Tuesday 19 December 2017

Capital Ring 1/2: Woolwich - Grove Park

Gothic bridge across the moat at Eltham Palace, where a mediaeval drawbridge once stood.

The Capital Ring gets off to a splendid start, climbing from the wide vistas of the Thames Path at Woolwich through a chain of parks in Charlton, across Shooters Hill and through Oxleas Woods, one of the most extensive and beautiful areas of ancient woodland in inner London. The trail then passes historic Eltham Palace, takes an ancient lane through a surprisingly rural landscape to Mottingham and follows the river Quaggy to Grove Park. For most of the way, from near the Thames Barrier onwards, it shares its paths with the Green Chain Walk.

In this post, as in most others, I’ve tackled two official sections at once. The official break point is at Falconwood, though there are numerous other stations and bus stops. This is one of the most rugged sections of the route, particularly through Oxleas Woods, reaching the highest point on the trail at 128 m.

Note. This section of the Capital Ring almost entirely duplicates the Green Chain Walk. The corresponding GCW sections are 5 from the Royal Greenwich Trust School on Woolwich Road via Maryon Wilson Park to Oxleas Woods Café; a short section of 7 to the junction in Oxleas Woods; 6 to Mottingham Lane; and 8 to Grove Park.


The Woolwich Ferry, one of London's best free rides.

The south bank of the river Thames from Deptford downstream was historically part of the county of Kent, the successor to an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Kent was once divided into ‘lathes’ and then into ‘hundreds’, and this northwest corner of the county was part of the Lathe of Sutton-at-Hone and the Hundred of Blackheath. For some notes on Kent in general, see my post on the London Loop alternative from Dartford to Crayford.

On the water’s edge, the surroundings are naturally flat and marshy, historically used for rough pasture and later for the sorts of industries that required plenty of space. But travelling south from the riverside, the land rises rapidly into a ridge of low hills, thrown up about 40 million years ago by the same geological incident that created the Alps, when the tectonic plates carrying Africa and Europe collided. As elsewhere in London, chalk underlies the surface, but it’s covered by a layer of gravels, sands, silts and clays deposited around 55 million years ago and known as Woolwich Beds.

Historically, settlements here tended to stick to the heights, or squeeze onto outcrops of firmer ground nearer the river. A Celtic oppidum or fortified town stood on the riverside at Woolwich from the Iron Age, the only one of its kind known in the London area, re-occupied in the later part of the Roman era as a fort protecting the approaches to London. In Anglo-Saxon times the place was most likely a quiet fishing village, perhaps with a sideline in river-borne trade. The name means ‘trading place for wool,’ though no other evidence of an ancient wool market has been found. Woolwich was first granted a market charter in 1618 but a market of some sort almost certainly operated before this: its early history is also unknown.

From the early 9th century, most of Woolwich, except for some riverside quays, was held by a Flemish Benedictine abbey, Sint-Pietersabdij in Gent. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the lands became part of the neighbouring manors of Dartford to the east and Eltham to the south, although Woolwich was usually considered a distinct sub-manor within Eltham. The area was particularly susceptible to flooding, but was considered important enough for the monarch to charge various people and bodies with the upkeep of river walls and dykes.

To the south, roughly paralleling the Thames but avoiding its marshes, runs one of Britain’s most important historic highways, Watling Street. Between them, the road and the river, and the easy transport links they provided, encouraged a finger of ribbon development to creep along the riverside from the capital. There are traces of industry such as pottery and shipbuilding in Woolwich dating back to at least the 15th century.

But the overwhelming influence on the shape of the modern town is its long association with the military and the navy. This dates from the reign of Henry VIII, who first grasped the idea that naval power was the key to dominance as the emerging European states rivalled with each other to establish spheres of influence across the world. Henry chose Woolwich as the location in 1512 for the first of three naval dockyards along this stretch of the river – the dockyard at Deptford followed in 1513, with another, smaller yard in Erith (on London Loop 1) operational by 1515.

All were within easy reach by river of each other and the royal palace at Greenwich, and the facility at Woolwich enjoyed a location where, in the words of late 18th century historian Edward Hasted, “the channel lies direct east and west for about three miles [4.8 km], the tide runs very strong, and the river is entirely free from shoals and sands, and has seven or eight fathoms [12.8 – 14.6 m] water; so that the largest ships may ride with safety, even at low water.” Henry’s flagship Henry grace à Dieu or Great Harry was built at Woolwich and fitted out at Erith for its launch in 1515. 50 m long, weighing more than 1,000 tonnes and with a crew of up to 1,000, it was the biggest ship yet built, but turned out to be unstable and top heavy and saw little active service. Its fate is unknown: it may have been destroyed by fire and abandoned close to its birthplace at Woolwich in 1553.

East of the dockyard was an area of riverside land historically used as a rabbit warren: this passed into private hands after Henry seized the abbey lands during the Dissolution in the late 1530s. Part became a ropeyard which served the dockyard (there were 400 ropemakers in the town by 1744), the rest an estate attached to a mansion known as Tower House. By the 1650s a wharf next to the ropeyard was used by the Board of Ordnance to store guns, which were tested on the warren with the owners’ permission. A gun battery was installed to protect the river in 1667, and in 1671 the Board swapped its ownership of the gun wharf for the rest of the Tower House estate.

Originally it was primarily used as a storage depot, but with the establishment of the Royal Laboratory in 1695, it began producing explosives, fuses and shot. The Royal Artillery Regiment was founded on the site in 1716 and the Royal Military Academy in 1741. Early in the 19th century these two institutions moved south to occupy an extensive chunk of Woolwich Common, leaving the Warren to grow into what became known from 1805 as the Royal Arsenal, ultimately the biggest arms factory in the UK. The presence of dockyard and arsenal draped large parts of Woolwich in the veil of official secrecy: for many years both sites appeared as blank spaces on maps.

The parish of Woolwich became an official part of London in 1885 when it was placed under the jurisdiction of the new London County Council, and in 1900 it was combined with the neighbouring parishes of Eltham and Plumstead to create the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich. When London was expanded into Greater London in 1965, the boroughs were reorganised, and Woolwich was merged with Greenwich as the London Borough of Greenwich. All but the very end of this section of the Ring is in the borough, which since 2012 has been known as the Royal Borough of Greenwich – a fact you won’t fail to notice from public signs thanks to an enthusiastic rebranding campaign.

1990s Moderne: Woolwich Arsenal station.

Our walk starts at Woolwich Arsenal station, opened in 1847 as Royal Arsenal station on the South Eastern Railway’s (SER) North Kent Line from Strood to Deptford, where it connected with the London and Greenwich Railway into London Bridge. The Arsenal, incidentally, had its own railway system predating the public railway. Much of it was narrow gauge, but there were also standard gauge lines which connected into the SER near Plumstead. Thanks to the various military installations, Woolwich was already a busy place before the railway opened, but the new station only encouraged further expansion, prompting further growth around the station and helping shift the nucleus of the town from the riverside.

The station has been rebuilt several times. The distinctive ticket hall with its curved glazed walls and lantern nods at the Moderne style of the 1920s but is in fact the work of British Rail architect Nick Derbyshire, dating from 1993. In 2009 the station became an interchange with the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) with the opening of a branch from Canning Town via London City Airport and under the Thames to a terminus here. Connections will improve further at the end of 2018 when a new station on the Elizabeth Line (formerly known as Crossrail 1) opens just a short walk away on the Royal Arsenal site. But one transport option no longer available is the tram: the very last service on London’s original street tram network left nearby Beresford Square for New Cross Gate in July 1952, taking more than three hours to navigate the crowds of cheering Londoners lining the route.

General Gordon Square, facing you, lies directly over the railway tracks. This was originally an open cutting, known as the Smoke Hole by local market traders who had to contend with the discharge from steam locomotives soiling their goods. It was finally covered over in 1928 after many years of public protest, creating a public space named after military hero Major-General Charles George Gordon (1833-85). He’s best known as Gordon of Khartoum as he was in command during the year-long siege of the Sudanese city by opponents of British and Egyptian rule under local religious leader Muhammed Ahmad, the ‘Mahdi’, and was killed in action two days before a relief force arrived. Gordon was born in Woolwich and attended the Royal Military Academy.

The square owes its present appearance to a makeover for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and is the first of numerous Olympic legacies we’ll encounter on the Ring. Greenwich’s honorary ‘royal’ renaming was partly in commemoration of its role as one of the six ‘Olympic Boroughs’ (the others were Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest), with three games venues including the Royal Artillery Barracks just up the road, appropriately used for the shooting events, as well as Greenwich Park and the O2. General Gordon Square was a designated ‘Live Site’ where coverage of the Games was relayed to the big screen that still stands today.

Overlooking the square on the right is the imposing Woolwich Equitable Building, built in 1935 for the building society of the same name.  Designed to inspire the confidence of members and investors, it adopted a hybrid of art deco and Baroque revival styles, with an impressive three-storey frontage in Portland stone topped by a tiled mansard roof.

The society itself was founded in 1842 on a temporary basis, and became one of Britain’s first permanent building societies five years later. Today it’s probably more strongly linked with the town in the popular imagination than the Royal Arsenal, thanks to a popular advertising campaign in the 1980s under the slogan “I’m with the Woolwich”. But like the Arsenal, it no longer exists – it moved from Woolwich to Bexleyheath in 1989, turned itself into a bank and was absorbed by Barclays in 2006. In 2011 its former home, now Grade II listed, was converted into shops, a pub and various small offices.

