Urban Meets Wild Along London’s Capital Ring

Feature Article – Written for ‘New Nature‘ Magazine, 2018. Original here.

The word ‘rambling’ normally conjures images of countryside strolls or forest trails, far from the haze and havoc of the city. Sure, strolling around London can be nice, but it’s not exactly your top pick for a 7-mile weekend wander, is it? Well, it just might be once you discover the Capital Ring trail like I have.

The Capital Ring is a 78-mile walking route that forms a complete loop around London. It’s divided into fifteen walkable sections of between four to nine miles long, each one easy to conquer in a few hours. The trail links together London’s finest – and sometimes obscure – natural and cultural sites, from sprawling parks and ancient woodlands to garden cemeteries and heritage-listed buildings. Included in the Ring are popular green spaces like Richmond Park, Walthamstow Marshes, the Great North Wood, the Welsh Harp Reservoir and the Grand Union Canal, amongst other surprising delights.

Section 1, Woolwich to Falconwood, starts south-east of the city at the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, adjacent to the River Thames. You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit sceptical at this starting mark. Though it has an interesting industrial and military history, Woolwich isn’t exactly the leafiest area of London. But as you follow the striking ‘Capital Ring’ signposts along the trail, you’ll soon find yourself walking through beautiful green spaces like Maryon Park and the ancient Oxleas Wood, and past fascinating cultural sites like Charlton House and Severndroog Castle. You’ll begin to understand what the London Walkers Forum did, back when they officiated the trail in 2005. Our capital is a wonderful thriving ecosystem, and walking is the best way to experience it.

If you’re keen to explore the Capital Ring, you don’t have to start with Section 1. Part of the beauty of the Ring is that each section begins and ends near a Tube or railway station, so you can take your pick. When I first discovered the trail with my boyfriend, we began with the section that was closest to where we lived – Section 12, Highgate to Stoke Newington. Shortly into the journey, we found ourselves ambling down Parkland Walk: a former railway line that was abandoned during the Second World War and has now been turned into London’s longest nature reserve. It’s a fascinating example of urban meeting wild, and ignited our love affair with the Capital Ring.

Since then, we’ve completed eight of the fifteen sections and often invite friends on the walks with us. Meeting at the pub for a pint is a fun way to catch up, but trail walking is a healthy alternative, offering a big dose of nature and plenty of conversation stimuli from the sites along the way. And of course, you can still celebrate with a well-deserved pint at the end of the walk!

Of the eight sections we’ve completed, we’ve had some clear highlights. Section 11, Hendon to Highgate, takes you through the ancient oak and hornbeam woodlands of Highgate Wood and Queens Wood, alive with over 72 species of bird, grey squirrels and even a few bats. Section 12, Highgate to Stoke Newington, finishes in Abney Park Cemetery, an eerily glorious garden cemetery that’s also a nature reserve. Where life and death intertwine, it’s striking enough to warrant a visit all on its own.

Section 7, Richmond Bridge to Osterley Lock, is a beautiful riverside walk that we enjoyed on a late-summer’s day that passes through Syon Park and finishes along the Grand Union Canal. And Section 13, Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick, introduced us to the Middlesex Filter Beds. The filter beds were built in 1852 to remove impurities from the River Lea, but were turned into a wildlife reserve in 1988, now hosting more than 200 species of plants and birds like the reed warbler and the green woodpecker.

But don’t just take my word for it. Whether you’re a London local or an upcoming visitor, spend a half-day exploring the Capital Ring yourself. You can download PDF maps from the Transport for London website that provide step-by-step guides to each of the sections, including interesting ‘Did You Know’ tidbits along the way. Or, ditch the guide and let the signposts lead the way (though I’d recommend having the guide as a backup – some sections are more clearly signposted than others).

While city landscapes often lead us to believe that civilisation has replaced wilderness, the Capital Ring trail proves otherwise. So many sites along the trail are examples of nature being reclaimed, protected and celebrated. The wild world merges with the urban in beautiful and fascinating ways, reminding us that cities can be a part of nature, not always a separate or opposing entity. And when we take the time to explore and enjoy these trails, we’re a part of it too.


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