Walking with: William Blake, South London- Part One

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Part One: Peckham to Forest Hill

Duration: one hour (at my speed and just walking)! With all these metropolitan walks, my aim will be (as much as possible) to avoid main roads and to follow parks and other green spaces.  You will find a London A-Z invaluable as a supplement to my (hopefully!) clear instructions (or if you deviate from my recommended route!).  This first route is deliberately short and easy, as well as revealing some of the lesser known delights of some South London suburbs.

Introduction: Blake preferred the rural regions to the south of London and, with his wife Catherine, went on extensive and ambitious rambles around Surrey from his home in Lambeth.  I am a great admirer of Blake as a poet and as an artist- see my related postings on my other WordPress blogs, johnkruseblog and britishfairies in which I examine aspects of his personal mythology and his politics.  This first walk follows the first part of one of William and Kate’s rambles from the city of London south to rural Croydon.  It starts at the scene of one of his first mystical visions.

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sculpture by Morganico on Peckham Common- photo by Ian Taylor

The walk

The start point is Peckham Rye station on the London Overground.  If you want to fuel up before you set off, there are lots of pubs, cafes and restaurants in vibrant and cosmopolitan Peckham, especially the excellent Persepolis.  Coming out of the station turn right down Rye Lane and continue southwards.  At the end of the shops you will bear slightly right into Peckham Rye.  Cross the road here onto Peckham Rye Common.  Continue in the same general direction across the Common and then into Peckham Rye Park.  The common is a very attractive area of open grassland with chestnut avenues; William Blake experienced his first vision at Peckham Rye when he was a boy, seeing angels with dazzling wings in a tree there.  He was nearly beaten by his father for telling tales, but his mother was impressed by the sincerity of his account.

Cross over Strakers Road (there are a cafe and toilets here) and enter Peckham Rye Park.  This is very pleasant with an arboretum, Japanese garden, pond and open areas.

PECKHAM RYE COMMON

Aiming in a broadly south/ south-westerly direction- sort of straight on from Rye Lane, you should reach the exit from the park at the junction of Colyton Road, Peckham Rye and Forest hill.  Turn left and follow Forest Hill, past a short shopping parade.  We’ve been rising steadily since we stepped onto the Common, but the road is now noticeably steeper.

PR park

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After a quarter of a mile, you reach Camberwell Old Cemetery on your right.  Enter and follow the access road on the left that curves around the edge.  This will bring you out in Wood Vale.  Turn right.

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Options:

  1. you can follow Wood Vale, a pleasant wide residential road with little traffic, as far as Lordship Lane, at the corner of the Horniman Gardens; or,
  2. at the entrance to the cemetery you will see a sign stating that you are now on the Green Chain and that it is 0.75 miles to the Horniman Museum and 3 miles to Crystal Palace.  To stay on this walking route, on exiting the cemetery at the intersection of Wood Vale with Langton Rise, follow this latter road over Wood Vale and to its T junction with Westwood Park.  Turn right and follow Westwood Park to its junction with Horniman Drive.  Turn right again and you will soon reach a pedestrian entrance to Horniman Gardens.  You can walk through here to Lordship Lane but you can also enjoy the facilities of the Horniman Museum and gardens.  There are cafes, toilets, the museum itself and stunning views north over central London.

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End of Part One: your options now are to turn left outside the museum and to walk down to the overground station at Forest Hill; to catch a bus north or south outside the museum or to continue on Part Two of this walk (details to follow).

Some great literary ramblers- a preview

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As a first posting on this new blog, I am reproducing a post that I wrote last July for another of my WordPress blogs, johnkruseblog.  It discusses the topic which has evolved into a separate project on these pages.

“Only the wanderer,

Knows England’s graces.”

(Ivor Gurney)

I have long been impressed by the stamina and energy of our predecessors.  We forget very easily how people got about in earlier centuries and that many of the poorer will have walked, through both necessity and choice.  Long walks were a source of pleasure as well as duty and in this post I want to highlight three writers who were also impressive ramblers.

My first example, relating back to the previous post, is William Blake.  He is an example of the ability of earlier generations to walk huge distances merely for fun and relaxation.  In his biography G. E. Bentley described how Blake and his wife might rise early and walk 20 miles into the Surrey hills for lunch at an inn before walking home again.  Fifty mile round trips in a day were not unusual for the couple- starting in Lambeth and circling round by Dulwich, Blackheath, Croydon, Walton on Thames and back along lanes and footpaths.  These excursions seem huge to us, but were everyday adventures for them.

A near contemporary is Samuel Bamford, author of Passages form the life of a radical.  He was from Middleton, north Manchester, and was involved in the demonstrations that led to the Peterloo massacre.  Bamford was prosecuted for his part in the protests and- of necessity- did some remarkable walks.  He walked from Oxford to London to lobby for support for the defendants; he walked from Manchester to York for his assize hearing and then from Manchester to London for his Kings Bench trial.  Finally, he walked home from Lincoln on his release from prison.  These are stunning distances, but he covered them steadily and cheerfully because they had to be done.

My last example and inspiration is First World War poet Ivor Gurney.  Gurney is a transitional figure, being born in 1890- a nineteenth century boy who lived into the age of buses, cars and trains.  He could have used public transport, but often he chose not to do so.  As P. J. Kavanagh wrote in the introduction to his collected poems of Gurney, the poet “was justifiably proud of being a night walker.”  In the early 1920s he several times walked from London or High Wycombe to Gloucester overnight.  This seems doubly impressive.  Why did he embark on such long ‘tramps’?

It might be easy to say that Gurney was mentally ill- which he was, and solitude must have been part of the attraction (“I walk deserted ways” he said in ‘Song’ and talks in ‘The High Hills’ of “Walking into clarity”)- but there was more to it than this- and more than his poverty.  He would walk to get to places, but he would also undertake long walks at night or during the day simply for the enjoyment of it.  “The miles go sliding by/ Under my steady feet” he wrote in ‘Walking Song’ whilst in the Pedlar’s Song he celebrated “Now the dust is on the roads/ And the blue hills call to distances.”

Gurney was a musician as well as a poet and it is clear that one of the key reasons for his tramping was to seek inspiration (see ‘Going out at dawn’).  For example in ‘Song’ he declares that “My heart makes songs on lonely roads.”  He speaks in ‘Old times’ of being:

“Out in the morning,

For a speed of thought I went…

A few hours’ tramping

With brisk blood flowing,

And life worth knowing.”

and in ‘When the body might free’ Gurney recalls:

“In October time- crystal air-time and free words were talking

In my mind with light tunes.”

A lot of his inspiration as an artist came from contact with the natural world and with the traces of an older England.  Alone on walks he felt nearer to rural birds and mammals and he enjoyed encounters with old buildings “One comes across the strangest things in walks.” However, one of the biggest inspirations for Gurney was the stars.  This seems particularly to be why he went out at night: “stars as bright sand grains” (June night), “stars like steady candles’ gleam” (Brimscombe), tramping on Cotswold ways “beneath a maze of stars” (Companions).  The constellations were a source of companionship and inspiration on his wanderings (‘Stars sliding’, ‘Going out at dawn’).  This is a fascination with which I can happily identify.

What next, then?  How will this blog develop?  I am already planning and testing routes to walk which will be featured in detail in future postings.  The idea is to build from small beginnings: to start with relatively short, local  rambles in London and to get more ambitious thereafter.  Watch this space!