat more attractive beginning than the North Circular: ascending from the roundabout near the ferry terminal one of the few purpose built sections of dual-carriageway on the route curves between two places of worship which have co-opted former palaces of entertainment. On the left of the road, its solid brick back facing the road, is the former Granada Cinema - now the Christ Faith Tabernacle Cathedral. This impressive modernist building opened in 1937, with a luxurious interior which has been mostly preserved by a succession of new tenants including, inevitably, a bingo hall. Luckily, the location has remained in almost constant use, and its current owners have gone to some effort to source fittings and furnishings from the same makers as the originals. In cinema's golden age of studios sparring for the best stars, across the street the striking art-deco Odeon Cinema set up shop in direct and defiant competition during the same year. The Odeon survived a little longer as a cinema - becoming the Coronet in 1983 and later being altered to include a second screen. A short time after its final closure in 1999 the New Wine Church purchased the building to become Gateway House.
As I began the climb away from Woolwich High Street between these two impressive temples of earthly delights which have bucked the secular trend, I spotted the rear of the Royal Artillery Barracks up ahead. It was here where Wellington Street meets the South Circular that Fusilier Lee Rigby met his untimely end at the hands of Islamist terrorists in 2013. The site isn't formally marked - there are memorials elsewhere in Woolwich now - but the concern that any marker on this ill-fated spot might become the target for extremist abuse seems unfounded. The railings beside Elliston House remain an unofficial memorial, adorned with St. George Cross and Union flags, scattered with flowers and tributes. The site is tidy and well-kept, flowers fresh and flags clean - and it has been kept this way by locals since the terrible events took place. Sometimes, memorials are spontaneous and simple, rather than resulting from grand municipal gestures. It was sobering to cross the eerily traffic-free rise of the South Circular to find this spot, a quiet urban corner on the edge of the leafy barracks site. I wondered how I should write it into my account - whether I should let it pass unremarked out of quiet respect? This is after all an account of a journey which, though opinion intrudes, tries hard not to stray into polemic. But there is no doubt that this corner has become a part of the story of Woolwich and it felt wrong to pass by without contrasting the quiet suburban scene I found with the act of incalculable violence which took place here. My patriotism is tinged with realism and a sense that in an open, well-connected world we can likely never again presume to close ourselves away from the affairs of other places - but when they are brought into our lives screaming hatred and discord, it should never ever be quietly accepted. A little further up the hill, beside the road is the Royal Garrison Church of St. George - almost destroyed by a flying bomb on 13th July 1944, this spectacularly decorated church was originally erected to support the moral and spiritual well-being of the artillery officers stationed at the Barracks, largely in response to the outcry about conditions servicemen faced during the Crimean War. The remains of the church are carefully cared for, with a large arched roof erected to protect the remaining mosaics from the elements. The church is sometimes opened to the public, and inside Fusilier Rigby is commemorated alongside other Artillery officers who have fallen, including those killed by the IRA at the nearby Kings Arms public house in 1974. The ornate, multi-coloured brick pattern of the church is the work of the Wyatt brothers, and sections of the walls still stand to give some idea of how grand this place once was. This was definitely somewhere to revisit on one of the rare opening days, and a fitting place for a more official memorial.
Outside the church, the South Circular has for the first time diminished to become a single-carriageway road. To the west, the broad expanse of the parade ground in front of the grandiose front elevation of the Barracks is empty and quiet, stormclouds rolling overhead ominously. I'd been promised thunderstorms, but so far my walk had been warm and dry. Traffic zipped by the broad pavement, untroubled by queues. This felt so strangely different to the experience on the A406 where the pedestrian was relegated to the fringes of the route, suffered angrily by the traffic. At the improbably named Ha-Ha Road I briefly wandered onto Woolwich Common. This expansive and semi-wild area of grassland was once part of a much bigger tract of open land belonging to the Manor of Eltham, with encroachment towards the currently remaining common area taking place in the 18th Century. A portion to the north became Barrack Field, while to the south east, the Royal Military Academy claimed land, opening to recruits in 1806. A less permanent but equally audacious land-grab took place in 2012, when the temporary structure of the Olympic Shooting Venue was erected on the common. Today the common was busy with people walking or sunbathing, ambulances occasionally darting along Ha-Ha Road towards the Queen Elizabeth Hospital which loomed on the eastern edge of the land. Moving south, the common is divided by the South Circular with the triangle housing the former Academy now part of an exclusive, gated community known simply as The Academy, Woolwich. The pinnacled towers of the central block rising against the backdrop of the wooded slopes of Eltham Common and Oxleas Wood, looking not dissimilar to those of the Tower of London. On the western side of the common the smaller but equally fine buildings of Victoria House, the former Medical Corps. officers mess stood in an isolated crescent on the corner of Shooters Hill Road. This fine but oft forgotten building has provided additional accommodation for the popular Greenwich Free School in recent times, and may at some point form a more permanent part of a new Primary School extension. For now though, it sits a little unloved in an overgrown and wooded corner of the common, fronted by a solid and smart but very firmly closed block of mid-century public conveniences.
Shooters Hill Road stretched arrow-straight to the east and west, tracing the path of the ancient Roman Watling Street from Dover to London. I remembered the couple we'd met on our visit to the Edith and Harold statue in St. Leonard's who said they lived near here, and despite retiring and the possibility of moving almost wherever they wished, had never wanted to leave. Shooters Hill Road was markedly busier than the South Circular here, which seemed very much the minor player at the crossroads. The steep hill rose away to the east, towards the strange Gothic folly of Severndroog Castle. This monument to Commodore Sir William James and built by his wife, takes its name from a corruption of Suvarnadurg - the local name of an island fortress near Goa of which James commanded the successful overthrow in 1755. Run as a tourist attraction by the London County Council in the early twentieth-century, the building passed eventually to Greenwich Council who finally decided they could not fund the upkeep. Derelict and boarded up since 1988 the folly fell into disrepair and its future was threatened until a preservation group formed in 2002. Happily in 2014 the doors once again opened to the public. Looking back along Academy Road, it was remarkable how steeply I'd climbed from the Thames. Here the route began to turn gradually west, and the land sloped gently down into the valley of the Quaggy River. It was hard to recognise the strategic importance of the route from its appearance here - two lanes of traffic with broad expanses of bus lane filling much of the carriageway. Motorists were regularly reminded of the route of the road with South Circular A205 signs nudging them in the right direction when it wasn't entirely obvious where to go - which was fairly often. The road ambled through pleasant suburbs, with decent housing lining the route not unlike that around the North Circular - if perhaps a little quieter and less battered by road grime. At Well Hall Roundabout I briefly stopped for provisions at a Tesco Metro housed in yet another disused cinema building, this time the Well Hall Odeon built in 1936, becoming the Coronet in 1981. The building fell into disuse from 2000, but now forms part of a modern development of shops with an entrance hall and sweeping circular canopy topped by a glass staircase tower still betraying its origins as a theatre. Leaving the store I reoriented myself and turned onto Rochester Way, the 1927 route of the A2, where the South Circular immediately veers off at a crazily arranged junction. It's a short walk to the new course of the A2, a wide elevated viaduct taking the road above the A205, with the railway crossing soon after. A train accelerating away from the 1985 resiting of Eltham station crosses the scene, passing near the elegant planned gardens of Well Hall Pleasaunce. Suddenly, at last, the road is busy. After miles of almost eerie quietness, the South Circular is a clogged, groaning mess. Traffic nudges into lane, drivers apparently surprised by the complexities of the interchange, set against a backdrop of a terrace of almost cartoonishly textbook mock-tudor villas. Traffic noses under the bridges, slowly emerging to the west. Suddenly I'm again walking a suburban dual carriageway flanked by mid-century houses arranged along a separate access road. Sadly this access road obscures the crossing of the Quaggy River, a tributary of the Ravensbourne which has flowed south and east from Lewisham. I pause at a rank of urban shops, watching the drama unfold as a local carelessly shunts a car into a bollard in a low speed collision, shrugging their shoulders then disappearing into the Co-op.
The gathering storm clouds are massing to the north and west, and while for a time I'm in the bright halo of sun on the edge of the churn of brownish-black sky a tell-tale change in the wind signals that I'm not out of danger. Soon enough, large cold raindrops start to patter around me as I walk onward, the land rising again beyond the Quaggy. A rusting sign hangs over the footpath, welcoming me to the Borough of Lewisham somewhat unconvincingly. On a memorable passing over the border between Greenwich and Lewisham once before, I was ceremonially blessed with a huge steaming pile of dogshit. Today it may be a watery tribute instead. It feels like I'm outpacing the storm, but distant rumbles of thunder and the unreal flashes of lightning inside the bruise-coloured clouds signal a downpour. When it finally comes it's sudden and intense - a typical summer storm. I hunch into the roadside under the overhang of a tall hedge near Burnt Ash Hill. The gullies of the road swiftly give up and flood with rainwater - the traffic does much the same in apparent sympathy, trailing into a single, sluggish carriageway running slowly through glum, damp suburbs. Eventually, the rain rather suddenly relents as such intense storms often do, and the ionised air is fresh and clear. I returned to slopping along damply, a soaking from a passing white van now the biggest risk. Luckily for the most part, the pavements were broad despite the narrow road. This area felt forgotten and somewhat lost - not quite Lee and not quite Hither Green, hemmed in by railways and not really on the way anywhere. I know the name Hither Green from my railway travels, but often wondered at its origins - thus I'm amused to see that a nearby street is named 'Further Green'. A low railway bridge ahead of me narrows the road even further, traffic snarling instantly at the lights which control passage. I edged under, staying as far away from the sizeable puddle where the road dipped to pass under the railway. Emerging into the light, the rain seemed to have passed completely and the clouds were rolling away to the north. A weak sunshine was breaking through the gloom ahead, though the road was less than bright. The long straight road headed directly west, a narrow avenue which was adequate on a quiet Saturday afternoon but would clearly buckle under peak traffic conditions. It was easier to see here how this road gained its poor reputation. I put my head down and walked, noting again the carpet of squashed sloes which seemed to have littered the route all the way from Woolwich, a carpet of lurid purple squelches on the grey flagstones.
