Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 3] Grove Park to Crystal Palace (8½ miles)
This is the longest section of the Capital Ring, and I suspect there's good reason for that. A lot of the walk is alongside roads, not across greenspace, so the extra length is required to make sure there's something actually worth seeing. To be honest, sorry, I've walked better.
Section 3 starts on Marvels Lane, which is badly named unless you think Bannantyne's gyms are especially marvellous. At the top of the hill is Grove Park Library - an endearing but small pre-fab which looks like it'd be more at home on a wartime airfield [photo]. The library opens for two and two-half days a week, or at least it will until the end of May and which point it'll close for good (Lewisham council decided yesterday). All the more ironic given that one of the 20th century's most-lended authors - E Nesbit - used to live just up the road. Her memorial is an alleyway down the side of some flats named Railway Children Walk, which I can't ever imagine Jenny Agutter skipping down, but does at least lead to a railway. It also leads to Grove Parknature reserve, which looked enticingly woody but alas the Capital Ring didn't go that way. Instead it was up and over the Sevenoaks line, all six tracks of it, with a fine view over Hither Green Cemetery in one direction and a rail depot in the other.
Welcome to Downham. Most Londoners have never heard of the place because it doesn't have a station, but this is one of the capital's largest housing estates, developed as overspill in the 1920s [photo]. It's not pretty, by modern standards, but the council houses and spacious streets would have been luxury indeed for those escaping from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. My welcome to Downham was two burnt-out cars... although one of those was within the confines of the local fire station and had clearly been used for door-wrenching practice. The Capital Ring followed what appeared to be an arbitrary zigzag path through the estate, first along two extra-broad avenues, then into a narrow strip of isolated woodland. Only close inspection of a pre-estate map revealed that this irregular tree-filled ribbon was actually perfectly preserved by the estate's planners, everything else round here having been open fields. The Downham Woodland Walk is enhanced by several carved posts, marking some sort of nature trail, plus the occasional underfoot mosaic and set of wooden teacups. I've probably made that sound more exciting than it really is, but when you live in Downham every natural retreat counts.
Hop over the busy Bromley Road for the highlight of the walk, which is Beckenham Place Park. This looks like a fairly ordinary park when entered from this angle, with the River Ravensbourne trickling alongside a large patch of grass. But that's actually a water meadow, and beyond the railway is a delightful expanse of ancient woodland[photo]. If you know what you're looking for you might spot some rare Wild Service trees, although hopefully they're not in the clearing I noticed the Forestry Commission had been chopping down. Local wildlife on my visit included squirrels, squawking parakeets and several off-leash dogs. Less wild were the golfers, out for a thwack and putt across several acres of rolling grassland. Their clubhouse is Beckenham Place, which sounds like the Queen ought to live there, or at least David and Victoria [photo]. This bold Palladian mansion was built by local timber merchant John Cator in the 1770s, and most of the remainder of this walk tramps across his former estate.
Most of the remainder of this walk is a bit dull, at least in comparison to the last half hour. There was supposed to be a highlight near Stumps Hill, just outside the park, where a Green Chain map had promised a very rare Edward VIIIpostbox. I searched and hunted, and doubled-back for a second look, but without a precise location I was looking in vain. On Googling later I discovered that the elusive red pillar was on the corner of Southend Road and Brackley Road, which this long distance footpath doesn't even go past (pah, but at least you'll know where to take the detour if you come). I got to walk past Kent County Cricket Club's London outpost instead, but even that wasn't as interesting as it sounds.
A gloomy subway led beneath New Beckenham station, after which the Capital Ring decides not to take the direct route. Instead it weaves north and south to take in a handful of local greenspaces, purely because they're there. Cator Park used to be a Victorian Pleasure Gardens, although the river runs in a concrete channel down the middle, and any pleasure in mid-February was sorely lacking [photo]. The fenced-off playing fields on Lennard Road were a particular lowlight, except they led to the Alexandra Recreation Ground which was slightly less so. A bowling green, a disused water fountain and a bunch of schoolboys kicking a football against a wall, that was my entrance to Penge. The official path crossed the footbridge at Penge East station, where a forlorn plaque remembered the day Frank Bruno turned up to open Tasty Toasties (now closed) [photo]. Penge High Street, Penge West... it had been an hour and a quarter since my walk had taken me anywhere thrilling. Thank goodness for the final bit.
I reached Crystal Palace Park just as dusk was almost about to start to nearly fall. Two parkkeepers were standing by the gate trying to encourage people not to enter, but I slipped by because I had a last half-mile to walk. The cafe was shuttered closed, the car park was emptying, and a few pairs of parents and children were scuttling home after a cosy afternoon out. I got to walk past the legendary sculpteddinosaurs mooching in their artificial swamp, and the fading light somehow helped to make them a little more realistic. Not difficult, to be honest. A final yomp along the edge of what used to be London's premier athletics stadium (and still is, for a bit) brought nearly three hours of walking to an end. Like I said, I've walked better.