And now, the end is near… well, not all that near, as it happened. There were still a good 10 miles to go on the Capital Ring as a I hopped off the 108 at Stratford High Street. All around, the changes to E15 as 2012 approaches were apparent, as builders worked on creating approaches to the Olympic Park and developers continued making the place look unrecognisable from what it was a decade ago. From here, the walkway follows the Greenway for a couple of miles – quite literally, walking on top of a sewer. Part of Joseph Bazalgette‘s Victorian scheme to rid London of pongs and disease, the Northern Outfall Sewer runs from Hackney Wick to Beckton. The Capital Ring sticks with it for most of the way.
It’s not thrilling stuff, to be fair. The first section is surrounded by Olympic Park works, as work takes place to upgrade the walkway towards West Ham station in time for 2012. It passes the ornate former Abbey Mills Pumping Station – another part of Bazalgette’s grand plan. A clear view down to the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf reminds you which side of London you’re in. Passing over the District Line and London, Tilbury and Southend rail line, by a park and a cemetery, the pathway becomes more peaceful. Neighbourhood cats prowl through the bushes, while all around, the Plaistow rooftops stretch out.
Finally, it’s off the Greenway, through some residential streets, over the A13, and into Beckton District Park, covered in autumn leaves. I’d expected a grim, modern, featureless open space, but in most parts it’s actually anything but that. The park’s older than it looks – dating back to 1903, a couple of decades after the creation of Beckton, named after the governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company, Simon Adams Beck, whose works dominated this area for decades. The park alternates between little bits of woodland, grassy mounds and formal gardens like the walk featuring examples of trees from aroud the world. The Capital Ring takes a twisting route through the park, with Tate & Lyle’s huge Silvertown plant coming into view.
But it’s the great roars which start to dominate again, from the dual carriageway running north of the Royal Docks, and from London City Airport, whose planes make this walk a noisy one. The business customers who use the flights from here don’t have to come home to the housing estates which are dotted around Beckton.
The Capital Ring passes by New Beckton Park – padlocked for reasons best known to Newham Council – through some housing, and to Cyprus Docklands Light Railway station. Built in 1881, the Cyprus estate was named after Britain’s capture of the Mediterranean island. Bit it’s more a more recent building project that snatches the attention if you take a short diversion through the DLR station – the student accommodation at the University of East London’s Docklands campus, a series of cylindrical buildings which face the Royal Albert Dock. They also overlook London City Airport’s runway – perfect for plane-spotters, but I hope those student halls have good soundproofing.
Then it’s the grimmest part of the walk yet – past a boarded-up pub, over a nightmare-to-cross roundabout, just at the point where the Capital Ring signs dry up. Thanks, Newham. The map in my 2001 guide to the walk indicated a walk towards the river, but here the route appears to cross the dramatic Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge over the Royal Albert Dock, past King George V Dock, past the old work site for the DLR’s extension to Woolwich, ending up in a dull housing development at Gallions Point – stubbornly titled Galleons Point. Here, though, the path finally reaches the river, with a view across to Thamesmead and Woolwich, the water lapping up on a grassy bank below.
The path continues in front of some flats, a couple of signs pointing out that this is private property and only Galleons Point residents are allowed on the adjacent grass. Nice. You have to press a button on a gate to be allowed out. From here, it’s along a narrow, dilapadated riverside park to Royal Victoria Gardens. Opened in 1851 as Woolwich Pleasure Gardens, its fairgrounds were initially popular, but it later fell into disrepair and became a haunt for prostitutes. It reopened in 1890 under its current name, but suffered from wartime damage and today looks, like most of North Woolwich, like it’s seen better days. This small area had been part of Kent since the Norman Conquest, and was part of the old borough of Woolwich until 1965, when it became part of Newham. As far as I know, no trace of it being run from south of the river remains nowadays.
North Woolwich was always run-down, but it looks more down-at-heel than ever now, with Pier Road eerily quiet. Its pride and joy, the old station museum, a terrific but underpromoted little gem, was opened by the Queen Mother in 1984, but quietly shut its doors in January 2009. It’s now boarded up and vandalised. This huge building was the first North Woolwich railway station – the second, which replaced it in the late 1970s, also lies derelict and boarded up next door; superseded in 2006 by the Docklands Light Railway extension to nearby King George V and across to Woolwich. A heritage railway group had wanted to take on the old stations and the rusting remains of this leg of the North London Line – part of which is earmarked for eventual reuse as part of Crossrail – but their plans appear to have come to nothing.
Perhaps the DLR’s extension to Woolwich, which opened in January, had contributed to North Woolwich looking like a ghost town – plenty of people had always travelled from south of the river to use the North London Line, and later the DLR. Now they can just travel direct without walking down these streets. After all, the railway had always been an important part of North Woolwich’s history. It first opened here in 1847, long before the arrival of the docks, with a ferry service to “South Woolwich”, which didn’t get its own trains for another couple of years. The ferry to the south bank was killed off by the Woolwich Free Ferry, but the north pier stayed in use for excursions until World War II. Its remains are still there, opposite the old station.
After all this thought – and stopping to chat to a man who was waiting to photograph a bus – it was down into the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. The lifts were out of service, and chicanes have been placed inside the tunnel by Greenwich Council in a vain, aggravating attempt to deter cyclists from riding through the long, damp passageway. At Woolwich itself – the official start/end of the Capital Ring – the path runs through the car park of an ambulance station, through the traffic jam at the Woolwich Ferry (which has been operating a one boat service for some time), and then onto the Thames Path, past the smart flats at Mast Quay – built on stilts in case of flooding – and alongside Woolwich Dockyard Estate, where the path looked sad and neglected. The long-closed aquatic centre still looked as gloomy as ever.
The riverside path stops abruptly short of the Thames Barrier, denying Capital Ring users the chance to see London’s best-known flood defence close up. Instead, it’s through isolated housing at King Henry’s Wharf – a housing development built in anticipation of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, axed by Boris earlier this year – and past some industrial units, and into Charlton. Where it started to rain. I’d gone 77 dry miles on the Capital Ring. The final one wouldn’t be so lucky.
But Maryon Park and Maryon Wilson Park – the former best-known for its starring role in Blow-Up, the latter much loved for its wonderful childrens’ zoo – seemed at their best in the gloomy conditions. Once part of a highwaymens’ hideout called Hanging Wood, both parks feature steep hills and huge trees. Clambering up a sharp incline in Maryon Park, leaves flying down from the trees, I was pleased I’d saved one of the Capital Ring’s best-kept secrets until last. The stands at The Valley come into view at Maryon Wilson Park, where – for the final time – I gazed back at the London Eye and the City. It’d been a long way…
Finally, it was out of Maryon Wilson Park, across the road, and into Charlton Park, where the football pitches and semis on Canberra Road came into view again.
A squirrel formed the welcoming committee as I reached the back of Charlton House, turned around to see if anyone was looking, and touched the sign post to mark the completion of my walk. Eleven separate walks and 78 miles later, my Capital Ring journey was all over. Ahead of me stretched the path back around to Shooters Hill, Eltham, Grove Park, Beckenham, Streatham, Wimbledon, Richmond, Isleworth… and the rest. Behind me stretched another path. With aching feet and fading light, it was time to go home.