WALK LONDON Green Chain Walk[section 7]
Oxleas Wood to Middle Park (4½ miles)
The Green Chain is a network of footpaths threading through southeast London linking woods and open spaces. It's one of the capital's key strategic walking routes. It's less well known than the Capital Ring or London Loop, but much better signposted. For today's jaunt I chose to walk the section between Falconwood and Mottingham, which contains two utterly blatant examples of "walking round three sides of something just because".
You may well have walked section 6 of the Green Chain without realising, as it overlaps with the first two sections of the Capital Ring. Section 7's a bit of an alternative route, a detour via New Eltham, hence starts and finishes in two wilfully off-road locations. The opening instructions, for example, assume you're standing in the middle of Shepherdleas Wood without ever telling you how to get there. I hiked in through verdant tree cover from the bus stop at the foot of Shooters Hill. The paths leading off from the Green Chain signpost were utterly empty. A butterfly rested on the brambles, then skittered off. Something squawked. This is why I prefer a good walk to a cocktail pop-up.
Taking the path that isn't the Capital Ring led me downhill through peaceful woodland to a bus shelter where local teens were necking a packet of Haribo. Across the railway bridge a man was standing in the middle of the road taking a photograph of Falconwood station - which is something I might do, but rarely see anyone else attempt. Cars thundered down the chasm of Rochester Way. The gate to Eltham Cemetery was open, with ladies tidying up the bouquets and balloons beyond. A hearse drove slowly down Riefeld Road, negotiating the speed bumps somewhat awkwardly and making someone's final journey rather jolty.
Gravel Hill Lane is no longer for cars, or carts, which once headed this way towards Eltham's vanished windmill. Today it's a track hemmed in between spiky railings, with an academy on one side and a golf course on the other, dotted with streetlamps for those daring enough to cycle this way after dark. Where the woodland begins the blackberries are already starting to ripen, and the holly will no doubt peak in time for Christmas. On reaching Bexley Road, if Pippenhall Meadows look familiar it's because GC6 and CR2 run down the other side, barely 200 metres distant. This path's nicer. It also boasts a single Green Chain post with a braille disc on the side, randomly by the allotments, which I suspect the visually impaired would be extremely unlikely to spot.
It's now time to follow the edge of Avery Hill Park, and also a narrow ditch which turns out to be the beginning of the River Shuttle. The waymarked Shuttle Riverway starts here and follows it downstream, which is a decent six mile walk if you're ever out this way. Instead we're heading south, past grass where labradors exercise their owners, then along Sparrows Lane where collies lead their tired owners home. If the sports ground across the hedge looks a bit smart that's because it's Charlton Athletic's training ground, currently undergoing a multi-million poundrevamp to add artificial pitches, improve drainage and stamp the club's aspirations on the community. I hope nobody replaces the gates.
Now for the non-Green bit of this Green Chain Walk. The next mile is mostly along the pavements of New Eltham, past a fortress estate where the Stanley Works used to be, and all the takeaways a neighbourhood could ever need. In consecutive sequence that's Mandarin House, Crumbs, My Plaice, the disturbingly titled Cafe BigBoyz, Ruchita Indian takeaway, Pizza Hot 4 You and The Smoking Grill. Someone's done up the crossroads by the station all nice with trays of geraniums on top of the pedestrian barriers. And then comes the first of those "walks round three sides of something", traipsing the perimeter of a somewhat mundane recreationground for no especially good reason. A half-dressed bloke is doing keepy-uppies. The pavilion is locked and decaying.
The fingerpost on Green Lane promises an enchanting treat: The Tarn, via Fairy Hill, ½m. Alas Fairy Hill Park fails to live up to its description, with barely a contour, let alone a toadstool ring, being more the place to take your offspring for a slide, a kickabout or some lacklustre tennis. The Tarn is much more impressive, a small natural lake surrounded by woodland and gardens, and home to a busy collection of over-confident geese and other waterfowl. The poolside trail is properly ornamental without ever feeling artificial, aided by the sterling influence of local volunteers Friends of the Tarn. "Walking round three sides" here is a pleasure, ending up pretty much where you came in, and exiting up the steps past Eltham Lodge's former icewell.
Yes, Mottingham has some council blocks, as the penultimate stretch of this walk proves. But pretty soon a rusty gate beckons into Middle Park, or rather up a confined and overgrown path through a patch of somewhat shabby woodland. Partway in I met a tired grandad dragging the scooter his grandson no longer wanted to ride, and at the summit a field full of donkeys. Two of them paused their grazing to wander over to the fence and peer over, then followed me along for a while, then lost interest, while the horses in the paddock opposite looked on. And at the junction with King John's Walk that's it, Green Chain section 7 suddenly terminates, again not anywhere terribly convenient. Turn right and the view across central London is splendid, but that's a different walk entirely.