London is well known to be one of the major cities best supplied with green space within its very own boundaries. From Hampstead Heath to Hyde Park, Wanstead Flats to Hounslow Heath, locals are fortunate in having good quality open space near their doorstep.
But the reputation of London’s urban sprawl is such that the countryside beyond its immediate boundaries is less well-regarded. Anyone walking the London Loop – an acronym for London Outer Orbital Path – will soon recognise how undeserved that reputation is.
Yes, the odd scruffy suburb is there, and the struggling industrial zone; this is a living city, with all its pressures; but there are tranquil rivers, open downland, and any number of secret woodlands too. Any Londoner could walk the Loop from their home, so thorough is the public transport network; and that is what I set out to do over a succession of work-free Fridays starting in 2001.
To the detriment of this website, I originally walked the Loop without camera, so there are no photographs from this time. However, I’m revisiting many of its best bits for my forthcoming Cicerone Press London title, publication 2017, so I’m adding some photography to these pages as I do.
Round and round the basin
Although it forms a loop around London, it is not a circular path, as the ends don’t join. It is generally walked clockwise, and starts in the riverside south-east London suburb of Erith. From here you can see 150 miles – for half a mile across the river is the (original) finish, Coldharbour Point on the Rainham Marshes. Centuries ago a ferry linked the two; these days we take a longer way round. (Note for non-Londoners: the river = Thames unless explicitly stated otherwise.) Since I walked it, the finish point has moved a few miles further east, to the small Essex town of Purfleet; I returned to 2014 to finish the job.
Most will define the Loop in terms of human geography, and why not when the rationale is a great city. It roughly traces the political boundary of London, and Travelcard zone 6; it runs a few miles inside the M25; in the north, it links the outposts of the tube. But look a little deeper and you will see the Loop’s architects have been very cunning in how they have used the underlying physical geography of the Thames basin to their advantage.The Thames itself runs more or less across the centre, though dipping in the west and splitting the route unevenly. Hayes, on the Grand Union Canal, is closer to the half way point, rather than Kingston on the Thames. The path takes the Darent and Cray tributaries south, eventually rising to chalk downland at Coulsdon, before descending by the Hogsmill river to its Thames confluence by Kingston Bridge.
The rivers Crane and Colne (and the Grand Union Canal, close to it) take us toward the edge of the Chiltern Hills at Moor Park. Across the north of London, the path travels through the succession of low hills that are familiar to train travellers out of London because the railways tunnel them. The valleys of the Lea and Roding are then crossed, with the gravel ridge of Epping Forest between them, before the Ingrebourne leads us back to the Thames.
Finding one’s way
The Loop is a ‘recreational path’, one step down from a national trail. The difference, essentially, is that one might backpack the latter but not the former. An all-zones travelcard, or Oyster, or indeed now any contactless payment card – and best of all for ‘older’ Londoners, the Freedom Pass – is a good companion on the Loop, but you are out in the open all day, most usually without immediate shelter, so the usual strictures about carrying wet-weather gear, when there is a chance of needing them, should be heeded. That said, there are many intermediate break points with good bus services or train lines, not something one gets on say the Pennine Way.
Waymarking is generally good and often impeccable. Care needs to be taken in woods and some commons especially; the Loop is not necessarily the most obvious of the various paths that might be under foot. Please try not to get lost in the bits with houses, not because they are not safe, but because they are full of garden gnomes and people washing cars, which is not what you came to see.
The Aurum Press guide to the path by David Sharp (ISBN 9781845137878, revised 2012 – quote this to any human bookseller) contains all maps, gives hints of which pair of garages to pass between, and is recommended. It was the first major route I have walked without the separate maps to hand (its partner the Capital Ring has recently joined it). But my early edition, at any rate, didn’t have a distance chart. My logs show a Loop distance of 145 miles, against the official 144, but links to stations will add a few more, and the Purfleet extension puts on another 3.4 miles.
On the web, check out the official Walk London guide to the Loop, and the London Loop pages by Mark Moxon. Both are more detailed than mine, and a useful complement to David Sharp. One point of diagreement between Moxon and me: he originally called the final stage “the worst day walk I have done … in the whole world”. Now I’m not saying it’s good, nor am I necessarily prepared to nominate a day walk that is worse. But this is London, it’s a city of all types, and it needs its Harold Hills and Ferry Lanes. To hide them from the Loop would be to deny the nature of London. And as an east Londoner myself, this patch is simply territory, full of folk memories of where I come from. To be fair, he’s entered an apologia since he first wrote this, mindful that the Purfleet extension has improved matters markedly.
I also have detailed distances and times for the walk, in two sections (pdf viewer required).
The full route is clearly marked on both OS Landranger and Explorer maps