If there is one physical activity with which I still persist it’s walking. Any other exercise I do, such as scratching an especially hard to reach part of my back, I do so with very little intention of staying healthy. In fact, not since school have I really done much to improve my physical wellbeing. I don’t run, or work out, or play football, or do anything that involves moving my arms more than I feel is necessary; and if not for my regular walks around London, which I do more so for mental rather than physical stimulation, I’d almost certainly be morbidly unfit—if this is not already the case.
But though I have known all this for a long time now, it wasn’t until this Christmas, after reading several books by a writer called John Hillaby, that I decided to take walking more seriously as a form of exercise. I have never once been tempted to visit a gym, partly for fear that I might become the sort of person who talks about going to a gym. Yet walking has always seemed to agree with me, and it is also one of the few things at which I am reasonably sure I’m quite good, having practiced it diligently since I was about one year old.
The Hillaby books were what finally convinced me of the idea that walking, in addition to being a means of getting around very slowly, can be a romantic venture. In one book, Journey Through Britain, the writer embarks on an almost impossible-sounding slog from Land’s End to John o’Groats—or, in other words, from the southern most point of Great Britain to the northern most point. Along the way he describes the most spectacular sights and meets many remarkable characters. Then, after many weeks of struggle, he finally reaches his destination, his feet sore, all but four of his toenails missing.
After finishing the book I felt brimming with what Evelyn Waugh once called an insatiable thirst for adventure, which apparently lies deep in the hearts of most Englishmen. The only problem was that I wasn’t prepared, nor did I have the time for myself to head off on such a long trip. I instead had to start at what was surely the very beginning for long distance walkers: a seven mile trail from Woolwich Foot Tunnel to Falconwood—or, as it’s signposted, section one of the Capital Ring.
And so it was on a clear January morning that my walking partner and I arrived at Woolwich tube station, having taken the DLR through Canary Warf, home to many of London’s tallest buildings. Woolwich couldn’t have looked more dissimilar from what we had just seen: its high street is comprised mostly of small knickknacky shops has little to boast in the way of tall buildings, aside from a newly built Nandos, itself only a few storeys high. As we headed down towards the River Thames, cars hurtled alongside us at ridiculous speeds, and for only a brief moment, when a motorbike showed signs of coming up onto the pavement on which we were stood, I was sure that our walking days would soon be at an end.
Fortunately this rather dangerous walk to the Thames took only a few minutes and on the way we passed Woolwich Foot Tunnel, which goes underneath the river to North Woolwhich. Built in 1921, the entrance to the tunnel is a small, one storey high tower of red brick with a copper green roof. Inside pedestrians are faced with the somewhat spooky sight of a seemingly endless stretch of tunnel, which goes on for so long it appears to narrow to a point in the middle.
We didn’t particularly fancy walking through, lest we were to run into somebody unsavoury in the middle or—perhaps even worse—somebody overly friendly with whom we’d feel obliged to make small talk. Being in tunnel halfway below a river with anyone is quite awful, of course, regardless of his or her character; and so we continued our walk along the Thames, eventually arriving at several cannons, which remain there from when the area was a Naval Dockyard. Nowadays, they’re covered with such important musings as “Cok” and “Splazz”, which have been scratched into the paintwork with little regard for history or literacy.
Slightly farther on we spotted the Thames Barrier, a structure proposed following a devastating storm in 1953, which produced a tidal surge up the river. It has been in operation since 1982, and looks like the Sydney Opera house, if all its component pieces had fallen out and subsequently agreed to stand several paces apart from one another. Its enormous steel gates can be raised in forty-five minutes, but we only had time to pay it a passing glance before heading up towards Woolwich Road and then through to Maryon Park.
It had been cold down by the river, but not even a light breeze blew in the park, and for the first time the strength of the winter sun, now at its highest point in the sky, could be felt to its full effect. To admire the view, we stopped briefly to drink tea from a thermos we had packed. From the hill on which we were stood, our surroundings no longer looked like London, though several of the usual landmarks could be seen in the faint distance. The park was once owned by the Maryon Wilson family of Charlton House, and was apparently formed from sandpits, one of which is now the home of Charlton Athletic.
After our short break, we continued on past some tennis courts and up 115 steps, which looked daunting from the bottom but were in fact surprisingly easy to climb. Then we crossed Thorntree Road and came to a small zoo with chickens, deer and pigs. They were kept in large green cages, and an innumerable number of dogs had gathered around to bark and jump at what they so desperately wanted to be theirs. Over the road was another park: Charlton Park, which was almost entirely made up of football pitches. These were all full of Saturday league teams and the sounds of exasperated men, all bellowing nonsense at one another (“Getinmoison!” “Avet!” “Passahere!”), could be heard in whichever place we were stood.
There was a quaint-looking tearoom halfway across the park, but we decided to carry on for a while longer before stopping. We were also somewhat distracted by something nearby: an adult playground, which is apparently part of a curious new initiative to get grown men and women swinging from monkey bars. It’s essentially just a gym, but outside, and free for anybody to use—so better than a gym in this respect. It’s also remarkably dangerous as anybody stupid or brave enough to step onto the treadmill will tell you. I should know, for I was stupid enough to step onto it myself, and very nearly proved why playgrounds are designed for children and not embarrassingly unfit gangly men.
