Walking when trains are not running

It seems as if every other weekend or so, there is no train service at Mottingham, “due to planned engineering work”. As inconvenient as that is, it is a common occurrence with London rail transport (subway included), and you can find out in advance which lines will be closed.

Unfortunately, we have not gotten into habit yet of checking the Transport for London website prior to setting out. On Sunday, we were ready to visit the British Museum again – Kimmy especially wanted to get another activity backpack – but upon walking to the station, we were met with a handwritten notice advising us to use replacement buses to get to a different station.

Too much hassle for our taste. The trip to the city was out, but the weather was quite nice, and a new plan came in. We decided to explore the nearby segment of the Green Chain Walk.

It is a splendid idea, to start with: Connecting parks, playgrounds and other open spaces with a sign-posted trail all through the Southeast London. It is not a single chain, but rather three overlapping ones, comprising over 40 miles of combined distance. You obviously cannot avoid walking streets from one park to another, but that just diversifies the exercise, and most of the streets are quiet, back ones, often enjoyable in their own right.

One small problem: Most of the stops along the trail are in declining condition, to put it mildly. It appears as if since its establishment in 1977, the properties along the walk have not been repaired or maintained. Very unfortunate.

Right across from the Mottingham train station, there is a wonderful little park called The Tarn, with a pond populated by ducks and geese and plenty of interesting flora. We imagined how beautiful the flowers and the trees should look in spring and made a mental note to visit occasionally. Yet, the park, which was definitely landscaped at some point, and has dedicated benches installed as recently as ’96, has an air of neglect today. The pond surface is full of rubbish; those same benches, while still serviceable, are nevertheless virtually defaced; and the fenced-off, burned-down gazebo is overgrown with vegetation, suggesting that the fire happened not very recently…

From The Tarn, we followed the signs to a playground at the edge of an open grass field, which is situated behind the row of houses lining the major highway that I cross on my way to work every day. Never even imagined that that space was even there.

The kids had some fun on the swings and such. The playground was almost deserted, even though it appears to remain in decent condition. The neighboring basketball and tennis courts, though, are clearly rundown and abandoned. Cement surface anyway cannot be much of an attraction for sports that are not widely played (yes, tennis is not as widely played in England as it is back home, even though it is a sport born in England; but, hey, isn’t it supposed to be lawn-tennis, played on grass?) Football is obviously played on a incomparably larger scale (every boy on every playground kicks around a ball), but it would clearly not be played on cement – there is simply too much available grass around.

After a while, we continued along the trail, walking streets for half a mile and arriving at another playground, with a couple of implements not found at the previous one. More fun ensued, and then we decided not to continue on to the next park (still another half a mile away), but to return home.

The exercise took over two hours and left us quite pleased with the unexpected outing.

The trains were running as usual at the beginning of the work week, but half-way on the DLR, the train stopped and the conductor made the announcement which is universally viewed as a pronouncement of doom on the London rail system: There is a points failure between such and such stations; no through service in any direction.   Points failure means some electrical mishap – those who hold an electrical engineering degree, feel free to educate me. Happens often enough, although I have not yet been on the train affected by that. There is not a standard service level for correcting it either; could be several hours, could be five minutes.

The DLR train that I was on waited for a while at the station that it had reached, and then went backwards to the previous station, at which passengers could switch to connecting rail services.

The first such connecting train would be arriving in 10 minutes, and the platform was already overflowing with people, both the regulars at the station and the trainload from my DLR. Knowing how packed the trains are at the rush hour, I figured that it was not worth it to fight for space on that train. Instead, I checked the map and made the decision to walk.

It is obviously not a short walk, but seven DLR station segments between Greenwich and Canary Wharf – which is what I was faced with – can probably be covered on foot in 45 minutes or so. The air was cold, but I was wearing my new overcoat with fur lining (it is not at all heavy), and I have always been a pretty good walker…

I did not have to walk far, though. The Greenwich foot tunnel, which has an entrance a hundred yards from the town center, ends on the other side of the Thames by the next DLR station. A station agent was looking out for people like me (it was quite reassuring to recognize that I was not the only individual who had decided on walking), waving us in with the assurances that the normal service has been restored. I was almost tempted to continue walking, just to see how well I could do it, but common sense won in the end…