I'd begun to tire early - a little like my first outing on the North Circular in fact - and couldn't pin down quite why. Perhaps it was the delayed start to the walk which had sapped my energy, or the strange and oppressive atmosphere before the storm. Maybe though, it was just the long uphill slog which had formed the early part of the route. In any case, I'd already begun to consider where I'd leave the A205 today. One option was Catford - with two railway stations on separate lines which tangle around each other both offering escapes from the road. Arrival in Catford wasn't inspiring however - Brownhill Road became a dull, urban arterial running between sadly rather run-down terraces of large, once rather grand Victorian homes. The rakes of green bins outside each property signified their new status as houses in multiple occupation, their front gardens given over to parking spaces or makeshift refuse tips. Up ahead I could see the brick ziggurat of Owen Luder's threatened Milford Towers - the Barbican of the South - stretching across the street. An important building but one which hadn't been entirely successful in terms of living space, the refurbishment of the surrounding shopping centre will soon claim it. Towering in front of Catford was a somewhat ungainly concrete block with a zig-zagging glass stairway tower, curiously staggered curtain walling, and an impressive crop of aerials and antennae. This challenging and strange building was Eros House, another Luder building which was originally intended to be part of a larger scheme. As it stands, it is dynamic but queasily out of balance with its surroundings. Once though, this was the exciting future for down-at-heel Catford:
A monster sat down in Catford and just what the place needed. No offence meant: this southward extension of Lewisham High Street badly wanted stiffening. Now there is a punchy concrete focus [...] The gaunt honesty of those projecting concrete frames carrying boxed-out bow windows persists. It is not done at you and it transforms the surroundings instead of despising them. This most craggy and uncompromising of London buildings turns out to be full of firm gentlenessRegenerating Catford appears to have always been a tricky business - mixed land ownership and a fairly hands-off policy by Lewisham Council until recent times have made for a patchy process which doesn't seem to have reached the lives of most of the residents of Rushey Green - one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Immediately beside the oddity of Eros House was the Catford Gyratory - a huge squared circle of a traffic island where the A21 to Hastings intersects the South Circular. I took the gyratory in the anti-clockwise direction mostly on instinct which advantageously avoided the circumnavigation of a truly huge Mecca Bingo hall. Arriving at the pedestrian crossing where the road from north to south joined the junction, I'll admit some pleasant surprise. A parade of remarkably smart local stores jostled for business with some High Street names, their facades broken only by the protruding sign for the Catford Centre with a giant fibreglass feline gazing across the street at the old village green. Beyond the KFC and echoing the curve of Catford Broadway with its straggling street market, is the rather wonderful art deco Broadway Theatre. The building fits into an awkward site with some ingenuity and remains in use today. The gothic-style stone features were designed to be in keeping with the style of the former Lewisham Town Hall building, now demolished and replaced with the low concrete sweep of the Town Hall and Civic Centre which arrived in the late 1960s, complementing the theatre's shape if not its decor. These buildings too are now partly redundant, with the confusingly christened 'Old Town Hall' now housing local businesses. Catford surprised me - far from being the butt of 1970s TV comic's gags, or the depressing southern nexus for bent coppers and gang violence which it seemed to suggest in the 1980s, there is a strangely positive feeling to the place. I'm curious to come back and explore a little more.
Iain Nairn - Nairn's London - 1966
I left Catford via a crossing of its two railways, each with their own local station - first Catford Bridge on the branch line to Hayes, then Catford - served by Thameslink. Between them the River Ravensbourne wound under the road, soon to become the River Pool for the remainder of its journey south. The railways hug the river valley here, using this notch in the landscape between Catford and Forest Hill to escape from the gravity of London. To the south, the pristinely mown playing fields of St. Dunstan's College line the edge of the South Circular as it rises gently to the west. I'm immediately back in suburbia as soon as I've passed the impressive College buildings. It feels like a long, hot slog now to Forest Hill where I've decided I'm going to end today's walk. As I make my way along the street pursued on foot by a hurrying bridegroom and his driver who appear to have either broken down or decided to flee the scene ('there's nothing here, no shops, no garages, NOTHING!') I spot a removal van at the side of the road which appears to have come all the way here from my coastal hometown. I glance at the driver, who looks back - but there's no recognition. Why would there be? We'd neither expect to see a familiar face on this most inconsequential stretch of road. The road curves, thrown off line by the need to cross under another railway up ahead at an awkward point. The course of the route is so improbable here that even more of the regular signs are needed to remind the driver: A205 South Circular. It feels at times, as I've tried to follow the route of this odd, almost makeshift way around London that the signs are trying to convince us that there really is a road, that we haven't just imagined the South Circular by means of some collective, hyrdrocarbon-induced hallucination. This is a route which does what you'd least expect and often at the most inconvenient of times. It echoes perfectly the often truculent, sometimes wilfully perverse and always darkly humorous south-of-the-river character. I climb the surprisingly steep rise to Forest Hill station and shuffle tired feet onto the platform just in time for a London Bridge service. Just like my first attempt at the North Circular I feel the road has beaten me today - I didn't get as far as I'd hoped by any measure. But perhaps that's how these roads work - they're designed not to be taken as a whole, because they're never the most direct way between two points. They are experienced piecemeal - fragments of a journey on route to other places. Who would be stupid enough to try to walk their entire length? Before we depart I take note of my surroundings in preparation for another ritualistic future reconnection with the route. Soon, the train clatters into the much-modernised London Bridge station on the edge of the City of London - a station I haven't used in a good many years - and I navigate my way through the unfamiliar concourse out into the sunshine bouncing from the lower tiers of The Shard. It feels a long way from the ferry, and even further from the curious centre of Catford.
Posted in London on Saturday 15th July 2017 at 11:07pm
The next bus stop is closed...
I just made it out of the rear doors of the bus, which had patiently sat on the roadside near the Big Yellow Storage building for whole minutes before it decided to make the automatic announcement. Through a surprisingly less convoluted route than I'd expected, I found myself just feet from the bridge carrying East Finchley's High Road over the A406. In fact, I was just several more feet from where I'd exhaustedly plopped into the seat of a southbound bus a few short weeks ago, a sweaty and dirty character - the cause of much suspicion among my fellow travellers. Getting off a stop early allowed me to regard the North Circular from above as I crossed the street and headed for the footpath down to the road. It was a strangely gloomy and ominous morning, with unexpected clouds tumbling overhead as I gazed east along the road. I realised that I'd talked a lot about the wisdom or folly of undertaking this journey when I wrote my account of the last walk, and that in the process I'd clearly managed to convince myself that this was an enterprise worth completing. It wasn't without some trepidation that I followed the curve of the slip-road down towards the woodland fringing the carriageway, noticing a hi-vis wearing photographer trying to get a really good shot of a bowl of foraged blackberries he'd balanced on a fallen limb. When I'd surfaced from the road last time, I'd felt the effects for several days afterwards - a heaviness of limb and a dry throat - which made me wonder if these really were safe for eating. He didn't seem to mind, pluckily popping in a berry as he posed the bowl for best effect, wincing at the tartness of the fruit. Rejoining the road at Glebelands Wood wasn't a bad thing - it made for a relatively pleasant initial stretch of walking, despite being close to the traffic. A fragment of the ancient Finchley Common, the narrow band of woodland bordered by the North Circular and bookended by a large Tesco Extra is one of the few surviving areas of ancient woodland in Barnet. At the eastern end, a narrow tract of green space running along the Bounds Green Brook joins it to Coppett's Wood, another area worthy of an exploration at some point. Today though, the woodland kept me cool while a tall fence separated me from the brook, at least as far as the superstore. I popped inside to grab provisions for the walk ahead - while I'd never be far from civilisation, the road was sometimes a difficult place to find sustenance it seemed.