Now in a slight daze, I collected my bearings; at the other end of the park, opposite some trees and positioned unfortunately athwart a graffiti-covered wall which read “LEATHAL B” (a rapper, I’m assuming—or perhaps a chocolate bar) stood a grand Jacobean house. This, I discovered upon checking the map, was Charlton House, which was built in 1612 for Sir Adam Newton. The architect Norman Shaw restored it in 1878 for the aforementioned Maryon Wilson family, and it stands today in what seemed, from a distance, like a very respectable state. It had been used as a hospital in World War I, and years later, during the Blitz, the Chapel Wing was bombed.
The remnants of several grand houses lay farther along the trail, which continued through Charlton Park and later down into Inigo Jones Road. The sun was now at its most impressive, its kindly light shining down, very slightly off to the side, so as to extend our shadows and cover the fields through which we walked with a lacquer of gold. So far the walk had been nothing but pleasurable; neither of us had sore feet and the map had been easy enough to follow. But there was still a fair way to go, and thus still fair few things that could go wrong.
Appearing out on a busy junction, we headed left along Shooters Hill, up which a stagecoach struggles in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. When we reached the top we entered Castle Wood, part of Oxleas Woodland, and headed downwards, trying our best not to slip on the muddy floor. In seconds, we had gone from a speedy walk to what can only be described as barely moving; awkwardly, with small hesitant footsteps, we descended slowly, relying on the roots of various trees for stability.
As I later learned, while we were wading our way through four or so inches of mud, we missed an opportunity to see Severndroog Castle—or at the least the opportunity of seeing it up close. Our view of the landmark was from the bottom of the hill, from which we were only able to make out a few bricks over a tall throng of trees. Severndroog stands at about nineteen metres high and was built as a memorial to Commodore Sir William James, owner of the land in the 18th century. James was employed by the East Indian Company to suppress piracy. He died in 1783; the castle was built the following year.
Not much farther on, we found the rose gardens of the now demolished Castlewood House, though nothing much seemed to be growing there aside from a few weeds. Seventy-two steps are the only indication that there was ever once a house on these grounds, and if these are climbed, walkers will find a number of benches on which to sit and admire the view. We had lunch here as the sun, thick and broken like an addled egg, steadily began to makes its way behind the distant hills. Scattered around our feet were rotting leaves and husks from plants killed by the winter frost. The heat from the sun was still strong for the time being, but we had to press on, for within an hour or two we both knew it would be too dark and too cold for us to be out navigating our way through swampy woods.
As it happens, it was fortunate that we headed off when we did: within even less time than we had predicted the darkness had started to set in. Luckily, we hadn’t much further to walk. Nor did we have much more to see.
Next we passed the former gardens of Jackwood House, which much like the ones we had just seen, were mostly baron. Then, after walking a few hundred meters down the path, we arrived at Oxleas Meadows, where there must have been twenty or so dogs, all plastered with mud, waiting patiently for their owners to finish their cups of tea at a large café on the hill. We continued on, concerned that we’d walked too slowly, not wishing to guide our way through the woods by the light from our mobile phones alone.
On the last stretch we headed through Oxleas Wood, where many parakeets hollered and squawked in the leafless trees above us. This led on to the ancient Shepherdleas Woods, the entrance to which had been obscured slightly by a fallen tree. Why these woods were ancient it was hard to tell, for they looked, to our untrained eyes, practically identical to the half or so dozen woods through which we had just walked. Indeed, the only sign indicating they were old at all was an old Snickers wrapper, which carried the brand’s old logo, and upon close inspection appeared to have been made in 1997—or as I believe the bar was known then, “Ye Olde Snickers”. Otherwise the woods seemed reasonably young and its trees rather thin and not especially tall.
Because of this, for a moment we were almost certain we’d taken a wrong turn. Perhaps we should have taken a left instead of a right. Perhaps we were supposed to have gone straight on when reached Oxleas Meadows, instead of dipping downwards. We tried to rethink our steps, but eventually we decided to carry on regardless. By this time only a sliver of bright orange sun was on the horizon, lying still and heavy like a dead slug. It seemed best to simply get to where the nearest streetlights were.
As chance had it we were in luck: no more than fifty meters later we reached an opening that provided us with a fantastic view of the city. With exceptional clarity we could see the Shard, Heron Tower, the Gherkin and St. Pauls, all of which were surrounded by a dull orange glow given off by thousands of lights. One bulb at a time, the city was slowly beginning to shine. And so that was where the walk ended, with that tremendous view of the city, with thousands upon thousands of lights shining brightly.
We finished, as all trips should, by having a couple of drinks in a nearby pub. It was a chain pub and by contrast with what we had just seen it seemed awfully dull. But it was a pub no less and after our seven mile trek it was nice to sit down and relax. At the bar were a group of rowdy workmen, all wearing high viz jackets, and intermittently making the universal gesture for having a wank.
“Chipsticks,” I heard one man say as I ordered a couple of drinks. “Bit much in-ay?”
His mates all agreed and I sat down to reflect on the walk. It had not been particularly taxing. The pace had been slow and the distance manageable. We had walked farther in and around the city several times before, usually when lost. But this was an introduction, a taste of what walking rural London can be, the first step of hopefully many. And I felt that if I was ever going to take the first steps towards something vaguely resembling exercise, then this might as well be it.
The other John Hillaby books to which I refer at the start of this piece are Journey To The Jade Sea in which the author walks across a large stretch of Africa, and John Hillaby’s London, a sort of autobiography come travel guide to the city he called home for much of his life.