The route passes the DLR station entrance and grazes the edge of Beresford Square, the main location of the street market which now operates six days a week. The original market site, as chartered in 1618, was to the west nearer the river: the Beresford Square market was originally an unofficial alternative favoured by traders keen to avoid tolls and enjoy increased footfall in what was rapidly becoming the de facto centre of town. The market survived various attempts by the authorities to suppress it and was finally legitimised in 1879.

Now apparently marooned in the square is a brick gatehouse, the Beresford Gate which once formed the main gate to the Arsenal complex. The ground floor of this was built in yellow brick in 1829 and named after William Beresford, then Master-General of the Ordnance and governor of the Royal Military Academy. The red brick upper storey was added in 1891. It’s now owned by the council though rarely open.

The official Capital Ring link from Woolwich Arsenal station follows a roundabout route via the Royal Arsenal complex and then along the Thames, but I’ve opted for a more direct alternative via the streets of the town centre. The Arsenal is well worth a detour, though there will be more of an opportunity to discover it on future walks along the Thames Path, and I’ll say a bit more about it then. At its peak during World War I, the site covered 530 ha and employed 80,000 people. Among the institutions to emerge from it are Arsenal Football Club (1886), now in North London; the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society (1868), an important part of the Cooperative movement; and the Peace Arsenal campaign, which successfully implemented the ‘swords into ploughshares’ principle here for a few years after World War I.

Military activities declined in stages from the later part of the 20th century, with dire consequences for local employment. The Royal Ordnance Factory closed in 1967 and the eastern section of the site, including much open land used for testing, was sold off to the Greater London Council to build the new town of Thamesmead. In 1986, the land closest to Beresford Square was used for road widening – thus the current marooned location of the gatehouse, which was, amazingly, at first threatened with demolition under the same scheme. The rest of the site remained in Ministry of Defence use until 1994. It has subsequently been redeveloped, though with many of the historic buildings conserved, with the former blank space finally opened to public access in 2008. Building is still ongoing and eventually there will be 5,000 new homes here.

Woolwich is certainly no stranger to redevelopment: nearly all the old town centre between Beresford Street and the river has long since vanished under successive attempts to sweep away what was once regarded as one of the worst slums in London. An 1847 source quoted by Nikolaus Pevsner and regularly requoted since contrasted the Arsenal, with its military order and imposing buildings, with its surroundings, “the dirtiest, filthiest and most thoroughly mismanaged town of its size in the Kingdom”. Beresford Square itself was not a planned space, owing its current shape to 1960s slum clearance. The A206 road built in 1986 roughly follows the line of the old High Street from the west and then turns south to trace the line of long sheds where rope was once made, disrupting the former street pattern as well as cutting off the gatehouse from the Arsenal.

The quickest way to the riverfront is along the busy and part-pedestrianised shopping streets north of Beresford Square, which began to develop in the late 18th century when Woolwich New Road was built to link the Arsenal and the military establishments on the common, but now have a decidedly 20th century appearance. Among Woolwich’s more trivial distinctions, the McDonalds on Powis Street is the very first branch of the US fast food chain in the UK, opened in 1974.

Finally, you cross the A206, here named High Street – though it’s hard to imagine this busy dual carriageway as the commercial centre of an ancient town. The parish church, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, is over to the left, on the other side of the busy roundabout where the A206 crosses the South Circular Road and the ferry approach. Its history dates back at least to Saxon times, although the current building dates from 1739 and is located a little to the south of the original site. Just a few steps away on this side of the roundabout is a more recent religious institution, the Cathedral of Christ Faith Tabernacle, occupying a former showcase art deco Granada cinema built in 1937 with a lavish Gothic-style interior, now Grade II*-listed.

The 1970s Waterfront Leisure Centre in front of you as you cross the road covers a site that was once dense with narrow streets lined with poor housing, the so-called Dust Hole where in the mid-19th century up to five families lived in a single room. Between the centre and the adjoining slipway, you follow an alley to the riverside which preserves its old name, Bell Water Gate.

The slipway to your right shadows the river access to the original dockyard where Henry grace à Dieu was constructed, now buried under the adjacent car park. The same site housed the gun wharf where the Arsenal began, then from 1893 a power station which was demolished in 1919. To the south of this, on the corner of the alley and the High Street, was Market Hill, the official market site from 1670 and once home to the parish cage and stocks. On the other side of the car park, downstream towards the Arsenal site, is the location of the Celtic settlement, now a public park, Maribor Park. The leisure centre itself is due for demolition to make way for another new residential quarter with five towers, replaced by a facility in the town centre where swimmers will no longer enjoy a view of the Thames.

Reaching the riverside, you turn upstream along the official Capital Ring link. This is also the Thames Path, or rather the Thames Path Extension, not officially designated as a National Trail but a continuation of the riverside walkway created by Greenwich and Bexley councils as part of National Cycle Network Route 1. It will eventually also form part of the English Coast Path as far as the southern portal of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, which you soon encounter tucked away in a yard behind the leisure centre. This is where you’ll emerge when you complete the last section of the Ring, and it’s on the route of another trail, the Jubilee Greenway, indicated by the pavement plaques.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel southern portal: conveyor of many trails.
Amazingly, this curious little red brick rotunda is now the oldest building in the riverfront area of Old Woolwich: the tunnel opened in 1912, thanks largely to the efforts of ex-docker and local Labour MP Will Crooks, who commissioned it as chair of the London County Council’s Bridges Committee. Back then, the area around the tunnel portal on the opposite side, North Woolwich, was also officially within Woolwich: incorporated into the mediaeval manor, it was for centuries the only part of Kent on the north bank of the Thames, an anomaly only resolved in 1965.

The alley leading from the tunnel to the ferry approach preserves another name from the old days, Glass Yard, running past the control building for the Woolwich Free Ferry. There’s been a ferry here since Saxon times, and it’s referenced in the Domesday survey. The link gained in importance with the growing naval and military presence in Woolwich and in 1810 the Army established its own ferry. A commercial service provided by the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway from 1846 soon proved inadequate, and in 1889 the London County Council launched a free steamer link, commissioned by its predecessor the Metropolitan Board of Works. The ferry incidentally helped level some of the slums of Old Woolwich, demolished to make way for a new ferry approach and pier.

In the 1920s the Woolwich Free Ferry became part of an orbital road route around London, linking the ends of the North Circular and South Circular roads in the east. But by the end of that decade it was already struggling to cope, and conversion to the current RORO (Roll On Roll Off) system in 1966 only temporarily eased the burden. Now operated by Briggs Marine for Transport for London, the ferry remains a bottleneck for road traffic, particularly when the one-boat service is in operation weekends and evenings and the vehicle queues back up along the South Circular.

But it's a delight for walkers and cyclists, providing a free ride and wide views along this straight stretch of the Thames. There have been numerous proposals for replacing it with fixed links and/or a ferry crossing further downstream, none of which have so far borne fruit, and the service, which is specified under an 1885 Act of Parliament, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future: new boats are currently on order and should be in service from 2019.

Woolwich Dockyard

Once dry, forever wet: one of the former graving docks at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Woolwich.

In the 1540s, the Royal Dockyard moved a little upriver to what became known as the King’s Yard, a less restricted site upstream of what’s now the ferry approach. In the 17th century it had become a relatively minor installation in comparison to Deptford and newer naval dockyards at Plymouth and Chatham, but its fortunes improved in the 18th century when for a time it was the most productive shipyard in England, expanding further upriver in the 1780s to double in size, most of it constructed by convict labour.

It was particularly busy during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, but soon afterwards output began to decline in the face of two challenges: river silting reducing depth, and the restricted space of the site as ships continued to increase in size. But the dockyard still managed to build several important vessels, including, in 1830, HMS Beagle, the ship that took Charles Darwin to South America and Australasia.

The development of new technology brought new life to the dockyard. From 1831 it acquired a specialist role as the main naval steam factory, both manufacturing and repairing steam engines. Once again, though, it was eventually outgrown by yards elsewhere, at Portsmouth and Devonport. The last wooden battleship built for the Royal Navy, HMS Repulse, emerged from the yard in 1868 and it finally closed the following year.

But as naval activities declined in the town, ordnance activities increased, and the site was converted into additional storage for the Arsenal, complete with a private railway: the tunnel under the main road which connected this to the SER is now a pedestrian subway, though a little off our route. In the early 20th century part of the site was used by the Army for administrative purposes: during World War I it housed the largest army pay office. In 1926, the newer western section was sold off to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society. The eastern part remained in Ministry of Defence hands for a few more decades as an adjunct to the Arsenal, but was finally demilitarised in 1966, following the closure of the Royal Ordnance Factory. In the early 1970s much of it was redeveloped into a social housing estate by Greenwich council, preserving some of the late 18th century buildings.

Little obvious remains today of the easternmost part of the Yard: first there’s a derelict patch surrounded by a hoarding, destined for yet more residential development, and then the cluster of upmarket flats from the early 2000s at Mast Quay. But the two slipways you cross along the riverside promenade, though reinforced with modern gabions, correspond to the positions of two similar facilities on John Roque’s 1746 London map. The larger one was once a dry dock used for repairs.

