Setting a target
Laziness can be a
bit of a curse. You put off things for
trivial reasons. Even things that you
really enjoy get left to one side. So,
having reached the age of 75 at the end of 2016, to ensure that laziness would
not take over, it was time to set a walking goal for 2017. Walking is my favourite pastime.
A number of years
ago we had walked a stretch of the North Downs Way – about 50 miles from
Guildford in Surrey to Wrotham in Kent – that follows the high ground to the
south of London. It was a great walk taking five separate days over
a period of three months. In the course of the walks, we climbed Box
Hill, looked down on Winston Churchill’s long-time home at Chartwell and had
great views northwards over London and southward over Surrey and Sussex to the
South Downs. Key to the success of the walk was the public transport that
got us to the start of each section and brought us home from the end.
A bit of exploration
of maps and guidebooks soon identified an excellent candidate for the 2017
project. A bit more detailed study and the London LOOP, or to give it its
full name the London Outer Orbital Path, became the target. The walk
covers about 150 miles and circumnavigates London from Erith on the south bank
of the Thames in Kent, to Purfleet on the opposite north bank in Essex.
It is entirely within the other orbital route, the London Orbital Motorway,
otherwise known as the M25, and seeks to use greenbelt wherever
possible. Also, and very importantly, the route has been adopted by TfL
(Transport for London) who have produced a series of twenty-four guides
describing the route in detail and showing the transport links to get to and
from every part of the LOOP. An added bonus would be provided
by our London Freedom Passes that would give us free
transport throughout our adventures.
A mid-term report
It is now nearly four months into the project and it’s
really going very well. That is except
for a period near the beginning when Margaret had fallen victim to the ills of
winter and I had to do a few sections by myself. We have passed the halfway point and
completed the whole of the route north of the River Thames. So, it’s 95 miles down and 55 miles to go.
In real terms, the journey has been substantially
longer. To get to the start of a section
and back from the end involves buses, trains and the underground and a fair
amount of extra walking. That extra
walking has probably added another twenty-five miles to the total so far. By the time we have finished, we’ll have
walked nearer to 200 miles!!
So, for the past few months, we’ve been walking the trail
round the outskirts of London to the north of the River Thames. It’s been a fascinating amble. When you live in a big city you don’t realise
how much green land there is and how much of it is accessible. We’ve walked through a Royal Park, followed a
tributary of the Thames as it meanders through urban woodland and skirts around
Heathrow airport, passed numerous stately homes (some now just a memory) and
walked along the banks of the stream where Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly laid
down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to cross the water.
To get to the start of a section or to get back from the end
of it, we have been to places that were just names before, but that now take on
a totally different perspective. Cockfosters
has always been a distant station at the end of the Piccadilly Line underground
route. I had no real idea where it was
as those iconic London Underground maps are perfect for route finding but give
no real idea of where a place actually is.
Now, I know that Cockfosters is a fairly swanky suburb in north London
with the London Loop trail passing the station entrance. Similarly, with Hainault, a mysterious place
on a strange loop at the eastern end of the Central Line which we passed
through on the train back from Chigwell.
Harefield Hospital is a hospital of world renown in the field of Heart
and Lung surgery, to the west of London.
Little did I know that the bus linking the end of section 12 on the
towpath of the Grand Union Canal to Uxbridge underground station, passes right
through the hospital grounds. And as for
Chigwell, of “Birds of a Feather” fame, you could see Sharon and Tracey behind
every set of net curtains and Dorien flitting from one pillared house to the next. This was at the end of section 19.
We’ve been impressed by the level of maintenance of the
trail, mostly excellent but very occasionally a disappointment. One example was where the trail was using a
designated public footpath across farm fields in a part of Hertfordshire. The fields are attached to horses’ stables
and the horses had been allowed to congregate close to a crucial style. It was still winter and the London clay was
very claggy. The horses had turned the
area around the style into a no-go area.
It only needed a small area to be fenced off and it would have been ok
to cross. Instead the only alternative
was across another field and through the actual stable yard. The farmer was, to say the least, unwelcoming.
On another day, in the Borough of Havering, what should have
been a very picturesque stream in a wooded valley between areas of housing, had
been allowed to become a rubbish dump and a drinking den, judging by the number
of discarded beer cans. The squalor was
only off-set by the presence of a beautiful white egret. There must have been a few small fish or
frogs in the stream.
