Walk London CAPITAL RING[section 13] Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick (3½ miles)
The start of Capital Ring Section 13 is marked by the legendary ISIHAC pianist Colin Sell. He won't be the marker if you walk this way, but he was for me. I'd seen Colin less than 48 hours earlier on stage in Norwich, and now here he was again, definitely him, chatting happily on a traffic island opposite the entrance to Abney Park Cemetery. He was standing alongside a woman I assumed was his wife, but could easily have been his broadcasting partner Samantha. Sharp-eyed Radio 4 listeners might be able to confirm her lovely features from my long-lens photo.
Every so often, where green spaces grow thin, the Capital Ring is forced to follow roads. So it is at the start of section 13, which heads up from the foot of Stamford Hill via a fair chunk of street. The Ring's official blurb describes this as "tracing Stoke Newington's expansion over the last 150 years", which in reality means fifteen minutes of front doors and front gardens. Still most interesting, though, when a few minutes up Cazenove Road I realised I was the only bare-headed male on the street. Thousands of Hasidic Jews live in this corner of Hackney, have done for years, recognisable by their sidelocks and wide-brimmed black hats. Elsewhere their characteristic black dress might earn curious glances, whereas here - as children lean from windows and mums empty their cars of shopping - it's just a normal part of communal family life.
Springfield Park is a treat. There's a sparkycafe in the White Lodge Mansion, overflowing outdoors during my sun-blessed visit, but likely to be more inward-looking this forthcoming autumnal weekend. Close by is a shady pond, plus fowl and fountains, in contrast to the more extensive cut grass elsewhere. But the treat is beyond the clipped intermittent hedge, where the land suddenly drops away to reveal aview across the Lea towards Waltham Forest [photo]. The site's geologically rich, with a gravel terrace at the top of the hill nearest the mansion, leading down to impermeable London Clay, then sedimentary "brickearth" and a layer of alluvium. The descent's steep enough that wheelchair users on the ring are diverted via an alternative route "without steps", so be sure to enjoy the autumnal panorama before lowering yourself to river level.
Cross the footbridge to see Springfield Marina - a densely-packed boat store filling a cut-off meander of the former Lea. And then the broad open space of Walthamstow Marshes, always a joy, stretched out across umpteen acres of verdant floodplain [photo]. The Ring sticks close to the waterside, tempting though it might be to head off instead through the bullrushes across the summer pasture. One tranche for cattle, another for kite skating, and mind the pylons inbetween. The fourth railway arch in from the river was once the makeshift hangar for Britain's very first aircraft [photo]. Aviation pioneer A.V. Roe flew his "Yellow Terror", the Arvo 1, across the marsh and into the sky for an inaugural thirty metre leap. For the centenary in 2009 a commemorative blue plaque was unveiled, but it's probably a finer tribute that the Stansted Express rumbles over the top every fifteen minutes.
Near the Lea Bridge Road, where a footbridge leads walkers back onto the Hackney bank, a new housing development encroaches. It's not beautiful, even with a metal tree plonked out on the front lawn, although the view from the fifth floor balconies must be lovely. Take the towpath beneath the road, past the Princessof Wales pub (which underwent a gender swap in 1997) then cross back to the eastern bank [photo]. On the left are the Middlesex Filter Beds, always worth a diversion, where reeds and rushes fill several drained pools once used to purify drinking water. On quiet days this nature reserve might afford views of sparrowhawks or newts, whereas I saw only humans (playing guitars, hiding in the reeds or checking the football results). I was also accosted by a lovely lady with a clipboard who asked if I wouldn't mind taking part in her survey. EIGHTEEN pages later I'd offered her my full thoughts on TfL's "Olympic Walking and Cycling Route Enhancement programme", although the tickboxes and maps unadventurously assumed that nobody would be walking as far as my 3½ mile trek.
Ever further down the Lea, there's a temporary diversion at Cow Bridge while a footbridge is upgraded across the river. This is probably a good thing, because the detour affords a proper glimpse of the Hackney Marshes (and its record-breaking expanse of paired goalposts), which otherwise the Capital Ring would ignore. Partway along, where Lesney's Matchbox factory used to stand, now a sprawling mixed-use development has arisen [photo]. It's clad in contrasting coloured rectangles, which architects of the future will one day use to date early 21st century design heritage, assuming anything from this bereft style survives early demolition. Mind the cyclists, mind the duck-feeders, mind the joggers - all of whom make this part of the Lea Valley Walk their own. The Olympic Stadium suddenly appears, far downstream, as a web of white drinking straws part-hidden behind a bend or two. It's preceded by a less landmark building - the pig-ugly 2012 International Broadcast Centre - whose insipid features blight the once green view from Leabank Square[photo]. The towpath continues into the heart of the Olympic Park, securely isolated behind razorwire and electrified fencing. But after the Handball Arena, by the orange post at White Post Lane, that's your lot for now [photo]. End of section 13 - cyclists please dismount.