On leaving the store, it was raining - just a little, barely enough to bother the shoppers piloting their trolleys towards the doors in fact, but nonetheless I'd believed the forecast and didn't have a coat. Leaving the retail park by a pedestrian entrance I found the Bounds Green Brook just across busy Colney Hatch Lane. The name reminded me of another of the great ring of asylums which circled London - this one the scene of a terrible fire in 1903 which altered to an extent the public perception of these hitherto mysterious hospitals. The asylum - later Friern Hospital - lay a little to the north, and when opened in 1851 formed the second Middlesex County Asylum. The elaborate buildings struggled on as a hospital until 1993 when the final patients were relocated in the community. During its surprisingly long tenure in similar use, Colney Hatch became notorious - for its sometimes harsh conditions, and as a receptacle for some of the most infamous criminals deemed insane - once housing Aaron Kosminski, credibly suspected of involvement in the Whitechapel Murders. The buildings are now, predictably in luxury residential use as the suitably anonymous Princess Park Manor. Ironically the grand gateway which stood open while the hospital was in use, is now very securely closed. To keep people in or out is perhaps an interesting question?
When day dawned, while some of the firemen pumping water from the brook below continued to play on the red hot débris, others began the terrible task of searching the ruins. Then it was discovered that the fire had claimed many victims...
The Times, 28th January 1903
The brook was sluggish and algae-filled - and it reeked. A slow-running stream in the summer is going to become a little ripe, but this was the stench of sewage. Another watercourse which appears to be plagued by misconnected domestic outlets. The brook soon disappeared behind the fence once again, and after a few moments of walking along the road, I realised I was climbing along a slip-road towards yet another retail park. This one presented a bit of a barrier, but a path offering a way back down to the North Circular appeared and I was soon passing underneath the tall totems advertising carpets, pets and fast food. The road was running as slowly as the brook - with traffic merging into the centre lane to avoid some obstruction up ahead. As I trudged a dusty section beside car dealerships and vacant lots which supported a burgeoning blackberry crop, I spotted the embankment of the railway to Kings Cross up ahead. I'd rather dreaded this bit in fact. Here, the A406 passes under a long, low bridge. So long in fact, that it almost forms a tunnel under the swathe of lines and the site of former sidings. Beyond the tunnel, a large gasholder loomed - reminding me that safety wasn't far ahead. Nonetheless, I had to endure a few minutes of being hemmed up against the sweating, Victorian brick arch while six lanes of traffic howled and shuddered feet away from me. As it happened, the broken down car which had been causing issues a few yards back helped me out here - having finally sputtered to a halt just shy of the tunnel mouth. Thus I had a good, wide lane entirely free of traffic separating me from the main flow of vehicles regaining speed after slowing to negotiate the broken down car. The occupants of the stricken car looked strangely unconcerned, poking at their 'phone screens while they awaited rescue. I picked up the pace, my steps echoing reassuringly into the distance. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed brighter, and free of the rain which had threatened its presence in the form of a unconvincing drizzle so far. Once inside, the noise was remarkable - a constant swish of air preceding passing vehicles peppered by occasional horns and the thrum of motorcycles. I wondered if I should even be down here - but there was after all a footpath. I wasn't sorry to escape, bursting into the comparatively fresh air of Bounds Green. The brook ran in the open again beside me, and while it was still a little noisome, it was bearable to stray towards it where the undergrowth allowed for pictures. The road had collapsed into a single, broad carriageway with only a set of advisory markings dividing the east- and westbound carriageways, while the Piccadilly Line surfaced to pass above just a little way ahead. This area was once notorious for planning blight - the various proposals for improving the road almost all insisting on the demolition of houses on the southern side of the road. Now though, the attractive run of mid-century semi-detached homes seem to be tidy and all in use. But life here must be strange - the North Circular outside their front doors, and heading for a notorious pinch-point on its semi-circuit.
To someone who isn't as enthusiastic about road junctions as I - which is probably most people - the meeting of Telford Road and Bowes Road at a crossroads in suburban Arnos Grove is likely to be inconsequential. However, for the motorist making a steady progress around the edge of the city, this is likely to be where things get a little slower and a lot more confusing. Here the North Circular makes an abrupt ninety-degree turn to the right, crossing traffic from a couple of less major but still busy local roads. The mess of traffic lights, the confusion of signs, and the absolutely counter-intuitive oddness of this manoeuvre is explained by the very earliest plans for this route. Using a mix of purpose built new road and the existing pattern of streets, the plan was to form a designated route rather than a distinct, newly built path through the city. At points like this junction, the layout remains much as originally planned. There has been some work to divide flows of traffic, some clever work with traffic signals and priorities - but essentially, an urban motorway screeches into a Victorian crossroads here. I navigated the crossings carefully, picking my way from the north-western to south-eastern corner of the junction by instinct - there was little in the way of direction for pedestrians. The steady drizzle of rain had become a more sustained fall and I was aware I was getting rather wet. Bowes Road picked up the baton for the North Circular in somewhat more sensible style - becoming a broad urban dual-carriageway between a parade of local stores and the recognisable frontage of a long-disused cinema - The Enfield Ritz, now in the service of the local Jehova's Witnesses who to their credit appear to have done much to preserve the building. Beside me, a long development of new-build flats on what appeared to be the liquidated edge of a school playing field was being constructed. As I passed the show home, optimistic salesmen were setting out the signs for a day of being ignored by motorists. I noticed with some surprise that the upper decks of these small but otherwise decently built flats had balconies overlooking the A406. I wondered what odd, Ballardian mind had designed this building, knowing that on the best of British summer days, the view would be a distorted vista of the severe Board School buildings through a hydrocarbon-laced haze? I knew that this section of the walk would lead me to a number of areas which I'd recognise, and Powys Road soon interrupted my weighing up of how life here beside the road might be? I'd strayed a little along this street while searching for Pymmes Brook, finding a proud bridge parapet constructed for Southgate District Council in the midst of the fine suburban homes. I mentally assessed my position - once again the North Circular had appropriated the flat valley-bottom of the brook for its alignment. Up ahead, the Hertford Loop of the railway from Kings Cross passed overhead on a long, slewed bridge, the overhead wires sizzling quietly in the rain. Beyond the bridge a palisade fence marked the crossing of the New River under the road. I swerved through the narrow kissing gate and onto a muddy and litter-strewn path between the embankment of the railway and the river, emerging on the quiet grassy bank beside the water. There is something oddly tranquil about this waterway at any time, but having just escaped the tumult of traffic on the North Circular, it felt especially calming. Emerging from a utilitarian concrete culvert under the road via a litter-festooned debris trap, the river curved away to the northeast, crossing Pymmes Brook somewhere in the middle distance. I paused for a while, the rain was stopping and this seemed a fine place to wait it out for a moment. It was comforting to be connected to a part of London I knew better at last. While striking out into the unknown has its attractions, the sense of familiarity was welcome just now.
That feeling of being somewhere I knew fairly well persisted - the crossing of Green Lanes was one of the places I first remember needing to interact with the North Circular on my travels. Then it felt like an insurmountable barrier - an almost impassable point beyond which pedestrians weren't welcome. I thought back to those earlier walks as I picked my way across the tangle of crossings near Palmers Green Bus Garage, and set off again alongside what was now a busy four lane highway between more of the typical suburban dwellings which had lined the route since Chiswick. The road still curved elegantly along the valley of Pymmes Brook, crossing it via an inconspicuous metal bridge soon after the Green Lanes junction. The brook wound eastwards via Tile Kiln Lane - a quiet patch of nature reserve I'd walked before. This time I stuck to the road, most of my walk towards Great Cambridge Roundabout being along a service road separated from the traffic by a thick, thorny box hedge of the type beloved of Local Authorities everywhere. The spiny stems trapped the swirling litter and repelled sound, reducing the traffic noise to a dull rumble from the front rooms of the homes here. As I climbed up to the level of the tall red-brick arc of bookmakers, take-aways and letting agencies which ring the junction with the A10, I realised I'd need to head under road to get back on route. The subways here are confusing, poorly signed and a little unwelcoming - mostly because the cycle path fills most of the width of the passage, requiring pedestrians to hunch alongside the edges of the tunnels uncomfortably. The walls are clad in shades of brown and cream, betraying the vintage of the last reconstruction of this junction. In the midst of the roundabout, the North Circular passes beneath, a weird, echoing roar coming from the deep concrete channel in which the road reverberates. It was oddly compelling watching traffic surging along the road I'd been accompanying for so many miles, now businesslike, buried beneath the A10 - a sizeable and important road in itself, one of the impressive radial routes constructed in the 1920s - but it seems even these venerable byways must give way to the unstoppable North Circular. Beyond Great Cambridge junction, I'm on very familiar territory. Avoiding the trap of being lured onto Silver Street - the former route of the North Circular - I walk the narrow footpath beside the traffic once again. This is the least welcome I've felt as a pedestrian for some miles. The path feels inconsequential, littered with dirt and dust from the road, and hemmed in by a crash barrier. There is private green space beyond the fence, and within the tangle of allotments and gardens, Pymmes Brook still runs. I'd tried in vain to walk that way before and ended up here on the roadside. Up ahead, the layby was still the temporary home for a small community of Polish truckers who appeared to be engaged in a small cycle maintenance sideline too. I politely slalomed around their handiwork, passing under the sign which told me that I, along with any horse-drawn traffic, would be forbidden from walking along the road in a quarter of a mile. I wondered as I covered this short distance what was less common here - pedestrians or horses? I'd seen none of either since Great Cambridge Junction. The rather baleful buildings of the North Middlesex Hospital loomed over the road, and another unwelcoming subway passed under the road to reach it. Up ahead, the gantry signs flickered up a lane-closure as the road passed into tunnel under Edmonton. The traffic reacted by groaning to a sudden halt. Horns sounded back along the carriageway. I slipped gratefully into the relative calm of Pymmes Park. The road was ever present, but the tall railings, the algae carpeted pond and the unconcerned ducks nodding their way around the islands of reeds made for a less turbulent atmosphere. I picnicked absent-mindedly, wondering how far I should try to get today? Despite a sense of familiarity, the road seemed endless, all-encompassing and somewhat unfriendly here as I passed from North London into the East.
