Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 12] Highgate to Stoke Newington (5 miles)
This section of the Capital Ring is essentially in two parts - a railway that isn't a railway, followed by a river that isn't a river. Intrigued?
A railway that isn't a railway:The Parkland Walk Had things gone differently, Northern line trains would run between Highgate and Finsbury Park via the heights of Haringey [more details]. Plans were afoot in the 1930s to take an underused branch line and incorporate it into London's tube network, but World War Two interrupted and the extension never happened [more details]. Instead the tracks were relegated for freight, then closed altogether, and in 1990 were reborn as a footpath-cum-nature reserve [more details]. Today the ParklandWalk is a delight, weaving between the rooftops and gardens of Haringey, providing a welcome breath of green for pedestrians and cyclists alike [more details]. But you can't walk the first bit of the line from Highgate because that ran through tunnels beneath Shepherd Hill, and those have long been sealed off, so an above ground detour is called for. It takes a deliberate effort to view the eastern portals, wandering off the main drag to an overgrown cul-de-sac where ivy tumbles down across the mouth to two dark caverns [photo]. I always deviate this way, whereas most continue along the path proper on the woodland stroll towards Finsbury Park.
At two and a quarter miles the Parkland Walk is very doable, whether you're a toddler or a dogwalker or a petulant teenager. It's a little narrow at this western end, at least compared to further on, and there always seems to be a muddy patch even when it hasn't rained for days. Pause here a moment while a stream of bikes passes through... probably with Dad leading Mum and the kids, with the littlest one on stabilisers. Sometimes the path runs along an embankment, with brief views from bridges into the suburban roadways beyond. Other times it runs through a cutting, hemmed in by trees and undergrowth sealed off in an eco-bubble from ordinary London outside [photo]. Crouch End station still exists, sort of, with a cafe in the ticket hall upstairs and two decaying platforms as alternative parallel routes [photo]. It's best seen in winter, either from the track or from the footbridge, but most atmospheric when draped with a blanket of green.
It's taken me three attempts, but this time through I finally spotted the sculpted figure hidden in one of the arches past the station [photo]. He's a spriggan, a mischievous forest-dwelling fairy, and features in the only horror story Stephen King ever wrote about Crouch End. There's a lot of colourful graffiti on the walls along here, some of it sprayed by the tall bloke in a bandanna who I passed out walking his wolfhound. "Yeah, I did that stuff in the tunnel," he said to the woman on his arm, presumably as a chat-up line, as a bag of aerosols dangled from his wrist. The path meanders on, past crunchy leaves and chimneypots, with a particularly good view of Stroud Green and its Overground cutting below. One last verdant curve, and the Parkland Walk comes to a grinding halt at a long railway bridge across the East Coast mainline.
Interlude: Finsbury Park That's the park itself, not the railway station. I passed through on that unfeasibly hot October weekend (you remember) to find the entire park packed out with sunbathing locals. Tropical slopes, with a fallen brown carpet - a most rare combination. By the overflowing playground I spotted a sour-faced clown making balloon animals for an audience of one - a small Hassidic boy with drooping sidecurls - which would have made a bloody marvellous photograph except also a grossly unwise one. Moving on.
A river that isn't a river:The New River It's 400 years, near enough, since Sir Hugh Myddleton drove a canal down from Hertford to Islington, providing fresh water from the Lea for a thirsty City. Still does, thanks to Thames Water, unlikely as it may seem. His shallow channel followedthecontours, which made it cheap but wiggly, and one of his wigglier wiggles now twists round the Woodberry Down Estate on the Seven Sisters Road. The footpath alongside is strangely remote, especially after the busyness of the Parkland Walk, and more than a little muddy [photo]. The only person I passed was a bloke in trackies pissing lager into a tree while his staffie looked on, but don't let that put you off. A more serious problem was the fallen tree near Amhurst Park which had smashed down on top of the kissing gate, which took a fair bit of crouching and squeezing to manoeuvre beneath. Cyclists and wheelchair users, think again... indeed, the Capital Ring sends you on a far less interesting direct shortcut instead.
After three quarters of a mile the New River bends back on itself to pass (and fill) two reservoirs, one East, one West. The East is better hidden, starting beside an old brick pumpinghouse above the river, and leading up to the dividing line along Lordship Lane. The West is more scenic, more blue, and home to the yachts and kayaks of the West Reservoir Sailing Centre[photo]. A pleasant but little-known spot, I thought, apart from the infilled apartment blocks of Woodberry Park - a luxury development with waterside views, currently at the "inaugural tenants" stage. A rather more impressive building is the Victorian pumphouse on Green Lanes, designed to resemble a turrety castle, now cavernous home to an indoor climbing centre[photo]. The New River doesn't reappear until you reach Clissold Park, down the road. Ignore the two ponds, they're the ornamental remains of the Hackney Brook, but there is still a boomerang-shaped curve of canal-water over by the bowling green.
Epilogue: Stoke Newington Right at the very end of this five mile walk comes an on-road section. But Stoke Newington Church Street is a lovely road - a sinuous historic high street unsullied by major chain stores. Eating well and drinking hard are easy round here, ditto nipping into an independent boutique for something quirky but unnecessary. Near the far end a gate leads into Abney Park Cemetery, one of Victorian London's Magnificent Seven. William Booth is buried just inside, in a large tomb beneath a gold-etched scroll [photo], although not everybody local knows who he is ("But what is the Salvation Army?" asked a well-dressed girl before wandering off, no better informed). Abney Park was also Hackney's first nature reserve, although the only rare creature I saw amid the tumbledown gravestones was a hopping whippet. 12 sections down, 12 miles to go.