Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 11] Hendon Park to Highgate (5½ miles)
On a map, this looks wholly underwhelming. For much of its route this section follows the North Circular Road, or the A1, or some other major dual carriageway, which should have been miserable. But I needn't have worried. This turned out to be a fascinating trek across a part of London I don't know very well, with secluded streams and proper hilly bits. Delighted to make its acquaintance.
Look not too hard and you'll see that Hendon Park has a distinctly Jewish imprint. My spiritual journey included a Kosher cafe in the corner near the station, the twisted arch in the Holocaust Memorial Garden [photo], a pair of young boys in skull caps and some Hebrew graffiti scribbled on the back of a park noticeboard. Then off down a couple of backwater suburban avenues, the sort that only gain attention because a long distance footpath plies along them. It's not far from the park to the North Circular, here a depressing swathe of slow-motion tarmac, and even less far until the path slips off into a neighbouring sliver of woodland. That shallow channel between the trees, that's the Dollis Brook, a six-mile tributary of the River Brent that flows down from up Barnet way. Here it's somehow survived as a linear park, hemmed in between the backs of houses and impatient queueing traffic. There are lakes and weirs and dragonflies and herons, if you're lucky, plus solitary blokes eating sandwiches on benches. Just don't stay too long in this leafy hideaway, else the exhaust fumes might exceed recommended levels.
Next up is a tributary of the tributary, the Mutton Brook, whose milky waters combine beyond a narrow iron footbridge [photo]. The Capital Ring follows this minor stream for some considerable distance, ducking first through a long white tunnel beneath the A406 [photo]. Barnet Council have erected two sentinel globes to keep an eye on this minor subway, one eye staring from either end, whose downbeat presence served only to remind me of the serious kicking I might face here before the police could ever respond. The next half mile turned into a mile and a bit. The brook runs alongside a grassy common, which would be very pleasant were the footpath not currently blocked off for roadworks at Henlys Corner. I was forced to divert past a construction village and cross the very major road at pedestrian-unfriendly lights, which is one of the scariest things I've done recently. At least my detour took me past La Délivrance, Finchley Road's famous naked swordswoman, which otherwise I'd have missed [photo]. But the official diversion turned out to be ridiculously (and ultimately unnecessarily) circuitous, assuming that every passer-by was in a wheelchair, whereas a quick stroll down a slope and across a short field would have curtailed the excess walk for almost all users.
OK, back to the Brookside Walk. The Mutton Brook starts to look a trifle more artificial from this point on, hemmed into a sinuous concrete channel which protects local residents should the trickle ever become a torrent. There's just enough grass on either side to give a big dog a runaround, rather more so further along as the houses start up again. These are the outskirts of Hampstead Garden Suburb, a pioneeringdomestic development that aimed to bring low density high quality homes to the masses. Anyone below upper middle class has long since moved out, of course, so aspirational have theseearly20thcenturyproperties become. The Mutton Brook was utilised to provide an arcadian aspect to the new estate, winding its way through NorthwayGardens round the back of an imposing parade of shops [photo]. I paused here for a chocolate croissant from Kings Bakery (cheap, giant, kosher, delicious) before continuing into the local recreation ground and wolfing it down while no residents were watching. The next road has the delightful name of Norrice Lea (surely one of Hyacinth's Bucket's acquaintances), in which stands a redbricksynagogue the size of a small secondary school (opened in 5722 by the Chief Rabbi). These are the sorts of street where patio-layers, window cleaners and tree surgeons spend their weekday afternoons, which may help to explain why genteel HGS is so much lovelier than the mundane street where you live.
Quaintly suburban streets lead to East Finchleystation, where the Capital Ring strides straight through the ticket hall (with its old W. H. Smith kiosk, wooden shutter down, never to reopen). This is the station with Eric Aumonier's Art Deco archer on its roof, poised and kneeling, taking aim down the tracks towards Highgate [photo]. That's where this section of walk is heading too, but via a circuitous route through three chunks of local woodland... i) Cherry Tree Wood comes first - a leafy triangle which might more accurately have been named Oak And Hornbeam Wood, but that isn't so catchy. Mind your head, it's acorn-plummeting time of year. ii) And then, up a surprisingly lengthy sloping alleyway, Highgate Wood. I cannot believe that I hadn't been here before, but my mistake. Its 28 acres are owned by the City of London, which perhaps explains why they've been so well looked after. This is ancient woodland, as the presence of Wild Service trees attests, and there are earthworks and gravel pits in the undergrowth if you know where to look. It's easy to find out, because there's a Wildlife Information hut open daily, jam-packed with nature notes, photographs and maps. "Please help yourself to newsletters and leaflets" says a notice on a box inside. The newsletters are all nine years old but the leaflets are multiplicitous and truly excellent (not least the free full colour 16 page guided walk booklet). Nextdoor is what locals call a cafe but verges close to a restaurant, serving up wholesome meals to those who want more and pots of tea to those who want less. When the Capital Ring was launched in 2005, it's no surprise that Highgate Wood was selected as the location for the official plaque [photo]. What is surprising is the Capital Ring turns left at the plaque [photo], missing out the Woodkeeper's hut and Pavilion Cafe altogether (so make sure you carry straight on for a few yards and miss neither). I was proper taken by Highgate Wood, and wished I'd dallied longer. iii) But almost immediately, on the opposite side of Muswell Hill Road, comes the similar yet subtly different Queens Wood. It too has a cafe, but this one's distinctly log-cabiny and a little more organic. It too has fine trees, but denser and somehow less informal. It feels more undiscovered, more like proper woodland, as if Queens Wood could be several miles further out of town into the Green Belt. And it has narrower paths, and off-piste glades, and proper steep slopes, and shortly a carpet of crackling brown leaves underfoot. All this, tucked just round the back of Highgate station. Capital Ring 11, an unexpected winner.