London is one of the busiest cities in the world but thankfully it also happens to be one of the greenest.
Around 47% of London is green space, and in spite of property developers’ desire to turn the capital into an unnatural concrete jungle, there is a far mightier force at play here that is unrivalled – Mother Nature herself and the many Londoners who are nurturing and developing the city’s green spaces, encouraging urbanites to connect to nature locally and thus keep that connection, as well as nature itself, alive.
In my latest pursuit of nature in the urban metropolis, it took me to a part of North London where I had spent some time as a youth – Finsbury Park. A busy hubbub – which connects a large part of North and North East London – Finsbury Park itself is home to a sprawling land of green which runs up to Manor House. With Seven Sisters Road and Green Lanes in its midst, the park offers a glimpse of serenity in an otherwise busy area of North London.
However, the park itself was not my destination for my latest urban adventure in nature. Something far more off-the-beaten track, diverse in landscape and way more serene was on my radar – Parkland Walk.
Parkland Walk is a four-and-a-half mile stretch that follows the course of the old railway that ran between Finsbury Park and Highgate, with a branch off to Alexandra Palace. London’s longest Local Nature Reserve offers a much needed respite for locals, visitors and even international tourists, who apparently head to North London especially to sample Parkland Walk.
The area’s natural landscape, as far as Parkland Walk is concerned, remains relatively untouched. The community-strong local conservation group, The Friends of the Parkland Walk, continue to maintain the walk alongside Haringey Council and Islington Council, and the group even saved the walk from the threat of closure to a road.
A short walk along Stroud Green Road and down a side street led me to the Oxford Road entrance, where I met the southern end of Parkland Walk. Making my ascent onto a raised level, stationed in between Victorian houses on either side, the straight walkway with its lane of sprawling trees and overgrown bushes offered much welcome shade and protection from the unusual 30-plus-degrees summer temperatures.
The 1.7 mile trek to Highgate is well landscaped, including benches for walkers to take a breather en route. A forager’s delight, it’s not long past the Oxford Road entrance that you find bushes of wild blackberries growing. With the scorching temperatures, the fruits and its leaves looked pretty parched and in need of rainfall in abundance.
Parkland Walk supports a diverse range of habitats and wildlife. Over 200 species of wild flower have been recorded. Hedgehogs, foxes, butterflies and a vast array of birds are spotted on a daily basis and a rare species of deer, the muntjac, is sometimes spotted. A stretch of the walk, near Crouch Hill, includes an area of acidic grassland which is home to several rare plants and insects.
No trees were permitted to grow close to the track when the railway was operational. However, today there is a vast array of trees found along the walking route. Most of the trees occurred naturally – including oak, ash, birch, cherry and apple – but a few additional species – such as field maple, white poplar and hazel – have been planted.
Given the varieties of tree and the sheer volume of trees, Parkland Walk, at times, feels like you are walking through a forest – only you can’t get lost given that its a linear route. The walkway is a popular route but given its expanse, contact with other people is very fleeting, and there are moments where it feels like it’s just you and your entourage and nature. The stillness and silence along the walk is broken organically by the sound of birds and the rustling of squirrels.
Given that the walk is the site of where the railway line once stood, bridges and archways are prevalent. The route, which was part of the London and North Eastern Railway, opened in 1867 and closed to the public in the 1950s before the track was lifted in 1972.
As you approach the archways and urban tunnels, the reality of where you truly are kicks in as nature also comes face-to-face with graffiti. But it’s when you get passed Crouch Hill that you really become aware of the truth of the old railway line, as remnants of Crouch End Station remain with its abandoned platforms and overgrown foliage.
Walkers can even climb the steps to walk along the platforms, on either side, before finishing off the southern side of the walk bringing you to Highgate. While you could say every land in the world has a mark of history, what’s particularly special about Parkland Walk is how it conjures up stories of railways gone-by, forests, nature and wildlife – which is a great starting point for and perfect location to get children’s imaginations running wild.
The southern end of Parkland Walk comes to a natural end when the lane starts to fork off into two small widely overgrown lanes. Be sure to carry on as far as you can though, as there’s some old tunnels leading through to Highgate Station. Although the tunnels are now blocked up, the tunnels have become a site of interest as it has now found life as a bat cave, bringing the southern part of Parkland Walk to an interesting end or beginning for some, depending on where you access the walk.
The second part of the walk, which I have yet to grace, includes a detour through the lovely Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood. Taking visitors out near the “bat cave” and uphill along Holmesdale Road, walkers can take in the famous woods before rejoining the north part of Parkland Walk, up to Alexandra Palace from Muswell Hill. Join me soon for the second instalment of the delightful urban nature trail walk that is Parkland Walk.
For more information about Parkland Walk, visit the website of The Friends of the Parkland Walk
Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea