Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been dallying with danger so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 585: go for a woodland walk.
‘Fuck me, they’re going fast,’ said my friend as we watched the cars tear past. We were on the edge of the treeline, only a foot away from the hurtling vehicles. In front of us, two lanes of traffic roared by at ferocious speed. There were no gaps at all in the wall of rushing metal, glass and rubber. But we were desperate men, bleeding from a hundred cuts and near-enough naked, our clothes were so badly torn. Whatever happened, we had to get away from these woods.
We had been trying to do the Green Chain walk, a route through the suburbs of south-east London where, according to the promotional literature, ‘The greener side of the capital is just waiting for you.’ The walk also claims to give access to a ‘50-miles of signposted footpaths’. But we had found only one of these signposted footpaths. It had been just this morning, only few hours ago, when we had naively cheered upon finding the signpost. It had invited us to enter a tunnel of trees where dappled light played on silver birch and ash and the air whirred with the rustle of a thousand leaves turning in the breeze.
We tripped happily along through sylvan glades and shaded dells, not worrying at first when the open woodland grew thicker. But the path did not trip happily on with us, a fact we discovered when we were brought to a halt by a wall of green. Not the playful dappled green of before, but a dark and sinister green, prickling with briar and thorn. ‘The path’s gone,’ said my friend.
‘Easy enough,’ I reassured him. ‘We’ll just go back the way we came.’ We turned around to do just that, but all that met our gaze was a second wall of giant nettles and dense bramble.
‘We must have come the other way.’
‘Which other way?’ my friend asked, the first tremor of panic in his voice.
‘Well, we set off from Eltham in the south, so we need to go north.’
‘But which way is north?’
‘The sun is in the south, so we go the opposite way.’ We plunged through branches and spike-covered fronds that grabbed and tore at us until we were brought to a halt again.
‘What do we do?’ My friend was fully disconcerted now.
‘Listen for the sound of traffic,’ I cried. ‘This is London, there must be a road soon.’ And with that we disappeared into the tearing foliage.
An hour later we emerged, at first exultant that our ordeal was over, and then utterly despondent to find that the stream of vehicles meant it wasn’t over. It was too much for my walking partner, and there by the A207 he lost it (though I wonder now if he had ever had it), making wild hand gestures and shouting at the traffic, employing language that could only be described as bad.
‘Leave it,’ I pleaded. ‘It will do no good – you can’t stop the traffic.’
But he could. A battered people carrier came to halt right by us.
The windows were down, and I could see that there were four people in the car, all males under 30. The two men in the front were wearing ferociously tight white Tshirts, grey sweatpants and trainers. Their eyes were black with rage and hatred; their whole look suggested ‘Balkan death squad on its way to work’. Which was frightening, but not as frightening as the two men in the back of the car, who modelled similarly no-nonsense outfits and demeanours but were actually getting out of the people carrier and heading towards us.
Sometime later, with the blood of fresh scratches on our skin and our shirts reduced to mere tatters, we fell to the ground amid bramble and briar.
‘So,’ my friend gasped as he struggled for breath, ‘which way is south?’
Read more of Michael’s ill-advised adventures here.