Today we continue our series of cycling route suggestions around the capital after our previous south London odyssey, the west London winder and east London's coffee shops. Gerhard Weiss guides us on a favourite north east London loop taking in the wildlife. The information for the wildlife areas has been kindly provided by Natural England. This article was originally published in London Cyclist magazine. And don't forget to vote in the London Cycling Awards!
This ride links six sites in north-east London that offer a surprising haven for wildlife. You may have passed some of them, or may have similar ones in your area, not realising how vital they are to our urban ecosystem. They are also a pleasure to visit, stop and linger.
The circular route is designed to be ridden counter-clockwise. It is possible to ride clockwise but you would need to adapt the route to get through the one-way maze in Leyton and you would need to do an awkward right-turn at Eastway into Homerton Road.
We recommend starting at Clapton Pond so you can finish at the Lea Navigation with snacks and drinks enjoying great views. But you can start the route at any point and there are several transport hubs through which you can access it.
Spring and summer are the best times to visit, both in terms of being able to see the wildlife as well as enjoying the cafe and pub opportunities al fresco. Bear in mind the cemeteries and churchyard close after dark.
Distance: 12.5 miles
Time: four hours at an easy pace
Terrain: mix of quiet and busy roads
Public transport: Stoke Newington or Hackney Downs (from Liverpool Street, Chingford or Herts), Dalston Junction or Dalston Kingsland (from north London and south London), Leyton (Central Line), St. James Street, Walthamstow (from Liverpool Street or Chingford), Stratford (national and international connections)
1. Clapton Pond
An ornamental pond on Clapton Common, it forms part of a small recreational area for local residents. Its typical wetland vegetation such as reeds and rushes provide shelter for nesting waterfowl. If you go there in the warmer season you'll find coots and mallards. Part of the functioning ecosystem here is a partial cover of the pond with greater duckweed. There's also a new adventure playground — handy if you travel with children.
2. Abney Park Cemetery
This large Victorian cemetery is situated within a housing estate (and if you know the video of Back to Black by the late Amy Winehouse you might recognise the scene as it was filmed here). It's still an active cemetery but is now renowned for its wildlife and is a local nature reserve. Its diverse flora includes the rare wood spurge. With a bit of luck you might spot a sparrowhawk or tawny owl.
The cemetery is best accessed from Stoke Newington Church Street, where you can also find plenty of good food and drink outlets. We recommend parking your bike there and walking to the cemetery.
3. Hackney Downs
A very large open space in the middle of Hackney, it won a Green Flag award in 2007-08. It's home to a number of mature trees, mostly sycamore and London plane. Hawthorn and rose hedges provide ideal habitats for common birds such as robins.
With so much space available you might want to bring a football or a frisbee to stretch those legs a bit.
4. St Patrick's Cemetery
Tucked away next to the railway where the Central Line goes overground, the site provides grassland between the graves as well as mature trees around the perimeter including oak, Lombardy poplar and ash. While you're there you might find the grave of William Hitchcock, father of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director and producer.
We can't be sure about opening times and recommend calling in advance on 020 8539 2451 to check.
5. St Mary the Virgin churchyard, Leyton
Before getting to St. Mary you may want to stop at one of the many cafes on Leyton High Road; the area’s enjoyed a facelift thanks to the Olympics.
The northern half of the churchyard has been set aside for wildlife and is developing into woodland with mainly ash and sycamore. There are plenty of shrubs including box, holly, elder and hawthorn. The mix of shaded areas and glades supports an interesting range of butterflies and birds.
6. Low Hall Wood
The small woodland along Dagenham Brook offers a number of mature trees including sycamore, cherry and horse-chestnut. The banks of the brook supports several grass species as well. Here you may find birdlife in winter such as the grey wagtail. Green woodpeckers, blackcap and willow warbler are also common.
Low Hall Wood is on the alignment of an ancient drovers’ road. In the Middle Ages drovers would drive their livestock to the London markets along this route. From here you could walk or cycle to the City of London in a near straight line.
During daytime hours you can leave via the St James’s Park gate in the north-east. Otherwise you may have to divert via South Access Road to get over to Coppermill Lane.
Your best bets for food and drink are the Springfield Park cafe; the cafe at the Springfield Marina; Stoke Newington Church Street with plenty of opportunities for all budgets; and Leyton High Road. The Coppermill on Coppermill Lane is a small friendly pub with a decent selection of beers and other drinks.
Points of interest
- Near Clapton Common is Springfield Park — 40 acres of formalised gardens and conservation sites. It provides great views over Walthamstow. The cafe in the park is highly recommended. For a decent English breakfast you can also visit the cafe by the Springfield Marina at the Lea navigation.
- Near Low Hall Wood you can find the Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum, a local transport and steam museum. The first British motor car, the first British flight and not least home of the inventor of the ‘safety bicycle’: it all happened here.
- As you cross over Hackney Marshes do consider visiting the Waterworks Centre. An exhibition and a walk around the Essex Filter beds teaches much about water management and there are some bird-watching hides. There is also a cafe and a golf course. You can access the waterworks either after Hackney Downs via Friends Bridge, or after St. Mary’s via Marshlane footbridge (need to dismount).