Saturday 4 June 2016

London LOOP - Day 10

Enfield Lock Station to Noak Hill

18.25 miles

Since the flurry of activity earlier in the year, walking opportunities have been somewhat curtailed by a heavy workload and other commitments. But life can’t all be about business: getting back on the trail is a necessity we can’t ignore, and with a busy summer schedule looming and a new long-distance project on the horizon, the business in hand was that of completing the London LOOP.

Sadly, we weren’t able to devote the whole weekend to walking, so we will have to do the final miles another day. But we had enough time made a big day of it, ending weary and aching after the longest walk of the year so far – physically tired but mentally relaxed being the ideal antidote to overwork.

An early morning rail and tube journey deposited us at Enfield Lock Station just after 9.00am, where the first objective to overcome was to negotiate the railway line between busy crossing barriers.

Section 18 of the LOOP runs from Enfield Lock Station to Chingford, and despite an unprepossessing start this section – indeed the whole day – had plenty of rural charm to offer. So much so, in fact, that the route itself barely passed anything remotely capable of dispensing refreshments for hours at a time.

Enfield Lock on the River Lea Navigation

After re-joining the LOOP beside the Turkey Brook, we crossed the bridge over busy Mollison Avenue to arrive at Enfield Lock itself, lock number 13 on the River Lea Navigation located in the Lea Valley Regional Park near the site of the disused Royal Small Arms Factory where the famous Lee Enfield rifle (stalwart weapon of the Boer War, WWI and WWII) was once made.

May blossom, Sewardstone Marsh Nature Reserve

Leaving Enfield Lock, the route heads out into open countryside as it weaves its way through Sewardstone Marsh Nature Reserve and climbs into the hills beyond, from where there are extensive views to be had across two reservoirs to central London.

Epping Forest is London’s largest green space – an area of ancient woodland and formerly a Royal forest used for hunting. It provides recreational opportunities for many of the local residents – including, if history be true, the kind of recreation favoured by Dick Turpin and other notable Highwaymen.

I have to admit, though, that besides the above, I can’t recall ever having set foot in it before, and knew almost nothing about it other than that gleaned from the lyrics of the Genesis song The Battle of Epping Forest. In real life, it is actually rather lovely.

Passing through the grounds of Gilwell Park, home of the Scout Association HQ, we emerged on Yardley Hill, dropping down to climb again into Hawk Wood and walk through the trees beside Chingford Golf Course. After a short stop for drinks and snacks, a brief walk along a horse ride brought us out to Chingford Plain and the edge of the town at the end of Section 18.

Section 19 began with a short rise to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge – apparently the only timber-framed hunting lodge left standing in England, and from where there were extensive views to be had over Epping Forest and Chigwell Plain – and a walk beneath ancient Oaks as we made our way towards Buckhurst Hill.

By now, the thin cloud cover of the early morning had burnt away; the sun broke through, and day was warming nicely. Sunscreen was applied – the first of the year.

At Buckhurst Hill, a cricket match was in the throes of getting underway. It was tempting to sit and watch, but we had other concerns: leaving the village, we headed out into the countryside once more, descending into Roding Valley on a green lane between trees. The rural idyll was somewhat shattered by the prison-camp architecture of the bridge over the Central line.

Looking out over Roding Valley from Buckhurst Hill

After negotiating a few residential streets, we re-entered green space (Roding Valley Meadows Nature Reserve) skirted a large lake (originally excavated to provide gravel for the nearby M11) spotted a Little Egret fishing in the shallows of the River Roding and followed the road over the M11 and into Chigwell. Like Chingford before, Chigwell is an area of well-to-do housing and leafy suburbs, with much more of a village-like feel than might be expected.

Despite one or two short stretches, this section had again delivered on use of the green spaces to pick a way through the fringes of London and the Essex borderlands: the number of different forests, nature reserves and country parks traversed during the day bearing testament to this.

We began our third section of the day climbing the hill of Chigwell High Road before striking out into countryside once more. The tone of the scenery had changed, though: whereas before we were passing though forests and country parks, we were now in agricultural land – at least for a while.

We crossed fields on a path that didn’t quite seem to tally with the map or the description, but which was obvious enough on the ground and well waymarked. In general, a combination of route descriptions, maps, on-the-ground signage and common sense make following the LOOP pretty straightforward. The trickiest bits are usually those through woods riddled with a multitude of minor paths – which one to choose?

After passing the water treatment works, we reached the road in Chigwell Row, skirted the recreation ground and crossed Romford Road to enter Hainault Forest Country Park. A mazy path through scrubby growth eventually brought us to the side of lake: on the far side was a golf course and, according to the signs, a café. 

We were ready for a break, but the thought of a diversion – even a relatively short one – didn’t appeal, so we continued along the edge of a wide, grassy meadow, watching three Green Woodpeckers at play in the grass, and found a handy bench from where there were views towards Canary Wharf and The City.  

By now it was mid-afternoon. Although there was time aplenty, we had to consider our return journey options, and catching the bus at Noak Hill looked to be favourite. All sections of the LOOP begin and end at a public transport connection, but it is noticeable there are fewer options in this northeast corner than at other points on the circuit.

Soon, we were crossing another golf course, taking a winding route through Mile Plantation before emerging to farmland once more. The approach to Havering Country Park, along a horse-trodden path where deep hoof-prints had solidified into an ankle-twisting unevenness, proved uncomfortable to walk on after fourteen-or-so miles. But the walk into Havering-atte-Bower, between the giant redwood trees of Wellingtonia Avenue, definitely made up for it.

Redwood trees, Wellingtonia Avenue

The Royal Oak pub marked the end of Section 20. A drink would have been nice, but with a couple of miles or so still to go, we didn’t feel there was time for a lengthy stop. Pressing on through more farmland, we passed the distinctive Round House Farm and small patches of woodland before crossing more fields on higher ground.

Beyond Paternoster Row, we picked up a metalled lane, skirted Widdrington Farm and emerged onto Cummings Hall Lane from a path running behind attractive houses. A couple of minutes later, we were waiting at the bus stop opposite The Bear pub, weary after over 18 miles of enjoyable walking on undulating ground in surprisingly attractive countryside.

Connections back to central London worked well, and we enjoyed the rest before grabbing a bite to eat at Euston Station and catching the train home. With just one more day’s walking to go – something we will be organising in the next couple of weeks – the finish line is in sight, and there will be time to contemplate the route as a whole as well as those last few miles. 

Finishing a Long Distance route always evokes a mixture of emotions - joy at finishing, sadness at having finished. I wonder how we will feel when we meet the banks of the Thames once again?  

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