Reluctantly leaving my comfortable bench, I headed under the Overground near Silver Street station and crossed the chaos of Fore Street. The North Circular resurfaced from its brief subterranean section, and I was again alone on the pavement beside it. The busy tumble of businesses which straggled alongside since the crossroads soon petered out, and it was just me and the traffic once again. The skies widened in front of me as I approached the Lea Valley with only Scott House, a tall slab block to the south of the road, to interrupt the suddenly darkening skies. Another downpour was coming, and as I slogged along beside the road I noted a curious pair ahead: two young men, apparently Eastern European, and in pristine sportswear. They walked purposefully along beside the road, apparently checking the route on their 'phones, in bright white hooded tracksuits and spotless trainers. I wondered if I appeared as curious to them when they glanced over, suddenly aware of being followed? They stuck to the road, walking in the deserted cycleway beside the traffic, while I disappeared momentarily behind the fringe of trees to use an adjacent service road. At Kenninghall Junction they appeared again, navigating the crossings in front of the tired and disused buildings, and climbing the ramp to cross the viaduct ahead of me. I followed, wet and tired, but still possibly better attired for this walk than they were. The North Circular rose and began its snaking crossing of the Lea Valley. I spied Pymmes Brook for one last time, slipping under the road to emerge in the Ikea carpark. The almost entirely unused Angel Road station was below too, impossible to access easily and waiting time to be closed in favour of a new facility serving the emerging Meridian Water development. The site for this new district was now apparent: a broad brown smudge of empty land to the south - an area I remembered as a grimy but still busy industrial estate. When I'd last passed by it had been a mess of half-demolished buildings - now, nothing but carefully graded soil. I thought of the Olympic development on Stratford Marsh - how quickly life disappeared from the intriguing tangle of waterways and factories once the developers moved in. Meridian Water feels like an opportunistic off-shoot of that grand project. Can prosperity be persuaded to edge north along the Lea? That remains to be seen. The road bucked northwards, passing an unlikely banqueting venue and a beleaguered Premier Inn in the shadow of the reeking London Waste incinerator. The sickly smell of decay hung in the air as I crossed the Lea Navigation, taking a broad swing along the sliproads of the complex junction to rejoin the main route as it crossed the river and a flood relief channel. I spotted the pair of young men I'd been following beginning to double back along a footpath below me, heading for the towpath. Ahead of me a wooded hillside rose away from the valley. I'd made it across the strange industrial hinterland which had first drawn me to this part of the North Circular. I'd crossed the ancient boundary - in simpler times, this was Essex.
At the junction with Hall Lane, I pondered my progress. I'd started walking early and had time to spare with a later train home booked. I thought about my coming week of holiday - that in a couple of days I'd be back in Chingford briefly on route to Kent. I had the energy and time to press on, and time off to recover from a long walk. When I'd hastily planned these walks around the A406, I'd assumed I could cover the road in two evenly-balanced jaunts. But the hot weather and slow going on my first walk had meant I was picking up the slack today, and there was quite a distance yet to cover. This part of the road though, was very familiar indeed. The high brick wall concealing the Chingford Hall Estate soon gave way to the flank of the vast Sainsbury's near the remains of Walthamstow Stadium. Across the road were the reservoirs which lined the Lea Valley, and the strange marshy wasteland around Folly Lane. I felt oddly at home here. The road shuddered on, six lanes of traffic moving at speed towards Crooked Billet while pedestrians were relegated to walk along Walthamstow Avenue, divided from main road by the now familiar chainlink fence but still busy with traffic serving the industrial units lining the route. Again the North Circular descended into a tunnel under the complex junction, my own route leading to a dizzying spiral of footpaths and subways which burrowed under the roundabout, suspended between the surface and the roadway. The decoration and design of the complex suggested it was completed at the same time as the similar burrowing grade-separation at Great Cambridge Junction. I emerged at the end of Chingford Road, close by where I'd followed the path of the River Ching in the early part of the year. This time though, I was turning south, skirting the oddly makeshift Walthamstow Ambulance Station marooned between roads on the edge of the roundabout, and passing by Arsenal's youth academy and training ground at Hale End. My route here was the relatively sedate Wadham Road, a suburban feeder which was in fact the original North Circular here, which climbed to cross the railway and join the road from Highams Park. Across the street I could see the frankly terrifyingly named Living Flames Baptist Chuch, which I pretended an interest in while I secretly snapped a really badly designed road sign. A couple of locals, chatting beside the Star of India restaurant were clearly a little suspicious and I swiftly moved on. My route from here was unplanned and a little indeterminate. Looking ahead, the North Circular climbed a hill and disappeared between the trees of Epping Forest's southern reaches, a surprisingly impressive vista in the gloomy eastern sky. This relatively newly constructed section of road, built in an era when we were perhaps more aware of visual amenity but less inclined to manage environmental impacts, had been carefully concealed within a deep trench cut through the southern flank of the forest. Oddly, the original course of the road - a far less destructive curve south towards the A503 - had been entirely abandoned to nature and was now a broad grassy swathe on the edge of the forest. South of the road, the suburban streets seemed largely cut off from any useful path for some distance. While the map showed forest paths crossing under the road, they took me a long way south towards Walthamstow, considerably adding to my route. Spotting the potential signature of a makeshift path running parallel to the road, I decided to find a way in by climbing the steep rise of the rather wonderfully named Sky Peals Road. At the brow of the hill I found an unmarked muddy entrance to the woodland and I plunged in.
I'd been oddly nervous about this part of the walk. While I loved walking in the forest, I knew that by now I'd be both tired and keen to find a swift path through the woods. The lack of any clear route at first was disorienting, and I had to navigate carefully via my map to ensure I was heading generally in the direction of the road. Soon though, the sound of traffic cut through the thick woodland, and I spied the tall green early warning sign for Waterworks Corner peeking between the trees. Sure enough a narrow nettle-lined path paralleled the road, winding between clearings and climbing gradually. Now I had my bearings, I was able to enjoy this part of the walk more than I'd anticipated. While it was true I was just passing through today and wouldn't be here nearly long enough to enjoy the cool and quiet, there were as always some surprises to be had. My first came when I crashed out of the trees and onto a broad gravel path running roughly north-south. Beside me was the footbridge over the North Circular which I'd crossed on route through the forest months ago. I ventured onto the bridge and took photographs of the road pulsating with traffic below. It seemed so different up here, quite different from the gentle swish of cars masked by trees on the forest path. Retracing my steps I found the continuation of my path - an overgrown gully between trees which I'd imagined I'd never need to, or perhaps even dare to walk when I last passed this spot. Suddenly these minor side-paths, tributaries of the official way, had become my target. Perversely, it took the act of following a huge, tarmac-covered monstrosity to uncover their purpose and route. I crashed back into the woods, the path turning to skirt a deep bowl in the ground. I realised that down there, somewhere was the circle of bridleways around Waterworks Corner which I'd navigated at the end of the A503 walk. I slithered down a leaf-littered bank. It was, at least, almost dry now - a far cry from the swamp I'd picked my way around last winter. The urge to head north or south here, to follow the forest path rather than the road, was very strong. But I was close to a decision point - the next stretch of walking on a side-road high above the carriageway would bring me to Woodford. At that point, once again, I'd have to decide what to do next.
