20 July 2001: Erith to Petts Wood. 15 miles.
A fine sunny day, though clouding over late. Erith station is a few hundred yards from the river, with a big supermarket near the pier if you want to stock up with sandwiches. You can walk along the pier, and should, although do not expect amusement arcades; this is a working and fishing pier. From the pierhead, look over to Coldharbour Point and Purfleet, the original and current finish points to the loop, perhaps in ten days, perhaps (like me) in nigh on two years. The Point is being reclaimed from industry now, and one day will look attractive.
The Loop strikes off eastward along the Thames, with views of the Queen Elizabeth bridge ahead. Beyond Crayford Ness turn south along a tributary, the Darent, and just over a mile further on a tributary of this, the Cray. You will be beside it or close to it for more than half a day, sometimes scruffy, sometimes manicured, sometimes natural. Old Bexley makes a good half way stop, and the King’s Head proved to be one of the best pubs on the Loop. Leaving the Cray at Foots Cray, ascend through the grounds of Sidcup Place, and then cross the A20 to Scadbury Park nature reserve, leading into Petts Wood. Try to find the memorial to William Willett, campaigner for daylight saving; it is just off route. South of the wood proper, many railway lines converge. Cross them on footbridges, from the third of which a path leads off left to Petts Wood station.
5 October 2001: Petts Wood to Coombe Lane, Croydon. 13 miles.
Sunny periods with a light breeze. This is perhaps the most countrified section on the Loop, brushing the Kent boundary. It does not start like that though, with the first few miles split 50-50 between suburban housing and wood- or park-land. Things change at Farnborough village, which still looks like a village, just about: there are fields and farms hereabouts, and the Wilberforce Oak, where the reformer hatched Britain’s abolition of slavery in conversation with then prime minister Pitt the Younger. After this highlight the suburban mix intrudes once more, but there is a good broad valley to enjoy around Wickham Court, and there are wide views from Addington Hill. Coombe Lane is a tram stop with easy access to the main station of East Croydon; or do what I did and shop for outdoors gear in Croydon town centre, the rain pants I bought there lasting to 2014!
30 November 2001: Coombe Lane to Banstead. 15 miles.
Grey and overcast. South of Croydon, there is farming country once more, but even this is eclipsed by the chalk downland of Happy Valley and Farthing Downs in the vicinity of Coulsdon. There is fine open walking here, with good views all around, including some of the best distant views of central London. It ends by the busy A23 and railway lines, alas, follwed by a long pull up a dull street with a golf course to the right and although there is more open country after here it cannot match up to the downs. The final stretch to the station, in gathering gloom, passed the walls of Highdown Prison. Trains from Banstead are relatively infrequent, so check times in advance; in 2001 it was out of the Travelcard zones too, though it’s since been brought into zone 6.
18 November 2002: Banstead to Kingston upon Thames. 11 miles.
Bright and sunny. A golf course has to be traversed first (not helped by my wrong turning), and another forces a lengthy deviation through the prosaic streets of eastern Ewell, so not a good start, but the grounds of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace compensate (well, just about). From Ewell proper, you pick up the Hogsmill River at its source, a pond in Bourne Hall Park. Just as you followed the Cray upstream, you follow the Hogsmill downstream, in this case for its whole length to the Thames. Like me you may find the shops of Kingston worth a detour on your way to the station.
15 March 2002: Kingston to Hayes. 12 miles.
Rain till mid-afternoon. You set off through Bushy Park, where you might see deer. There is a road stretch before reaching the river Crane, beside which you stay for almost all the stage, with one major diversion across Hounslow Heath. Just to prove that following a river isn’t always easy, I missed a bridge after my mid-day pub in Feltham and bashed through undergrowth beside a canal. I had to work out where I had got to from the bus stops. That’s what happens without GPS. Aircraft noise is a companion around here, sometimes deafeningly so, as you are close to Heathrow airport. The stage ends beside the Grand Union Canal, of which more (much more) next time.
3 May 2002: Hayes to Moor Park. 18 miles.
A bright day, though clouding over late with thunder. For the larger part of this stretch, the Grand Union Canal is never far away, most usually adjacent to the towpath. That could make for something of a trudge, but the loop picks up the occasional diversion to add variety. The first of these, through the reclaimed ground of Stockley Country Park, is just a mile from Hayes station; not much more than a mile from its end, takes you through the pretty Little Britain Lakes and along the natural River Colne into Uxbridge. From here there is a long canal-side stretch north, through increasingly open country, split by the diversion through Denham Country Park.
You leave the canal at Harefield and rise into pleasant rolling countryside, essentially outliers of the Chiltern Hills which begin properly a few miles to the north. Bishop’s Wood Country Park takes you to the affluent suburb of Moor Park, whose tube station is half a mile off route through a neck of woodland.
5 July 2002: Moor Park to Elstree station. 13 miles.
Rainy morning, dry after lunch. Three golf courses, so it can’t be a perfect day, but much else that is interesting. Oxhey Woods provide one of the longest continuously-wooded sections, soon after which comes a good view south and the literary associations of Pinnerwood House. After golf course 2 you follow the Roman era earthwork of Grim’s Dyke for a while before passing through the grounds of Bentley Priory, HQ of Fighter Command in World War II and (in 2002, not now) still operational. I had lunch at the then Good Beer Guide-listed Vine pub, but although it’s great a pub pays attention to its beer its food was rudimentary – no puddings! Now it’s an Indo-Chinese fusion restaurant, sigh. There’s a broad pathless meadow on the way up to the M1 before you skirt round Aldenham Reservoir and cross fields with good trees north of Elstree village. The station lies across golf course 3, not in the village but the less pleasant suburb of Borehamwood; you are only passing through.
