As mentioned in the previous post, we finally completed the Capital Ring in early June, so just over four months after we’d started. We covered the 78 miles in 15 stages with just a couple of deviations from those used in the companion book by Colin Saunders and on the Walk London website.
The final link for us (remember – we started with the stage closest to home, so didn’t start with section 1) runs across north London from Hendon to Highgate. The first part may be unexceptional, and it’s a pity that it’s so close to the busy and noisy North Circular Road, but the from then on the walk takes us through Hampstead Garden Suburb and after that through a sequence of attractive woods.
Hampstead Garden Suburb (known to its residents purely as ‘the suburb’) is perhaps the most extensive instance in London of such an area. It was built up in the early twentieth century on the initiative principally of Dame Henrietta Barnett, who planned it on idealistic and egalitarian lines. As many others have observed, in practice it became a solidly middle-class community and even the small houses that might have passed for artisans’ cottages now command high prices. The predominant architectural style is arts and crafts, but there is a considerable variety. The Capital Ring runs close to the Market Place, though it runs further from the Central Square with two churches which was conceived as the core of the suburb. But beyond that towards East Finchley you can see some houses inspired by Tudor architecture, and others in the same road by elements of Art Deco that must have been very avant-garde at the time that the area was built up.
Few of the roads in the suburb run in straight lines, and there are plenty of footpaths – known locally as ‘twittens’ though the Capital Ring makes less use of these than might be expected. However one such twitten takes walkers on the ring out of the suburb and to the back of East Finchley station. The ring crosses East Finchley High Road, just by the Archer statue on the bridge that carries London Underground’s Northern Line.
Beyond that we enter woodland. Cherry Tree Wood is a neat patch of land, but just feels like a taster for the larger woods to follow. There’s a short walk along some prosperous residential streets, and then the ring enters Highgate Wood, a much larger area that has been a woodland for at least 2000 years and has been managed by the Corporation of London for around the last 125 of those. It’s deservedly popular with locals, and often gets busy, but still feels rural. Not a factor on the day that we were there on the ring walk, but it can also be delightfully cool on hot summer days.
From Highgate Wood, we crossed directly into Queen’s Wood, also an area of ancient woodland, but with a completely different, much wilder, feel. Whereas Highgate Wood is on a plateau and is relatively flat, Queen’s Wood occupies a hillside. Whereas Highgate Wood’s paths are wide and look carefully cultivated, those in Queen’s wood are narrower and a little rougher. In recent years a lot of thought has been given to conservation in Queen’s Wood, notably by the use of coppicing techniques.
Strictly speaking, at the end of the stretch through Queen’s Wood we had completed the ring, since we had walked along Priory Gardens on our way to Highgate Station back in January, as part of the first section to Stoke Newington.
So: highlights of the complete ring? For us, certainly, our first and last sections were very enjoyable – the Parkland Walk and the woodlands at the end. Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park covered some of the most rural areas, followed by a really delightful walk along the Thames and along part of the canal. And the other canalside section, along Hackney Marshes, was also wonderful, despite our doing it on one of the few very cold days last winter and my enduring memory of that section being the freezing conditions.
Most of all, it’s a reminder that London really is a very green city. And a spur to do some walking regularly at weekends.