You could easily miss these thanks to the distraction of the view, upriver through the cowls of the Thames Flood Barrier to the O2 (formerly the Millennium Dome), the towers of Canary Wharf and peeking above all these the Shard at London Bridge. This view has changed beyond recognition since I first walked this way in the mid-1990s. It confirms not only how determinedly London has finally caught up with the skyscraper age but how its centre of gravity has slowly migrated downriver, occupying the vacuum left by declining maritime industries, the reason for its trading pre-eminence in the first place.

Further on, you reach the 1970s housing estate and some more substantial reminders of the past: two docks behind railings on the left. Back in the 1540s these were the heart of the complex: the original pair of ‘graving’ docks in which keels were laid and ships assembled, originally kept dry in normal use. They’ve been rebuilt several times and are now permanently flooded, having been repurposed as placid ponds popular with local anglers, though looking increasingly littered and neglected recently. Although the docks themselves are reduced in size, their footprint gives an idea of quite how limited the facilities here became as ships grew, even after the western dock (the second you pass) was enlarged in the early 17th century to accommodate two vessels end-to-end.

Between the docks is a rather neglected pavement mosaic depicting zodiac signs which has nothing to do with the surrounding heritage but commemorates Elfrida Rathbone (1871-1940), a pioneer of education for children with learning difficulties. Her special school in Kings Cross led to the formation of two charities, one of which, Rathbone, which provides work-based training for young people and adults with special needs, installed the mosaic in 1986. Further on is Gun Drill Battery, once the main landing place for the dockyard. In 1847 a battery was built here as an exercise facility for the Royal Marines stationed on the site. It’s been heavily restored and the guns aren’t the original ones – their carriages are 2005 reproductions – but you can still appreciate its ‘spectacle’ structure, with two linked stepped platforms behind low fort-style walls facing the river.

A path from the battery provides a link to Woolwich Dockyard station, also on the North Kent Line. It takes you past some of the surviving historic buildings, including the Clock House, completed in 1884 and now a community centre, and the preserved main gates. But the Ring stays on the riverside path, over a white stepped cantilever footbridge known as the Linkbridge, installed in 2000 (there’s an alternative but more roundabout route avoiding the steps). You may be surprised to find this crosses nothing more substantial than a wall, but since this is part of the flood defences, they couldn’t just knock a hole in it instead.

On the other side of the wall is the western part of the dockyard, sold to the Royal Arsenal Coop in the 1920s. The land nearest the river was redeveloped in the 1990s as the King Henry’s Wharf housing estate, including a new stretch of riverside promenade, but unfortunately the Ring can’t make use of the whole length of this as it reaches a dead end where access is still blocked. Before you turn away from the river, pause for a good look at the Thames Flood Barrier, completed in 1984, as this is the closest you’ll get to it on the official Ring route. The cowls conceal the lifting machinery for ten gates that normally rest on the river bed, but can be rotated to close off the river completely against tidal surges. As other trails like the Green Chain Walk and Thames Path visit the barrier itself, I’ll say more about it in a later post.

The steam factory mentioned above was located in this section of the dockyard, and some of its buildings remain, most obviously the 55 m octagonal brick chimney built in the late 1830s, which looms ahead on the corner of Ruston Road. The boiler shop to which it was once attached has been demolished. Some of the original steam factory buildings, including the smithy and brass foundry, renamed the Commonwealth Buildings by the Coop, remain on the south (left) side of Ruston Road, but otherwise the scene is much changed since the dockyard’s heyday.

Where the flats now stand on the north of the road, there were once two large water-filled ‘steam basins’, big enough for ships to moor up while their engines were fitted or repaired. The national Cooperative Wholesale Society, which eventually took over the Royal Arsenal Coop, still operates businesses in some of the buildings further away from the river.

The next site upriver was once home to another major industrial undertaking, though of a commercial nature. In 1863, the Berlin-based telegraphy company Siemens built a cable factory here, which became one of several competing cable-making sites along the stretch of the river from Greenwich to Woolwich. The factory subsequently expanded into making telephone, signalling, wireless, measurement and lighting equipment, and at its peak in the 1940s employed 9,500 staff.

During both world wars, the plant was seized by the government as enemy property. After various mergers and takeovers in the 1960s it finally closed in 1968, a major upheaval to the local economy. Much of the site was then split into smaller units as the Warpsite Road industrial estate: this is also now due for redevelopment which, when complete, will provide an uninterrupted riverside walkway to the Barrier and beyond.

Meanwhile you’re forced along the busy A206 Woolwich Road, with the former Siemens site to your right. The road is an old-established inland route connecting the riverside towns of Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich, Plumstead and Erith across the lower ground between the river and Watling Street, but it’s certainly no country track today. Marooned among the industry is a late Victorian primary school, Windrush School, built in 1896 as Maryon Park School, and next to it, the strikingly contemporary Royal Greenwich Trust School, designed by architects Walters & Cohen, which occupies part of the Siemens site and reuses some of its buildings.

This was opened in 2013 with the support of the University of Greenwich as part of the government’s short-lived attempt to create a network of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), teaching technology, construction and engineering to older secondary students. But admissions were much lower than expected, and in 2016 it was converted to a conventional secondary school.

Lost in the forest of signs at Thames Barrier Gardens.
At the Warpsite Road roundabout, the trail crossed a former parish boundary into Charlton, which until 1965 was also the division between Woolwich and Greenwich boroughs. Just past the schools, a strip of parkland, Thames Barrier Gardens, leads down to the barrier itself, through more land once occupied by Siemens. The Thames Path, Jubilee Greenway and National Cycle Network 1 all head this way to regain the riverside. This is the point where the Ring joins the Green Chain Walk, a branch of which starts at the barrier: we’ll be sharing paths with the Green Chain for the rest of this section and all of the next. You could make a detour to the barrier here – there’s a useful visitor centre and café as well as the view. But for now I’ll stick with the main Ring route, which turns south, climbing onto higher ground through Charlton’s remarkable chain of parks and green spaces.

Charlton and its parks

The next parish and manor upriver from Woolwich, Charlton undoubtedly existed for many centuries before being recorded in the 1086 Domesday survey, but there’s also evidence of even earlier settlement nearby. The name is from the Old English ceorltūn, a ceorl being a freeman (later spelt ‘churl’ and the root of the names Charles and Carl) and tūn the regular suffix for a farmstead, the root of the modern ‘town’. There are numerous other Charltons, and this one has occasionally been distinguished under the name Charlton-next-Woolwich. After the Norman conquest it was briefly one of the many manors assigned to Archbishop Odo of Bayeux (see my commentary on Crofton on London Loop 3), and was given in 1093 to Bermondsey Abbey, which held it until the Dissolution.

There were numerous lords of the manor after this, but perhaps the most significant is Adam Newton, who rebuilt the manor house in grand style as Charlton House, of which much more later, and began to landscape the surrounding estate. Between the Woolwich Road and the immediate surrounds of the house was a thick woodland known as Hanging Wood, a reference to the steepness of the Thames terraces here as they ascended from the river to the plateau occupied by Charlton village, as the trees seemed to hang on the slopes.

Intermittent sand quarrying over the centuries made this terrain even more precipitous, and in the 17th century the wood was regarded as a dangerous place, a refuge of highwaymen who operated on nearby Shooters Hill (though there’s little truth in the popular assumption that the wood got its name because miscreants were hanged here when caught).

In the 18th century, the manor descended to the Maryon-Wilson family, and by the 19th century the wood had been tamed as a desirable feature of the park, which according to John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales in 1872 afforded “a charming walk; and some sand pits in the vicinity present great attractions to geologists.” The family gave the section of woodland closest to the Woolwich Road, including several of the pits, to the London County Council in 1891 for use as a badly-needed public park in what was now a heavily populated area. One of the pits, Gilbert’s Pit, is now a separate area where the geological layers revealed by the quarrying have been conserved, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). An alternative Green Chain loop runs through this, so I’ll deal with it another post.

The official Ring route is through Maryon Park proper, crossing the North Kent Line in its deep cutting and emerging into a formal urban park with grassy lawns, tennis courts and surrounding shrubbery. You wouldn’t guess it was a former sandpit, except for its location at the bottom of a steep, shrubby slope, which gives it a secluded, almost melancholy atmosphere. It was doubtless this which prompted innovative and influential Italian arthouse film director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) to choose it as one of the key locations for his first English language film Blowup (1966).

The film stars David Hemmings as that stalwart Swinging 60s type, a successful but disconnected fashion photographer, who believes he may unwittingly have photographed a murder taking place just inside the woodland that fringes the park. Vanessa Redgrave is a woman who tries to retrieve the incriminating film.  The tennis courts feature prominently in the enigmatic closing scene where a group of mime artists use them to mime a tennis game. There’s a story that the lawns weren’t vivid enough for the director, who had them covered with green paint. Despite a gap of over 50 years, those familiar with the film will instantly recognise the location, which has changed little, doubtless partly because of its links to a work that has become a cultural icon of its time.

Steep steps climb the cliff face to the summit of Cox’s Mount. Just to the west (right) here, overlapping the site of Gilbert’s Pit, was a Celtic hill fort, later occupied by the Romans and excavated in the early 20th century. The strategic location of this high point overlooking the river is obvious, and the promontory was once a familiar navigation aid for Thames shipping.

