Exploring Southeast London’s Green Chain Walk

by Benjamin Brown  |  Published July 26, 2019

Running from the River Thames and ending at Nunhead Cemetery, The Green Chain Walk is an extensive network of over 50 miles of trails that weave a course through parks, woodlands and commons across South London.

The Green Chain Walk (Photo: Benjamin Brown)

When viewed aerially, the snakelike bends the walk takes resemble a river’s own meanderings, almost as though this route were some smaller feeder tributary to the Thames itself. The paths wind through several city boroughs. Most people tackle small sections, rather than walking its entirety. In this case, the section leading from Chin Brook Meadows to the sleepy satellite town of Chislehurst was followed.

Park Life

Walking through a wrought iron gate entrance, I found myself drawn to the tall, wispy poplars that skirt the park’s perimeter before being funnelled down towards a quaint scene of the quietly bubbling Quaggy river flowing under a wooden bridge to a small pond. To my right sat the Peace Garden, a modestly sized, well-manicured area opened by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009. Adjacent to the gardens is Snacks in the Park, a small cafe offering a selection of hot and cold snacks.

Mid-morning and the sun was already beating down. Ambling under the mottled light of tree canopies past the still empty tennis and basketball courts, I left the park for a narrow, overgrown track leading to Elmstead Woods.

The Haunted Forest

Upon entering the woods I became immediately hit with a giddy sense of disorientation as the path forked into several, equally enticing routes. But which one to choose? All of a sudden I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; except of course this isn’t exactly The Haunted Forest, it’s a small, unassuming woodland in Kent. I swallowed up my courage and headed right. As I made my way past what appeared to have been a dried-up pond filled with rotting tree trunks and a small mound of sticks that eerily resembled the site of some Wiccan sacrifice, doubts started creeping in.

On rounding the corner, however, any reservations I may have had evaporated immediately when I spotted a reassuring yellow arrow that guided me back on track. Further along the trail, I came upon a pleasant wooded glade populated by two elaborately carved tree trunks, one displaying the Druidic image of a man with a beard of leaves, the other transformed into a three-cornered dwelling. From the small wooded clearing, I continued straight ahead until I reached a long perimeter fence.

Elmstead Woods (Photo: Benjamin Brown)

Clearly, I had arrived at the very outer reaches of Elmstead Woods, and there was to be no turning back. With no choice but to trace the line of the fence uphill, to my right I saw glimpses of civilisation. Emerging from the woods into the bright light of day, the tranquil forest fizzed into a cacophony of traffic.

The Suburbs

Walking along Elmstead Lane, I passed by a cloister of Tudor Revival houses arranged in a crescent around a pocket of shared common land, a clear sign that I had entered a more affluent area. Adopting a more appropriately refined gait with head held high and arms tucked firmly by my side, mercifully another green sign directed me onto a connecting cycle path bound for the picturesque, quintessentially English town of Chislehurst.

For what felt like some time I continued down the path in an unerringly straight line. With trees and hedgerows tightly packed on both sides the experience was almost like being in one long, telescopically narrow tunnel. To my relief, I then glimpsed the proverbial light at this particular tunnel’s end. Fanning out into another open wooded glade, I followed the path as it gently undulated down before curving up and around to the left and tantalisingly out of view, obscured by the boughs of several ancient looking trees. Turning the corner, I was greeted by an open patch of grass: Walden Recreation Ground.

Walden Wood (Photo: Benjamin Brown)

Mother Nature’s Child

Lying across from the recreation ground is Walden Wood. At a mere 3.6 hectares, it could hardly be compared with the generously sized woods described in such eloquent detail by the celebrated transcendentalist Henri David Thoreau; it didn’t even have a pond. What it had however was a flourishing ecosystem, with woodpeckers, jays and of course, the lesser spotted Homo Sapiens all peacefully coexisting with one another.

Of course, like bodies of water, green spaces have a beneficial effect upon a person’s health and general being, helping to reduce levels of the stress hormone Cortisol whilst simultaneously inducing the flow of those all-important Endorphins to our central nervous system. After having spent well over an hour traipsing around peaceful woodlands that were nigh on free from human interference I was the grateful beneficiary of just such a harmony of the hormones.

Feeling reinvigorated I followed the path downhill into another pleasant area of dense, deciduous woodland. It is here that I was treated to the amusing sight of a wooden bench, into which the shape and form of two bears sitting in a row-boat had been lovingly carved. Reaching the bottom of the hill I was guided out into another recreation ground, this time Chislehurst’s.

Church of the Annunciation, Chislehurst (Photo: Benjamin Brown)

This Green and Pleasant Land

Reaching the grounds of the Church of the Annunciation, I peered through the trees at the elegant red-brick houses beyond. The church was built in 1871 in the baroque style of the Angle-Catholic Revivalists. As I wandered through the grounds I felt transported back in time to the kind of provincial, romantic biscuit tin life described by Orwell or Eliot.

Yet upon passing by many of the shops along the high street I was greeted with the familiar sight of homogeneity as town centres throughout England merge into one amorphous commercial mass. That sense of Olde worlde charm returns however upon arrival at Chislehurst Common, the endpoint on my jolly jaunt into London’s sleepy middle-class suburbs. Adjoining the common is Prickend Pond, a man-made pond dating back to the 19th Century; home to families of ducks and geese with views of the glittering church in the distance.

Pints at The Queen’s Head, Chislehurst (Photo: Benjamin Brown)

Victorian Innovation

Despite living in supposedly more enlightened times, the population of the nation’s bloated capital continues to soar ever higher and housing developers increasingly see open green spaces as opportunities for urban expansion. As such, nature friendly orbital towns like Chislehurst are of real importance to the fabric of the city as they function as these effective relics of a bygone age. They offer first-hand insight into another, greener London that many of the city’s own citizens have yet to venture into. As such, the Green Chain Walk’s importance only seems to grow with time.

Purposefully designed for the working class community as havens from the suffocating stench of heavy industry, the industrious, forward-thinking Victorians successfully introduced new parks and green spaces to London including Victoria Park and Battersea Park. They knew then that urban growth needed to be orderly and controlled for everyone’s benefit.

Conveniently located beside the pond was The Queen’s Head, a traditional pub with front and rear beer gardens offering a generous selection of cask ales. When drinking a solo toast to what had been a most satisfying stroll at this watering hole by a watering hole, I realised that I had, in a metaphorical sense, come full circle. From park to park and pond to pond the walk appropriately seemed to be composed of many different links within a chain.