Following the trail is generally straightforward but from
time to time we have had to retrace our steps or, as on a couple of occasions,
realised we had taken a different route and re-joined the official trail a
little further along. This has been
caused by missing signs or, in one place, where the sign has been knocked over
and it was impossible to work out which route to take.
Throughout we have used both the Transport for London
internet based guides (https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/loop-walk)
and the National Trails Guidebook for the London LOOP. These are invaluable for keeping the walker
on track – more or less – and also for highlighting the points of interest
along the way. They are not
infallible. In a big city things are
changing all the time. At one point, one
guide said to cross a field to a small hut, the other said to cross a field to
small barn. In fact, the hut/barn, we’ll
never know which, has been demolished. A
constant problem for writers of guides.
Along the way, we have had to cross many major arterial
roads such as the M1, M11, M4, M40 and A1, all by tunnels or bridges. Much more scary, was the A12 Colchester dual
carriageway where the official trail crosses a very busy section. Only the traffic lights, ¼ mile or so away in
both direction, caused welcome short breaks in the continuous traffic
flow. The A30 proved to be a real
barrier and could only be crossed by making a 1mile diversion via a distant
junction with a pedestrian crossing. But
apart from those few encounters with the road system of the capital, the route
was well separated from through traffic.
Walking the LOOP
On the 17th January, the project started at the
bus stop opposite our flat in Richmond from where we travelled the five or so
miles to Kingston-upon-Thames. This is
the closest the LOOP gets to home. The
route is almost a complete circle broken only by the River Thames estuary to
the east of the city. The official
starting point is on the south bank of the river at Erith and the finish is on
the north shore at Purfleet. Our route
would take us first along the longer, north-of-the-Thames part of the LOOP. Later on, we would tackle the southern
Our starting point was at Kingston Bridge where the route
crosses the Thames to the west of London.
Section 9 (out of the total of 24), runs from Kingston Bridge to Hatton
Cross, on the south-eastern perimeter of Heathrow Airport. It’s about 8 ½ miles in length, rather more
than we wanted to do in one afternoon. We
knew we would be able to break off at a number of points along the way where
the LOOP crosses a bus route or suburban rail route, so we set out knowing that
if time or inclination faded, an escape route would be nearby.
And so, section after section, we have progressed towards
our goal of conquering the London LOOP.
In January, the weather was fine but February and March were wet. Long sections of the walk were through claggy
London clay. Boot cleaning was a serious
activity at the end of each day.
Here’s a random selection of some of the most interesting
bits of the walk.
Early on in the project, two days were spent
skirting Heathrow Airport and weaving through industrial estates that are an
integral part of the Heathrow infrastructure.
Much of this was along the banks of the River Crane. To the north of the airport, and dwarfed by
junction 3 of the M4 motorway, the LOOP passes St Dunstan’s. There has been a church here since Saxon
times. The current church dates back to
the 15th century. This was,
and still is, the family church of the Berkeleys, an English aristocratic
family of very long pedigree. It’s
constructed of an interesting combination of flint and brick. There is a memorial plaque to the late, great
English comedian Tony Hancock and to his mother Lucie Lilian Sennett, who is
buried in the churchyard. Such a
fascinating corner in the midst of 20th/21st century hustle and bustle.
A little further north, the LOOP follows, for
the most part, the banks of the Grand Union Canal through Hayes, West Drayton
and Uxbridge, then onto Harefield. It
makes for flat walking but underfoot can be very muddy. It was along this stretch, at Uxbridge, that
we came upon the General Eliott pub.
This was an excellent, unpretentious, canal-side pub with a good
selection of beers and superb home-cooked food.
A lady, maybe the landlady, gave us a small piece of paper with a
hand-written menu. We both chose the
spaghetti carbonara. It was the best we
have ever tasted.
Grimsdyke House was built for WS Gilbert, of
Gilbert and Sullivan fame, in fine woodland on the edge of Harrow Weald
Common. The trail meanders through the
rhododendrons and beside the ponds, in the extensive grounds. WS Gilbert loved the place so much that he is
recorded as having declared that he would like to die there on a summer’s day. Poignantly that is what happened. He drowned in one of the ponds whilst
rescuing a young female house-guest.
Beyond High Barnet are the picturesque villages
of Hadley Green and Monken Hadley. It
was here in 1471 that the English Civil War Battle of Barnet took place. This was a decisive battle as it was here
that Warwick, the kingmaker, was slain.