Across Thorntree Road (formally Hanging Wood Road) is another portion of Hanging Wood that’s now a public park. This is Maryon-WilsonPark, given to the LCC by the family a little later, in 1924. The gift included a small fallow deer herd – the origin of the animal park which is now probably the park’s best-known feature. The deer are descended from the stock donated in the 1920s, and have since been joined by goats, pigs, ducks, geese and chickens. In 2010, Greenwich council decided to get rid of all of them as a cost-cutting measure, but a vociferous local campaign led by the parks’ active Friends group persuaded it to reconsider. Instead the animal park was divested to an independent charity, but this turned out not to be viable, so in 2015 this modest but much-loved local attraction passed back into council hands.

Further on, there’s a particularly pretty section through dense vegetation dotted with mature trees, where the trail runs alongside a small brook – the closest the Ring gets to invoking the atmosphere of the old Hanging Wood. Since 2004, incidentally, both parks and pit have comprised a designated Local Nature Reserve.

Charlton House glimpsed from the Ring: a possibly sinister past.
Across another road is another park, Charlton Park. Today this is mainly a disappointingly featureless expanse of sports pitches, though with several attractive avenues of mature trees, some small but delightful garden areas and no less than three useful refreshment options. And it’s of great historical interest as it’s been created from the gardens and inner park attached to Charlton House, the biggest and best-preserved Jacobean mansion in London and one of two especially fine domestic buildings on this section of the Ring. If you follow the official route, rather than the obvious short cut straight across the pitches, you’ll get a good view of the house, which is well worth a detour for a closer look.

Alternatively, there’s an easy walk from Charlton station, also on the North Kent Line, which goes right past the house. This isn’t an official link – the signed Ring route to the station sticks to lower ground, branching off on the northern edge of Maryon Park and passing the Valley, the stadium of Charlton Athletic Football Club, which currently plays in League One, actually the third tier of English soccer. The club was founded in 1905 and has been based here, with a few gaps, since 1919, in another of the sand pits carved from Hanging Wood. But the alternative link is particularly recommended as it includes Charlton’s historic village centre as well as the house.

The village stands at the crossroads of two old roads: Charlton Hill, which climbs from the Thames towards Watling Street, and Charlton Park Road, linking Blackheath and Plumstead over the high ground above the river: these briefly merge to pass the house. Charlton retains a surprisingly village-like appearance so far within inner London, with pubs, shops, church, war memorial, red K2 phone box and manor house clustered round a small green at the road junction.

One of the pubs, the Bugle Horn, was knocked together from three late 17th century cottages, while the White Swan dates from 1889. St Luke’s Church is Grade II*, completed in the 1630s as the latest of a series of churches dating back to at least 1077 on this site fractionally down the hill. It combines the architecture of its day with traditional Gothic styling, and contains numerous features including its original font and pulpit and several monuments to occupants of the house.

The aforementioned Adam Newton (1560?-1630) was responsible for the church as well as the house, though it was completed posthumously by his executors using a bequest in his will. Born in Scotland, Newton is best-known as the personal tutor to Henry Frederick Stuart (1594-1612), Prince of Wales and eldest son of the first king of both England and Scotland, James I and VI. He later became Dean of Durham, and undertook various scholarly works and translations.

The house is often misattributed to architect Inigo Jones but it’s more likely the work of another architect, John Thorpe, with several more recent alterations. It’s an elegant three storey red brick mansion with contrasting stone dressing, built on an H-shaped plan and surmounted by a charming clock tower. The main entrance, framed by carved and moulded stone, is particularly impressive, and the interior includes a grand Jacobean staircase.

It’s particularly striking in the context of its surroundings, “like finding an epigram in the middle of an official report,” as architecture critic Ian Nairn put it. Used as a hospital in World War I, it was finally sold by the Maryon-Wilsons to Greenwich council in 1925, though since 2015 has been managed by an arms-length charity, the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust. Parts of it are open as a café and library, with rooms rented to community groups. But much of it remains closed to visitors, except by special arrangement.

On the village side of the house is a separate garden-house or orangery of the same period, which suffered the indignity of being converted into a public lavatory, now closed. Next to this is a venerable mulberry tree, planted in 1608 and perhaps the oldest of its species in the UK. It’s a remnant of one of James I and VI’s pet projects, to establish silk industries in both England and Virginia. Unfortunately, he imported and planted the wrong kind of tree, Morus nigra or black mulberry from the Middle East, rather than the East Asian white mulberry (M alba) preferred by silkworms. The prettiest gardens, including the remains of a walled garden, are to the south of the house.

There are numerous strange stories connected with the building. Newton had a rather undocumented past, leading a local writer, Ron Pepper, to speculate in a ‘hidden history’ privately published in 1985, that he was a member of secret society the Priory of Sion. His student Prince Henry, the heir apparent, died aged 18 – according to Pepper, he was disposed of because he failed to comply with the Priory’s plans to control the throne.

Bad luck is said to have plagued subsequent owners and residents: Newton’s son, also named Henry and a good friend of diarist John Evelyn, who regularly visited from his home in Deptford nearby, picked the wrong side in the Civil War and was forced to sell the estate. East India merchant William Langhorn died childless in 1714 and is said to haunt the place still. Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) was (so far) the only British prime minister assassinated in office, shot in the House of Commons lobby, not by a revolutionary but an obsessive who believed the government had not done enough to help his wife when she was imprisoned in Russia. Then, workers repairing World War II damage found the remains of a boy in a chimney breast, either a baby or an adolescent depending on which account you hear.

Speculation about the house has been fuelled by some of the more bizarre details of its decoration, both inside and out: “the most exuberant and undisciplined ornament in all England,” according to Pevsner. You don’t have to look far to spot gargoyles, grimacing faces, human-animal chimerae and horned demons. The faces on the staircase get uglier as you climb. Current manager Edward Schofield explains this by pointing out they were intended to deter rather than invoke evil spirits, who were thought to prefer the upper floors, which therefore required enhanced deterrence. Nairn finds the result melodramatic in a decidedly Germanic way, “like a stray from some Baltic waterfront…[which] suddenly erupts into sinister poetry.”

An inspiration for the demonic faces might be found in the even more notorious Charlton Horn Fair. In 1238, Henry III granted Bermondsey Abbey the right to hold both a weekly market and an annual three-day fair at Charlton, around Trinity Sunday eight weeks after Easter. The market ceased in the mid-17th century, but the fair, which by now had been moved to start on St Luke’s Day, 18 October, persisted for more than two centuries, taking place on a now-vanished green between the house and the church.

Annual fairs contributed to the business of agriculture and industry by providing networking and trading opportunities, but they also had a social and recreational function for a population which otherwise largely did manual work from dawn to dusk on every day except Sundays. They became both carriers of folk traditions and an important pressure valve for people living hard and short lives.

The Horn Fair evolved into one of the most popular of such events in the southeast, and by the mid-18th century was attracting more than 15,000 people, many of them arriving in flotillas along the river. Its name derives from the tradition of participants wearing horns on their heads, drinking from them and blowing them as instruments. The horned ox is one of the traditional symbols of St Luke, but horns are also associated with the pagan tradition of Herne the Hunter and of course the Judaeo-Christian Devil. And they have a sexual connotation too: cuckolds, the husbands of adulterous wives, are traditionally said to wear horns.

Until 1768, the celebrations began with a lengthy procession, starting at Cuckold’s Point beside the Thames on the tip of the Rotherhithe peninsula. There’s a legend that this got its name when King John bribed a miller who lived there to let him have sex with his wife, but more likely the name derives from the procession.

Indeed, the fair became particularly notorious for its licentiousness, drinking and sexual activity, as well as perpetuating the folk tradition of the ‘world turned upside down’, with commoners assuming the roles of monarchs, politicians and priests. Edward Walford in Old and New London (1878) coyly terms it “a carnival of the most unrestrained kind”, and quotes a mid-17th century source who describes revellers “disguised as kings, queens, millers, &c., with horns on their heads; and men dressed as females.” Others described it as “the rudest fair in England.”

While such events were an acceptable part of mediaeval life, as society became more complex and polarised, the ruling class looked on them with increasing concern. At best, they were unrespectable, an excuse for immoral and sinful behaviour. At worst, they were enablers of sedition and rebellion. Charlton, sniffed novelist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), was:
…a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz'd well govern'd nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify'd the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.
Objectors were particularly concerned that such behaviour took place right next door to a church, and in 1819 the event was moved to an area known as Fairfields on the other side of the village. Concerns about the potential consequences of “the mob” became sharper still as the fair took on an ever more proletarian character, following both local industrialisation and, from the 1850s, the railway, which made it accessible from all over London. It was finally suppressed by Parliament in 1874. In 1973 it was revived as a rather more sedate and family-friendly community event in the park – it’s tempting to say “a pale shadow of its former self.” Since 2009 the parade from Cuckold’s Point has been revived too. The new Horn Fair at first took place in June, but since 2015 it’s returned to its traditional slot around St Luke’s Day.

The next park along the Ring, reached by following the slightly inaptly-named Inigo Jones Road and crossing Prince Henry Road, is known as Hornfair Park, but only in commemoration of the event, not, as is sometimes assumed, because it ever took place here. Opened in 1936, the park was another part of the estate bought by the council, conserved as an open space when the surrounding streets were built up. Today it’s essentially a straightforward patch of grass: the unruliest it gets is the confected urban ruggedness of the BMX track, opened in 2013 as another Olympic legacy.

Woolwich Common

The wild heath of Woolwich Common, still owned by the Ministry of Defence.

The Ring emerges beside the evocatively-named council tower blocks of Greenwich Heights and crosses back into Woolwich by entering Woolwich Common. This is the first of several examples on the trail of a preserved London common – originally an area of rough ground thought unsuitable for crops, nominally belonging to the lord of the manor, but which local people – the commoners – had a right to use for specific purposes.

During the inclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries, hereditary owners often attempted to fence off commons, extinguish commoners’ rights and dispose of the land to their own advantage. The fragments that survive in London are usually there because such attempts were resisted through popular protest and the courts, though the latter were often unsympathetic. Woolwich is something of a special case, as the threat came not from a greedy aristocrat but from the Army and the state.

In mediaeval times, a wide and desolate heath stretched across the high, sandy ground between Woolwich and Watling Street, very much like Blackheath further west. Officially, it was part of the Eltham Palace estate, of which more later, and therefore belonged to the Crown. But local people exercised their traditional rights to graze animals during certain seasons, to cut turf and to gather firewood. The parish poor were additionally entitled to gather gorse, used as fuel and fodder for cattle and horses.

I’ve already recounted how Woolwich had developed by end of the 18th century into a major naval and military centre. Both the Royal Artillery Regiment and the Royal Military Academy had been based alongside the Royal Arsenal on the Warren since they were founded in 1716 and 1741 respectively. But all three institutions were expanding and space there was getting tight. In 1776, the Army began building a new Royal Artillery Barracks on a site overlooking the northern side of the common. Completed in 1802, this still boasts the longest building façade in the UK, though as it’s off our route and closer to another section of the Green Chain Walk, I’ll say more about it in a later post. Then between 1796 and 1805 a new home for the Royal Military Academy was constructed on the Common’s eastern edge.

Given the military’s desire for space not only for building but for drilling and exercises, the temptation of all those open acres already under state ownership right in front of their spanking new buildings must have proved too much for the top brass. In 1802, the Army bought both Woolwich and the adjoining Charlton Commons and extinguished commoners’ rights under a series of Acts of Parliament, though at first only the northern part of Woolwich Common, adjoining the Artillery Barracks, was fenced off. But the barracks was already overcrowded and soldiers soon began building their own shanty towns elsewhere on the Common. These became rife with diseases like cholera but the Army did nothing, and it was left to Lady Maryon-Wilson to replace them with new and better huts.

Just beyond the point where you cross over onto the common is the extensive complex of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, opened in 2001 as a replacement for several closed local hospitals and now operated by the Greenwich and Lewisham NHS Trust. It’s been in the news a few times as it’s one of the hospitals created under the ill-fated Private Finance Initiative (PFI) system promoted by Tony Blair’s New Labour government. In 2012 it became the first hospital to be put into ‘special measures’ largely thanks to the huge deficit racked up by repaying £1million a week to the private sector under its PFI contract without being able to claim redress for problems resulting from poor design and cost-cutting during construction.

But in the 18th century this site was also open heathland, geologically an extension of Woolwich common but known as Charlton Common as it was on the other side of the parish boundary and attached to Charlton manor. By the time the Army claimed it, some of it had already been inclosed by the Maryon-Wilsons and annexed to their park, and part of this later became Charlton Cemetery.

By the 1850s there was a straggling camp of army huts on the remaining open ground, the work of both the Artillery and the Cavalry. Once again there were health issues, including a diptheria outbreak, so the camp was replaced by permanent buildings known as Shrapnel Barracks in the 1870s. The barracks grew until it had eradicated all that remained of Charlton Common, and was itself replaced by the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital, opened in 1977 and closed due to defence cuts less than 20 years later in 1995. The current NHS hospital is the result of an extensive rebuild though some elements of the 1970s buildings remain.

Further encroachments followed throughout the 19th century, prompting local disquiet which finally coalesced in 1928 with the formation of the Woolwich Common Joint Committee, prompted by a proposal to build a nurses home attached to one of the military hospitals. The Committee pushed to regain public access to some of the encroachments and to institute joint management which protected public use.

The military resisted the Committee’s demands, but eventually a delicate compromise was reached which has held ever since. The Commons are still technically under Ministry of Defence (MoD) ownership, but significant areas of Woolwich Common are now managed as public space, with permissive access to some other parts. Since 1975, Woolwich Common and its surrounds have formed a designated Conservation Area, and it’s also a Site of Borough Importance for Nature Conservation.

Today, the Common remains the last part of Woolwich with a significant military presence, although it’s being progressively demilitarised. The Royal Military Academy closed in 1939, though the site was used as a garrison until decommissioning in 2002. A redevelopment as private flats has just been completed. The Royal Artillery vacated its barracks in 2007: it was subsequently used by other regiments and as a venue for the shooting events of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games but is now due for closure by 2028.

Crossing the Common, a fine vista opens on the left, looking northwards towards the Thames and across its valley to Essex. This is a good place to appreciate the differences in soil and vegetation between the sparser and more heath-like northern side, on the left, which is on sands and Woolwich beds, and the southern side on London clay, which is lusher and more meadow-like. The path then turns south just inside the common perimeter, but a short detour ahead affords a look at the newly redeveloped Royal Military Academy. Just before you leave the Common, on your right, is the site of a covered reservoir dug by convict labour in 1848 but never used.

The Ring reaches the busy junction where Academy Road, the South Circular Road south from Woolwich Ferry, crosses the east-west line of Shooters Hill Road. The latter is part of Watling Street, historically one of the most important highways in Britain. Built just before the year 50 by the Romans, partly along the line of a Celtic and possibly pre-Celtic trackway, it linked Wroxeter, St Albans and London with the Channel ports and then onward via ferry to Rome. Much of it has remained in use as a highway since.

This section was turnpiked in 1718 by the New Cross Turnpike Trust as far as Dartford, providing an important part of the overland route from London to Rochester, Canterbury and Dover. In the 1920s it was designated as the A2, though its function as a trunk road was superseded with the construction of a new dual carriageway to the south, which we’ll cross later, and it’s now the A207. For a bit more about the road’s history, see my post on the London Countryway 17b, which crosses it south of Gravesend.

The road stays well away from the Thames marshes, taking instead to the high ground south of the river. Here, it behaves as a stereotypical Roman road, charging in a near-straight line over the summit of Shooters Hill, to your left and now surmounted by a water tower. At 129 m, this is the 10th highest point in Greater London (and was once the 2nd highest point in the old London County Council area), though the Ring passes just below it. The hill was once known for its mineral springs and in the 18th century there were proposals to build a spa town, later abandoned. During World War II, an important anti-aircraft battery was based here.

There’s a legend that the hill’s name derives from the road’s unwelcome popularity with highwaymen, though more likely it commemorates a mediaeval archery practice area. Nonetheless, armed robbery was once a recognised nuisance here. This was a particularly isolated stretch of what by pre-20th century standards was a very busy road, with a steep incline that slowed horses down and plenty of hiding places for the ill-intentioned in the woods and common on both sides. Dick Turpin is said to have operated on the Hill although if he had been active in all the places that claim him, he’d have spent most of his waking hours riding rather than robbing.

But there are numerous other accounts, and in 1810 a tunnel under the hill was proposed to sidestep the problem. Some of the stories contributed to the romantic image of highwayman as charming rogues. In 1719, newspapers reported several robberies on the road within a few weeks, conducted “all in a polite manner”. In 1752, a young victim asked his assailants to let him keep a shilling for the coach hire: “they refused,” says the report, “but otherwise behaved very complaisantly, shook hands with him and wished him goodnight”.

As I said in my writeup of another historic crime hotspot, Hounslow Heath on London Loop 9, most highwaymen were more likely desperate and violent characters rather than folk heroes, with only an early death to look forward to. The corpses of those caught and hanged were displayed near the scene of their crimes pour encourager les autres. Samuel Pepys records one such gibbet on Shooters Hill in April 1661, and “such a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to the bones”.

You’ll cross towards the southeast corner of the junction, where a gallows once stood. In 1852 this was replaced by a yellow brick police station, making Eltham the only part of the Metropolitan Police District with two such facilities, the one here thought necessary to deter crime on the road. In 1915, a new and much bigger red brick police station was added next door, right on the corner. Both are now in residential use, though the solid and subtly fortified appearance of the more recent building reflects its original function. On the opposite, southwest, corner is another military remnant, the Herbert Hospital, built for veterans of the Crimean War in 1865, closed in 1977 but derelict until the 1990s when it was converted to flats.

Oxleas Woods

Looking south across the terraces of the former Castlewood House in Oxleas Woods.

If you’ve enjoyed the Capital Ring so far, it’s about to get even better. The next 5 km is almost entirely off-road, through a chain of outstanding green spaces, including one of the most extensive and lushest tranches of ancient woodland in London and one of the capital’s quirkiest buildings. There are several distinct areas of woodland – Castle Wood, Jack Wood, Oxleas Wood, Shepherdleas Wood and Falconwood – and the more open areas of Eltham Common and Eltham Park. But the woods are generally grouped under the name of Oxleas Woods, or sometimes Shooters Hill Woodlands.

