There’s a cheerful patch of daffodils to provide a little relief from the dirty spray thrown up by cars and lorries. A cold, wet Wednesday morning, the fag end of rush hour; the perfect time to walk the South Circular, or at least a chunk of it. My starting point is West Dulwich station. I head east. At a bus stop, three bags of dog poo and a tennis ball prepare for a square dance or maybe a four-way stand off. There’s traffic noise rather than Ennio Morricone. Yards later, the beautiful Dulwich College hoves into site, wooded hill behind.

 

There’s often an element of trying to find England in my walking. A goodly chunk of my reading has a similar goal. Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, J.B. Priestley’s wonderful English Journey, Dickens’ Night Walks, Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Graham Swift’s England & Other Stories. Of course England is both simple and impossible to find. This walk takes me from the private roads and private schools of Dulwich through lively Forest Hill and Catford town centres, past rows of poorly maintained terraces and semis and a harsh stretch of dual carriageway to Woolwich, where I had been unnerved by menacing stares while flat hunting back in 1987. None of that tells me anything that wasn’t already in me.

This is the sort of musing rain and traffic noise can bring on. The first part of the walk, I know well and it isn’t until I have passed the Horniman Museum and Forest Hill that I am on less familiar pavement. For a while, Stanstead Road hosts the South Circular and in quick succession are a Polski Sklep, the Jerk Centre, a Shepherd Neame pub called Railway Telegraph, a hefty Shurgard Self Storage building and the Balm of Gilead Healing Centre; all very London.

I don’t separate my Londoness from my Englishness, so I could say it’s all very English too. Storage sheds and healing centres do feel alien to me, though Balm of Gilead dates from William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible. Diarmaid MacCulloch calls Tyndale one of the “geniuses of the English Reformation”, in his mammoth A History of Christianity. That translation of the Bible was a forerunner of the King James version, “vital for Anglophone culture worldwide” (MacCulloch again). We can thank Tyndale for everyday phrases like filthy lucre, my brother’s keeper and the salt of the earth.

Stanstead Road straightens and broadens, drivers take the opportunity to accelerate and a cold wind picks up. My pace picks up too and I soon arrive at the imposing, red brick St Dunstan’s College. Catford might be the antithesis of (parts of) Dulwich but St Dunstan’s’ fees are only a grand a term less than those of Dulwich College.

The South Circular crosses Ravensbourne River (that demands to be explored) and passes the art deco Broadway Theatre and the rather cool Catford Cat. My photos of the cat are all a bit blurry. I had just read an article on the plusses and minuses of digital photography on a blog called Richly Evocative. The author’s thinking was similar to my own and here I was snapping away with my phone.

south circular catford exploring

catford cat

I’m on Brownhill Road now and it looks a little down at heel. On my left is the entrance to Mountsfield Park. I climb up for the view and on this dark, wet day it appears as if I’m on one of a series of islands in a sea of dreer. If it hadn’t been for a woman walking her dog near by, I could have fancied myself adrift in a William Hope Hodgson story.

Later, as Westhorne Avenue, the South Circular becomes dual carriageway, crossing a succession of roundabouts. The wet road displays colourful oil slicks and I trip flamboyantly over a branch because I’m scribbling in a notebook. My face instinctively assumes a big grin, which is more embarrassing than the trip.

Soon I can taste the car exhaust as well as smell it. I pass a house with a sign declaring “Friends welcome. Family by appointment”. Is the owner a targeted misanthrope or someone with troublesome rellies? After the junction with the A2 and Blackwall Tunnel approach, the traffic thins and inevitably, speeds up a bit more. I remember living in Bromley by Bow as a student, in a flat that overlooked the northern approach to the tunnel. The noise was so bad I seldom opened my bedroom window.

When I left Dulwich, I wasn’t sure whether I was aiming for Woolwich or Severndroog Castle. Along the way, I’d settled on the former but I’ve made good time, so by Shooters Hill, I climb through the woods and head for the Severndroog. It’s a tower rather than a castle. Lady James had it built as a memorial to her husband, Sir William, in the 1780s. Knowing it to be closed on a Wednesday, I’m surprised to find the ground floor tea room open. A cup of coffee and a slice of Victoria sponge cake top up my top up my energy. I’ve yet to go up top for the views. I should soon.

military academy woolwich

Back on the South Circular and it’s the home straight. Woolwich’s military history is on display. The Old Royal Military Academy is now a housing development. An advertising poster shows a couple who are either very snooty or auditioning for an update of Ultravox’s Vienna video. A little further and the Royal Artillery Barracks is on the left and the beautiful, ruined Royal Garrison Church of St George is on the right. Woolwich too would bear some exploring.

The road drops towards the river. I walk by a self-styled cathedral and spot the Woolwich ferry terminal. There’s a cue of cars and lorries all with their engines illegally and unpleasantly idling but I’m the only foot passenger, so have the middle deck to myself. I wonder through the corridors and rooms, slatted wooden benches. It feels rather like a film set, in which the abandoned ship is discovered adrift. Perhaps a mutiny or an outbreak of a virus? Maybe a bit more Hodgson? The ghost ferry gets me across the Thames at any rate.

woolwich ferry urban exploring

I spend all of two minutes on the north side and walk back through the Woolwich foot tunnel. This midweek lunch time, it is populated solely by solitary, surly, burly men, one with his hood obscuring the top half of his face. From the north bank stairwell come bursts of laughter. Mark E. Smith sings “a figure walks behind you” in my head.

figure walks behind you

Back on the surface, I follow the south circular back until I can pick up a 122 bus. It winds its way through Lewisham, Ladywell and Brockley to Forest Hill, where I catch the sound of bird song for the first time that day.