Walking round London pt13: Oxleas Wood to Eltham Palace
From parkland to suburb to Tudor castle. Gotta love London…
(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.)
It’s early afternoon when the Capital Ring path under my feet turns to the west. By now I’m beginning to realise just how much more green space there is south of the river compared to my earlier adventures on the north side. It’s not that I’m against south London — I lived in Wandsworth for seven happy years before domestic circumstance took me to the bottom-left corner of zone 6 — but I’d never quite grasped how much more space there is below the Thames.
This is a boon for walkers who want to escape the urban: here, the Capital Ring is just part of the extensive 40-mile Green Chain network of verdant escapism. For a long-distance walker chalking up 35km on a sunny May day it’s also helpful that grass and trees soak up heat rather than reflecting it back like pavements and roads.
What it lacks compared to the northern quarter of the walk is interaction with the built environment, one of my fascinations and one of the key reasons I decided to walk 120km around London. I don’t want the countryside concreted over, but one of the endlessly intriguing things about a metropolis is the way it carves out (or protects) small slices of parkland, knowing a healthy diet needs its greens. To express that latter metaphor slightly differently, in a largely urban spread the occasional slice of parkland feels like a just dessert; walking through two hours of woodland untrammelled can start to resemble gorging on the sweet trolley.
Not that I can complain about the constituent components of this walk section. Oxleas Wood feels nicely ancient, because it is, and alternates with the meadowland which continues into Eltham Park North.
And then suddenly the built environment hits me like a ton of concrete, with a brainless bridge thrown over the A2. It’s one of those bridges you find outside stadiums or inside prisons, designed — if that’s not too generous a word — to get people from one place to another with the minimum of ornament, interest or interaction with environment. It would be viciously anti-vernacular even if it succeeded in its aim, which appears to be to pretend the A2 doesn’t exist. It fails dismally in this aim because it can’t cut out the road noise — indeed I’d wager this three-sided tunnel might even amplify it. The effect is to condescendingly shove the walker toward the other side like a patronising parent — don’t look, pretend it doesn’t exist. If it’s merely to protect us… well, that’s Eltham safety gone mad.
Now, not everybody loves a view of a motorway, which is what the A2 essentially is at this point: a concrete canyon of a dual carriageway. But some do — it’s literally a change of scenery, and can make the walker glad they’re not down there. Besides, this attempt to ignore the A2 is idiotic — for the previous five minutes, as the path went alongside the railway which goes alongside the road, the walker has been able to hear it if not see it. All this type of bridge means is that you suffer slightly less car noise at the expense of a total loss of view. It’s not a pretty road but it would be a more interesting vista than a listlessly-tagged storm drain.
Onto Eltham Park South, another of those triumphs of nominative originality, the geographical descriptor necessary since that A2 bypass bisected the pre-existing park.It’s a prettier place than its half-arsed name suggests. The path sidles up to and along a green fence separating public park from private golf course: all are welcome, says the sign, but presumably at a price. Within the park, there’s a curious fenced-off area that I initially take to be tennis courts — but in the absence of nets and court-lines, it has become a grassy cage for dozens of footballers.
I can’t help but notice that all but one of the players are white, whereas on Charlton Park all but one had been black. I further can’t help remembering that the first I heard of Eltham was the murder of Stephen Lawrence, less than a mile to the west of here. I know this is unfair — everyone in the park seems friendly — but I wonder if I’d feel the same if I were black: the population of Eltham is 80.65% white, notably higher than the London average of 69.7% and much higher than the Greenwich borough average of 62.5%. It’s an inevitable shame that this is the first thing that leaps to mind about a place which has also been home to Bob Hope, Frankie Howerd, Kate Bush, Boy George, Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Steve Peregrin Took (who put the mentalist into multi-instrumentalist) and the drumming brothers White, Steve and Alan, best known for thumping tubs for Paul Weller and Oasis.