As with most royal palaces, the old estate attached to Eltham Palace was vast. I’ve already mentioned it included Woolwich Common – between this and Eltham itself was a swathe of woodland and common clothing the gentler south-facing slope of the ridge of hills above the Thames. Sessile and penduculate oak, hazel and birch covered soils too poor and steep for farming, above the Woolwich Beds, with chalk close to the surface in places. From the Middle Ages the wood was largely managed by coppicing, producing sticks for tools, fencing and furniture. In 1679 the Crown leased it to John Shaw and his descendants as a commercial enterprise. They began a programme of felling mature oaks for structural timber, much of it used in the construction of ships at the naval dockyards in both Woolwich and Deptford.

In the 19th century, parts of the wood were parcelled off and sold as plots for upmarket private homes, particularly on the woodland edge along Shooters Hill which provided easy access to central London. Another chunk, including Oxleas and Shepherdleas woods, was annexed in the mid-19th century to the nouveau riche estate of Avery Hill, carved out of the east of Eltham manor by James Boyd, a sugar refiner, but was not developed.

Though the woodlands were technically privately controlled, in practice the public could roam freely through most of them, and they became a popular recreational area for Londoners, a development not entirely welcomed by some of the inhabitants of the posh houses.  By the early 20th century, economic uses had declined and further development threatened, but the recreational value of the woods was increasingly recognised as London became ever more dense, and the area was hailed as “the Hampstead Heath of South London”.

The London County Council (LCC) bought Castle Wood and Jack Wood with the help of several local borough councils in 1924. In 1929 the council bought the area that’s now Eltham Park North and in 1934 it added Oxleas, Shepherdleas and Falconwood Field. Eltham Common, which had belonged to the War Department since 1812 but never inclosed, was added to the LCC estate in 1938. The gardens of several of the big houses were also incorporated as these fell vacant. Together the open spaces cover a generous 133.5 ha. 77 ha of this is a designated SSSI, while the wider site is a Local Nature Reserve. Like most LCC sites, Oxleas was inherited by the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965 and passed to the local borough, in this case Greenwich, when the GLC was abolished in 1986.

Much of Oxleas Woods is classified as ancient semi-natural woodland, and some patches at least have undoubtedly been continuously wooded since the end of the last glacial period some 8,000 years ago. This is the richest site in London for the rare species of wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, a reliable indicator of ancient woodland which only grows on land that has never been cultivated. But the mixed history has resulted in an attractive and varied patchwork that isn’t all dense woodland: the site includes open meadows, formal and overgrown gardens and several interesting structures. It’s home to numerous breeding birds including tree creepers, nuthatches, woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, long tailed tits and the increasingly ubiquitous ring- necked parakeets. In 1987, a specimen of a rare red hunting spider, Micrommata virescens, was spotted here for the first time in London in 250 years.

A swathe of the woodland was almost lost at the peak of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s road building craze in the 1980s. The proposal developed from the various postwar schemes to provide ringways around London, and the longstanding ambition to ease the bottleneck of the Woolwich Ferry. A bridge was planned from Beckton to the derelict marshes formally used as Royal Arsenal lands between Woolwich and Thamesmead from where a motorway would run through Plumstead and the woodlands to the A2.

Two public inquiries approved the scheme on the basis that much of the route through the woods would be in tunnel. The Department of Transport (DoT, now the Department for Transport) decided to press ahead with a cheaper cutting as the tunnel was too expensive, began compulsorily purchasing homes in Plumstead and even built a part of the road at Gallions Reach, currently a disused stump of a ‘road to nowhere’. But local outrage coalesced in an energetic campaign led by People Against the River Crossing and Friends of the Earth.

The plans were finally cancelled in 1993, which marked something of a turning point in government transport policy away from big road schemes. The lack of river crossings in east London remains an issue, however, particularly as both the population and the economy in this part of town continues to grow. There have been several more proposals for crossings, though they are now rather more environmentally sensitive.

The trail first cuts off Shooters Hill across the grassed area of Eltham Common and climbs a set of rough steps through the first wooded area. This is secondary woodland, which has developed since the 19th century when grazing on the common gradually ceased. At the top of steps a drive leads a little further up to the Ring’s highest summit, at 128 m.

The curious Severndroog Castle, Oxleas Woods.
Now a curious triangular castle-like structure in Gothic style lies ahead, with hexagonal turrets at each corner. This is SeverndroogCastle, a folly designed by architect Richard Jupp in 1784. It was built to commemorate Commodore Sir William James who, in April 1755, captured the island fortress of Suvarnadurg, from the Indian Maratha Confederacy as part of the East India Company’s efforts to impose its control on India during the First Anglo-Maratha War. The island, then rendered in English as Severndroog, is on the western coast of India, in the modern state of Maharashtra, between Mumbai and Goa, and its name means ‘golden fort’, although the present building is in ordinary brick. James died in 1783 and his widow, Lady James of Eltham, built the castle as a memorial in what was then Eltham Park. It’s now a Grade II* listed building.

The building was included in the woodland bought by the LCC in the 1920s and for many years was a popular visitor attraction and refreshment facility, but in 1988 Greenwich decided it was too expensive to maintain and it was closed and boarded up, an intriguing but rather forlorn site in its clearing in the woods. In 2002 it was leased to a community group largely supported by volunteers, the Severndroog Castle Building Trust, who secured a Big Lottery grant to restore it. Since 2014, it’s been open once again as both a café and museum and is now one of the most delightful stopping points on the Ring. It’s well worth paying the modest admission charge to climb the 19 m high tower and admire the astonishing view south towards the North and South Downs and east towards London. On a good day, you can see seven counties if you count the now-abolished Middlesex.

The woods around the castle are ancient woodland, known as Castle Wood. Wide views open to the south as you descend through a terrace garden, once a rose garden attached to Castlewood House along Shooters Hill, and enter Jackwood. The trail crosses the top of a disused reservoir and an old track known as Stone Alley, then stumbles on another unexpected structure: the former garden of Jackwood House, another of the 19th century century villas along the hill, with its red brick walls, rose gardens and a water feature dated 1873. Some of the trees round here are exotic, planted as part of the garden. There’s a modern apiary nearby.

A particularly pretty woodland path finally emerges on into a large area of grassland, occupying a wide slope, bright with wildflowers and buzzing with insects in summer. Another big Victorian house, Wood Lodge, once commanded the top of this slope. It was included in the LCC’s purchase of Oxleas Wood but was considered too expensive to repair and maintain, so was demolished and replaced with a café and toilet block. Today this is another excellent and very popular pitstop on the Ring. Under the flatter southern part of the meadow is a giant reservoir, built in the 1980s, which receives treated water from the non-tidal reaches of the Thames and distributes it to local homes.

The ring now runs through Oxleas Wood itself, skirting the edge of the meadow to emerge on Rochester Way. This was one of the earliest 20th century improvements to the old Watling Street route of the A2 from London to Dover, opened in 1927 to provide a more level alternative to Shooters Hill. It’s only a brief interruption in the woodland walk as Shepherdleas Wood is immediately on the other side. The character of the woodland here is subtly changed: there’s more clay in the soil and the undergrowth is denser.

In the middle of the wood is a Green Chain and Capital Ring fingerpost that points out a more direct way to Falconwood station, but the official Ring route bows westwards into the more open area of Eltham Park North. This and the woodland were once part of the parkland of Avery Hill, of which a little more later. The trail passes the Long Pond, an ornamental pond dug in the mid-19th century as part of the landscaping and still a pleasant spot surrounded by reeds and willows.

The A2 Rochester Way Relief Road near Falconwood, alongside Shepherdleas Wood. The Bexleyheath Line is to the right.

Looping back into the woods, the trail runs alongside a straight cutting occupied by two parallel transport links. Closest to you is the Bexleyheath railway line, constructed by the Bexley Heath Railway Company (BHR) under engineer Alfred Bean and opened in 1895. Local people had originally petitioned the South Eastern Railway (SER) to build a branch through the area but when this was refused, the railway was built as an independent initiative, branching from the SER at Lewisham and continuing via Bexleyheath to Dartford. The company soon went into bankruptcy and the SER was forced to take it over anyway. Running parallel to the railway on the other side is a busy dual carriageway, the Rochester Way Relief Road, the third iteration of the A2 Dover road through the area, opened in 1988.

The trail crosses these on the Falconwood footbridge, the official end of Capital Ring section 1. The main residential development of Falconwood is further east on the other side of the woodlands, across the boundary in the London Borough of Bexley, having originally been attached to the manor of East Wickham rather than Eltham. Falconwood station, only a short walk away, is just over the Bexley boundary but Falconwood Field, part of the woodland complex immediately north of the station, is in Greenwich.

This was a rural area until the 1930s when New Ideal Homesteads Ltd, the country’s largest private housebuilder of the day and responsible for much of southeast London’s suburbia, built an estate on what was known as Westwood Farm. But the developers thought the name of the woodland on the other side more attractive, so the new housing was named Falconwood Park. Originally the Bexleyheath line ran straight through: Falconwood station was opened in 1936 to serve the estate and the area soon became known simply as Falconwood.

Eltham and its palace

Conduit Head, Eltham, the first sign on the Ring of Eltham Palace.

