Tuesday 14 June 2016

London LOOP Index Page

The London LOOP is a 150-mile circuit of the capital, split into 24 sections. The route is devised and overseen by Transport for London (TfL) who publish free, downloadable notes and maps on their website:

All sections begin and end at public transport connections, making it pretty easily accessible and customisable to your preferred distance by combining two or more sections.

In essence, it is the “M25 of walking routes”, and whilst definitely an urban walk, it works hard to keep to the greener parts of the London fringes, linking Royal Parks, play areas, common land and farmland, and succeeds in this surprisingly well.

We completed this in eleven day’s walking over the winter months of 2105/6, a quite Camino-like walking experience undertaken between the end of our Camino de Santiago in 2015 and the start of the Le Puy route in 2016. 

London LOOP - Day 11

Noak Hill to Purfleet

17.25 miles

And so to our last day walking the London LOOP.

The last day of any long distance route is a day tinged with conflicting emotions: anticipation of a project soon to be completed, and reminiscences of past highlights enjoyed; the elation of finishing safe and well, and sadness at having finished being just some of those mixed feelings.

We were pondering these precise dilemmas as we followed our now-familiar pattern of early start, train into Euston and onward connections – this time to reach the station at Harold Wood before catching the bus for the short jaunt to Noak Hill for around 9.30am.

We alighted the bus just round the corner from where we left off the route last time, the driver having to prompt us to get off as this was the last stop. We trundled round the corner to outside The Bear pub, set the GPS, turned round, and walked back past the bus we had just got off.

The driver probably thought we were hopelessly lost. Not so: in fact, as has been said on occasions before, the route is pretty easy to follow using a combination of the maps and notes from TfL, the on-the-ground signage, generally clear paths and a bit of common sense.

Soon after we set off from Noak Hill, there
was a lot of walking like this today

But the LOOP here follows much of the route taken by the bus, at least in general terms, and whereas we’d enjoyed a largely rural walk last time out, the second half of Section 21 took us in a south-south-easterly direction through the residential streets and housing estates and the green ribbon either side of Carter’s Brook.

It was a warm, humid morning, and as the sun broke through we stopped to apply sunscreen in Central Park, taking the opportunity for a quick snack. Although it had barely passed 10.00am, it was well over four hours since breakfast and we were ready for food.

In Central Park, with Henry VIII

Continuing past children at play chaperoned by parents relaxing into the weekend, we skirted more houses, passed further play areas and crossed many roads, including the busy A12 – yet another of the main arterial routes into the capital. And, 90 minutes after having left it, we were back at Harold Wood station.

Harold Wood is believed to be named after Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England – he of Battle of Hastings and arrow-in-the-eye fame – and some of the streets hereabouts are named after other Anglo-Saxon monarchs.

Harold Hill - twinned with Royston Vasey

Nowadays, if this sign is anything to go by, it’s all gone a bit League of Gentlemen. I can just hear Edward exclaiming: “What’s all this shouting? We’ll have no trouble here ….” 

Well, the local shops seemed to be catering perfectly well for local people if the number of people milling round was anything to go by.

Community herb garden - a great idea for all those budding chefs

Beyond the station, further streets beckoned. However, it wasn’t long before we were heading into the larger green space of Harold Wood Park – a cultivated park of play areas, tennis courts and cricket pitches that became a wilder community woodland beyond the Ingrebourne River.

Crossing the A127 Southend Arterial Road

After crossing the A127 Southend Arterial Road, a few more residential streets came and went. Then the route took to the fields as it skirted Emerson Park School through knee-high grasses on the way to Upminster Bridge and the end of Section 22.

A little further on, after passing through the grounds of Hornchurch Stadium, we stopped for lunch in Gaynes Parkway. Shortly afterwards, a detour was required to avoid a path closure – some repair work going on, I think – but in general we were following the course of the Ingrebourne River as it passed through a series of parks and play areas.

