Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Beautiful South West

On Bank Holiday Monday I completed stage six of the Capital Ring. Almost eight miles in length, this section runs from Wimbledon Park to Richmond, passing through some of the most attractive and exclusive districts of Greater London.

Turning right out of the District Line station and right again, the route descends a flight of steps into Wimbledon Park. Despite the threatening showers the tennis courts were full of locals taking the opportunity afforded by the extra day off. The walk runs along the shore of the lake, with views across the water to the famous All England Tennis Club. After a short detour around the park's athletics stadium, the walk leaves the park and starts to climb once again.

This is the long pull up and out of the Wandle Valley, passing many fine houses with even the social housing and terraces looking very opulent. A look back over the valley affords a final view of the masts at Crystal Palace which dominated stages three and four. Across the busy A219, the route plunges into the dense woodlands of Wimbledon Common.

A straight path through the woods leads to the Wimbledon Windmill, a popular attraction on a sunny bank holiday. The windmill was built in1817 and is a unique example of the 'hollow post' design, with the whole mill able to rotate on a central post to face into the wind. The path encroaches upon the fairways of the London Scottish Golf Club and - keeping an eye out for flying balls - runs down a steep hill to Queen's Mere, said to be a favourite haunt of the Wombles.

There was no sign of Orinocho or Great Uncle Bulgaria, but I paused at this lovely spot to take some pictures of the lake. A family of swans including no fewer than nine cygnets approached and I grabbed a few shots. They were obviously camera shy and one of the parents honked and approached in a threatening fashion, so I packed up and left them to it.

The walk continues through the golf course and across open fields to the A3 which intrudes noisily on the scene. Here the only way to cross used to be the iron footbridge but TfL have recently installed a pelican crossing with a novel difference - there is also a crossing for horses, with the buttons placed at a convenient height for riders to reach them.

Across the road is Robin Hood's Gate, the entrance to Richmond Park. This is the largest of the Royal Parks and very soon you feel as if you are out in the country, with no sign of civilisation apart from the jumbo jets blasting overhead on their way to Heathrow.

The path climbs easily to the excitingly named Spankers Hill Wood, with herds of deer much in evidence. The park has a herd of around 650 and although they look placid, signs warn that they can be aggressive if approached. An embankment leads between the two charming Pen Ponds and the walk passes around Sidmouth Wood crossing a busy road with excellent views over the Thames to the airport and the Twickenham rugby stadium.

On the road I had a close encounter with a lycra clad cyclist who bore down on me soundlessly, cutting past only inches away and shouting something. At the speed he was going I couldn't hear what he was trying to say but I assumed it was a cheery greeting of some sort...

A short detour leads to King Henry VIII Mound from which there is a protected view through a hole in the vegetation and down and avenue of trees which frame the dome of St Paul's in the hazy distance. Popular history has it that the King stood here to observe the signal confirming that Anne Boleyn had been executed in the Tower. Anne was only his second wife and as anyone who has seen 'The Tudors' TV series will know, things did not get better for Henry or his subsequent partners.

A steep hill descends to lovely Petersham, nestling by the River Thames. The path follows the river downstream, amongst joggers and cyclists. Listening to the conversations, there seem to be a large number of bankers and city professionals in Richmond. There are also a large number of Liberal Democrats although the Conservatives captured the council last year.

I had a brief lunch sitting on the stern of a boat that houses the Thames Visitors Centre - chicken skewers and a vanilla milkshake, which were very welcome at the end of a long and hilly walk. The return to Richmond Station was another half mile or so and frustratingly the District Line was out of action for engineering works. A long and complex journey home awaited.

The next stage of the ring crosses the Thames, leaving South London behind, and introduces the charms of Ealing and Brentford - the county town of Middlesex as local Assembly Member Tony Arbour has told us. I can't wait...

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