I sat for a while on the low wall surrounding a litter-strewn planter in the garden which sits above the North Circular. The wide bridge, in its attempts to conceal the road beneath, had been developed into a plaza. Few people stopped here - the fumes rising from below or the unnatural hum of traffic permeating their thoughts seemed to put them off. I'd been alone with my own thoughts for a few minutes, calculating and recalibrating. I wasn't really sure where - or how - the walk should end. After this stop, all the possible points at which I could leave the road felt remote and complicated by onward travel arrangements. I could call it quits here, head for the city and loaf around for hours being lazy. Or I could press on. Eventually, curiosity overcame me. The same strange urge which had been largely responsible for this walk in the first place: across the street was Rookery Path. This narrow alleyway, sidling along the edge of the chasm in which the North Circular runs and carefully carrying people away from Waitrose, was apparently important enough to bear its own street name. Naming pathways wasn't usual practice in Redbridge - and seemed to indicate some provenance. How long had this route existed? How far did it go? I needed to find out. And so I found myself walking steeply down hill on a narrow path. Descents are not my thing at all - while climbing is lung-burstingly hard work and exhausting on the knees, heading down requires a degree of balance and the ability to defy momentum. Two things I struggle to maintain even at my best. Added into the equation was a procession of cyclists, apparently determined to cycle up the hill as a feat of bravery or stamina. They swayed along, their machines swaggering haphazardly beneath them as they leant all of their weight and power onto the pedals, huffing, grimacing and staring resolutely at a spot inches ahead of their front wheel. I dodged and weaved, trying to stay standing and out of the path of passing cycles. Eventually, the path bottomed out beside the road, sandwiched between a massive concrete wall and more of the sturdy, grime-streaked chainlink. The road felt just inches away, and another of the rather sobering sprigs of browning flowers marked the spot where it had claimed another casualty. A sign urged pedestrians not to cross here at this 'accident spot'. The only way was forward - passing more signs reminding me this was Rookery Path. There are few mentions of Rookery Path besides what appears to be the news report of the incident commemorated by the flowers I'd seen - but it appears that The Rookery was one of two sizeable and ancient estates divided by George Lane, which now forms the main shopping street of South Woodford. This path appears to have no great pedigree - the 1923 Ministry of Transport map shows nothing aside from whitespace, while later maps chart the proposed route of the Woodford Spur road scything across open countryside, heading for the Roding Valley. Now the re-routed course of this road is buried under the A406 as it curves gently southwards, concrete ramps ascending to take the beginnings of the M11 high over Charlie Brown's roundabout. My footpath edged around the junction, connecting the ends of cul-de-sacs formed by the interruption of this landscape of overbridges and viaducts. I'm eventually committed to a slightly perilous crossing of Chigwell Road in order to duck under the wooden arch marking the Roding Valley Park. Once again, I'm on familiar ground.
Ducking under the pylons and emerging from the tangle of ramps and bridges, it was good to find the River Roding again. This proud little waterway, having made its way from rural Essex, was now filled with a swaying forest of green weeds. My path skirted the river, hugging its straightened course southwards. Once it had meandered along this valley, swerving crazily to the sides of the green bottom. It seemed likely that the building of this relatively modern section of the A406 had put paid to this, eating up a significant part of the western edge of the meads through which the river had trickled. My path was sandwiched between river and road, a deep green tunnel in the summer, and a pleasant bit of off road walking. My feet were tired and the sun had beaten back the clouds, making for a much warmer afternoon. Surprisingly, I didn't see another soul out here in the valley at all. Beyond the line of tall trees, the road hummed and shimmered in the heat, traffic hammering along this final, fast stretch of the road as it turned directly south and like the Roding, headed for the Thames. I recalled my Roding Valley walks, and knew that this stretch though not long, would see me isolated from the road for quite a distance. I was never quite free of its gravity though, nor of its sounds. A bird of prey swooped onto the grassy riverbank, unconcerned with the nearby tumult of traffic. Eventually I reached the point where I'd turned aside to follow the river under the road on my previous walk, instead climbing a curving bridge to the eastern bank. I silently begged the gate to be open - so many other routes into this valley seemed to be locked and forbidden for some reason. This time I was lucky, and a rather tiring but thankful clamber up some makeshift steps deposited me a little way from Redbridge Roundabout. I trudged past a Premier Inn and an associated Beefeater restaurant, apparently named for Redbridge House, a curious nearby property of some vintage now divided into ludicrously expensive luxury flats. As I passed the elegant rotunda and tower of Charles Holden's Redbridge Station, I cursed my fear of escalators and pressed on - one last tiled underpass taking me under the A12 as the North Circular strode above on a viaduct. Eastern Avenue continued out of the city, another of the broad and straight arterial routes from the 1920s - the same road-building frenzy which had given us the earliest form of the A406. It's western course here had it's genesis in an altogether different era, being the eastern end of the controversial M11 link road. I climbed slowly onto Woodford Park Road, the long suburban street which paralleled the A406 from here into Ilford. When I was last here, it was a litter-strewn, fly-tipped mess of a street, the rather fine semi-detached homes looking out over a footpath teeming with filth and rubble. Now it was tidier, newly erected signs warning of the considerable penalties for leaving waste. As I passed by on what was now a sunny afternoon, families went about their day - cars were washed, visitors arrived, delivery vans shuttled up and down the street. Behind the houses, a narrow strip of green separated them from the North Circular, slowing to a halt as traffic for Ilford and for the A13 beyond attempted to disentangle itself into the correct lanes. Woodford Park Road seemed endless - I passed the bridge where I'd left it to cross the valley last time and walked on. The house numbers seemed to decrease almost imperceptibly. I was dog-tired, the dirt and dust of the road covered me and the chemical-heavy air I'd been breathing for felt insufficient and overheated. The row of houses continued endlessly ahead. Beyond were the jagged glass towers which signified central Ilford and a sensible place to end the walk. I'd never tried to pretend this trek wasn't going to be a challenge - but I was surprised how exhausting walking beside the endless churn of noise and traffic would be.
I turned a corner to find a welcome site - the York Road entrance to Ilford Station, refurbished in 2016 and now accessed via an attractive former Great Eastern Railway building rescued from seeing out its days as a store-room and works office. As I found my way to the platform for a train back to London, I looked west towards the viaduct carrying the North Circular for its last few miles south. I knew the route well, having picked my way along the valley several times before on various walks. I knew too, that it was almost impossible to walk close to the road here. Somehow I'd have to cover these last few miles to the river - and beyond, to the South Circular which I'd briefly connected with at the start of this walk in Chiswick. Connecting that missing link felt important - because this second day of walking on the North Circular had been almost entirely about making connections with previous walks. As I've mapped the north and east of London, I've made these often unexpected links which have only deepened my sense of how mysterious and intriguing these zones are. What seem on the face of it to be somewhat benign, self-effacing suburbs hide the history of ancient manors, lunatic asylums and vast primordial forests. London conceals all of these things, but it only takes a walk to scratch this surface. As the train creaked to a halt and the doors opened in front of me I wondered at how many times I'd passed along this route - over the very same rivers and under roads which I was now walking? Life has taken surprising turns and led me to unexpected changes in recent years, but this landscape has provided a constant backdrop, its complexity emerging slowly as I walked, read, and understood the territory a little better over time. The river beckoned, and beyond it the unknown south. I'm not sure I'd fully figured out everything I'd learned from navigating the North Circular - but still, this walk was far from finished.
Posted in London on Saturday 1st July 2017 at 11:07pm
When I'm pressed to explain some of the walks I write about here, sometimes the best I can expect is a blank glance and a swift change of subject in response. The very worst is to be faced with is a single word: "Why?". I'm not sure quite when my simple interest in the topography of London became a strange drive to connect everything together. The sheer impossibility of knowing London is almost part of the fun: faced with the massive, overwhelming complexity of the city it is a perverse joy to find a corner where there is some unremarked detail ignored by almost everyone who passes just feet away. That said, I'm dreading the explanations for this excursion - a walk around the North Circular. On so many counts this doesn't stack up - after all Iain Sinclair walked the M25 years ago, unravelling the Thatcherite dream-highway as it wavered through the greenbelt. He found a road which symbolised a period in London's evolution, linking the ring of decommissioned Victorian lunatic asylums via a swathe of tarmac which was obsolete by design before its final opening. It was a manifesto commitment reluctantly delivered way over budget - like a band's final and pitiable album delivered to satisfy a contractual obligation. By comparison, the A406 is a more mundane entity, a road that gets the job done with very little fuss or esoteric bluster. A road that emerges from the old tracks and brooks of North London rather than being consciously designed. Its broad semi-circuit never quite breaks free of the post-war suburban sprawl of the city, yet for long stretches the road is entirely cut off from the communities which fringe the fume-filled gully which it occupies. Walking the North Circular was at best unnecessary and at worst seemed mildly unhealthy. But the curious history of this road has haunted my walks across the city: sometimes it has been a barrier to progress, sometimes a welcome shortcut between other tracks. Now it was time to pay my respects to this arc of tarmac properly - by walking it.
It feels counter-intuitive to head west. My general interest, my preferred territory and my familiar haunts are all in the other direction. I surface at Gunnersbury Station, now embedded in the base of a dull, glassy office block unimaginatively and innaccurately called Chiswick Tower. Across the street is the equally questionably monikered Chiswick Park - a diamond of late 1990s office developments by Richard Rogers which wear their slender white skeletons outside their mirror-glass skins. Nowhere, it seems, wants to admit that it's Gunnersbury. The grass is snooker-table short and primped, the site pristinely managed to the point of unreality. I venture in to find a tiny coffee shop situated in a free-standing oval pod, a single barista already sweltering in the metal box while she bustles through a large order for a group of Polish builders who effortlessly defy the 'No Smoking' signs across the footpath. While I wait for my drink I spot a small box sporting a bright yellow 'help' button. The sign is pitched just a little too hysterically for my liking: 'Lost? Confused? Need Help? Press here for Chiswick Park Estate Management'. As I sip my coffee in a designated seating area and make the final preparations for my long day of walking, I wonder just what kind of crises the employees and visitors to the companies inhabiting the park suffer regularly enough to warrant that kind of message? It is perhaps best not to guess - especially on a Saturday when the site is eerily and rather menacingly quiet. Instead I move on - back out onto Chiswick High Road, and just a short walk from the infamous Chiswick Roundabout.
