I woke up today with a dark cloud hanging over me, which is hardly the best frame of mind in which to tackle the longest day of the Capital Ring. Luckily this is an excellent walk that lifted my spirits and left me bouncing along... but first my black mood and I had to endure two miles of unrelenting suburban drivel, because although this section is a delight, the first hour is far from scintillating.
OK, so it's possible that my morning mood coloured my view, but I didn't enjoy the first section from Grove Park to Beckenham Hill one little bit. For the most part the Ring is either in bland suburbia, in which pretty much every flat surface is branded with illiterate graffiti, or it's slipping through the remains of the Great North Wood, which these days is squashed into an incredibly thin strip between playing fields, heavy industry and housing estates. Shopping trolleys and fly tipping are the order of the day, and between the buildings you can see Canary Wharf, which only rubs in the fact that this part of the Ring is most definitely urban.
The only notable sight along this section hardly helps to lift the mood much, either. Not far into the walk the Ring crosses the main railway line from London to the Kent coast, and although it's always an impressive sight seeing large numbers of railway tracks running off into the distance, it's somewhat tempered by the fact that 49 people lost their lives in a horrific train crash on this very stretch back in 1967.
But never mind, because just after the bridge is Downham Fire Station, where they have a training tower and – if your timing is good, like it was for me – a collection of smashed-up car wrecks, where the firemen practise dragging crash victims out of their vehicles. Interestingly enough, this theme continues down the road, because this is the kind of area where knackered old cars sit in driveways, propped up on bricks and overgrown weeds, waiting in vain for someone to finish the job they started. It's not the greatest walking spot in the world, to be honest.
Happily, Beckenham Hill is, and soon after crossing the busy A21 between Downham and Southend, the Ring more than makes up for its shaky start. Beckenham Place Park is a delight, and if you're looking for a decent day's walk, you could to do worse than starting this section at Beckenham Hill station, which would cut out the dross of Grove Park and land you straight into the lovely countryside that characterises the rest of this day.
Beckenham Place Park consists of woodland, a public golf course and an intriguingly mouldering stately home – Beckenham Place – that makes for a brilliant lunch stop. Luckily for walkers, the woodland through which the Ring meanders is separated from the golf course by plenty of trees, so you're in no danger of getting hit by stray golf balls. Indeed, this is real woodland, so even if a budding Ballesteros hooked the ball towards the Ring, the chances of it getting through would be practically zero, and it's this isolation that makes walking through this section so pleasurable. The suburbs suddenly seem a long way away, and as the path comes out into the more open grassland that surrounds Beckenham Place itself, the views are as pretty as they come. Beckenham Place even has a bar from which you can watch people teeing off into the sunshine; it's a lovely place.
So are the suburbs of Beckenham, which are clearly in a different league to the more earthy digs of Grove Park. There's no graffiti, no rubbish, plenty of trees, and streets full of the kind of house that makes you wonder whether you'll ever be able to afford this kind of lifestyle. Just after Beckenham Place the Ring runs along the A2105 for a short hop, and on the left is a red brick development that is straight out of the 1960s, with its sculptured gardens and hinged windows. The surprising thing is that it's lovely, and still looks as polished as an architect's model. Developments like this all too often show their age, but in Beckenham even the high rises on the other side of the A-road look clean and happy. It's bizarre, and is perhaps best summed up by the fact that a few yards further on, the huge clubhouse on Worsley Bridge Road sports a sign saying 'Kent County Cricket Club'. Clearly, Beckenham is somewhat more affluent that Grove Park.
This theme continues as the Ring takes a detour through Cator Park and on into New Beckenham, winding through some beautiful suburban streets on the way. Look around and you'll see BMWs, Volvos and Mercs that clearly have a long way to go before they end up on bricks in someone's driveway...
There's a slight hiccup when the Ring crosses the railway bridge at Penge East station, as suddenly the locals' skirts shrink to eye-popping length and their make-up doubles in thickness, but it's a relatively short hop through the urban backstreets of Penge, and you soon end up at Crystal Palace, which really is a wonderful place.
Crystal Palace is a great park. It's got everything, from massive sports facilities to the tallest structure in London, and as a way to end the longest day on the Ring, it can't be beaten. Looking at the map, I'd thought it was going to be dominated by the monstrous National Sports Centre, but despite the size of the development, it's really well hidden behind the sculptured landscape of the park, and instead Crystal Palace turns out to be a green, undulating delight.
It also has two of the most interesting structures on the whole Ring: the 270m-high Crystal Palace transmitter, which is absolutely beautiful, and the hill on which the eponymous Victorian glass-house stood until it burned down in 1936. You can take a small detour from the Ring to explore what remains of the Crystal Palace, and even though it comes at the end of a long day, I highly recommend it. The views over southeast London are impressive, and what's left of the foundations is enough to spark off the imagination: stone sphinxes and weather-beaten statues stand at the top of wide staircases, and all the while the Eiffel Tower-esque transmitter towers overhead, a delightful juxtaposition of old ruins and modern technology.
It really is worth the effort of getting there, and makes for the Capital Ring's first proper and worthwhile walk.