Secret Southeast London: The Green Chain Walk

A lot of people think London is just crowded with houses and urban life; apart from the crowded green spaces in central London like Hyde Park or St. James’s Park, it is easy to see the rest of London as a sea of suburbia, and no green at all.

In fact, southeast London is full of green spaces—I’ve already documented the unique area of Oxleas Wood and Severndroog Castle, but in the more central areas of the SE postcode area, just 15 minutes outside central London on the tube, there are parks scattered everywhere, which makes walking around this part of London highly enjoyable. There are spaces, for example, where you can no longer hear the sound of busy main roads anymore, despite southeast London being littered with some of the busiest and most polluted thoroughfares in the country: the South Circular, Lewisham Way, New Cross Road.

Walking the green spaces of southeast London is easier than in any other part of London, and that’s in part due to the existence of the Green Chain Walk. The walk stretches 50 miles across the entirety of southeast London, starting at Thamesmead in the far east and ending at Nunhead Cemetary, only a few miles outside of the City of London. Having lived in various parts of southeast London over the last four years, I had seen signs for the walk everywhere—outside Overground stations, in parks, dotted around main roads—but I’d never actually looked up the route, and it remained disconnected in my head, not fully-formed. I decided that, living as I was in Forest Hill, and a section of the Green Chain passing right through the gardens of the Horniman Museum, I should finally commit to walking it. This 5.4 mile (7.8km) section of the walk is the final part of the entire route, and starts at Crystal Palace Overground station, ending at the northern entrance to Nunhead Cemetery.

Crystal Palace Park

Crystal Palace is so named for the incredible glass-and-steel structure that was built for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1854. It was three times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and tragically burned down in 1936, leaving just an empty space at the top of Crystal Palace park where it should still stand. Crystal Palace station sits right on the southern boundary of the park, and while the Green Chain trail will direct you down the shortest route through the park, if you have time it’s worth exploring a little. Especially interesting is the Dinosaur Park, a little island full of scale replicas of dinosaurs, built in 1854.

models of dinosaurs in park on sunny day green grass blue sky
The famous ‘Crystal Palace dinosaurs’
view of big tv tower in park on sunny day
The remains of the original ‘crystal palace’ front and the modern transmission tower

Leaving Crystal Palace park, follow the signs to Sydenham Wells Park, and then through a pretty suburb of Sydenham (and some of the largest houses I’ve ever seen in this area) to Sydenham Hill Wood. As pretty as this is, it’s also under one of London’s main flight paths—I thought someone was aggressively mowing the grass of the nearby golf club until I realised it was a plane flying low overhead. Ignoring this, Sydenham Hill Wood really does feel like a ‘wild’ area of London—don’t miss the remains of an old railway line that goes right through the heart of the wood, now overgrown and only the faintest reminder of a busy tourist trade that took Victorian city dwellers to the affluent suburbs of Norwood to see the aforementioned ‘Crystal Palace’.

bridge across woodland with trees surrounding and shadows
An old railway bridge in Sydenham Hill Wood

The Horniman Museum and Gardens

Now, the area became familiar—leaving the woodland you emerge in a housing estate in the upper reaches of Forest Hill, crossing the busy main road to the Horniman Museum gardens (For more on the Horniman Museum and Gardens check out a previous Secret Southeast London post). On a day like today (astonishingly warm), the gardens were filled with families, and I had to dodge prams and giddy children carrying ice cream to reach the exit at the other end of the park. Now, the trail runs through suburban streets before entering Camberwell Old Cemetery; here, I noticed a profusion of fresh flowers, something that seemed contrary to its name of ‘Old’, telling me that this cemetery was very much in use. I quickened my pace, not feeling too comfortable dawdling in a cemetery on Easter Sunday, stopping only to take a picture of the view of central London—cemeteries in this part of London all seem to have been built on hills, giving fine views of the city if you have the heart to be wandering through a cemetery with a camera.

One Tree Hill

Leaving Camberwell Old Cemetery, there are two options for routes towards Camberwell New Cemetery (unfortunately, this part of the Green Chain from the Horniman onwards does seem to be a tour of cemeteries in the area.) The quickest takes you through Brenchley Gardens, a small but pretty area of green that is wedged between housing on one side and a road on the other, but does have nice views over the rest of southeast London. The other option is much nicer, I’d say, and takes you over One Tree Hill. This woodland area is some of the oldest in southeast London, making up part of the ancient woodland that used to sit on this part of the country. Rumour has it that Queen Elizabeth I rested under an oak on the hill on her way to visit Lewisham in 1602—something that is very difficult to believe these days, as why would anyone want to visit Lewisham? This aside, the summit has one of the best views of London in the southeast, and is worth the detour.

Both these routes join back up again at the entrance to Camberwell New Cemetery, another slightly depressing place to be walking through—it’s difficult to ignore the fresh tombstones dotted about. I noticed an interesting building at the edge of the cemetery which looked almost Masonic, but turned out to just be the crematorium on the site. At the exit, turn right along Brockley Way, which is the last section of suburbia you’ll see on the Green Chain. This area of London is actually very picturesque in its suburbs (mostly because they’re home to either families or millennials with good jobs), but I imagine walking the Green Chain through the suburbs further out of London might be a different experience.

Nunhead Cemetery

I was starting to tire of cemteries by this point, but I had heard good things about Nunhead Cemetery, one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries in London, a list I feel shouldn’t exist, or at least certainly not with that title. In fact, these are seven Victorian cemeteries that were opened 1833 and 1841, a time when London’s population was rising beyond control and parish churchyards were becoming overcrowded. I had thought Nunhead might reflect this rushed, urgent need for cemetery space, but the fact that it’s also a local nature reserve changes things, and makes it more of a wood with odd graves than a graveyard as such.

cemetery in the sunlight with path through woods
Walking through Nunhead Cemetery

The cemetery covers 52 acres, with the Green Chain walk only taking in a small part of the whole area. I tried to keep to the trail as much as possible, but the gravel pathways leading off into dense woodland are very inviting, and lead you past overturned and lopsided graves, which you’re explicitly told not to wander too close to as the ground is unstable. At the centre of the cemetery is a ruined Anglican chapel, destroyed by fire in the 1970s. A lock on the door prevents you from getting too close, but it’s still a pretty sight, with the empty stained glass windows looking out onto the surrounding woodland and the non-existent roof completely open to the elements.

looking inside ruined church on sunny day
The ruined church in Nunhead Cemetery

If I’d had more time, I would have explored the whole area of the cemetery—unlike the other cemeteries along the Green Chain, this is a popular place for a Sunday walk, with families coming in groups to walk their dogs or just stroll in the woodland. Overall, the entirety of this part of the Green Chain is worth a wander, taking you through some of the more interesting parts of southeast London. I’d recommend doing it in stages to get the most out of the route—stopping for longer in Forest Hill, for example, to take in the Horniman Museum, or spending longer wandering around Nunhead Cemetery. From Nunhead, it’s possible to catch a direct train from either Nunhead station or Brockley Overground station (a 10 minute walk from the cemetery) back into London: in Brockley, you’ll find a host of cozy coffee shops near the station, so it’s also worth a stop if you have the time. Overall, the Green Chain is a hidden bit of the southeast, but one that proves that London isn’t all chaos and noise.

row of coffee shops with people sitting outside in sun
Coffee shops outside Brockley station

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