In the past I have chosen a rural walk to celebrate the turning of the year; this year though, I have opted for something more urban. Together with my friend, Nigel Roberts, I continued along the route we had both been following for some time: London’s Capital Ring. For this midwinter walk it would be the moderately hilly stretch that lies between Greenford and South Kenton in London’s northwest outer suburbs.
We convene at the small coffee bar at Greenford Underground station. The low winter sun is unseasonably bright in our faces, intense enough to require squinting. Light counts for everything at this time of year. Setting off under the railway arches we walk past the appropriately named Rising Sun pub and the entrance to a massive retail park. Soon, we reach the path that will take us up Horsenden Hill. The hill is one of the highest points in north London, and even halfway up the slope the view opens up to the west in the direction of Heathrow, an aerial procession of slowly descending aircraft confirming the hill’s location on the approach flight path.
The hill was once an Iron Age settlement, and before this it was sometimes frequented by Neolithic flint knappers. The summit is furnished with a concrete trig point and a few benches – most have the seat part absent, rotted away or stolen for firewood. Up here, it is countryside quiet with no hint of city clamour although we do come across a few fellow wanderers: the men we see are mostly seated alone on benches with a can of lager in hand; the women, in contrast, tend to be walking purposefully, avoiding eye contact as they stride ahead. Who can blame them? Lone figures in the landscape engender a sense of melancholia and it is easy to assume that these are people with the weight of the world on their shoulders. But I know that when I am out walking on my own a casual observer may well think the same about me. The truth is: I enjoy walking alone sometimes; it is a pleasure, however it might appear.
The path leads us downhill through woods of oak and beech. Parakeets screech in the branches overhead. The birds are ubiquitous now and certainly, within the orbit of London’s suburbs, they are rarely out of sight or earshot. I had seen my first of the day hours earlier whilst entraining to London that morning, a sleek green figure that swooped over the carriage as we passed over the M25 on our way to Liverpool Street. Parakeets, corvids – magpies, crows, jackdaws – woodpigeons: these are the birds that have taken over the green spaces of the capital. Small birds have been chased away to find sanctuary in suburban gardens. It comes as a relief to hear the passive-aggressive song of a robin holding firmly to its territory.
The route descends Horsenden Hill to Sudbury Hill before climbing again to Harrow-on-the-Hill. Harrow is as conspicuously wealthy as we imagined – huge house and gardens, security gates, high fences, a smattering of Arts and Crafts among the stylish mansions. Harrow – of Saxon derivation meaning ‘sacred grove’ – seems like a displaced Chilterns village: far enough from central London to give an impression of rurality; close enough to make commutes into the City feasible. It’s handy for the eponymous school too, of course. The various school buildings dominate the upper part of the village: crow step gables, decorative brickwork, signs announcing private property and CCTV. There’s a restaurant called Old Etonian that looks closed (even Harrow has to settle for being second best sometimes) and a specialist outfitters’ that displays various uniform items in its windows. The gaps between the buildings afford hazy views of the glass hi-rises of City of London, ten miles distant – a view that for many of the students is not so much aspirational but more a matter of destiny: inherited wealth, uncles that work in City trading; money, old and new, that regularly takes itself on holiday to the Caribbean.
The flamboyance of the school buildings is one thing but it is on the playing fields that we pass through where the sense of privilege really hits home. Of course, to contemplate such things might be seen to participate in the politics of envy. But really it is the politics of inequality. The sheer scale of the sports facilities is breathtaking – a huge area with tennis courts, athletics tracks and so many football pitches that the widely scattered goal posts seem like hoops for a giant-sized game of croquet.
Eventually we leave the school premises behind to follow a track that traces the boundary of a hospital complex. Hemmed in behind lopsided Leylandii and a chain link fence, the side of the path is littered with disposable masks and drinks cans. In places there are signs of fly-tipping: old mattresses, a bin bag stuffed with large cuddly toys. When future archaeologists dig down to find the stratum that represents the Anthropocene what will they make of the artefacts they find there – the blue Covid masks, the slim energy drink cans and nitrous oxide canisters? Votive goods of some sort, or items connected with ritual use?
The underground station at South Kenton, our anticipated end point, is closed for repairs. So we walk to Preston Road then take the Metropolitan line to Baker Street. After beers and a Lebanese meal we head to Oxford Circus for our respective tube lines. Oxford Street, unlike the near lifeless streets of the outer suburbs we encountered earlier, is frantically busy with shoppers. Christmas lights in the form of brightly illuminated snowflakes span the street above our heads. Light is returning. As reliable as ever, the year has turned.