Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 9] Greenford to South Kenton (5½ miles)
The crossroads east of Greenford station doesn't look the most promising spot to start a walk. Busy traffic, a railway viaduct and a retail park through the trees - it's not lovely. But divert off down the cycleway and things get lovelier fast. This is Paradise Fields, the slightly over-the-top name for a golf course left to nature, now a wetland area with ponds, reed beds, hedgerows and wildflower meadows. This month it's a riot of purple and white, frequented by cartwheeling butterflies, best experienced down the narrow footpaths that thread off to each side. Mid-January, maybe I wouldn't have enjoyed it so much.
And back to the Grand Union Canal. This is the branch from Paddington, unlike the arm from the Thames which the Ring followed two sections back. It's tempting to cross the bridge and caper off into the open land beyond [photo], but don't, stick to the towpath. It's leafy and shaded along here [photo], and quiet enough that I managed to get right up close to a heron before an approaching jogger startled it into swooping flight. The only other souls I met were two workmen with chainsaws hacking excess branches and a lone teenager throwing bread at a clump of moorhens. Cross at the hump-backbridge (old, weak, single lane only), then continue past a hamlet of homely narrowboats. Small visitors will appreciate the children's playground blessed with sturdy models to climb on, most notably a wooden canalboat pulled by a wooden horse.
Here, at the foot of Horsenden Hill, Ealing Council have kindly thought fit to build a visitor centre. I was expecting a cafe and a rack of souvenir pencil sharpeners, but instead found a few locked buildings and a painted shed [photo]. It's a very nicely painted shed, complete with Horsenden mural on one end, but inside nothing but a few information panels and a trio of long-empty Capital Ring leaflet dispensers. Better than nothing, for sure, but the only 'welcome' was carved in wood over the gate at the entrance. The hill, however, is a real treat. It rises fairly steeply on all sides - unusual for London - with a couple of grassyplateaux on the way up and at the summit. Ideal for dog-walking, kite-flying and probably a few unmentionable after-dark activities. There's no 360° panorama, there are too many trees for that, but stare one way for a sea of Metroland roofs, turn another for Wembley Stadium, look beyond for the City, squint back for Heathrow [photo]. When you're finally ready to leave, and not before, the Ring descends through an ancient forest, then back past bushes of immininent blackberries. Oh yes, Horsenden Hill is this walk's 'best bit'.
And then, ah, it's road-walking time again. It's been 20 miles since the Capital Ring last retreated to suburbia quite so relentlessly as this, so don't expect to be thrilled. It's also been 20 miles since the last parade of shops, way back in Wimbledon, so this might be an ideal opportunity to break off for supplies. Sudbury Hill's busy retail strip is bookended by two very different stations - a Charles Holden Piccadilly cuboid at one end [photo], and a deserted Chiltern outpost at the other. Ignore both, continue. A brief respite from pavement is provided by an ascent up Green Lane, known locally as Piggy Lane, better described as Mundane Footpath. And then Sudbury Hill itself, a relentless meandering climb between villas, courts and cottages, and a streetscape to make estate agents salivate. Alas this was the first section of Ring to be inadequately waymarked. Don't rely on green signs, bring a map, else you're going to get lost.
Here's highlight number two, Harrow-on-the-Hill. Arrival is somewhat unexpected as the street suddenly morphs into the heart of an academic village [photo]. Here benches are dedicated to old masters, bistros frequented by past pupils, and shops devoted to boaters, blazers and cricket whites. It's not what you'd find outside a typical London secondary school, resembling more the precincts of some provincial cathedral. I got lucky, I arrived on the last day of term to find children pouring out of Speech Room into the arms of their parents [photo]. Proud sons clutched merit shields while Father took a photo, beaming daughters massed on the steps for a last pre-summer gossip. Hang on, daughters? These weren't Harrow's boatered boarders, these were maroon-blazered scholars from some other local private school whose headteacher had paid to hire the facilities. I followed them down Football Lane, then Music Hill (where James Blunt learnt to sing), to the car park at the bottom where everyone had left their vehicles.
Ah, the glorious playing fields of Harrow [photo]. As a rambler I got to cut across a permissive path between pitches, whereas the day's educational visitors were forced to queue in their 4×4s and estates to exit. The groundsmen work fast here, already painting next term's white lines as rugby posts replace wickets. Still to be cleaned off, the scoreboard announcing Harrow 60 Visitors 69. Still to be cleared up, a lone gumshield decaying in the long grass. School's out.
But enough of history. Nip over a stile, the only stile on the entire Capital Ring, and the last mile of section 9 is far more mundane. A long brambly path slips apologetically up the back of NorthwickParkHospital (number of architectural awards, nil). You'd never spot the entrance if you walked the other way, and I suspect the adjacent golf club prefers it that way. Welcome to Northwick Park, a featureless greenspace bounded on two sides by tube lines... one of which will shortly take you home. I wouldn't hang around. But weren't the two hills great?