If you've ever listened to an LBC traffic segment, you'll have heard this fairly ordinary traffic feature used as a barometer for the state of the Capital's roads. Here the M4 either starts or ends, depending on your viewpoint, while the older Great West Road - as immortalised by Chris Petit in Radio On is relegated to a supporting role, running underneath the motorway. This is also the only point where the North and South Circular roads meet, with the broadening estuary of the Thames breaking their imperfect circle where they attempt to reconvene out east at Woolwich. As I snapped a picture of the large sign on the approach to the junction, much to the amusement of some tourists checking out of the nearby hotel, I realised that at some point if I am to stay true to the rationale of my project, I'd need to suspend my prejudices and head south of the river. The South Circular was a poor relation, an inferior and unimproved cousin to the A406, running for most of its length on twisting, turning high roads through urban centres. South London has never received its due in transport terms - tube lines sputtering to a halt after barely crossing the river, railway stations closed and not often considered for reopening, and to cap it all a road network which struggles to support the population which it serves. I found myself curious about this southern exit and what it might reveal about areas I rarely visited, but, today my business was with the northern outlet from Chiswick Roundabout. It was an inauspicious start to this long journey - the footpath fringing a long-vacant, overgrown corner site and surrounded by a cluster of roadworks where the traffic funnelled into a brief stretch of ageing dual carriageway. All too soon, the traffic was crunched into a narrow four lane, single carriageway suburban route between ranks of houses. A surprise for me, as I walked today, would be discovering how many people lived directly on the North Circular and would have to negotiate pauses in the torrent of traffic simply to leave their driveways. These roadworks appeared to mostly affect the railway bridge, leading over the inelegantly named North & South Western Junction Railway line between South Acton and Old Kew Junction, with pedestrians diverted over a makeshift covered bridge beside the road. The railways of this corner of West London are complex and trying to unravel them in my head without a map was folly - but I later recalled that this line was briefly used for the 'Crosslink' service from Basingstoke to Norwich via the North London Line, finally ending in 2002. A noble but ultimately doomed effort at using the existing infrastructure in new ways - a sort of Crossrail on the cheap. As I walked and pondered the railways criss-crossing the area, I stumbled upon the wild green edge of Gunnersbury Park. My first contact with this place was via a song, a rather twee piece by The Hit Parade, which made it sound an idyllic and rather ethereal spot. I'd always suspected however that the song was something less honest - the urge of a provincial lad freshly arrived in the city to namecheck a London spot near his newly adopted student digs perhaps? Let's face it - we just can't do road songs here. The romance of Americana doesn't translate into British suburbia, and even the most esoteric name-checking of places is going to sound gratingly odd. The reality of Gunnersbury Park was a surprisingly large tract of green space, some of which had been left to become pleasingly ungoverned and unkempt. Other areas, further into the park appeared to promise the usual range of facilities, and even a museum - but I didn't stray beyond the fringe. Instead I walked the pavement outside the high brick wall, noting how few gates opened onto the busy road. The North Circular here divided briefly into two carriageways once again, a run of large but, in their marooned and straitened circumstances, faintly ridiculous mock Tudor semis flanking the eastern side. This was, to some extent what I'd expected - and as I came upon the crossroads where this important route ground to a halt at traffic lights for the first time, I realised that the haphazard, piecemeal improvement of the route since the 1920s had turned it into a curious time capsule. Walking this route was archeology rather than geography. The silt-like layers of London's development had not settled evenly around the North Circular.
Shortly after crossing Pope's Lane and wondering if this was named for the pontiff or the poet, I entered the London Borough of Ealing by crossing the Piccadilly Line making its way out to Heathrow. I'd stayed near here before for a number of rail trips which had begun at Ealing Broadway, and there was a pleasant familiarity to Ealing Common which opened out to the west of the road, criss-crossed by pathways and flanked by tall townhouses. The tree-lined crossroads where I crossed the road out to Uxbridge, once the route of the old Oxford mail coach - was particularly familiar, and the hotel I'd used sat in its familiar spot on the northeastern corner, now a rather swankier Doubletree establishment. A local festival was setting up on the green. Ealing felt comfortable and promising in the morning sunshine. This is where Hanger Lane begins - and I confess I'd been a little disappointed by this when I'd first visited. If Chiswick Roundabout is the headline, then Hanger Lane was a depressingly familiar footnote to all the worst traffic reports, the place where all journeys collapse into epic traffic snarls. Hanger Lane even sounded gritty, dangerous and relentless. It was, in fact, a leafy continuation of Ealing Common - at least at first. The road climbed slowly initially, soon becoming surprisingly steeper - living up to the name's origins - a wooded hillside. Hanger Hill was once a desirable out-of-town spot, and even after the coming of the great arterial route of Western Avenue in the 1930s and the building of several suburban estates on its slopes, it remains a sought-after area to live. As I ascended the hill I noted a broad, well-trimmed but abandoned sports ground, once home to Barclays Bank's staff leisure facilities. The large modernist pavilion building crumbled in a corner, its bold clock face falling from the wall one modern, numberless hour marker at a time. I crossed the street here in preparation for navigating the junctions up ahead and found a crescent-shaped tangle of woodland separating the estates from the road. The woodland was refreshingly cool, with waist-high nettles and tangled brambles. I felt like I'd plunged into a forest, despite cars swishing by just feet away.
On emerging from the woods, the road started to descend into the wide valley of the River Brent, and the view which opened before me was less bucolic. Above the shimmer of fumes above the Hanger Lane Gyratory was a climbing terrain of suburbs and industry, the arch of Wembley Stadium dominant. The road reached its first major junction almost absent-mindedly - straddled by a parade of shops served by little sides streets, the confusing horror of the Gyratory came rather suddenly upon me. Marooned in the midst of the clamour was Hanger Lane Station, a sober concrete and glass drum peeking from the caldera in the midst of the giant roundabout. The network of subways serving the station also allowed pedestrians to access the various other exits, and I soon found myself on the north eastern quadrant of the junction, beside an almost identical parade of stores. That these shops could survive so close to the others was testament to how few people dared to venture beneath the junction perhaps? The A406 turned north east here, now becoming a divided highway in earnest with a solid metal fence preventing pedestrians from attempting a suicidal crossing. Walking the narrow sliver of pavement towards the fitful surges of traffic, I wasn't entirely sure the path continued ahead. So, after passing under the northern arm of the Piccadilly Line I used a brightly tiled underpass to reach the northern side of the road. The route here shares the broad valley floor with the Brent, and represents a northern boundary for the vast Park Royal business area. The area between the river and the road is a straggling mess of fringe businesses, marooned and separated from the main business park by six lanes of traffic. As such they're a strange bunch of premises: a furniture outlet with an impressive mock-colonnade entrance, a truly huge Chinese supermarket, car dealerships and a forlorn Travelodge surrounded by high fences and battered by fumes and noise from the road. Beyond this, a modern aqueduct carries the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal overhead, but there is no easy access from this side of the road. Instead, stairs lead up to a footbridge suspended under the canal which allows pedestrians to switch from one carriageway to another by shuffling along under the towpath. The canal was a welcome thought - cool waterside walking was an appealing alternative to the hot dusty slog of the road - but it wasn't for today. Intrigued by the bridge I added it to my list of potential future urban hikes and moved on. Up ahead was part of the cultural history of the North Circular - The Ace Café. Opened in 1938, the Ace was a modern, bright transport café serving traffic on what was then a newly improved road with an equally modern bright future as one of London's future Ringways. The always-open Ace became a centre for motorcycle culture in the 1950s and 60s, featuring in the movie of The Leather Boys - a somewhat sanitised version of Gillian Freeman's novel of gay biker culture. Between 1969 and 1997 the building languished as a tyre warehouse and office, before reopening and once again serving the motorcyclists of West London. As I climbed up the curving ramps of the adjacent footbridge to get a view of the road, I saw ranks of motorcycles gleaming on the forecourt while speakers thundered out rock'n'roll and leather clad men sweltered in the humid late-morning. The Ace gleamed, pristine white plasterwork shining in the sun. There was something inspiring about seeing this bit of road culture surviving, a world away from the monotony of motorway service stations where you needed to check the signs because you could be anywhere. The Ace anchored the corner of the North Circular as it began to head east into uncharted territory. My footpath descended to pass under the first of numerous railway arches, the North Circular using its own, pedestrian-exclusive concrete underpass here. The service road I was using here was the entrance to Stonebridge Park station, and also to both the rail depot and Princess Royal Mail Distribution Centre. Between the bridges, looking up into a narrow band of sky, I caught a glimpse of Stonebridge Park signal box sitting high above me between the lines where Overground and Bakerloo Line trains shuddered overhead. Aside from the frequent passage of Royal Mail juggernauts, it was oddly cool and peaceful under the railway, and odd to think how often I'd passed above this otherwise unremarkable spot.
