Walking round London pt12: Hornfair Park to Oxleas Wood
Reaching the most easterly point of the 120km Capital Trail Challenge, via a triangular castle
(ICYMI: on Sat 5 May, the writer walked 36km as the first quarter of a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity; on Sat 26 May, he walked the next quarter. These blogs are to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)
Out of Hornfair Park and quickly through the Greenwich Heights estate, where someone’s ignored a sign, we’re soon on the expansive Woolwich Common, 150 hectares of almost pasture-like land, all waist-high meadow flowers and well-established hedgerows.
As with most commons this is properly ancient open land rather than public garden. Although Barrack Field at its northern end has long been hived off for cricket and football – army officers played polo on bicycles and the 2012 Olympics shooting competition took place there – the rest is a slice of country in the city, linked thematically and geographically to the wild wood that once covered the area south of London.
The common formerly covered a much larger area, all the way into Charlton, but it was encroached upon by a growing population and a particular slice of it: the military. Just as much of riverside Woolwich became navytown, so did hilltop Woolwich become armyville. As the name Barrack Field implies, quarters were constructed for permanent military residents learning their trades at the various educational facilities nearby, and the common itself was also used as a base: as Britain busily built an empire, soldiers from across Britain would camp on the common until called down to the Royal Arsenal to gather ammunition before clambering onto ships moored on the Thames.
All that seems a long time ago now, and the feel has returned to resembling the ancient wild-wood. We’re about to explore more of that wood, cutting across Eltham Common to climb through Oxleas Wood, but first we’ve an artery to traverse. We pop out of Woolwich Common onto the busy old South Circular, traffic zooming down toward the ferry.
On the corner of the A207 – to which we shall come in a moment – is a fine 1909 two-storey terracotta classical building called Victoria House, the officers’ mess and quarters for military medics working over the road at the Royal Herbert Hospital; the hospital is now flats, while Victoria House awaits refitting as part of the next-door Greenwich Free School.
Kitty-corner from Victoria House and on the site of an old gibbet is a former police station, built in two stages across the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Decommissioned in 2005, it has been converted to flats with more taste than the renaming: they wanted to call it You’re Nicked but settled for Old Bill Court.
As we cross the A207, not for the first time on this Capital Challenge our walking boots are crossing a path previously slapped by Roman soldiers’ sandals. This is Watling Street, here part of the old Dover Road climbing Shooters Hill, the original A2 before it was bypassed to the south (as is inevitable when we’re circling to the west, we’ll meet it in time).
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities starts on Shooters Hill, a stagecoach struggling up the muddy road, and although the day is now officially hot I sympathise with those horses. Shooters Hill got its name from archery practice but the highwayman era hardened the handle into gallows humour – literally, given the gibbet on the corner. Pepys told his diary in 1661 how he “rode under the man that hangs on Shooters Hill, and a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to his bones.”
As the road struggles up the Hill to our left, we cut across Eltham Common – bought by the LCC in 1938 from the Army, who presumably had other things in mind – towards Oxleas Wood. I’m glad to be gladed as the gradient grows gruelling.
But one way to make a climb worthwhile is to reach a place of interest, and there’s one atop this hill. Severndroog sounds like a Bristolian Clockwork Orange tribute – they might have been better back at Thamesmead, where the estate scenes were shot – but it’s actually a half-hearted Anglicisation of Suvarnadurg, an island fort in the Arabian Sea between Mumbai and Goa.
You won’t be surprised to learn the British East India Company took Suvarnadurg by force in 1755 under the command of one William James. Four years later James returned home to Eltham; 14 years after that, he popped his clogs of a stroke at his daughter’s wedding. The following year, his wife erected this curious castle as a memorial, visible from their home in Eltham.
Gothic in style yet triangular in plan with a hexagonal turret at each corner, Severndroog Castle rises like a emo’s doodle 63ft into the sky above Oxleas Wood. Purchased by the LCC in 1922 and thrown open to the public, it predictably became a popular attraction, and was Grade II*-listed in 1954. When the GLC was abolished in 1986 it lasted just two years under council control before being boarded up.
Under threat and featured on the 2004 BBC series Restoration, it reopened in 2014 thanks to a £595,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant. You can see seven counties from its rooftop viewing platform, which isn’t open on a Saturday, thus saving me the internal battle between inquisitive mind and complaining legs; instead I settle for a chat with the café proprietor while sourcing a richly-deserved ice cream.
Savouring salted caramel and sensational southerly views in the high-noon sun, I begin my descent through the terraced gardens. It’s one of those places that alternates between wildwood and manicured gardens, presumably Victorian or interwar gardens; it brings back happy childhood memories of exploring Leverhulme’s bequest to Boltonians at Rivington Pike.
After more wildwood, including a tagged tree, the path emerges halfway down Oxleas Meadows. The short but punishing climb up the hill to the typical interwar café – you can usually tell them from the steeply-pitched roof, frequently emblazoned with the roughly-painted word CAFE – is worth it for the splash of water over the brow and the turn to see a gorgeous view down Oxleas Meadow and as far as the North Downs.
That’s away to the south, but I’m about to turn a corner and start going west. After another half-hour descent through Oxleas Wood, the path hits a major road junction at Rochester Way — the original Shooters Hill bypass and the first vehicular intrusion in 90 minutes or so. Tiptoeing carefully across this, I’m at the most easterly point of the entire Capital Ring. Westward ho.
Coming up next: Eltham safety
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) will take place on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.
Pt1: Wembley to East Finchley • Pt2: East Finchley to Finsbury Park • Pt3: Finsbury Park to Clissold Park • Pt4: Clissold Park to Springfield Park• Pt5: Springfield Park to Hackney Wick • Pt6: Hackney Wick to Bow Back River • Pt7: Bow Back River to Channelsea River • Pt8: Channelsea River to Royal Victoria Dock • Pt9: Royal Victoria Dock to North Woolwich Pier • Pt10: North Woolwich Pier to Maryon Park • Pt11: Maryon Park to Hornfair Park • Pt12: Hornfair Park to Oxleas Wood