Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 6] Wimbledon Park to Richmond Bridge (7 miles)
If there's a better section of the Capital Ring, I'll be surprised. A three hour trek that's almost entirely green, all the way. A lengthy trek across undeveloped open space, far from the madding crowd. Indeed, most of the way it's hard to believe that this is London at all. Parks, commons, meadows, ponds and rivers - what's not to recommend?
One of the first things you see as you enter Wimbledon Park are the tennis courts. Not the tennis courts, those are further along, but twenty municipal courts for the benefit of local extremely-amateurs [photo]. Only one knockabout was taking place when I walked past, whereas the neighbouring playground area was packed out with parents and little children busy making a racket. The park's flowerbeds are pretty, but the new WaterfallGarden is prettier, very recently renovated and restored with tropical foliage and a meandering bridge. Beyond the trees lies the first lake of the day, landscaped by Capability Brown, now home to umpteen sailing boats and some very cute ducklings.
That's the proper Wimbledon tennis place across the lake - the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The Ring doesn't quite go that way, which seems a shame if you've come all this way and never seen the place, but you'd never see any Tennis from outside through the fortress walls anyway. It's a different matter with the Croquet. These lawns are perfectly visible through the railings at the foot of Queensmere Road, laid out with hoops and flags in front of the old clubhouse and lovingly tended by diligent groundsmen [photo]. Properties along the road up the hill are as exclusive as you might expect, hidden behind electronic swing gates through which cars with very personalised numberplates occasionally vanish.
The path onto Wimbledon Common features the first decent stretch of woodland since Oxleas, twenty miles back. Before long it emerges at the windmill, still the major landmark round these parts, and inside which (a plaque tells us) Robert Baden Powell knocked up Scouting For Boys [photo]. Even if the museum's not open, the chalet-style cafe round the back probably is. This place is everything good about a greenspace tearoom, with homemade hot food up for grabs and an entire display case stacked with sliced-square cakey goodness. I exited with a double cornet, but only because they didn't do bakewell tart and custard as a takeaway.
Those who spent their childhood watching TheWombles might think that Wimbledon Common was mostly open space, but no, it's mostly trees. Allegedly there are a million of them, but I doubt anybody's ever counted. So, after the windmill, the Ring enters Wimbledon woodland and stays there for a good half hour. There are some glorious paths up, down and over, turning left at an unexpected lake and crossing a secluded circuit of the London Scottish golf course. My walk was blessed with bluebells, blossom and wafts of fragrant perfume, but the lush foliage of summer would be just as impressive. Cyclists beware - there are relatively few paths you're welcome to ride along, and I passed more than one party bemusedly trying to find a route that wasn't prohibitively labelled.
The Beverley Brook marks the western edge of the common, itself the route for a fine long-distancewalk, and this you follow northwards. Crossing the busy A3 used to involve a footbridge detour, but now there's a convenient double set of traffic lights - one for pedestrians and another for those on horseback. Which brings us to the Robin Hood Gate and the highlight of this section - the crossing of Richmond Park. You could fit the City of London three times inside its borders, so it's a bit of a triumph that this old royal deer park remains undeveloped. There's so much to see that the Ring's course merely scratches the surface. Just make sure you follow the correct path out of the car park, otherwise you could find yourself wandering miles off course.
Ascending gently towards Spankers Hill Wood, only the distant tower blocks of the Roehampton Estate give any hint that civilisation lurks beyond the treeline. There are several fallen tree trunks here, great for kids to play on and also an important habitat for the endangered stag beetle. As the centre of the Park approaches, suddenly there's a big car park - a reminder that most people only start walking once they get here. There follows a large expanse of acid grassland, allegedly scattered with nesting skylarks, so dogs on leashes please. And straight across the causeway between the Upper and Lower Pen Ponds, originally dug for the extraction of gravel, now scenic home to a broad cross-section of friendly waterfowl. Hillocks, plains and plantations - everything about the middle of Richmond Park is on a grand scale yet still delightfully natural. And, for London, amazingly remote. [photo]
Eventually, definitely eventually, the Ring emerges onto the Queen's Road on the western flank of the Park. Here you might be lucky enough to meet some of the deer who roam freely, assuming you haven't already met them elsewhere on the way over [photo]. You're also much more likely to meet people, because there's a refreshment kiosk (and wedding hotspot) at Pembroke Lodge, along with some splendid ornamental gardens. The Ring passes beneath the Lodge's outer boundary, with excellent views from the upper slopes across outer-southwest London. If visibility's good, every take off and landing at Heathrow is easily witnessed. The view northwest from King Henry's Mound is more famous, and protected by law. No high buildings are permitted to be erected anywhere along the 10 mile line from here to St Paul's Cathedral... although I've only once stood here in atmospheric conditions sufficiently crystal clear to see Wren's dome in distant miniature.
And down, steeply down, to Petersham. Here there's a rare main road to cross, and the first pub of the walk, then a narrow passage through to the edge of Petersham Meadows. These grazing lands are protected by Act of Parliament, and look best from Richmond Hill (but we're not going there). Instead the designated path follows a "dry route during flood" before aligning beside the River Thames for the final stroll into Richmond[photo]. Suddenly there are cafes and boathouses and reclining sunbathers (weather and flooding permitting), plus a series of pubs ideal for riverside drinking. If seven miles of semi-rural walking have tired you out, these urban comforts will be a welcome sight. Me, I'd happily have delayed my return to reality a little longer.