20 September 2002: Elstree station to Gordon Hill. 17 miles.
Cloudy, a few sunny intervals in the afternoon. It’s an uphill stretch beside busy roads before you can enter Scratchwood, much nicer than it sounds, and the positive highlight of the first hour; for after leaving the wood, there’s the notorious A1 stretch where you are forced south for nearly half a mile, under a subway, and north to nearly the opposite point to where you joined the near-motorway. Thankfully, this takes you into Moat Mount Open Space, and things get even better along the water meadows of the Dollis Brook, some stretches of which are as genuinely rural as the Kent stretches long ago.
Clever route planning takes you through Chipping Barnet with minimum fuss, alongside the former Underhill home of Barnet FC, and onto the site of the 1471 Battle of Barnet. Beyond Cockfosters station lies more open country, the one-time hunting grounds of Enfield Chase. Gordon Hill station lies ten downhill minutes from the loop through Hilly Fields Park.
Update from December 2015: while researching a walk for the London LDWA, I discovered a much better alternative to the roadside start out of Elstree station, across Woodcock Hill – an officially recognised village green, registered as such in 2008 to protect it from development and thus to all intents and purposes access land.
Instead of turning right onto Deacon Hill Road, cross the railway bridge and turn right onto Station Road, continuing on the path to the right of the gasholders. Then go down Coleridge Way, Auden Drive and Wordsworth Gardens; turn right into Melrose Avenue, which soon becomes Vale Avenue, and a few yards along beside a signboard to the village green (not a thing of maypoles and cricket pitches, it has to be said), go half right, slowly climbing the hill to a beacon with good views north. Veer left here, so as not to join the road too early, but don’t drop down to the houses; later, go a little right on a path that brings you out to the road barely 100m before the path heading towards Scratchwood. It’s much, much better than the official route.
29 November 2002: Gordon Hill to Chingford. 10 miles.
Grey and overcast. Barbara joined me for this stage. Down to one of the Thames’s major tributaries, the River Lea (or Lee), then up into Epping Forest. Most of the way down is alongside or near a sidestream of the Lea, Turkey Brook, but the Lea is one of London’s most industrial rivers, so it’s a case of count the houses most of the way until the river proper is reached at Enfield Lock. The Lee Enfield rifle, a British Army staple in two world wars, was manufactured in what is now converted housing just beyond the lock. There’s only a few hundred yards beside the Lea itself, just above one of the immense valley reservoirs that store so much of London’s water, until you cut up the hill after Sewardstone village onto the gravel ridge on which the larger part of Epping Forest rests. The Loop takes quite a short cut through the forest proper, but shows its variety of landscapes well nevertheless: we dipped into Chingford off-route, to visit Pole Hill. More of the forest next stage.
31 January 2003: Chingford to Harold Wood. 15 miles.
Very cold, bright and sunny, with snow lying. Sometimes you are just lucky, and the weather does nice things. On this stage I tramped long stretches through virgin snow fields or woods with whitened branches still bearing the blanket of the day before. It would be a good stage at any time – there is good quiet countryside on the London-Essex fringe – but this made it especially memorable.
The remaining Epping Forest stretch passes soon, and there’s a bit of suburb before the Lea’s parter the Roding is crossed, and then alas road up into the posh suburb of Chigwell. Things get more rural, including a pretty churchyard scene at Chigwell Row, after which you enter Hainault Forest, far less of which now remains than Epping: one had parliamentary protection in Victorian times, the other did not. Next comes the valley of another south-flowing river, the Rom, which may surprise you by its quietness, and the beautiful woods of Havering Country Park before the village of Havering-atte-Bower – whose pub landlord was the only one of all the landlords on the Loop to recognise me as a Loop walker. After another two miles of ruralness, you meet the vast Council estate of Harold Hill, but the cunning route planners take you between houses beside a little brook.
19 April 2003: Harold Wood to Coldharbour Point. 12 miles (to Purfleet on 9 October 2014, additional two miles).
Overcast, occasional light rain, a little brighter at the end. The ‘little brook’ joined at Harold Hill is in fact the last of the loop planner’s sleights of hand. It becomes the Ingrebourne, another Thames tributary, followed like the Hogsmill from source to Thames with little diversion, such as bits of Hornchurch. The country park on the site of Hornchurch RAF station will one day take you all the way to Rainham, but reclamation work on a landfill site is still (2009) ongoing, so there is an untidy road mile to Rainham’s still village-like centre.
Beyond the station – and, in 2003, the trackbed that would become the Channel Tunnel rail line – it’s walking for the devoted only, through bleak industrial land, until the Thames is rejoined, a river to transcend any surroundings. Spend some moments at Coldharbour Point, gazing out to Erith pier, which seems close enough to hop across to. Frustratingly, I had to return to Rainham for onward transport; doing so, I met a couple of Loop walkers, wondering if the two-mile continuation to Purfleet was yet open; but the answer is no longer no. I was able to walk the new stage on in initial research for my forthcoming London book for Cicerone press, which will include Rainham Marshes, just before the new finish, an important nesting site for migrating birds.