mundane adventures in running
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to achieve in this run, but it was my birthday, I’d dropped my son off for school and had three hours to do some self indulgent exercise before meeting a friend for lunch in Brixton. I’d packed a bag with water, no snacks, no sunscreen, just clothes and swimming stuff in case I decided to skip the run and swim instead.
One of my favourite local runs is the Green Chain walk network. The network links up different paths through parks, scrubby pockets of London woods, cycle paths with well signposted routes, running along quiet streets and over main roads when necessary. The route meets up with the Capital Ring: a similar shenanigan of suburban back routes, but circumnavigating the whole of London.
I headed that way on Wednesday, with a vague plan to either finish in Crystal Palace, swim and then take the bus to Brixton, or maybe head back down Croxted Road from Crystal Palace.
As I started running, it became clear that the opportunity to be outside on such a beautifully clear day shouldn’t be wasted. The sun was bright, but it remained fairly cool under the trees of Sydenham Wood.
Sydenham Wood is an unlikely place in South East London. The topography is all wrong; it feels too big for its location; it’s hard to work out how it sits in relation to the things around it. There’s something tardisish about it, like space got stretched out in a funny way: Escher town planning. Particularly taken in tandem with its neighbour, Dulwich wood, it is big enough to have hidden curiosities. There’s a fair amount of demolished mansion strewn about the woods. There are leafy glades, bramble forests, muddy tracks and short but treacherous climbs. It’s a place where you can start to feel lost, and where even paths you’ve run a hundred times can feel unfamiliar. It’s partly because it’s so closed: the foliage is dense, and there are some steep slopes; a lot of the wood gives you no visibility to the outside world, or for that matter to other parts of the wood itself. It’s partly that, but there’s also a mystical otherness about the wood: some crazy old animism, as though it’s breathing being you enter into.
The path through the Nature Reserve comes to an end just after you reach the disused, and thoroughly barred Crescent Wood railway tunnel, adding a bit of steam punk splendour to the place.
By the time I’d reached Crystal Palace i’d decided to push my run further than I had initially planned… not that I had planned as such. I was feeling strong and relaxed, and present enough to take my headphones off and listen to world around me.
At Crystal Palace, I ambled. Crystal Palace is on its last legs before the developers get in. It still has a lot of derelict charm about it: grand crumbling staircases, falling apart sphinxes, headless grecian princesses. The path takes you through the world’s first exhibition of dinosaurs, and then on roads and through parks until Beulah Hill. Croydon never looks so beautiful as it does from the safety of south London on a sunny day. The twin chimneys of Ikea and the proud Nestlé tower punctuating the hazy valley.
From then on I followed the Capital Ring. The path takes you across a couple more pockets of woodland, up past the old house at Norwood, then across Streatham Common, and to Tooting Common. By the time I got to the familiar running tracks which takes you round the perimeter of the park, I was starting to flag, feeling hungry and twitchy. I normally find with running that if it’s going to hurt, or I’m going to get bored, or cold, or hungry, the niggles start at 15km. I dug my headphones out of my bag and plugged them back in, and picked up the pace to get to Brixton as fast as I could. I finished with a near sprint down Railton Road, and was ready to ease of my joints in some gentle lanes at the rec. Brixton’s good for post run recovery: a cold and not too crowded pool plus lots of options for post run nutrition. Bandeja Paisa. mmm.
The Green Chain is a gem of South East London. It provides a way to navigate passively, to follow a route without having to really think, and it takes you through curious, interesting, tucked away places which you might otherwise miss. It’s a friend to the urban trail runner, the town planning enthusiast, to anyone looking for a wild seam running through the city. Doubtless it will be the canvas for many more wonderful runs in the future.
For maps and stats, click here.