Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Climbing Forest Hill

Phwoar: as Wetherspoon's pubs go, this one's a looker.
They weren't messing about when they named Forest Hill. On the day of my inaugural visit, back in early 2016, heavy rain had transformed the eponymous peak into a fast-flowing river, sweeping up everything in its path and hurtling it towards the Overground station waiting at the bottom to swallow it all like a ravenous, open-mouthed monster. My boots never recovered from that particular incident, but my explorer's spirit did.
Fortunately the weather was marginally better for my more recent visit, a grey but mild Saturday afternoon in January -- but the hill wasn't any less steep.

Most people arrive in Forest Hill via the aforementioned Overground station. From here, it's a quick hop across the ever-lively South Circular (sounding romantic already, isn't it?) and the main hill is ahead of you. If you've got time, head south along Dartmouth Road and take a wander around the independent shops and delis before returning to the South Circ to tackle The Hill.

The Sylvan Post, a pub that used to be a Post Office, makes full use of its remnant features. It's an Antic pub, naturally.
Just a little way up the hill, take the time to veer off to the right on Havelock Walk, a mews-style back street where old meets modern, cobbles overlap with tarmac, old brick warehouses marry with modern, concrete studios. You'll still hear the rumble of the South Circular, but the combination of cobbles and street art makes it hard to tell whether you've stumbled down a north England street in the 1960s (think Billy Elliot) or the most hipster of 21st century Barcelona barrios. Different music tumbles out of the windows of each of the studios, as each artist works to their own rhythm. Best of all are the cherubs, each decorated to a different theme, hanging off of balconies and out of first floor windows of almost every property on the street,uniting them in a way that their varying architecture cannot.

A stroll down Havelock Walk
The Teapot offers a delectable (and highly Instagrammable) range of cakes, but I'm not here to tell you where to eat in the area -- there's a fab article here that does that (#cheekyplug). Worth a mention for the architecture, though, is Wetherspoon's -- The Capitol. I'll leave you to make up your own mind about the culinary offerings, but this hulking beast of Art Deco magnificence (top picture) opened as a cinema in the 1920s. The inside stays as true to its cinematic heritage as the outside does, short of having an actual cinema screen on the bar. If you like the look of it, make haste -- it may or may not be closing soon.

Onwards and upwards .Shortly after passing Sainsbury's on your right, the hill seems to plateau out, but don't be fooled -- the climb continues around that bend ahead of you. You'll pass an Esso garage should you need refuelling of a different kind, and then you'll see it. The clock tower. The holy grail. The Horniman:

The museum sits at the peak of the hill.
 The Horniman Museum is the gem in Forest Hill's crown, and is one of my favourite London museums for several reasons; it's free (although donations are encouraged); it has all manner of animal and natural history artefacts; it does wonderful temporary exhibitions (dinosaurs and nature photography being two of my recent favourites); there's an excellent farmers' market on Saturdays; it's only 30 minutes walk scaling the sheer cliff face from my flat; but best of all are the grounds. Fields and manicured gardens and farm animals all blend together in a little pocket of nature overlooking London. It's like perching on a fluffy, green cloud, looking down over the city and beyond.

The bandstand sits at the centre of the Horniman's gardens; note the London skyline to the left.
Ever been to Forest Hill? Know somewhere decent that I've missed? Let me know in the comments.

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