Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 15] Beckton to Woolwich (3½ miles)
And finally, back to the start. The fifteenth section's only brief, thankfully, because it's far from the most scenic part of this capital circumnavigation. But it has its moments. Nearly there.
Back to Beckton Park, for a tour of the less interesting half. A bridleway parallel to the main path gives riders at Newham City Farm somewhere to trot. But there are no horses on this visit, just a load of lads playing football, or training to pay football, or sitting watching their mates play football. I cross the road to avoid one particular posse of woolly hatted youth, but only because their dog is looking at me in a potentially hungry way. The estates of Beckton are packed with late 20th century brick townhouses, in a way that most of the rest of London isn't. Thankfully the architecture picks up through the magic gateway that is Cyprus DLR station (the Ring crosses straight through the middle).
Emerge onto the campus of the University of East London, and the panorama of the Royal Docks spreads out before you. Directly ahead is inner city City Airport, which I encounter taking delivery of the last Swissair Avro RJ100 of the day. That whiff in the air is aircraft fuel mixed with burnt sugar from the Tate & Lyle refinery downwind. Lined up at the far end of the Royal Albert Dock are the towers of Canary Wharf and a dozen spikes of the Millennium Dome. But the real eye-turners here are the pepperpotstudentresidences lined up along the northern dockside [photo]. Round and squat, like giant topless mushrooms, in a variety of colours (but mostly white). These buildings could easily be Scandinavian, especially the blue and green and yellow ones, but instead this is atypical Newham. For any student able to block out the aircraft noise, the view from inside must be impressive, although this is probably the last waterside apartment they'll ever be able to afford. [photo]
Further along the dockside are a set of more modern, less interesting student blocks, followed by the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. Capital Ring walkers with mobility problems should take the alternative route here, because they're never going to manage the next riverside section. Once past the DLR station (and the multicoloured warehouse) the walk gets quite bleak. To the left is wasteland that used to be gasworks and awaits redevelopment. To the right a manic moped rider revs his engine up a sideroad to create a thick fogbank of exhaust fumes, because he can do that out here without being socially unacceptable. And ahead, at the dead end of Atlantis Avenue, the Thames flows unloved through Gallions Reach. Here a navigation mast towers above three chunky wooden benches on a desolate concrete platform. Visitors must be infrequent, and tourists unknown. Two anglers, casting their lines alongside an array of decapitated pillars, pull a wriggling silver fish from the water. The riverside here lies dormant, unexploited, awaiting destruction by the Thames Gateway Bridge (should any Mayor ever have the funds, and the guts). [photo].
There follows a riverside stroll the antithesis of Ring section 7 through Richmond. That was broad, regal and scenic, whereas this is overgrown, estuarine and stark. I can't tell you what it's like at low tide because I got high, with grey water lapping up against thick flood protection walls. A series of metal ladders lead headlong over the edge [photo], while the remains of summer's buddleia drapes the path. I was amazed to pass two walkers out strolling the other way, but I guess they like urban desolation as much as I do. Suddenly the path reaches the mouth of the Royal Albert Dock, where a lock provides access for pleasure craft and a path across the gates allows passage for walkers. There's even a lockkeeper, not just a cottage, and maybe a team of divers in a dinghy, and the odd swan.
Inland for a bit, then back to the riverside down a muddy path passable only by stepping gingerly on carefully-spaced blocks. This must be the bleakest that the Capital Ring gets, not helped by being directly beneath the City Airport flight path. And then there's a forgotten-looking second lock, this time for boats exiting the King George V Dock. Steps... narrow passageway... curvy lock gates... narrow passageway... steps - wheelchair users have no chance of managing this adventurous stretch (and sorry, but I'm secretly very glad). [photo]
Almost instantaneously, the outlook completely changes. The Thames Path enters the Gallions Reach estate - a private estate, so they delight in reminding you, please keep to the path, please keep your dog on a leash. A few fortunate flat owners have balconies with views across to Woolwich [photo], although at this time of year they're crammed with bikes and and hibernating barbecues. It's all a little sterile, apart from a set of concrete steps up and over the river wall (warning, this is not part of the estate, it might be dangerous, please don't sue us) where you can run amok on a thin strip of estuary-side grass. The official exit is through a push-button gate (the only such restriction on the Ring, I believe, but the owners here never wanted ramblers intruding in the first place).
Suddenly the Woolwich Ferry comes into view, and the end of the walk is in sight. The last half mile runs along the elevated edge of Royal Victoria Gardens, which is fairly lovely, to Pier Road, which isn't. A liminal landscape of concrete and railings, topped off by a part burnt-out pier[photo], plus the Old North Woolwich station, recently the Great Eastern Railway Museum, stood empty and boarded up [photo]. Circuit complete... almost, but not quite.
When I set out on the Capital Ring last January, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel was closed. Not a problem, I thought, it's scheduled to reopen by March so I can walk through it on the way back. But no, alas, it's still closed. The hoardings are still up, if anything hoardingier than before, because it takes a lot longer to upgrade a 99-year-old foot tunnel than Greenwich council intended. "Additional unplanned repairs at Woolwich make it impossible for the lifts to be used by the public while the stairs are being renewed," they say. It's all a subterranean disconnected mess, to be honest, and will be for several more months to come. So, rather than completing the last link on the Capital Ring on foot, I had to take the ferry. [photo]
It can be a long wait for the Woolwich Ferry, and indeed it was, lined up in the shambling impoverished queue, waiting for the Ernest Bevin to return. Eventually the ramp lowered and we shuffled aboard, down to the warren of tunnels and waiting rooms beneath the vehicle deck. It's no cablecar, this transport of the masses, but it has utilitarian character, and long may she sail. And then I was back on the south bank of the Thames, with one last ever-so-brief stroll to go. If there's a less celebratory spot in London than the miserable service road round the rear of the leisure pool by boarded-up the foot tunnel entrance, I must have missed it [photo]. But 78 miles on, I was finally back where I'd started in the New Year, the capital ringed.