Stepping out

A friend once asked me if it had been hilly where I grew up. I told him I’d been born and grew up in a village on the top of a hill. And asked why he wanted to know. He said: ‘It’s hilly where my cousins live in Ireland and their calves are all the size of yours.’ He became less of a friend.

I’ve no idea whether walkers’ calves is a thing, and I’m not about to worry about acquiring more calf-bulk but I love a walk: whether it’s a leisurely stroll in the park or a determined trek across hillsides. When I finished chemotherapy treatment I couldn’t walk upstairs without having to sit down on the top step to get my breath back. I didn’t like it. I set myself the task of walking round the block, then the park.

But I was walking on my own and I missed the chat and company that’s always been part of my walks. I turned to Google and found a group of women who organised short and not-so-short walks in London, so it was easy to get to/from the start/end of the walks on public transport. The walks were also organised during the week – which suited me because I wasn’t working and it could give some structure to my life as a convalescent. And, because I was meeting people who didn’t know about my recent history, I didn’t feel defined by diagnosis, treatment and side effects. It was great.

Wimbledon Park station, start of Capital Ring section 6
Wimbledon Park station, start of Capital Ring section 6

More than a year later when I told some of the regular walkers (who’d now become good friends) about Freyathlon, offers of help and support came fast and thick. And so it was that four of us set out, on Lucy’s recommendation, to complete sections 6 and 7 of the Capital Ring, 78 miles (126km) of walks, divided into 15 sections, through parks and open spaces around London. Lucy had completed the Capital Ring a few years ago and Sue knew the area we walking so I was leaning heavily on their knowledge.

It was August and we were in England so we had all dressed and packed accordingly: shorts, sun hats, Factor 50, sunglasses, wet weather gear, warm layers. And our footwear reflected our separate opinions on possible weather conditions.

We left Wimbledon Park station in south west London and made our way through Wimbledon Park, admiring the boating lake and bypassing the tennis courts. Finding ourselves undisturbed on a path in Wimbledon Common, I demonstrated what I knew about the principles of race walking – gleaned from an internet search on the train that morning. All four of us were impressed with the speed and the distance I managed to cover but concerns about hips and knees meant we didn’t commit to race walk.

After a quick pitstop to admire Wimbledon Windmill, we skirted Putney Vale and its cemetery and crossed into Richmond Park. Keeping an eye out for deer, we passed Spanker’s Hill and peered in the direction of the White Lodge, home to younger dancers with the Royal Ballet School and location for Billy Elliott. At Pen Ponds, Sue confided she’d once set foot on the island and asked us to guess how she’d travelled there. We guessed: wading, rowing, swimming (she’s an open water swimmer), walking on the pond bed during an arid spell, carried on the back on swans. Impressive guesses but nothing compared to the truth: turns out she’d walked across the ice when the pond had frozen over a few years ago.

As we made our way toward Petersham Nurseries, it started to rain and we decided to stop for lunch. Three of us had brought our lunch but threw caution to the wind and chose kale quiche and salad from the café menu – a popular choice judging by the plates on the tables around us in the glasshouse. After eating, we reviewed the next section of Capital Ring, climbed into our wet weather gear, and struck out along the Thames Path through Richmond.

Walkers' footwear
Walkers’ footwear

We crossed the Thames at Richmond Footbridge and sauntered through the hinterlands of St Margaret’s and Isleworth. It was wet and got wetter so we kept our heads down and squelched on. Our conversations were wide and covered: housing in London, riverside developments, bike rides, Labour leadership candidates, future walk routes, historical buildings, renovation of walls, swimming, sailing, films, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, bird-watching, nail varnish.

Eventually we left the streets and turned into Syon Park. We admired Syon House, which has provided a film backdrop for plenty of films including Gosford Park and Belle, from a distance and pressed on to the café in the garden centre. While we drank our tea and shared cakes, pigeons flew in and strutted around the café before being ushered out by café staff. We talked: mindfulness, Buddhism, films, dresses, footwear, breathable fabrics, taking risks, night walks, procrastination, the joy/tyranny of lists, nail varnish (again!). We took longer over our tea break than our lunch break but eventually pulled on our damp layers and, after a near-mishap with the map, left Syon Park and the Thames to walk through Brentford along the banks of the River Brent and the Grand Union Canal. Traffic shuttled past on the A4 and the M4 above our heads as we trudged on through the rain, and a familiar urban landscape of industrial and business parks interspersed with parks.

I spotted a sign giving the distance to Osterley Lock (where section 7 of the Capital Ring ends) as one mile and gave silent thanks. After what seemed the longest mile, Lucy pointed out we’d reached Osterley Lock and we looked for the path which would take us, eventually, to public transport and our various destinations. There was no path. We consulted the map and instructions to discover the path we wanted was ‘just before’ the lock. We retraced our steps and ‘just before’ turned out to be more like 150 metres and just after a bridge – which might have been a more useful landmark, we grumbled.

We headed along the path and, after about five minutes, emerged on a suburban street. After consulting various apps and smartphones, we made our way to Boston Manor station and discovered the golden rule of public transport: she with the furthest distance to travel will have the least complicated journey. I was happy, Sue less so. Waiting for a train, we persuaded a man on the platform to take our photo, while Lucy encouraged me, not for the first or last time, to commit to completing the rest of the Capital Ring.

Sue, Freya, Catharine, Lucy at Boston Manor station
Sue, Freya, Catharine, Lucy at Boston Manor station

We’d left Wimbledon Park station at about 11.15am and arrived at Boston Manor station at about 4.30pm. Allowing two hours for lunch and tea breaks and general dithering-about, our 20kms had taken about three-and-a-quarter hours – less of a race, more of a walk.


Race walk. 20km. 14 August 2015

Capital Ring: section 6 (Wimbledon Park to Richmond Bridge) and section 7 (Richmond Bridge to Osterley Lock)

TeamFreya: Catharine, Lucy, Sue

Cost: Free