Thursday, 26 September 2019

London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP) - Other Worlds, Other Stories

This walk is not actually in London.

When you hear London, perhaps your internal atlas opens on a shape somewhat like this:

Officially, this is the present extent of what is tellingly titled Greater London: thirty-two boroughs bound within the eternal chain of the M25 motorway. And yet, this map and that concept of London would have been unrecognisable to anyone in it for most of the last two thousand years.

London has traditionally meant a nucleus upon the river Thames – the City of London. This was later supplemented with a second nucleus, the City of Westminster. Most of the rest of this territory was a mix of tiny villages, rolling farmlands, forbidding forests and bandit-ridden wasteland till the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It was only then, in the living memories of present-day grandparents, that industrial urbanisation and suburbanisation flung out London’s tentacles of road and rail to seize chunks off its neighbouring provinces (or counties as the English call them, a word with Norman French origins). Middlesex, west of the city and north of the Thames, was completely devoured, while most of the remainder of this map was taken off Kent in the southeast, Surrey in the south, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire in the northwest, and Essex in the northeast. And it is those lands, now absorbed into the London amoeba but retaining stories, cultures, landscapes and accents that clearly belong to different worlds, that you will come into contact with if you attempt the so-called London Outer Orbital Path long-distance walking trail. better known by its acronym, the LOOP.

The route of the LOOP, as appears on its Transport for London webpage

Most of this route's 24 sections still cover farms, fields, woodlands, riverbanks, parks, or little villages that hold onto distinct identities. They are largely devoid of bandits now (the traditional kind at any rate – it does pass through the constituencies of several unsavoury Conservative Party MPs, among them Uxbridge and South Ruislip, seat of a certain Boris Johnson). It is very green, and people tend to greet you when they pass - itself a sign that London is far, far away.

Many of these locals might well be descendants of people who resisted the encroachment of London and fought to preserve their homes from its all-crushing notions of development. In the mid-twentieth century they managed to get that preservation formalised as the Metropolitan Green Belt: a ring around the capital where new construction has been heavily restricted, much to the consternation of the evangelical free-marketeers and property speculators who have taken over the English housing sector.

The ‘Happy Valley’ in deeper Croydon (Section 5). The ‘green and pleasant land’ is an important image in English national culture and has deep and historic significance for both its celebrants and its critics.

In the 1990s, an expanded London’s municipal officials started getting together with walkers’ organisations like the Ramblers to consider the creation of walking routes, to encourage people to get out and explore these surroundings on foot. The London LOOP was the most ambitious route to be proposed. Over the following years they worked improve its trails to be as safe, accessible and well-signposted as possible. The resulting quality varies, as many separate local authorities are responsible for maintaining it, but the overall outcome is a high-standard continuous route fully endorsed by the Mayor and Transport for London (TfL).

Still stranded in this city, I set out to roam these outskirts in January this year. I began its first section from the town of Erith, far to the east on the south bank of the Thames, and taking it section by section as time and weather made feasible, managed to complete the route on the opposite bank eight months later. But that's only one way to do it; with a dedicated effort you could probably do the whole thing in one or two weeks.

Whether to escape the city for more natural surroundings, to exercise, or to learn more about the English capital’s context first-hand, this is a walk I recommend. 

London in the distance from Havering Country Park (Section 20).
Deer in Bushy Park (Section 9).

Route Details:
Length: Approx. 242km (150 miles) total. Officially divided into 24 sections, which range in length from short 5-6km strolls to day walks of 17-18km.
Access: All sections can be reached by public transport, i.e. trains or London Underground (Oyster Card accepted with one exception), or buses for more remote locations. Most have convenient places to leave or return to the route part-way, so you can split up or combine sections and tackle it however works best for you. Because it is England, always check live transport service status before travelling.

All sections contain excellent picnic opportunities and most pass pubs, cafés and/or kiosks.

The best starting point is the official TfL London LOOP website, which contains maps, route guidance and further information for each of the 24 sections (here’s Section 1 for example). But if you would like to learn more about what you are walking through, or have more detailed directions that will help when the signposting is not so good, I strongly recommend walking with a guidebook as well; I found Colin Saunders’s The London Loop (Aurum Press) helpful.

(For those who would prefer a shorter walking project closer to the city, there is also the Capital Ring, which shares the same origins but is a more manageable 126km/78 miles. Alternatively, if you prefer a more ambitious and transgressive approach to walking, have a look at what the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair did in London Orbital.)