Eltham was an established Celtic settlement and then an important manor on the road southeast from London towards Maidstone as far back as the 6th century. The name is most likely derived from an Anglo-Saxon personal name, Elta, with the suffix ham, ‘settlement’. The manor was Crown property at the time of Edward the Confessor in the mid-11th century. William of Normandy gave it to Archbishop Odo, who is recorded as the manorial lord in the Domesday survey, but when he was disgraced, it reverted to the Crown. It passed through various hands over the next 200 years, until 1305 when Anthony Bek, the Bishop of Durham, gave it to Edward Plantagenet, the Welsh-born fourth son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile – both he and his father had frequently been the bishop’s guests there.

Two years later, Edward was crowned as  Edward II and turned the manor house into a royal palace, later giving it to his wife Isabella, ‘the she-wolf of France’, sister of Philippe IV. Edward was a controversial monarch who clashed several times with alliances of powerful and rebellious barons. The more sensational aspects of his reign are well-known. He had a close and likely sexual relationship with his advisor Piers Gaveston, who was widely resented at court for his influence and later executed as a traitor. Eventually Isabella and her ally Roger Mortimer staged a coup, forcing Edward to abdicate in favour of his son Edward III. The ex-king died while imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in 1327, probably executed on the secret orders of Isabella, allegedly by the insertion of a red-hot poker in his anus, although this last grisly detail is very likely untrue.

Notwithstanding Edward’s unpleasant fate, generations of his successors made use of Eltham. They included Henry VIII, who as walkers completing the London Loop will know, collected more palaces than wives, though in his later life he preferred his other homes and leased out the rest of Eltham manor to others. During the Commonwealth period in 1651, Parliament claimed and privatised both palace and manor, and although both were reclaimed by the Crown following the restoration, there were no more royal incumbents. The manor was leased out again and over the following centuries the estate was gradually broken up.

In Tudor times, Eltham also contained a smaller manor, known as Well Hall, which between 1521 and her death in 1544 was home to scholar and author Margaret More, daughter of Henry’s councillor Thomas More (whom the king sacked and executed for opposing his divorce from his first wife), and her husband William Roper. In the early 20th century, Edith Nesbit, of Railway Children fame, lived at the manor – more of her in the next section. By then, the eastern part had been separated out into another country estate known as Eltham Park.

Eltham remained rural until the early 20th century, when Eltham Park was bought and built up by Scottish-born property developer Archibald Cameron Corbett, a teetotaller who insisted there would be no pubs on the estate. All the properties were sold with a covenant to enforce this, but a change in the law in 2005 extinguished the requirement and in 2014 the first ever pub in Eltham Park opened, a micropub appropriately named after the Long Pond.

New railway lines, tram lines and the original 1920s Rochester Way prompted further development, including several early social housing estates. In 1915, Woolwich Borough Council built a ‘model’ social housing estate on part of the old Well Hall lands, to accommodate the increasing demand for workers at the Royal Arsenal prompted by the war. This became known as the Progress Estate when it was expanded in partnership with the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society in the 1920s, and is now a conservation area. In the following decades further council estates sprung up on the former royal hunting park.

Thankfully, the planners realised the growing population would benefit from local green space, and Eltham has a bit more of it than many similar suburbs of the same period. Immediately across the Falconwood footbridge is Eltham Park South, one of the earliest public parks in the area, opened in 1902 after the LCC bought the remaining Eltham Park lands. It shows its age by looking much more like a formal public park than the green spaces north of the railway and A2, mainly consisting of open grass and sports pitches, though there are avenues of mature trees.  There was once a classic 1920s lido in its northwest corner, closed in 1988. On the left is Eltham Warren Golf Club, one of England’s oldest nine hole courses, opened in 1890 on former gravel pits attached to Eltham Park.

Protecting Eltham Park from foul smells:
stink pole along Glenesk Road.
The green walking is briefly interrupted by a link along one of the streets of the Eltham Park estate, Glenesk Way. Developer Campbell insisted the local street names honour places in his homeland: Glen Esk is the longest of the Angus Glens. Along the road is a structure like a fat lamp standard that’s lost its head: it’s actually a stink pole, designed to vent gases from a sewer running beneath the pavement.

Then a stretch of former farm track, delightfully named Butterfly Lane, leads past the open space of Pippinhall Farm on the left. This is a rare surviving fragment of farmland in inner London, with hedges dating back to at least the 14th century and a remnant of mediaeval ridge and furrow in its southeast corner. It’s currently rented from Greenwich council as rough pasture for horses, though may at some point become a part of the public Avery Hill Park.

This was part of an estate created from some of the Eltham manor lands in the early 19th century, and is now a meeting point for several branches of the Green Chain Walk, so I’ll be exploring it in more detail on a future walk.

The path out of Avery Hill Park leads past a curious vaulted red brick structure, Conduit Head. Dating from the 16th century, it once housed a tank and sluice that controlled the supply of water from a nearby spring through underground conduits to Eltham Palace, both for filling the moat and as drinking and washing water. It’s been a scheduled ancient monument since 1956.

Regaining the street, you pass Holy Trinity Church, opened in 1869 as the population began to expand. It’s best known for the Gallipoli Chapel on the south side, originally the St Agnes Chapel, funded by a local woman as a monument to family members in 1909. The vicar here during World War I, Henry Hall, was temporarily an army chaplain who was wounded during the disastrous Gallipoli landings on the Turkish coast in 1915, a campaign in which well over 100,000 people died. Upon his return, he converted the chapel into a permanent memorial to the 29th Army Division with which he’d served, nearly all of whose members died in Turkey.

The trail crosses Footscray Road, part of the old coaching route from London to Maidstone via Eltham. This was briefly numbered as the A20 in the early 1920s before the traffic was transferred to the Sidcup Arterial Road, which we’ll encounter further south. Then there’s North Park, the sort of street estate agents call “highly regarded”, laid out in the very late 19th century along the edge of former palace parkland. Most of the houses are 1920s Tudorbethan affairs but there are some late Victorian villas as well as more modern buildings. Passey Place on the right leads north to the town centre, which still retains its mediaeval high street, though much of the historic fabric has been replaced by bland 20th century retail units.

A more historic atmosphere descends as you follow Tilt Yard Approach and Court Yard to the gates of Eltham Palace. The building is now managed by English Heritage and there’s a substantial admission charge, but a lot to see, including elements from every period of its long and chequered history. The most obvious of these is the moat, which you can glimpse from the street without paying. Though the palace’s foundation date is unknown, a substantial moated manor very likely stood here before the Norman conquest, and by 1295 was accessed by a drawbridge, roughly where the bridge leading from the main gate is today.

Edward II rebuilt the manor into a palace in the early 14th century, and Henry IV entertained the Emperor of Byzantium here over Christmas 1400. Edward IV added the Great Hall in the 1470s. But from Henry VIII’s time onwards, royal visits declined. Charles I was the last monarch to stay here, in the 1640s, and during the Commonwealth period Nathaniel Rich, who bought the estate from Parliament, dismantled many of the buildings to recycle their materials, including the lead on the Great Hall roof. In 1656, John Evelyn found “the palace and chapel in miserable ruins, the noble wood and park destroyed.” For the next 200 years it was uninhabited and used as farm buildings.

In 1828 the Great Hall had decayed so badly that it was threatened with demolition, sparking one of the earliest modern heritage conservation campaigns: the hall was restored but still suffered the ignominy of being used as a barn. As Eltham’s residential appeal grew later in the 19th century, the palace was inhabited again as a gentleman’s residence, but it was to undergo a further dramatic transformation.

In 1933, millionaire Stephen Courtauld, from a wealthy family of textile manufacturers, bought the place with his wife Virginia. They commissioned architects Seely & Paget to rebuild it as an ultramodern private house with a gallery for displaying their extensive art collection, though encompassing heritage features like the Great Hall. As keen horticulturalists, they also had the gardens reworked in spectacular style, including ornamental plantations, shrubberies and specimen trees.

16th century cottage on Court Yard, Eltham Palace.
The Courtaulds left Eltham in 1944 and the site was occupied by Army educational units until 1992 when it passed to English Heritage. Much of what’s on view today is their work, in the striking and lavish Modernist style of the 1930s. But the Great Hall with its oak roof is a substantial reminder of the building’s even grander past. Some of the walls and the gatehouse on the left of Court Yard are from the 17th century, the last time the palace was in its pomp. Opposite the Palace gates and clearly visible from the trail, are the more modest but also historic cottages at 34-38 Court Yard. The street was once the outer courtyard of the palace and these timber-framed red brick cottages with their projecting dormer windows were built in the 16th century as lodgings for the Lord Chancellor and other senior officials: Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey stayed here.

Walking with King John

For the next 1.5 km or so, the Capital Ring follows an ancient lane known as King John’s Walk, which once connected the palace with hunting grounds further south. This is a delightful stretch, astonishingly rural given how deep in London we are, between old hedgerows with open space on both sides. Yes, most of this is now horse paddocks and playing fields, but it’s not that difficult to picture the scene in mediaeval times when these fields would have made a vital contribution to the palace’s food supply. But look right and the illusion is interrupted as the modern towers of central London loom surprisingly close. Further along, yet another branch of the Green Chain heads off down an even more rural path, but the Ring stays on the main track.

The origin of the name is uncertain: it’s unlikely to be the King John of Magna Carta fame (reigned 1199-1216) as he had no connection to Eltham. More likely it was the Valois king Jean II of France (reigned 1350-64), also known as John the Good. He surrendered to the English leader Edward the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 by handing him his glove.

