The Capital Ring – Grove Park to Downham

An Autumn scene near Grove Park in South London

Well, dear Readers, here we are again, on the Capital Ring on another bright and sunny autumn Saturday morning. We have travelled here via Charing Cross Station, so far my feet are behaving themselves (I have a very irritating corn, a sore ankle and all sorts of other nonsense) and so we head off through the woodlands and parklands of Lewisham. First up is the old Grove Park Hospital, some of which has been redeveloped as housing, but clearly some is still in medical use, as there is a sign for the Long Covid clinic. The buildings have an extraordinary history, though, and many thanks to The Lost Hospitals of London website for the information below.

Grove Park was originally used as a workhouse – these were places where the destitute poor were housed, and used for (free) hard labour. My great grandmother (who had polio, a husband who was gassed during WW1 and a number of children with various degrees of illness and disability) had an absolute terror of ending up in the workhouse, lest we think that they were a relict of early Victorian times. At Grove Park the main occupation was breaking up granite, which was sold to local councils for road building, and the building only ceased to be a workhouse in 1914, when it was requisitioned by the army as a training camp for soldiers heading off to the front. In 1919, the place became an Asylum, but for most of its history it was a hospice for Tuberculosis patients. During 1940 the building was set alight by an incendiary bomb. Two nurses, Mary Fleming and Aileen Turner, crawled through one of the upper windows and across the swaying floor of a ward to reach trapped patients. The floor collapsed a few minutes after the rescue. Both nurses were awarded the George Medal.

Grove Park Hospital

In 1967 there was a major train crash, in which 92 people died (of which more later). Many of the injured were brought to Grove Park for treatment.

In 1977 the hospital was repurposed as a home for patients with learning disabilities but, following the ‘Care in the Community’ initiative of the late 70s and early 80s many patients were moved out. The hospital finally closed for good in 1994, as did many local and ‘cottage’ hospitals all over the country, in favour of large, centralised facilities. And so, Grove Park, which has had an even more interesting history than most hospitals, is now a collection of houses and apartments. At least it has largely been repurposed, rather than being torn down.

And now, we turn down a rather unprepossessing alley, and find that it’s named Railway Children Walk.

This is not the Railway Children walk that visits all the very picturesque scenes around Haworth in Yorkshire where the book was set, but it is the site of the house of Edith Nesbitt who wrote the book – her house overlooked the railway line. She might be a bit surprised at the view from the railway bridge today.

As mentioned earlier, in 1957 this stretch of railway was the site of a train crash that killed 92 people and injured 173. A train travelling from Hastings towards Charing Cross derailed, with many of the carriages full to the gunnels with standing passengers. It was found that a rail had broken, and the Ministry of Transport criticised the maintenance of the line, which was subsequently improved (rather a case of ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’). Among the casualties was James Gordon Melville Turner, who won the George Cross for saving two wounded shipmates when his merchant ship was torpedoed in 1939. He subsequently lost a leg when a second ship that he was serving on was torpedoed, and he spent the remainder of the war in a German Prisoner of War camp. For this man to be lost in a train crash after surviving so much feels very ironic to me.

Amongst the survivors was, believe it or not, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. I’m afraid I can’t resist it.

Looking back over the railway line at Grove Park

Anyhow, at this point we are both in need of a toilet, and I tell you this because until I’d started doing this walk I hadn’t quite realised the paucity of such facilities in the Capital. How does anyone who regularly needs a toilet (the pregnant, those with bladder problems, those with diseases like Crohns) manage to travel or get out and about? It really is an accessibility issue. Some towns (including East Finchley under its new Labour council) are looking at schemes whereby local cafes and restaurants will make their toilets available to the general public without the visitors having to buy anything. We went to the garage (no toilets), couldn’t find an open cafe, and the betting shop was less than prepossessing. In desperation I asked at the florists, and the lovely lady there invited us in to use her facilities. She was clearly a wingless angel. We chatted for a while about how, during 2020 and 2021, it was only the funeral flowers that kept her little family business afloat, and how bad she felt about it (Hither Green Crematorium is right opposite the shop).

“At least I’m doing a few weddings and christenings as well now,” she said.

So, if ever you find yourself at Hither Green in need of some flowers (hopefully for a pleasant occasion), pop into Karen Woolven Flowers on Verdant Lane.

Much refreshed and with more of a bounce in our step, we head towards the Downham Woodland Walk. Some of the roads around here have ‘greens’ in the middle, with mature oaks and squirrels everywhere.

Downham Woodland Walk is a tiny strip of ancient woodland that runs along the boundary of what were once fields, something that explains why the wood keeps changing direction and character. It is apparently home to the nationally rare hawthorn  jewel beetle, and if only I’d known I’d have paid more attention (though my husband’s tolerance for my entomological searches is not limitless). So, I didn’t see one, but here it is for your delectation.

Agrilus sinautus (the Hawthorn Jewel Beetle) – By James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Downham Woodland Walk

We were literally tripping over squirrels here – one shot out in front of my husband and leapt across the little stream that tinkles alongside the path. This is a very urban patch – a man was having a noisy argument with his lady friend, a group of youngsters were gathered and were clearly trying to decide at whose house it would be best to spend the afternoon (it seemed to be largely dependent on how long various mothers were going to be out shopping), a lone youth with his headphones on was sitting on the back rest of a bench, nodding his head and smoking a joint. Ah London, how much I love you.

And then we arrived at Downham, a place that I had never heard of, but which had a thriving High Street which seemed to spread in all directions. By this stage we were after a sandwich (and yet another toilet) and found Café Treat, which was buzzing, efficient, and had a great range of food, including some breakfasts that sounded pretty enormous and then a range of Hearty Breakfasts which were even larger, including a couple of Turkish breakfasts with feta and olives and hummus and bread, and a very tasty falafel wrap. And so, dear Readers, here I will leave us for today, with me guzzling down a huge mug of builder’s tea. Let’s see where we get to next.





11 thoughts on “The Capital Ring – Grove Park to Downham

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Indeed. It’s a bit trickier when all you have is a well-populated stretch of woodland between houses that’s about forty feet across (especially if you’re female :-))

  1. Claire

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. Now that I have a passeport and 4 Covid injections, my next trip will be to London and I will try to walk at least a tiny part of the Capital Ring. I am especially grateful for the link to « London lost hospitals » because in it I found an article on King George Hospital Barley lane where my daughter was born in 1995. This hospital was brand new and of very good quality, both staff and building. What a pity for Seven Kings and Romford residents that they closed it!

      1. Bug Woman Post author

        Goodness Claire, I spent most of my teenage years living in Seven Kings, and I remember King George’s Hospital very well – as you say, what a shame they closed it, they had endless trouble with the new modern hospital.

  2. Sara

    Before you go on your next walk make a note of any public buildings nearby or on the route. i.e a public library, hospital, courthouse etc.
    When you are on your walk If you need the toilet go inside and ask where they are. We used a public library a few weeks ago whilst on a walk in Archway- there was no coffee shop in sight only streets of houses.


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