Urban hiking, London edition

After a lovely Christmas in Malmesbury with the family of our daughter’s partner, we have been back in London for two weeks. That’s given us lots of time to walk in many parts of the city, and from one neighborhood to another.

One of my favourite statues in London: the boy and the dolphin in Hyde Park. This piece makes an appearance in Mary Poppins (the first book).
One of my favourite statues in London: the boy and the dolphin in Hyde Park. This piece makes an appearance in Mary Poppins (the first book).

Among its other advantages – fascinating history, varied historical and modern architecture, human-scale streets – London has wonderful parks that beckon to the urban hiker. On this visit, we’ve walked through Hyde Park and adjoining Kensington Gardens; Southwark Park; West Ham Park; and a multitude of smaller parks and squares throughout the city.

All these parks are filled with huge old trees, beds of varied plants (and some that are flowering now: hellebores, daphne, snowdrops and cyclamens, to name just a few), and wildlife. Yes, wildlife! This morning, we saw a fox in Southwark Park. It was climbing across the top of a vine-filled arbor, trying to get away from the humans staring at it. I wish I had thought to get a photo, but I was too excited to think about grabbing my phone.

Aside from the fox, we’ve seen swans, a variety of different ducks and other water birds, and one day in Kensington Gardens, we saw a flock of bright-green parakeets. There’s an amusing article in Wikipedia about the feral parakeets of southeast England, especially the section about the origin of these urban parakeets.

For your enjoyment, here are a few photos from our walks.

Feral parakeets
Feral rose-ringed parakeets in Kensington Gardens.
Lots of birds
Varied water fowl in Hyde Park.
Swarming swans on Long Water in Hyde Park.

Another big advantage of urban hiking in London: If it gets too cold or wet, you can pop down into the Underground or get on a bus. Personally, I like the buses better, especially riding on the top level. You can see the progression from one neighborhood to another, especially when you travel along one long road. You proceed from a high street with its own characteristic shops, clinics, town hall and more, on to a section of housing (usually flats, since you’re on a main road). Then you enter a new high street, with its own set of shops, restaurants and historic buildings. Speaking of historic buildings, the perspective you get from the top level of a bus is wonderful: You see the ornamentation up close, in a way you never can from street level.

Another big advantage of London walking: endless cafes where you can get a hot drink and a snack. Central London and the wealthier neighborhoods have all been taken over by chains like Pret A Manger, Costa, Leon, Caffè Nero, Patisserie Valerie and more. And there are lots of small coffee shops and bakeries. My favorites, however, are the smaller, humbler, independently owned cafes – the ones that lack trendy décor and ingredients, and just serve really strong coffee and tea, plus a couple of simple sandwiches and cakes. I particularly enjoyed Coffee Hut in Green Street, near where we lived in 1982. It has truly great coffee, probably the best I’ve had in London, and its toasted sandwiches are good, too. I also like the Southwark Park Café, where we’ve stopped for nice strong tea and a simple cake. It’s not fancy, but it’s pleasant and relaxing to sit and chat with the locals on a wintry morning.

Another day, another walk: secret temples, an owl and more

View of Arthanarisvarar Temple from the viewing rock below Skandashram
View of Arthanarisvarar Temple from the viewing rock below Skandashram, very zoomed in. It’s the blue-grey building with the cream-colored tower, perched on the rock & surrounded by trees. Photo by Alan.

From the viewing rock on the way to Skandashram, we kept noticing a small temple to the east of the big Annamalaiyar temple in town. It’s located on top of a subhill on the southeast flank of Annamalai, and any approaches to it are mysteriously shrouded in dense foliage.

Picture of the back of a truck with decorative painting. The central image is of Arunachala with the sacred fire on the top, and the temple in front. Sound Horn is below.
The central image is of Arunachala with the sacred fire on the top, and the temple in front.

We decided to set out for that temple, and see if we could find a way up. No use trying to find it from the main road, so we walked through the dense residential neighborhoods south of the mountain, wending our way from one small street to the next, doing our best to avoid the main road completely (which is incredibly noisy, by the way. Have I mentioned yet that every commercial vehicle says “sound horn” on the back of it — and they all do?).

We very much enjoyed our meandering wander through all the little streets on our way to the temple site. As always, people were friendly and happy to greet us, and as we got closer, to keep directing us to the temple. We began to feel a little embarrassed because we were walking through lanes so narrow that we felt we were walking through people’s front or back yards. But we just kept greeting people in a friendly way (it’s amazing the smiles you get when you say “vanakkam” with hands folded, and people kindly directed us.

At last we got to an uphill street that dead-ended at a steep slope. There was a path laid, fortunately, with stone steps. The steps were rough, and covered in various kinds of building debris, but they worked nonetheless.

As we walked around to the front, we realized that this is a newly remodeled temple on the site of a much older one. Sure enough, once we got to the front, there was a placard on one wall noting that the temple, dedicated to Sri Arthanarisvarar, was remodeled by the Sri Ramanasramam in (I think) 2004.

It’s a pretty temple, with the same kind of restrained decoration that’s characteristic of the Ramana ashram (sculptures of gods and other beings on the tower aren’t painted in bright colors, just a cream-colored paint). We arrived as a Brahmin priest was making offerings. It was pleasant to stand and watch him, a breeze drying the sweat that had collected under our shirts (did I mention we are at about 88 percent humidity and it’s about 34ºC?).

The Arthanarisvarar temple, recently remodeled by the Ramana ashram.
The Sri Arthanarisvarar temple, recently remodeled by the Ramana ashram.

