diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 26, 2010

  Green Chain Walk
[section 11]
  Crystal Palace to Nunhead Cemetery (5 miles)

The Green Chain is a network of footpaths threading through southeast London linking woods and open spaces. It's one of the capital's key strategic walking routes. And, up until yesterday, it came in ten parts. Today an 11th section is being opened, extending the chain along the borders of Southwark and Lewisham. If you like the sound of the route you can attend its opening ceremony in Nunhead at 2pm this afternoon, then join a guided walk south to Dulwich and/or Crystal Palace. But I sneaked in and did the walk yesterday because the weather was better.

Green Chain 11Crystal Palace Park used to be as far as the Green Chain went. But now there's a new fingerpost round the back of the station, near that cute mural of the dinosaurs on a train, and it points the way five miles further. Sorry, there are no concrete iguanadons on this section, which heads off instead past the site of the old palace beneath London's mightiest TV mast [photo]. But not up the steps to enjoy the view. Oh no, this is a walk optimised for those with pushchairs or wheelchairs, so the official path sticks to the lower level beneath the terrace. I ignored that, obviously, and nipped up for a stroll along the top. One thing you quickly learn on this walk is that the occasional deviation is advantageous.

Walk London haven't yet got round to uploading a route map for this walk, so I had to rely on signposts every step of the way. That's OK, because this new walk has been waymarked with Stalinist zeal and getting lost is almost impossible. But not quite. Just north of Crystal Palace Park the walk splits, with one route for those who need to avoid steps and one for more able adventurers. Only the former has been signposted, so I only discovered the more interesting bifurcation using intelligent guesswork. On my way through a well-hidden Lewisham council estate I came face to face with a snarling Staffie called Bones, thankfully tethered to his teenage master else he might well have lived up to his name. And then, where the two routes rejoined, a far more serious error. Two of the signposts have been accidentally swapped, so that Nunhead points to Crystal Palace and vice versa. I treated the whole thing as a logic problem and deduced my correct exit, but had I arrived via the "step-free" route I'd have blindly continued the wrong way (which is straight down a flight of steps). Get it fixed, Greenchainers.

Crescent Wood TunnelAfter a brief (but elegant) road trek, the path heads down into a cutting to follow a dismantled railway. This was the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway, which opened in 1865 and somehow struggled on until 1954 despite minimal passenger traffic. The Crescent Wood tunnel survives, and the Green Chain passes both ends and crosses the northern portal. You won't get inside, not unless you're a member of the London Wildlife Trust, but you can go right up close and sort-of peer in. Further down the line an original railway footbridge survives (the one from which Pissaro painted Lordship Lane station) (now in the Courtauld Gallery), although this now spans nothing more than some fenced off undergrowth [photo]. And inbetween lies Sydenham Hill Wood, a rare tract of ancient woodland, which is another of those places where it's well worth diverting off the signposted track (ooh pond, ahh Victorian folly).

If you feel like a diversion, a Green Chain spur to Dulwich links to the main route here. It starts with a pleasant descent down tree-lined Cox's Walk, then heads west for a meandering stroll through Dulwich Park [photo]. The park was a middle class haven yesterday, with mummies working out on the open air gym equipment while their kids whizzed round the park in a swarm of recumbent pedal cycles. Hordes of under-10s were being drilled in the art of football ("come on Noah pass to Hugo"), whereas it seems nobody fancied a spin on the boating lake now that autumn's here. Green Chain signposts terminate outside Dulwich Art Gallery, which is a marvellous building to visit if you haven't been before - otherwise it's probably worth giving this 1½ mile extension a miss.

One Tree HillBack on the main walk (after several unavoidable steps) there's another south London treasure - the Horniman Museum. Again the official route misses the view from the top of the hill, skirting instead through the landscaped gardens, although it's an easy diversion to the galleries and café if you so choose. There follows a brief slog through the streets to Camberwell Old Cemetery's rear entrance. This will eventually have brand new ornamental gates to accommodate the Green Chain route, but for now it's accessed through a flimsy timber construction which any well-meaning vandal could kick down in a trice. Next up, for those able-bodied enough to manage 72 steps, is One Tree Hill. There's a great view across central London from the summit (blimey, the Shard's going to be huge, isn't it?), as well as a chance to see the oak tree under which Queen Elizabeth I picknicked on May Day 1602 (or its 20th century replacement). Here too is the Green Chain's other major waymarking malfunction. There's a green post at the top of the hill but it's armless, so walkers have to guess which of the many paths down they need to take. I got that right too, but only by luck.

Nearly there, but still two more cemeteries to go. Camberwell New Cemetery is very much a going concern, complete with crematorium and copious floral tributes everywhere. I passed three 'mourners' (with helium balloons) holding a sort-of party beside one particular grave. They'd left the doors of their car open and were pumping Smooth Radio across the entire hillside, which was very sweet if you like George Michael and Billy Joel, and a bloody selfish imposition if you don't. And finally to Nunhead Cemetery, one of London's finest Victorian burial grounds. Imagine a woody hill littered with urns on pillars and toppling gravestones, it's very much like that. Plus a mighty Gothic chapel, its interior alas destroyed by arson in the 1970s, but still the dominant feature at the top of the main carriage drive. Expect a ceremonial "cutting of the ribbon" here around two o'clock this afternoon. Or if you don't fancy joining the Chain gang, turn up and walk the whole thing at a time of your choosing, like what I did.

Launch of section 11, today at 2pm (and map) (and maptrace)

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