The king was held prisoner at various locations in England while a peace treaty was negotiated, including Eltham, and in accordance with his status he was allowed considerable freedom, buying clothes and pets and maintaining a royal band. So he may well have walked or, more likely, ridden this way to Mottingham while pondering the terms of what became the Treaty of Brétigny. Jean eventually returned to France, leaving his son Louis as a replacement hostage in Calais, then held by England. But Louis absconded, and Jean shocked his subjects by voluntarily offering himself as a prisoner again for the sake of the family honour. Never a well man, he died soon after returning to London, at the Savoy palace on the Strand.

On the other side of the fields is the built-up area of Middle Park, a social housing estate began in the 1930s on the former ‘middle park’, a hunting park attached to the palace. But the Walk still maintains a clear line across a patch of grass, over the Dartford Loop Line railway and the A20 Sidcup Arterial Road.

The railway was opened in 1866 by the South Eastern Railway (SER) as an alternative route to the North Kent line between Lewisham and Dartford. Mottingham station is to the east, although historically speaking it’s still in Eltham, and was indeed called Eltham until 1892, despite its distance from the recognised centre of the latter. It was renamed Eltham & Mottingham and then became plain Mottingham in 1927, to avoid confusion with Eltham station closer to the town centre on the Bexleyheath Line. The road opened in 1923 as a single carriageway, providing a bypass of Eltham for through traffic on the A20 Maidstone Road. It’s since been widened and dualled, and is now the main route out of London for Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel.


Along the river Quaggy between Mottingham and Grove Park.

On the other side of the road, the first field boundary on the right marks the Ring’s farewell to the Royal Borough of Greenwich as it enters Mottingham, in the London Borough of Bromley. The earliest record of the place name is from 862 as Modingahema, ‘the land of Moda's people’. It was once a hamlet attached to Eltham but became a separate parish in 1866, the same year the railway opened, in anticipation of the growth in population that would surely follow. When the County of London was created in 1889, Mottingham was excluded, remaining in Kent as a peninsula of that county poking into the capital. At first it was administrated as a ‘detached part’ of Bromley Rural District, then in 1934 transferred to Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District.

Until 1965 you would have left London here, but with the creation of the new London Borough of Bromley in 1965, Mottingham was finally absorbed by the capital, as were other even more rural tranches of Kent which had once been in Bromley Rural District. Following minor tweaking in the 1990s, small bits of Mottingham were reunited with Eltham by being reassigned to Greenwich, and a few went to Lewisham borough too. I’ve introduced Bromley and its rather anomalous boundaries in more detail along London Loop 3.

King John’s Walk retains its near-straight line parallel to a residential street and finally ends at Mottingham Lane. The trail now follows the lane, with another branch of the Green Chain Walk heading off in the other direction towards Elmstead Wood. Up until the mid-19th century, the lane was the closest thing to a main drag in a rural hamlet, lined by a scattering of houses.

Following the opening of the railway, private and, from the 1930s, council developments took place elsewhere in Mottingham but the lane still contains most of the bigger and older houses. The nucleus of the old estate, Mottingham House, has vanished, replaced by the flats of Colview Court on the left. The Old Chapel and St Vincent further along were once among its satellite buildings. Just past the turnoff for the Ring is the site of Mottingham Hall, another Victorian estate, now an equestrian and garden centre. Opposite and now Grade II-listed is the Fairmount Ladies Rest Home, a name that couldn’t be more evocative of late Victorian and Edwardian gentility, but mainly noted as the home of celebrated cricketer William Gilbert Grace (1848-1915), who spent his retirement here, as commemorated on a blue plaque.

At the footpath junction where the trail leaves the lane is our first sighting of an official Public Footpath sign on the Capital Ring. Following decades of lobbying by walkers’ and countryside groups, new legislation in 1949 strengthened protection of off-road Public Rights of Way by requiring local councils, among other things, to keep official ‘definitive maps’ of them and to sign them where they met roads and streets.

Originally the requirements didn’t apply to metropolitan areas, like the old Woolwich borough, but did apply to counties such as Kent. Amendments to the law in 1968 extended the requirements to metropolitan councils – but still exempted the Inner London boroughs covering the former LCC area. This is why you’ll see footpaths signed in outer boroughs like Bromley, but not inner ones like Greenwich, and why the green dotted lines on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps stop at the threshold of Inner London. This doesn’t mean, however, that Public Rights of Way don’t exist in Inner London. I’ve explored the topic in a bit more detail under LondonCountryway 2.

The fields of Mottingham Hall, to the left of the path, and Mottingham Farm, to the right, are still open space, but private: horse paddocks and sports fields respectively. The latter largely belong to the City of London School, an independent boys’ day school in the City.

After a while the Ring becomes a riverside walk for the first time since leaving the Thames. The river is the delightfully named Quaggy, which runs entirely inside London, rising at Locksbottom in Bromley, though in its upper reaches it’s known as the Kyd Brook. It flows for 17 km, including a stretch beside London Loop 2 near Petts Wood, through Sundridge Park, Grove Park, Lee and Hither Green to join the Ravensbourne at Lewisham, itself a tributary of the Thames. This stretch has been diverted in a culvert to avoid the former Grove Park hospital, which I’ll say more about in the next section. The origin of the name is unknown but it may be related to an obsolete word quaggy meaning ‘boggy’ or ‘muddy’, as in ‘quagmire’.

The river is a sign the Ring has descended from the high ground into the wider Ravensbourne Valley: it will shortly cross the river and its two main tributaries before ascending again towards Sydenham Hill and Crystal Palace.

The trail runs alongside the car park, past the pavilion and along the drive belonging to the Old Elthamians, which currently plays in National League 1, the third tier of English rugby union. Originating in 1911 at another independent school, Eltham College, in Mottingham itself, the club has been based at various grounds but in 2016 moved to the College’s own property, College Meadow, on the other side of the pavilion.

Reaching the area of the car park, you would once have stood at the point where the southern edge of Mottingham and Eltham met the parish of Bromley. A boundary still runs through here, but it’s been moved a little to the south and the areas it separates are much transformed. Passing the fence line of the back gardens of the houses to the right as you approach the street, you now leave the modern London Borough of Bromley for the time being. While the rugby club is in Bromley, the southern tip of its access drive is in the Capital Ring’s third London borough, Lewisham, in the district known as Grove Park.

Grove Park

Grove Park station, on one of London's oddest branch lines.

Until the 18th century, the area south of Lee and Mottingham, between the Quaggy and the main stream of the Ravensbourne, was thickly wooded. Much of the woodland was cleared in that century, and very little remains today, though references remain in place names. ‘Grove’ is of course a word for a small wood. And the road that links Lee with Plaistow and Bromley is variously known as Burnt Ash Lane and Burnt Ash Road, commemorating the fate of many of the trees, which were burned to make charcoal.

A late 18th century map shows the area as part of Bromley parish, in the Kentish hundred of Bromley and Beckenham, with most of the trees already cleared to create farmland. Marvels Lane, the road on which the Capital Ring emerges, appears as a rural lane crossing the remaining band of Stratfield Wood to the south. To the southwest of the road was a farm called Grove Farm, which eventually gave its name to the station and then the suburb.

In the mid-19th century much of the land was dug up for earth to make bricks, and large luxury houses started to appear. But even after the railway opened in 1871, attracting wealthy commuters, activities such as dairy farming and plant nurseries continued.  As development spread, Grove Park became more linked to Lee and Lewisham than Bromley. It was included in the London County Council area in 1889 and in 1905 became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. The current and much enlarged London Borough of Lewisham was created in 1965 by merging the Metropolitan Boroughs of Lewisham and Deptford.

The densely populated character of the area was confirmed when the LCC built one of its earliest large housing estates, the Downham estate, to the west of Burnt Ash Lane in from the 1920s: much more about this in the next section. Lewisham council built its own estate, the Grove Park Estate, slightly southeast of the Ring route, between 1926 and 1929. The last farmland fell to housing in 1960, but patches of green are preserved in the form of parks and playing fields.

Section 2 of the Capital Ring officially ends where the rugby club drive meets Marvels Lane, right by the bridge over the Quaggy. Section 3 strikes off northwest across the river, but the link to the station continues upriver, now hemmed in by houses, and not signed as a public footpath as we’re back in Inner London, to reach Chinbrook Road by another bridge. The river now runs on through a pleasant park with a good café, Chinbrook Meadows, but that’s for later on the Green Chain Walk. For now, our way is west across the Quaggy and along Chinbrook Road, to reach the Lee-Bromley road, here known as Baring Road, with the station just around the corner.

The railway is part of the South Eastern Main Line from London Charing Cross and London Bridge to Ashford, Folkestone and Dover, once one of the main rail routes from London to Paris and beyond via the Channel ferries. Originally the SER used a roundabout route via the London and Brighton Railway’s tracks to Reigate, but in 1868 it finally obtained its own route out of London with the opening of this stretch of railway via Lewisham and Orpington. Grove Park station itself was opened a few years later, in 1871.

As well as the main line it also boasts one of London’s more obscure branch lines, opened from here to Bromley North station in 1878 as an SER-sponsored project to compete with its arch-rival the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, which had a station at Bromley South. As there’s no longer the capacity to operate direct services from Bromley into London Bridge, the line is operated for now as a shuttle service with just two stops. There have been numerous proposals to make better use of it, perhaps by incorporating it into an extension of the London Trams network via central Bromley.