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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 19 October 2015

City too sad, I'm heading for the hills….

 Not quite a hundred miles from Clapham. Sydenham Hill Woods offers a curiously urban experience of nature, just three stops down the line from Brixton. Inhale.
Getting that feeling it's definitely the end of the end of the Indian summer, and maybe it's the last chance to get out of the stink for a few hours, to soothe the soul with a bit of greenery.

I don't mean Clapham Common, I don't even mean Tooting Bec Common. Putney Heath? Certainly not. No, I'm talking ancient southern English woodlands. I am talking Sydenham Hill!

Yes, all the way to SE26 - that's so far it out it must be nearly the seaside, surely? It's past Dulwich, for pity's sake – and that's where Mrs Thatcher once thought of living, so it must be a long way from big bad London.

You can go by bus or bike or, but the quickest and most comfortable way is by train. It's only three stops from Brixton on the old southern railway line. Getting to the station, it's a sad thing to walk up
A bad start: our favourite food shop near brixton Station has
 closed down, thanks to Network Rail's determination to make
lots of money out of the tenants of the Atlantic Road railway
arches. Note the spoof estate agent's sign.
Atlantic Road, and to see that the A & C Continental Grocers is already closed. At least they have left behind a pointed comment on their reasons for moving out.

A & C was one of those old-school delis where where you'd have bought all your ingredients for a delicious picnic, and still have change for a drink in the pub at the end of the walk. Gone, like so many others of this breed (horrified to see the Italian one in Caledonian Road, just by King's Cross station,  has also closed).

Now it's essential to enjoy this bit of Brixton while it's still here - standing on that platform with the 1986  bronze sculptures of mysteriously romantic passengers – yes, and your soul once again soothed by the clear tones of Dennis Brown soaring up from a market stall beneath the bridge. It's at this point I think maybe   Lee Perry's City Too Hot would be an appropriate song for my mode….but it's not hot today. But Perry's dirge-like song (which I think he recorded after he'd decided to burn his studio and quit Jamaica) has a deep mournfulness that suits the autumnal mood.

The train swoops in, we whizz down by Railton Road to Herne Hill, then into a sort of green tunnel of trees….we are already in the country, or so it seems...

Next, West Dulwich…a station I always love passing though because I think of Robert Wyatt, and one of his final recordings with Soft Machine - Moon in June - in which he reminisces, affectionately, about  this suburb, the rain, pitter patter, the house where he used to live, in what was it, Dalmore Road?

Then it's on to Sydenham Hill. Out, up the stairs - and almost immediately you enter the world of south London walking. On the footbridge is a sign for the Green Chain pathway, which  essentially links you right through to Eltham Palace, and into various other networks if you want to do the entire circumnavigation thing, like Iain Sinclair.

The first part of this walk is  quite a shock to the system: you go up, and up, and up. The hill must be at least as steep as anything Highgate can offer. Then you get to a pub and a very posh crescent of massive redbrick villas….you are reminded that this part of South London has had a strong appeal to the very rich way back in the mid-19th century, after Brixton and Camberwell became too popular. We are no distance from Forest Hill and the Hornimans, Crystal Palace and the Paxtons…or Dulwich itself and the Alleyns.

Just before you hit the South Circular, there's an escape route though black railings in Sydenham Woods, and within seconds you are plunged into a deep, dark, dank, dripping forest, deep leaf mould underfoot, dead and living trees all around, a path meandering down hill again, past vestigial remains of some old buildings….a wall here, a bit of a chapel there…trees bursting through everything, soaring …

And you continue, down, down through glades of magnificent trees, following this snaking path, until you reach the route of the old Nunhead to Crystal Palace Railway line, now long gone, now just another woodland path…until you find yourself staring at the boarded-up mouth of an enormous brick-walled tunnel. The metal sheet barrier has been well tagged, but if you peep through the gaps you see there's a second, far stronger looking steel barrier behind it, to deter 21st century troglodytes or people like me who just like walking into tunnels. Especially when we know bats are supposed to live in there. 

Pissaro's suburban steam train would have entered this tunnel
seconds after he saw it fromthe footbridge. Now the
  tunnel is said to be a home for pipistrelles.
And so back to the more crowded part of this wood, near the DUlwich Park and golf course, big families out with their posh dogs, to the footbridge.

This was one of the reasons I came here. Ever since I was about 14 I was fascinated by the idea of a famous painter from PAris coming to this unglamorous part of south London. This bridge is the spot Camille Pissaro chose to paint his view of the railway from Lordship Lane. In his painting you see grass and distant houses of encroaching suburbs. Today you see trees and thick undergrowth. But you also see it's the same place. The same magic of south London woodland is at work. 

From now on it's downhill all the way, past the attractively overgrown church and the inevitable golf course, and then almost immediately you hit that strange bit of the South Circular that dances around some of the most expensive real estate in all England, the Dulwich Village/Dulwich college area. 

Here, another huge closed down pub, there, another huge £7million mansion; and then more public space, Dulwich Park, a slightly more sedate version of  Battersea, with its inner ring road infested with pedal-go-caarts, and its  lakes. Just over there is the world's first purpose built art gallery. Like so much else today, as you head for West Dulwich station with old yatt songs spooling through your brain, you think: that is for another visit.

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