Soon we entered Hornchurch Country Park, a large green area created in 1980 from a huge landfill site. The new visitor centre offered the chance for a brief stop and a nice cup of tea to fortify us for the next few miles. Although the going was pretty easy, mostly on level ground with smooth surfaces, the predominance of tarmac walking can be rather tiring, especially on the joints, and the humid conditions were quite draining. 

Overlooking Ingrebourne Marshes

Albyns Farm Lake

The short break did us good, though. Moving on, we passed Ingrebourne Marshes and Albyns Farm Lake and, after cresting a rise, began the descent towards Rainham.

Heavy rain just west of Rainham

Away to our right, thunder and lightning were beginning to make their presence known, and the accumulated dark clouds could be seen depositing heavy rains somewhere over east London.

Quite how we avoided a soaking, I don’t know. But just at the point where the few light spots started to become more persistent, the worst of the weather slid out of range and we managed to get away without even putting on waterproofs.

Start of the 24th and final section of the LOOP

In-between-times, we passed through Rainham – ugly outskirts, nicer “village” centre – moved into the 24th and final section of the LOOP, crossed the corner of Rainham Marshes, and reached the banks of the River Thames once again.

Anthony Gormley-like path signs - the Angel of the South East maybe?

Across the river, we could see Erith – the starting point of the London LOOP – and knew then that the end was within reach.

The first sight of the Thames since Kingston on day 5

It had taken us just eleven walking days to complete the route, but that over a period spanning late autumn to early summer. We had fully intended this to be a winter walk, expecting that underfoot conditions be more favourable than those of hill or dale, and, apart from the couple of muddy sections encountered during our February outings, it proved to be clean and easy going.  

Also, and by coincidence, today’s last leg of the LOOP was exactly a year to the day since we had finished our Camino and arrived in Santiago de Compostela – two years in a row we had finishes a long distance walk on June 11th, a precedent set perhaps?

As the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge came clearly into view again, we became aware of more of the symmetries of this walk – it’s circular nature, split across it’s diameter by the River Thames, beginning and ending beside the river in the shadow of the QEII Bridge – and this on the weekend the Nation was celebrating Her Majesty’s 90th birthday.

The Tilda rice factory - mmmm, anyone fancy a curry? 

Over the final few miles we began to reminisce about the highlights of the route. True, the LOOP is not wall-to-wall with delights: there are some sections that are less than gorgeous, which is only to be expected when circumnavigating a major conurbation. Scenically, it doesn’t compare with the high country of northern England, wild Wales, Scottish mountains or even the gentler charms of the Cotswolds, where our current companion, the Thames, is born.

But the route does do its best to link many of the green spaces found on the fringes of the capital, and looking back there was more than enough interest and enjoyment to have made the project worthwhile.

Highlights were plentiful, with several things of note to report on each of the eleven days, but the standouts for us were Petts Wood, the descent into Coulsdon and the stretch between Kingston and Bushy Park on a beautiful, crisp sunny morning.  

Concrete barges, originally built to support the D-day landings

As we were considering all of this, the last few miles ticked by. We had heard the end of the LOOP described as “anticlimactic” and one of the more underwhelming ends to a Long Distance Path. And whilst Rainham and Purfleet are perhaps not the most glamourous of destinations, I think that rather misses the point.

A project such as the London LOOP – that aims to circle the capital linking the best green spaces available, serviced by public transport, well signed and with free notes and mapping available, and able to be tailored to one’s preferred day-length – should be celebrated as the success it is, not vilified for any shortcomings. If only other routes round other towns and cities were as well-resourced and well supported by public transport.

Once beside the river, there was the usual smattering of unlovely industrial landscape, crumbling things and scruffy waste ground that aren’t great to look at, and by the time we reached it the RSPB Centre had closed for the day.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge

But it didn’t matter, and as a few fleeting rays of sunshine rallied once more, the views across the marshes and away to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge pretty much compensated for that.

Arriving into Purfleet, we discovered that a train was due to arrive any minute. Rushing to catch it, it was only as we pulled away from the station that we realised we had forgotten to take an “end of trip” photo. What a shame!

Still, we have the memories.

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?