As if answering my internal request for built environment, possibly for the first time on this walk I’m pootling down a suburban road — Glenesk Road. Named after a place in the Cairngorms, it’s a curious road, very wide but not a true avenue as it’s treeless. A Porsche farts past as I pass №14, named Romanland because Roman remains were found in the garden when it was built in 1913. With other houses differing wildly in style, Glenesk resembles a sample chart of suburban styles through the ages, which combine to give the impression that Eltham can’t quite decide what it is.
Again, that’s an unfair impression. Hidden from my view just off the mix-and-match Glenesk Road is the Eltham Park estate, built by Archibald Cameron Corbett between 1900 and 1914. A proud Scot — hence Glenesk, not to mention the nearby streetnames Beechhill, Balaskie, Dairsie, Deansfield, Dunvegan, Earlshall, Elibank, Elderslie, Gourock, Greenvale, Westmount, Glenlea, Glenlyon, Lenshiel and Glenhouse — Corbett was one of London’s biggest suburb-builders and a well-meaning philanthropist. His houses — interspersed with a suitable amount of churches and equally suitable lack of pubs for the God-fearing teetotaller — may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re sold Edwardian stock for a solid Edwardian community; if it’s gone wrong since, we can’t blame Archie.
I join Butterfly Lane, an old greenway that almost lives up the beauty of its name as it slides down between Span-style midcentury modern townhouses on the right and a horse paddock on the left. Toddlers on scooters wheel up to a gate and call out for the gee-gees, but there’s no response; there’s also no response from their topless dad, tattoos covering his ludicrous pectorals, absent-mindedly perusing the phone that in his meaty paws looks the size of a bourbon biscuit.
The lane ends in the derelict Butterfly Lane Club, fenced off behind a traveller-defying concrete cube. I do love an abandoned building gradually returning to nature, and as I ponder its mysteries I lose the path and head off downhill in the wrong direction. Luckily, and for the first time in an hour, while taking pictures I’d been nearly caught up by some fellow fundraisers; when I realise they’re no longer following me, I quickly realise I’ve lost the thread and it doesn’t take me long to refind the path.
For the record, the club at the end of the lane had been home to Eltham Town FC (and, further back in the past, Welling United) before the footballers moved out after efforts to redevelop it were thwarted by green-belt red-tape. It was torched in May 2014, leading to a five-hour fire producing plumes of black smoke visible as far away as Lewisham.
Back on the trail, I’m soon stopped again by that most irresistable of temptations, an information board. This one’s about plumbing. As any fule kno, Romans built aqueducts, but widespread water distribution took a while thereafter; medieval monks plumbed in their monasteries as early as the 12th century, and some towns had basic systems by the 14th and 15th centuries, but for the Tudors an efficient water supply was still a head-turning height of luxury, providing for drinking, cooking, bathing and brewing. They usually relied on harnessing a natural spring somewhere uphill, then piping it down to the palace.
Such is the case with this conduit head, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument and previously part of an elaborate system probably built before 1509 by Henry VII to take water nearly a mile to Eltham Palace. Mechanically, the conduit head is two linked underground chambers housing settling tanks not unlike the filter beds still used in modern sewage works. Architecturally, it’s a Grade II-listed red-brick vaulted structure with a sunken four-centred arch opening forming the entrance to a chamber with a pointed barrel vault.
The resultant water then went in lead pipes — a health and safety no-no now, but it’s worth remembering that the word “plumbing” comes from plumbum, the Latin for lead — to Eltham Palace, a mile down the hill and along our path; the relatively small fall of 55ft would have resulted in low water pressure compared to later luxuries, but it’s still better than sucking a swamp or sending a bat-man to the river.
As I lurch up the suitably-named Footscray Road (it means clean, fresh river) I chat with a Chelsea fan, a far faster walker than I, who’d taken an even worse wrong turning — and I don’t mean supporting Chelsea. He’d lost about half an hour heading in the wrong direction, but eventually found his way back. Now four hours into the walk, I have no intention of keeping his pace — so off he scuttles into the distance as I approach Eltham Palace.
Coming up next: well, Eltham Palace, obviously
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 • Pt13: Oxleas Wood to Eltham Palace