We exited the temple grounds via the official entrance, heading down stone stairs that wound around. There is a beautiful view from a rock platform, with the eastern and western gopurams of the Annamalaiyar temple rising above the rest of the town.

View of the eastern and western gopurams of the Annamalaiyar temple, viewed from below the Sri Arthanisvarar temple.
The two tall grey towers are the eastern and western gopurams of the Annamalaiyar temple. Photo by Alan.

I was admiring the view, and the huge old tree in front of us, when I suddenly spotted a small owl. Really small, at least compared to the size I expect an owl to be; maybe a little smaller than the pigeons we have in the Pacific Northwest. Using the zoom on Alan’s camera, I was finally able to get an image that wasn’t blurry. Thank you, owl, for not moving too much, or flying away too quickly.

Photo of a little owl (athene noctua)
I was so excited to spot this little owl hidden in a tree about 30 feet away (yes,”little owl” is its real name; also athene noctua). Alan gave me his camera with the good zoom, which is why I was able to identify it later on, with the help of Wikipedia.

There was still more to see as we continued to wind our way down the long steep hill. We spotted a tiny old brick temple on top of a huge boulder. We see these around a bit, including one in the neighborhood where we’re living. They tend to be perched on such steep and difficult-to-climb boulders, that we wonder how anyone managed to haul the bricks up to build them. This little temple has an additional wrinkle. Yes, there are steps carved into the huge boulder, but you have to crawl through a tunnel built right in front of the boulder to reach those steps. I considered it, but then thought about snakes and reconsidered.

There are more surprises as you continue to descend.

Now we know how to reach the temple from the main road, but I’m not sure we’d do it that way. It was more fun going the unofficial route.

We headed back towards the temple, enjoyed a snack and walked back to the Ramana ashram and then home. All in all, we spent about four hours wandering around. It never seems like that long, but there’s so much to look at and enjoy, and so many people to stop and (try to) chat with.

And then, this little boy.


Urban hiking in Sherman Oaks

We spent two weeks with my mother before leaving for India. I’ve always enjoyed staying in her house, located on the north side of the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, just below Mulholland. This is where I grew up from age 13 onwards, and one of the things I loved most about living there was being able to walk up into the hills across from my parents’ house. From the ridge at the top, you can look across the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel mountains. On a clear day, it’s simply spectacular.

Valley view from top of canyon

As you can see, the view of the mountains was obscured on this visit, partly by smoke from a huge fire that was visibly burning on the slopes as we landed.  Of course, we also had the usual pre-rain San Fernando Valley smog muddying the horizon.

Sign for Deervale-Stone Canyon Park

Nonetheless, we started every day with a morning walk up to Deervale-Stone Canyon Park . That’s been for some years the official designation of the wild hilly land where I used to go when I was a teenager, and it’s as nice now as it was decades ago. The hills are covered with long grasses, beautiful wild plants I mostly don’t know the names of, plus California oaks and wild walnut trees. It’s a real wildlife refuge, too, inhabited by deer, rabbits, rattlesnakes, hawks and eagles.

You can walk straight into the park from Deervale Place, but there’s also an unmarked entrance between two houses on Crisp Canyon Road. Either way gets you eventually onto a trail that runs along the top of a ridge, with views on both sides.

View from Deervale ridge (Alan)

Parts of the trail are extremely steep, and the dry dust is slippery, so it helps if you have decent tread on your shoes. Hiking poles probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, and we have seen a couple of people using these.

There are always many interesting plants along the ridge, and even this late in the year, a number were still in bloom.


What we enjoyed most was walking one of the box canyons below the ridge trail, and then bushwhacking our way up the steep, soft-soiled slopes to reach the ridge trail. We saw a lot of wildlife in the morning stillness of the canyons: round little bunnies (so cute!), plenty of hawks, and the occasional eagle soaring majestically.

We were thrilled one morning to spot an owl flying across the canyon. It landed in a tree right above us, close enough for us to admire its cat-ear-like pointed tufts, and watch its head swivel as it surveyed the scene. As we watched, a large pale bird landed on a nearby branch, and began making a loud sound. We wondered if it was trying to drive the owl away, and sure enough, the owl soon took off, with the other bird close on the owl’s tail. Suddenly the pursuer rose, and dove down on the owl, pecking at its back. It was a surprising sight. During our regular walks through Sellwood Park over the years, we’ve seen small birds pursuing eagles, trying to drive them out of the park. But this encounter between the owl and other bird happened just above our heads, and the attack was startling.

We traversed the slopes of the canyons carefully, because of the loose earth and occasional thick growth. Here’s Alan scrambling along a deer trail that ran across a sharp slope. We like to refer to it as bushwhacking.


The slopes hills are covered with golden dry grasses at this time of year, as well as mature trees. But it’s very green the in the folds of the canyons, where water collects.

At the top of the canyon that leads off Madelia, we discovered a lovely wide basin of green, filled with birds flitting from one shrub to another, eating from grass seed heads and calling to one another.

In the basin

People being what they are, this lovely wild basin was edged with trash – crushed beer cans, food packaging, the usual stuff that I usually avoid including in the frame.  But there were also a few discarded items that had gained a certain patina over the years.


After living in Portland for the past 29 years, where we have not only many beautiful hikes within an hour’s drive away, but also a nature preserve just 20 minutes’ walk from our house, we felt lucky to start every day with a walk into wild areas, where we could fill our socks with grass-seed heads and our eyes with views of mountains, wild birds and blue skies.