Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 1] Woolwich to Falconwood (6¼ miles)
The Pool of Woolwich on a January morning - is there anywhere finer? Yes, sorry, there is, but we'll get there later. For now I'm kicking off my London circumnavigation by walking along a less lovely bit of the Thames [photo]. On the Woolwich side a bingo hall and some orange flats on blue stilts. On the North Woolwich side a forest of dishes and the belching Tate& Lyle factory. And plying inbetween, the perennial workhorse of the Woolwich ferry [photo]. There's a certain pre-estuarine charm, if you like that sort of thing, but flats here command significantly lower prices than in Richmond for good reason. The former Woolwich Dockyard's almost all been wiped away for housing, but two 'mast ponds' survive. They look like decrepit 1960s bathing pools [photo], but were in fact used to soak ships' timbers so that the planks wouldn't split or shrink in the water. A couple of leftover cannon face out across the river, but in this low-rise landscape fail to inspire.
The next quarter mile of this long-distance path doesn't exist. It's hoped to drive a right of way along the edge of the river past a slew of warehouses, but it's been hoped for years and shows no sign of happening. Instead you have to follow the "Thames Path (interim route)" past flats, more warehouses and the busy Woolwich Road. The Thames Barrier and its grassy environs would be so much more interesting, but for the time being only if you make a deliberate diversion.
At Maryon Park, the footpath splits. One way's dull but step-free, the other fascinating with a steep climb, but there are no clues on the signposts to help you choose between them. Turn right for the view, from an unexpectedly high spur with great views across Docklands into central London [photo]. I would have climbed right to the top had I not been beaten there by three off-leash dogs, who were intent on looking at me rather than the surrounding panorama. Instead I hurried on to pass Gilbert'sPit - a geologically outstanding excavation [photo]. Various horizontal rock strata are clearly visible on its exposed slopes, and a plaque helps you pick out the Blackheath Beds from the Thanet Sands should you fancy an education. Younger walkers are more likely to be impressed by the children's zoo a little further along, most especially the (ahhhh) deer.
The parks come thick and fast, with football pitches crammed into every available space. If it's Sunday watch out for trackie-clad youths assembling by the changing rooms in Charlton Park, perhaps with a dutiful peroxide girlfriend in tow. It's such a lengthy walk around the park's perimeter, past Charlton House, that the team should be out ready for their mudbath kickabout long before you reach the other side. Hornfair Park's nowhere near as enticing. No Jacobean mansions, no budding Beckhams, just a few rusty goalposts on a municipal slope.
And so to the wilder half of the walk. You have to get past the Queen Elizabeth Hospital first, but then it's time to stride out across the Woolwich Common. This lengthy expanse of heathland stretches down toward the famous barracks, and was once used by the Royal Artillery for target practice. No such dangers amongst the thickets today. I found evidence of only one other visitor, someone who'd been round to every bench before me and left a fire and brimstone tract on each. "Death is not the end", "God can recycle too", "For a free bible please contact <an address in Northern Ireland>".
Shooter's Hill used to be a highwaymen's haunt, apparently. It's the highest point on the Capital Ring so expect quite a climb up some specially-built sandy stairs. But don't expect a view, because the summit's covered with trees, and the viewing tower's locked. That'll be Severndroog Castle, a gothic folly built by an 18th century war widow in an unusual triangular style [photo]. There used to be tearooms at the base, but today it's all boarded up awaiting the transformational magic of a Heritage lottery grant. I was particularly taken by the bleak rosegarden on the other side of the summit, reached down crumbling stone staircases, which was once part of the local stately home. Castlewood House is long gone, as is the next mansion whose grounds the path winds through, but the woods are delightful.
I could tell I was getting close to the Oxleas Wood Cafe by the increasing density of dogs. Owners seemed irresistably drawn to it, despite the fact that all canine visitors were forced to wait outside beyond a protective fence. I was happy to leave Pickle the pug on the other side of the barrier, that's for sure, because he'd been showing far too much interest in my lower limbs. The cafe's definitely more greasy spoon than elegant tearoom, and all the better for it. Fried breakfasts were being waitered out of the kitchen while I queued, each greatly appreciated by the collective clientèle. Mugs of tea for 60p, fresh pasties piled up on the counter, sticky cake... surely only its obscure location prevents this place from being any busier. [photo]
One wildly meandering woodlandwalk to follow, emerging eventually into Eltham Park. The long pond used to be a boating lake, but now it's home to a few ducks instead. Section 1's nearly at an end, and would be even shorter were the park not divided in half by a deep railway cutting and the A2 dual carriageway. Falconwood station is nearby, with trains back to London Bridge and Victoria for those bailing out here. Even if you're not intending to walk the whole of the Capital Ring, merely cherrypicking, I'd say this is definitely one of the more varied and interesting sections.