Southeast of London’s River Thames, the feverish buzz of the city gives way to a quiet suburban sprawl, where rows of terraced houses are interspersed with green, open spaces.
A network of footpaths known as the Green Chain Walk links these spaces together, starting at the bend of the river in Thamesmead and meandering through parks, lakes and woodland before winding up at the 19th-century Nunhead Cemetery.
Along the way, there’s an astonishing display of wildlife. In Thamesmead, bats, barn owls and water voles populate the marshlands of Crossness Nature Reserve, while fishermen line nearby Southmere Lake. Further southwest, ancient trees and drifts of bluebells welcome dog walkers in Oxleas Wood, while kingfishers and kestrels hover over the wild-swimming lake in the recently opened Beckenham Place Park. Several historic buildings feature on the route, too, from the Gothic-folly Severndroog Castle to the Art Deco Eltham Palace.
Taking a southwesterly route from Southmere to Crystal Palace, here’s where to experience the union of nature and history in suburban Southeast London.
The Green Chain Walk starts in Thamesmead, a riverside enclave on former marshland that was the location for A Clockwork Orange. Here, pockets of water break up stretches of council housing: popular fishing and birdwatching spot Southmere Lake is overlooked by four Brutalist towers. Nearby is the marshy Crossness Nature Reserve, and the ruins of the 12th-century Lesnes Abbey are a 20-minute walk away.
While Eltham Palace retains flourishes of Medieval gothic grandeur from its time as a royal residence, much of it was transformed into a shrine to Art Deco in the 1930s under the private ownership of eccentric millionaire couple, the Courtaulds. Feast your eyes on the circular entrance hall, elegant dining room, and Lady Virginia Courtauld’s glamorous walk-in wardrobe and golden vaulted bathroom, then explore the 19-acre gardens.
Further west, Forest Hill is home to the fascinating Horniman Museum. Here, you can discover an extensive natural history and anthropology collection, from an assortment of taxidermied animals to weird and wonderful musical instruments from around the world. The gardens are complete with a Butterfly House, an animal enclosure and a bandstand from the early 20th century, where you can sit and admire the London skyline.
One of the final stops on the Green Chain Walk is the Grade II-listed Crystal Palace Park. The almost 200-acre space is home to a maze, a concert platform and an impressive, though massively inaccurate, collection of dinosaur statues constructed in the Victorian era. It’s a harmonious hub where skateboarders swoop around the skate park, friends drift across boating lakes in pedalos and families meet goats, ponies and pigs at the Crystal Palace Park Farm.
This story appears in Issue 6 of Culture Trip magazine: The Sustainability Issue.