There’s still quite a gap between the amount of the capital ring walk that I’ve blogged about, and the amount that I’ve walked, so this posting covers one and a half sections, from Richmond to Osterley Lock and thence on to Hanwell, which we covered in the first part of May.
We started in Richmond, with the river, unusually, so high that water almost lapped across the pavement. This was a combination of a wet few days immediately before, of arriving shortly after high tide, and the effect of a ‘supermoon’ – an unusually bright and bold moon in the first week of May (I said that I’ve been slow in keeping the blog up to date)
The section from Richmond to Osterley Lock is mostly ‘blue’ rather than ‘green’ in that it follows water rather than parkland. At first it follows the Thames, and the western crossing of the Thames is by a footbridge, rather busier than the Woolwich foot tunnel which constitutes the eastern crossing, by Richmond Lock. Once back on the north side of the river, there’s a stretch beside the Thames, then a short leg of road walking, another Thames-side stroll through the attractive village of Isleworth, before the path heads inland through Syon Park.
Syon House is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland (there’s also a Duke of Northumberland’s river), and was designed by Robert Adam. Over the years the Northumberland family have been enterprising about finding ways to exploit their family home commercially, so the house itself was in use for some opulent-looking event when we passed. There’s a long-established garden centre, and at one time the park was also home to the London Butterfly House, an attraction that wouldn’t look out of place on the fantasy Piccadilly Line but this disappeared and a large but remarkably unobtrusive luxury hotel has taken its place.
Locks seem to be everywhere in the ‘blue’ sections of the walk, and after crossing Syon Park the Capital Ring joins the Grand Union Canal, by a lock, in Brentford. Further on, the buildings alongside the canal include this fine lock-keeper’s cottage.
But there are also significant sections of the canal, notably between Brentford and the end of this section at Osterley, where the canalside walk is remarkably well screened from the urban surroundings. You can usually hear road traffic, and often trains and planes (more about that shortly) but you can walk quite a distance without seeing buildings on either side. On a cursory glance at least, you could be in the countryside.
I’d like to include a reflection here on the importance of the canals. We took a slight, and highly recommended, diversion from the Capital Ring to walk alongside the ladder of locks at Hanwell, before returning and walking along the River Brent. Here you do get the sense that the Grand Union Canal was once part of a serious industrial operation. There’s a milestone indicating that it’s 91 miles to Braunston, a small town in Northamptonshire but also the point where the Grand Union Canal finished, and in its time an important junction. In its time it would have been as important for the canals as Crewe is for the railways, or the Gravelly Hill interchange (Spaghetti Junction) near Birmingham is for roads. The ladder of locks allow the canal to rise from the same level as the Thames to a higher level to cross the country: you can’t simply build a gradient into a waterway!
Osterley, another lock, is the end of the section that starts in Richmond. The next section runs from Osterley, partly along the canal but beyond that along the River Brent, which is closely connected with the canal, as far as Greenford.
In the stretch leading up to Osterley, you can hear, and occasionally see, the M4 motorway and you pass under a high bridge carrying London Underground’s (very busy) Piccadilly Line. A little further on, Wharncliffe Viaduct, completed in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, carries trains from London to the west country, to south Wales, and to Heathrow Airport. Heathrow itself, developed as an international hub in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, is a constant presence in this area because much of the walk runs under the flight path. These are all important components in the country’s transport infrastructure.
And yet the canals, as a serious transport network, had a remarkably short life. Only a few years after the state of engineering knowledge reached a level where artificial canals could be dug, and embankments, tunnels, and aqueducts created to provide a level route across country, steam engines and rail tracks and later cars and lorries became available, and these largely superseded the canal network. Some freight traffic continued into the twentieth century, and there were attempts on occasion to revive their use. But they were rediscovered mostly as a place for leisure pursuits from around the 1960s onwards. In terms of commercial traffic, the canal network fell out of use when still quite young: it would almost have been comparable to the motorway network built in the last 50 years already becoming obsolete.
And why only one and a half sections and not two? Because close to the bank of the River Brent in Hanwell Park was a particularly treacherous area of mud, and both my son and I slipped and got covered with mud. That’s embarrassing enough for a nine-year old, much worse if you’re a generation older. So for the second time on the ring, we decided to stop short of the official section boundary, and tack the remainder onto the beginning of the next section, and in the hope that we still looked vaguely respectable headed towards Hanwell’s listed station and to the train home.