I emerged from the Victorian brick arches into a somewhat more dystopian vista. Firstly, I finally caught sight of the River Brent. Having walked in its shadow for some distance, the river finally came alongside the road in a deep concrete channel. I could smell the river before I saw it, a ripe sewage-like tang in the summer heat. Concrete walkways crossed the water to access the ground floor of Wembley Point, a 21 storey triangular tower which dominates the junction with Harrow Road. Now in mixed use, the curious ribbed concrete is clad in glistening mirror-like panels, reflecting the less salubrious view of the derelict Unisys Towers which sit on the southern side of the road. These curved concrete slab blocks have been out-of-use for more than a decade, despite various plans to reuse them. They tower over the surrounding low-rise suburban landscape and give the junction an air of the slightly off-kilter view of the future city which would have featured in mid-century science fiction. They are though, not entirely deserted, as an enterprising security guard appears to be allowing Wembley-bound punters to park within their fenced compound for a nominal fee on event days. Needing sustenance I decided to stray briefly from my route here, following Harrow Road into the almost disappeared suburb of Tokyngton. Everyone refers to this part of London as Stonebridge - or even just Wembley - but it is a distinct area in itself, even if remembered only in the name of streets and nearby parks. At first sight it's a fairly down-at-heel neighbourhood, with a long straggle of ethnic supermarkets and newsagents along the road. Two things quickly became apparent here - that I'd need to pay for my goods in hard currency rather than plastic, and that if I wanted to withdraw cash to do so I'd be paying for the privilege of accessing my money. It struck me how inequality is thrown around as a lofty, political concept just now - often measured by the gap between the ludicrous and unreal world of the football star and the rest of us - but that it really bites on this micro level. You've worked hard at a minimum wage job but to access the funds you earned in your local High Street you're paying almost a third of an hour's salary. It is perhaps this kind of built-in unfairness - high prices for pre-paid electricity, high credit charges for insurance bought in instalments, and so on - which makes the simple mechanisms of life more expensive for those who are just about getting by. Perhaps before we talk about levelling the pyramid, we should address some of this simple, functional inequality of access and actually impact real lives for the better? In the end, I left Tokyngton without making a purchase, striking out into the park which runs between the Brent and the North Circular here. Being near water, however noisome its aspect, took the edge off the increasing temperature and for a while at least my walk was surprisingly peaceful and cool. I'd planned to consume refreshments in the park, but the difficulty of buying anything on Harrow Road had scuppered that plan. Instead I ambled along, trying to capture a view of the looping arch of Wembley Stadium across the tree line. Eventually though I was faced with a choice - follow the river north, or head back east onto the road. Again I stayed loyal to my plans and found myself once again on a narrow pavement in front of small semi-detached houses which were spattered with road-grime and greyed with years of accumulated fumes. The front gardens were litter-traps, swirling discarded detritus from the passing cars trapped inside gates and along the fence line. While it seemed like a miserable existence in some ways, all of the houses were occupied and any sense of the widespread planning blight along the route which I'd read about seemed to have been driven out by the bizarre conditions in the London housing market. If this was a bargain in a relatively central zone, perhaps the endless churn of traffic out front was tolerable? Up ahead, the bright blue hulk of IKEA filled the horizon. I contemplated a visit to a strange drive-through McDonalds housed in an oddly charming red-brick roadhouse, but seeing it teeming with young families, I decided to press on towards the retail park. Finally, by way of a complicated footbridge beside the turgid, algae-filled waters of a channel feeding the Grand Union Canal from the River Brent, I found my way into a ridiculously big Tesco store. It wasn't the picnic-spot I'd hoped for, but it would suffice in a pinch. It seemed an appropriate roadside halt on the modern North Circular, where you're never far from a retail park.
Refreshed but still weary from the heat, I retraced my steps out to the North Circular. Immediately the road began to rise towards a railway bridge crossing the Chiltern Lines and the Jubilee Line. Almost directly below the bridge the lines diverge, with the broad fan of sidings entering Neasden Depot spreading to the north of the line. Pedestrians were relegated to a separate bridge on each side of the main span, the result of some earlier widening scheme. Somewhat isolated from the traffic I was able to scan the horizon, watching trains shuttling into the depot and trying to make out the various routes which split away here. As I rejoined the carriageway the road took a treacherous bend to the left which created a continued screech of brakes and a forest of red tail-lights. Almost immediately on turning the corner, the road became the frontage to another stretch of grimy but clearly occupied houses and tired businesses as I approached Neasden. Neasden is the butt of a series of Private Eye jokes - and it has ridiculousness built in from it's origins - deriving its name from 'nose-shaped hill' was never going to make it a serious contender. It was immediately clear that the substantial suburb has had far greater injustices done to it in recent times, with Neasden Lane - its main thoroughfare - divided by the North Circular into two distinct and disconnected parts. The urban centre is now bypassed by a busy underpass which linked into my route via a looping, part-cloverleaf junction squashed uncomfortably into the tiny corner of space available. The pedestrian route appears to take a long detour north, but I noticed the continuation of the path beyond a low barrier ahead and took the chance. I'm not alone, it appears to be what the locals do here too I could see, but as I cross above the bypass I spot the unedifying sight of a crumbling brown sprig of memorial flowers cable-tied to the safety fence. South of the road, the buildings along Neasden Lane stack higher as it climbs towards Dudden Hill and the green and white sign of 'Dicey Reilly's Nite Club' reminds me that this swathe of North West London, stretching roughly along the route of Roman Watling Street is home to arguably the most concentrated population of Irish folk outside Ireland. It's written that these northwestern districts were as far as the newly arrived young Irishmen could walk from Euston with their suitcases, and thus they settled here. They were indeed primarily young men - idealistic and keen to retain their culture despite needing to travel for work - and this meant that over the course of the 1970s and 80s the area took on a dangerous edge as the 'troubles' once again crossed the Irish Sea. Though primary accounts are unsurprisingly scarce and somewhat unreliable it seems likely that the area was a reliable source of funding for Republican groups during the most intense periods of conflict. While the enclave which once ran from Cricklewood to Paddington along the A5 is much diminished - in no small part due to the improving fortunes of the Irish economy in more recent times - it's a telling statistic that the London Borough of Brent still has a population of which 13% consider themselves Irish or of Irish descent. Looking along the divided community of Neasden straggling along the ridge it's hard to see the attraction to the area in some ways - but the promise of work, money and kinship was surely a strong draw.
The road began to turn east - and while it was still far from its most northerly point here, I sensed I was heading into more familiar territory. In fact I soon found myself close to the origins of a recent walk, as I arrived at the junction with Aboyne Road where a nondescript metal gate led into the parkland which separated the North Circular from Brent Reservoir. Slipping into the park I weaved around a gaggle of mothers applying sunscreen to their pramloads of children, and made for the water. The impressive sweep of the artificial lake stretched north and east, while beside me an earth bank marked the line of the dam wall where the waters of the Brent were stopped up. A busy marina filled the southern part of the reservoir, while wilder parkland was evident on the northern bank. I followed the rough path along the edge of the lake stopping to decipher the faded interpretation panels which had all been overwritten with the word 'ALLAH' in thick, black marker pen. The narrow stretch of grassland between the road and the water was a sea of wavering reedy grasses which swished pleasantly, altering the incessant traffic drone which I realised had dominated everything I'd heard for the last few hours. The path began to swing back east towards the road, and delved into a rather forbidding patch between tall and straggling trees. A pair of stolen suitcases had clearly been rifled through and discarded here, the odd ephemera of a holiday scattered disconcertingly among the branches. The path abruptly stopped at a bleak iron gate near a footbridge, depositing me directly onto the road once again. Dust and litter swirled around the alcove formed by the bridge abutments and the gateway. I wondered if it would have been possible to continue to strike out along the shore of the lake, finding my way out to West Hendon where I'd tried to access the waterside a month ago? It certainly didn't appear so - once again the North Circular was the only viable option. It is just that kind of road, it seems: a route of last resort.
I consoled myself in knowing that the River Brent wouldn't ever be far from the rest of my walk today as I slogged along the footpath beside three lanes of traffic which pulsed oddly between slow jams and high speed dashes in reaction to unseen traffic signals ahead of me. While I was focusing on the presence of the river, it was the road which would be the dominant feature of the next section of my walk as I approached Staples Corner. Here, the A5 crossed under the North Circular which rides high on a viaduct crossing the embryonic slip-roads of the M1. It's a complex mess of additions and improvements from a motorist's viewpoint, but from a pedestrian's aspect - you may as well not even try. Certainly it's clear that few do come this way, as individual footprints were evident in the thick layers of dust and detritus deposited on the footbridges which thread between the complex infrastructure of the junction. First I descended as the A406 rose between two totemic advertising pillars which dwarfed the surrounding warehouses, forming a ceremonial gateway to Brent Cross. Now at ground level, I passed under the concrete bridge carrying the A5, suddenly rather conscious of the towering stack of carriageways above me. A footbridge climbed from each side of the junction to meet in a central walkway suspended under the viaduct carrying the North Circular above everything. The competing streams of traffic shuddering around me created an impossibly complex sound which was at once both overwhelmingly loud and strangely soothing. It also had the odd effect of negating the sound of passing high speed trains on the Midland Mainline which also somehow squeezed through the junction on an old brick viaduct. As I descended to the ground on the other side of the roundabout, I faced a choice - follow what appeared to be a path under the railway or head along a side road which had been appropriated by a car maintenance establishment as an unofficial repair yard. The path soon ran out, depositing me in a position where I couldn't cross the next road which was effectively the beginning of the M1 - so I dutifully retraced my steps under the clammy arches and doubled back through the makeshift car lot, surprising the locals who clearly saw few pedestrians here. Finally I found the grubby, litter-strewn spiral ramp leading up onto a footbridge into the middle of the next huge roundabout. I was aware that I was sweating and breathing hard. The air was hot, dry and metallic and the mental effort of trying to find the right route was equally taxing. I had a dull headache and realised that my brow was fixed in a serious frown from trying to understand and negotiate this route. At times like this I suspect most people would wonder why I set out on these journeys? Why I wouldn't just get the next bus out of there? But my battle with Staples Corner was all part of understanding the terrain. There are always ways to walk these places, if you're persistent - and foolhardy - enough to seek them. As I trudged down the slope of the footbridge which brought me back to ground level beside the North Circular once again, I noticed that over the fence was the fringe of a vast car park serving Brent Cross shopping centre, the ungainly stack of buildings which glowered in the middle distance. I set off again, noting that you'd have to be pretty unlucky to need to use a space this far from John Lewis...