Just past the church, there stands the Sir Roger Wilbraham’s Almshouses
built, as it says, for “six decayed housekeepers”. Interesting how the meaning of words changes
On the stretch between Cockfosters and Enfield
Lock, the LOOP follows, for a time, Turkey Brook. This is named after the hamlet, now a suburb,
of Turkey Street. The “Turkey” is
nothing to do with the bird or the country.
The name derives from the name of the landed family Toke who built some
houses known as Tokestreete, now Turkey Street.
Anyway, I digress. Maidens
Bridge, over Turkey Brook, is reputed to be the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh
spread his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth could cross without
getting her feet wet. However
questionable this story may be, it is known that the Queen loved to stay at
Elsynge Palace (long since demolished) which was across the brook on the far
side of the big ponds that the LOOP skirts.
After crossing Enfield Lock the LOOP briefly
follows the River Lea down the Lea Valley.
Here you can see the workers’ cottages of the Royal Small Arms Factory,
the home of the famous Lee Enfield rifles used by the British Army in the Boer
War and in the two World Wars. Ahead there
is a high embankment. This is part of
the enclosure of the massive King George’s Reservoir, nearly two miles long and
named after King George V. The
reservoir, along with its neighbouring William Girling Reservoir, supply over
one quarter of London’s fresh water.
To the east of the reservoirs, the LOOP passes Gilwell
Park, home of the scouting movement. As
a comment on modern day obsessions, some well-founded, with security and
unsavoury intruders, the campsites are now enclosed by high wire fences. Gone are the days of camping in semi-wild
fringes of Epping Forest.
After leaving Chingford and crossing part of the
Chingford Plain, the path comes to three large buildings. The first one is the Royal Forest Hotel. The last one is the weather-boarded Butlers
Retreat, now a tearoom of which we took advantage. In the middle is the 16th century
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. Now a
museum, it is where the queen would come to view hunting parties in Epping
Forest. The upper floors now have
windows but in Elizabeth’s day they were open balconies.
Shortly before reaching Chigwell, in the middle
of sports fields and parkland, lies a substantial lake with no name. It was created in the 1970’s when gravel was
extracted for the construction of the nearby M11 motorway. Today it is an attractive expanse of water in
the Roding Valley Meadows Nature Reserve.
And so to Chigwell. Earlier in the walk, the LOOP passes through
the Moor Park Private Estate, built by Lord Leverhulme and Lever Brothers in
the 1920s, 1930s and, with a break for World War II, in the 1950s. The houses are all built on individual plots
with ornamental hedges forming the boundaries between one plot and the
next. As the original sales brochure
stated “One may enjoy quietude and seclusion (without isolation} in an old
English park”. Today the large houses
sell for in excess of £2m. The cars in
the driveways are usually top-of-the-range Mercedes and, to a lesser extent,
BMWs. There are classy SUVs but not as
many as you would see in other posh London suburbs. Most houses have two or three cars. All very refined and expensive.
In contrast, Chigwell sets out to be posh but misses the
mark. For a start, the houses are mostly
very close together with solid walls or fences between them. There is excessive use of over-elaborate decorative
effects. Typical are large colonnades in
front of standard, fairly large estate brick-built houses. Mock-Tudor is much in evidence. As for the cars, SUVs dominate along with
flashy versions of Mercedes and BMWs.
Showing off wealth, or access to money, is obviously important
here. “Quietude and seclusion” it is
You can’t go far in England without finding a
connection to King Henry VIII. To the east
of Havering-atte-Bower there had been a royal palace occupied originally by
Edward the Confessor and much later by Henry VIII. The latter had a house built for his two
daughters Mary and Elizabeth. PIrgo (now spelt Pyrgo) has long since been
demolished and all that remains are a pair of elaborate iron gate posts. The LOOP passes through this gateway
And finally, to the Concrete Barges on the shore
of the Thames Estuary near Rainham.
These barges were built during WWII for Mulberry Harbour in France to
support the D-Day Landings. They were
then brought back to the Thames to add to the defences of London. However, they never found a proper function
and have lain on the banks of the Thames estuary ever since. Despite being there for over seventy years
they show no sign of disintegrating.
So, it is now the middle of May and we’ve reached the Thames
again. Roughly two thirds of the LOOP
completed and the summer ahead of us. Must find out how to get to Erith for the next