Much like its big brother, the Capital Ring starts off in a fairly gritty mood. I've clearly been unlucky, because every time I've walked along the estuary end of the Thames – on day 1 and day 15 of the London Loop, for example – the wind has howled and the clouds have lurked, and there's something rather lonely about the grey waters of the Thames in this part of the world. As it winds away from the southern end of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel on the first few steps of its 75-mile length, the Capital Ring does little except confirm this experience.
Perhaps it's the monolithic Tate and Lyle factory over the water, or maybe it's the surprising amount of dog shit to be found along the riverside walk, but my heart sank a little as I headed west along the Thames Path, which the Capital Ring joins for its first few stretches. Things were certainly bustling on the way from Woolwich Arsenal train station – indeed, the high street was so busy with shoppers that I had to double-check that it was indeed a Monday morning – and the shock of the dull Thames-side start to the Ring almost proved too much.
It also didn't help that the locals clearly get their kicks from twisting Capital Ring signposts through 90°. Initially I couldn't work out why I was finding it so hard to navigate, but I've now explored enough of the riverside area round Woolwich to know that you're better off ignoring the signposts and just sticking to the map; this view was shared by a local businessman with a pink tie who kindly offered to help me find my way, giving me directions with the air of someone who'd done it before a number of times. Luckily, once you're away from the river, things slowly get better and better, until the day's walk redeems itself with some lovely forest walking and some genuine points of interest.
Once you get away from the river and across the busy A206, you plunge into the Ring's first urban park. While the London Loop contains some proper countryside walking, the Ring is more about linking up London's urban green spaces, and some parks are better than others. The first park you cross, Maryon Park, is nothing to write home about, but the second, Maryon Wilson Park, is much more enjoyable. It has a children's zoo with deer, pigs and ducks, and some relaxing benches and weeping willows that make it a good spot for a break.
It's all too small, though, and before you know it the Ring comes out into the rather flat Charlton Park, which appears to be more of a playing field than a park. It's deceptive, though, because over at the right-hand end of the park is the first building of note on the Ring, Charlton House. From the Ring you only get to see the back of the building, which is fairly bland, but if you take a small detour to the front of the house, you're rewarded with a lovely Jacobean frontage that's well worth the effort.
From Charlton House, the Ring heads back into suburbia and through the forgettable Hornfair Park and an uninspiring housing development, before turning right into Woolwich Common. There's a pretty view ahead to Shooters Hill and the common is an enjoyable stroll, but again it's over before you hit your stride. Then it's back onto the main road for a short hop to the outskirts of Eltham Common... and at last, the really enjoyable walking begins, for this is where the woods start.
Shooters Hill Woods
If, like me, you enjoy wandering through urban woods, then you'll love walking through Eltham Common, Jackwood, Oxleas Wood and Eltham Park. For the first time since Woolwich, the sound of traffic is almost reduced to a whisper (though, that's a London whisper, of course – surely nowhere in London is that remote). The walking is easy and pleasant underfoot, and it's easy to lose yourself in the rhythm. It's great.
The first thing to break the woodland rhythm is Severndroog, a lonely little 18th-century tower in the middle of the woods. This is the highest point on the whole Ring, at 404 ft (121m) above sea level, but don't expect any views, as the whole thing is in thick woodland. You soon pass the sweet ornamental gardens of Jackwood, where if you're lucky (as I was) you can witness dog owners yelling at one other as their drooling mutts try to tear pieces out of each other. Luckily, a little further on is a café that sports lovely views over southeast London, making it a great spot for a rest, well away from the local canines. If you've walked the London Loop (or you're planning to), then the vista in front of you covers the first two or three days of the Loop, give or take.
From here to the end of the day, the Ring strolls through more pleasant woodland, with the only break being the small park at Long Pond. Make sure you look back to your right as you walk past the pond, as the views of London are great. Drink them in, because it's not much further to the end of the first day, with Falconwood station just a few yards along the noisy A2.