Passing Brent Cross took quite a while, the site straggling along the North Circular and almost using it as a breakwater to separate the shopping centre from suburbia. The margin which runs along the road is a little unloved, and perhaps not the face the stores would expect arriving customers to experience first - but almost no-one ever arrives on foot via the A406 I suppose? The long, dusty concrete service road reeked of misconnected sewage outlets and was strewn with litter from the main road while the fence was a trap for the slightly better class of rubbish blown away from the shopping centre. The layers of trash met, plastered by the breeze onto the high, mesh fence. The Fire Escape route from the semi-permanent funfair which occupies the space between mall and road was propped open, staff furtively smoking in the gap. An overloaded white Transit van attempted a three-point turn, its rusting and overtaxed bodywork almost grazing layers of rubber from the tyres as the driver swore at her inability to manoeuvre out of this bind. The Brent had been hidden inside the confines of the retail park for a while, flowing beyond the fence, but as the road curved towards its multi-level interchange with the A41 up ahead the river was again alongside the path, a deep concrete ditch lined with a glutinous layer of slippery weed and algae. I picked a way between the carriageways, not made easier by the only available signs assuming I wanted to access either the retail park or the oddly isolated branch of Toys'r'Us marooned to the south of the road. I eventually escaped, passing a rather fine old bridge over the river which was hidden beneath the dual carriageways, onto Shirehall Park which formed the spine of a decent estate of suburban houses shadowing the Brent and the North Circular. A little way further on I was able to escape the road briefly by turning into Brent Park. This sliver of wild green space follows the very first section of the Brent and the path here forms part of the Capital Ring. As such, it is at least reasonably clearly identifiable and decently kept - but it was today entirely deserted, which was perhaps not entirely unexpected. While some sections of the Capital Ring are popular in their own right, only the dedicated who intend to make the full circuit end up covering these suburban and more prosaic sections. They're missing a treat in my view - the park was cool and green, and while the shudder of the road was still evident, there was a welcome and peaceful division between traffic and footpath here. The path curved around the quiet and still Decoy Pond before heading back out towards a side-road, continuing after a crossing and a few metres walk on the pavement. And so I found myself at the beginning of the Brent - the confluence of the Dollis Brook from the north and the Mutton Brook from the east forming the rather larger river which heads south and west towards the Thames. My path lay along the Mutton Brook, passing through a tidy and well-used playground but lined with signs warning me not to enter the brook's polluted waters. Worryingly, the signs appeared to have been there for quite a while. Little had changed for the rather forlorn, reeking ditch beside me it seemed.
My path, and the Mutton Brook, passed under the thundering and shaking North Circular via a tiny tunnel, before emerging on a wide slope of grass falling away from the road as it turned east to use the brook's steeply sided valley to progress east. Walking below the road, guided by the tall gantry signs for its own impending confluence with the A1, was a surprisingly pleasant way to cover this section. Along the road a range of large, mid-century apartment blocks imposed their presence, forming the edge of suburban Finchley. I was overheated and tired, and it was with some reluctance that I scrambled up to the road again near the vast Kinloss Synagogue and once again found myself on the deserted and rarely-walked pavement beside the A406. The complex junction with Falloden Way was clearly a major pinch point on the route, as traffic was forced to a juddering halt at traffic lights. The Mutton Brook and the footpath continued as the Dollis Valley Greenway towards Hampstead, but my route lay further north. Noting the special 'hands-free' pedestrian crossings installed to let orthodox jews reach the Shul without operating machinery on the sabbath, I steeled myself for a final push along the road. The North Circular was again an urban motorway - its carriageways divided by a solid crash-fence which was carefully pitched high enough to prevent ill-advised unofficial crossings by brave or foolhardy pedestrians. The pavement was littered and broken, clearly rarely used aside from the sections near bus stops. I began to wonder about the wisdom of starting this walk - feeling painfully aware that I ought at some point to finish at least one of these odd projects which I begin so publicly. The temperature was above 30º and I felt far more fatigued that I'd expected at this point in the walk. Everything I was wearing was drenched with sweat, and there was a film of dust in my mouth with an unpleasantly grimy taste. Fortuitously, a green strip appeared between the path and the road, where trees leaning over from the green space on the edge of a housing estate, shielded me from much of the sun. Grateful for the shelter, I put my head down and walked - determined to get as far as I could today to improve on what I felt had been disappointing progress. Looking up as the path rose, I realised that the red-brick walls beside the road were familiar - and as my path climbed away from the traffic I noted I was at the point where the A504 crossed above but didn't intersect with the road - a spot where I'd been just a few weeks ago. The A406 entered its tunnel, pedestrians officially excluded - thankfully - and I crossed the familiar route near the bus turning circle and little garden where I'd paused so recently. I thought about giving up here - but I knew that transport options weren't ideal from here. Not least because I'd need to get back to this point soon to continue the walk. Instead I walked above the line of the tunnel, marked by the edges of the garden, and was soon descending again onto the deserted roadside footpath where a row of fir tree saplings struggled to survive on the grassy median. If they made it, this path would become an invitingly cool green alleyway - but now it was the same dusty swirl of litter which had typified much of my walk today. The path wove around the ramps to a footbridge leading to the suburban streets away to the south, and then crossed the forecourt of a BP garage. I could see that up ahead the path entangled itself confusingly between the slip-roads leading to the A1000 - the route of the original Great North Road before the new A1 was constructed. This seemed like a fitting place to leave the North Circular for now, and I gratefully snapped a picture as a reference for my next walk, before following the curl of the path to the bus stop on Squires Lane. I was aware while waiting in the surprisingly busy bus queue that I was drenched, red-faced and grimy from the road - but I'd also completely stopped caring. I found a seat on the mercifully cool bus to Highbury and Islington and pondered my next move.
Reflecting on beginning this perhaps absurd project, I realised that it had been on the cards for some time - it had begun with my frequent encounters with the North Circular on my walks, and was cemented by my curiosity when regarding the mysterious Rookery Path in Woodford at the end of a recent trek. Indeed the whole concept of my ill-conceived London's Other Orbitals project meant that I had to do this at some point. If there were paths and parklands, triangles of open space and curious river valleys along the way, it would make for an interesting journey crossing suburbs in a way that almost no-one would normally choose on foot. Attempting it on one of the hottest days in an unpredictable summer was perhaps a mistake - but I have to take my chances, and my walks, when I can - and perhaps there were no perfect conditions to attempt something like this? In any case, I was glad to have left the dusty, noisy road for today - but I was oddly drawn back. The next section would link together new vistas with parts of the route I'd already visited and that was oddly appealing. As my bus rumbled south, crossing the busy and colourful churn of Seven Sisters Road, I felt an awfully long way from the primped, managed banality of the Chiswick Park office development where this had all begun. Despite the trials which this first section of the North Circular had presented, I was strangely excited to get back to the road soon. A little later, as I idly researched some of the areas I'd walked on the train home, I stumbled across a passing mention of Louis MacNeice and finally, after a good deal of digging, I found the brief quotation below among the text of the long poem. And with the thrill of a new discovery of something which had - to me at least - lain hidden, there was no doubt I'd see this walk through.
The next day I drove by night Among red and amber and green, spears and candles, Corkscrews and slivers of reflected light In the mirror of the rainy asphalt The North Circular and Great West Roads Running the gauntlet of impoverished fancy Where housewives bolster up their jerry-built abodes With amore propre and the habit of Hire Purchase. The wheels whished in the wet, the flashy strings Of neon lights unravelled, the windscreen wiper Kept at its job like a tiger or a cricket in a cage that sings All night through for nothing. Factory, a site for a factory, rubbish dumps, Bungalows in lath and plaster, in brick, in concrete, And shining semi-circles of petrol pumps Like intransigent gangs of idols. And the road swings round my head like a lassoo Looping wider and wider tracts of darkness And the country succeeds the town, and the country too Is damp and dark and evil.
Louis MacNeice - Autumn Journal (xiv) - 1939
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.