I have recently completed the Capital Ring. If you have not met it, the Capital Ring is a 78 mile circular walk around London. Its London is mostly that of the inner suburbs, although it ventures out as far as Harrow on the Hill; its character is perhaps summarised by the position of its two river crossings, at Richmond and Woolwich. Hazlitt famously encapsulated the delights of walking:
Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking!
But he went on:
When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country… I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it.
What the Capital Ring shows is that green turf is not necessary to the thinking that a walk stimulates, nor do we necessarily want to forget the town. The designers of the Capital Ring have made an effort to include as much green as possible, but the scene is in fact a matrix of green and buildings in constantly shifting juxtapositions and proportions; a scene both asymmetrical and fluid whose constant movement, which the built-up parts emphasise, is itself conducive to thought – for my money more so than the countryside. It is a long time since I enjoyed a walk so much and so consistently. Every step I took exhilarated me, even on the one day (out of six) when it never stopped raining.
Rather than forgetting the town, let alone all that is in it, the Capital Ring gives us a different perspective on it. These are residential districts, but firmly, sometimes grittily, urban; unlike the outer suburbs they are not failed attempts at a country retreat (which is not to disparage the outer suburbs, which have become a landscape in their own right). And these districts are very definitely neighbourhoods, with a focus and an independent life. I would advise any new visitor to London to walk at least a section of the Capital Ring. It gives a better view of London life than the round of the traditional tourist sites can. It is indeed a record of what London is.
To link the various districts that the Ring does induces new connections both on the ground and in the mind. Walking from Highgate to Stoke Newington, for example, I was illogically surprised that these two places are so close (the map should have told me) but their different characters had made them seem physically far apart too. Physical and mental boundaries, I feel, should be permeable and somewhat ill-defined, so that we can relatively easily move from the centre of one thing to the centre of something else essentially different, and so make unexpected connections. Many people who live in the metropolis will travel to nearby countryside to walk; I once walked from Croydon to Colley Hill, which must be much less common, and the surprise that I could do that added to the pleasure of moving from one landscape to another, sharply contrasting one when that contrast was so gradually achieved.
We should, too, enjoy the urban landscape for its own delights. The Capital Ring does this. Much of even its green stretches consists of urban park, also a distinctive form of landscape. But contrast the guide book to the Ring by Colin Saunders with the guide book to the London Loop by David Sharp and Colin Saunders. The London Loop is another circular walk, this one around the edge of Greater London and therefore including much genuine country. But the authors of the Loop guide think it necessary to say, “there are inevitably some more urban stretches where you may wish to grit your teeth and think of the many pleasures to come.” Why? I would expect a walk around even the edge of the metropolis to mingle suburb and country, to its greater enjoyment. The city, as Brigid Brophy observed, is “one of the cardinally simple brilliant inventions, like currency”. It is also beautiful, even at its most everyday.