The chalky Farthing Downs over Coulsdon, actually a piece of the North Downs projecting towards the Thames valley (Section 5).
The London Monster as confronted from the Addington Hills, Croydon (Section 4).
Wetlands in the valley of the Ingrebourne, one of the Thames’s many tributaries, near Upminster, Havering (Section 23).
A flavour of this journey’s stories and creatures follows.

Historical Reasons to walk the LOOP
Naturally, a route of this length in the orbit of the English capital brings you in contact with a kaleidoscope of histories, each of which adds to a potential understanding of one of the most chaotic and incomprehensible cities in the world. It begins at the river Thames, the most important constant in London’s story and origin of its existence. The Thames's tributaries bind many of the stories around it. 

The Thames at Erith (Section 1). Out here it is not necessarily the river that Londoners think they know.
The route sets off up one such tributary, the Cray, close to the present boundary with Kent. Its course charts the decline of a once-proud industrial waterway packed with mills and workshops.

But also wonderful chubby dinosaur topiary. These live at Hall Place, Bexley, (Section 1).
The upper Cray at Foots Cray Meadows (Section 2).
Much of the route, indeed, is haunted by once-monumental forces that have long since taken their leave. Take as an example Nonsuch Palace, which those who have examined the Tudor dynasty might have heard of in passing. In the 1530s King Henry VIII demolished the entire village of Cuddington to build it on a site this route goes straight through, but died before it was completed. It was named Nonsuch because it was meant to be so superb that there was none other like it, but within barely 150 years it had been torn down to pay off gambling debts.

Nonsuch Park, Sutton (Section 7) where Nonsuch Palace (and Cuddington before it) once stood. Its excavation in 1959 was a pivotal moment in English archaeology and there are displays on-site identifying its echoes.
Another retired power centre: Havering-atte-Bower, in what used to be Essex (Section 20). This tiny village that gave the borough of Havering its name was in times of old a major royal headquarters with connections with Edward the Confessor (c.1003-1066). It has since subsided into a rural retirement in the shadow of large modern suburbs like Romford and Hornchurch. Now it is remote enough to lack a train station and requires a bus ride to reach it.

There is another installation in London which sits atop communities it swept away and right now plots to devour more, and which just as in the case of Henry VIII does so for the vanity of those at the top of English society. But this is a palace that still stands, in effect an independent principality which contains its own world and runs it by its own rules. The extinct village of Heathrow has left only its name to Heathrow Airport, a state-within-a-state which even now seeks to overrun the village of Harmondsworth to build its third runway. Most know it only from the inside, but the LOOP takes you around it and affords a rare appreciation of its true footprint on London’s political geography.

Cranford (Section 10), one of the suburbs which adjoins Heathrow Airport and suffers the near-constant roar of low-flying aircraft. It is named for the river Crane, which flows around the airport’s grey expanse and, surprisingly, harbours biodiverse thickets and meadows right next to that all-sterilising territory.
Heathrow Airport and Henry VIII’s Hampton Court are the two great narrative centres of gravity in the southwest, straining to pull the territories in between into their spheres of influence. In the latter’s Bushy Park (Section 9), some still favour more traditional modes of transport.

Elsewhere the locals keep their ancient history very much alive. After arcing through the deep south the LOOP crosses the river at Kingston upon Thames. Its name, “king’s town”, refers to the chiefs of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms who contested and eventually unified most of this island from the fifth to eleventh centuries. By then Kingston had become their first royal borough and the site where some of the most important early English kings were crowned.

The ‘Coronation Stone’, said to have been used in the coronation of seven Anglo-Saxon kings, now in the grounds of the Guildhall in Kingston upon Thames (Section 8).
The Thames at Kingston Bridge, the one place on the LOOP likely to be full of people.

Then there are the ruins of Royal Air Force (RAF) aerodromes, of which the LOOP crosses two.

The airstrip at what used to be RAF Kenley (Section 5). The RAF carries a massive emotional charge in the English national self-consciousness, largely because of its successful defence against the Nazi Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain (1940) in World War II, which saw RAF Kenley come under heavy assault. The RAF’s story is complicated however by its long record of colonial bombing which the English often omit from the picture. A nearby pub, the Wattenden Arms, is full of RAF memorabilia.
A ruined turret at RAF Hornchurch (Section 23) in the Ingrebourne river valley, now reincarnated as a nature reserve. The aerodrome is visibly commemorated, its remnants like this explicitly signposted, and the visitor centre has a room packed with historic RAF materials including pieces of aircraft.

The northern stretch of the LOOP features an extended trek through the greenery that remains of the ancient Forest of Middlesex, to eventually emerge upon the Lea river, one of the most historic and significant of the Thames’s tributaries.

A channel of the Lea near Enfield Lock (Section 20). The Lea is one of the most heavily worked and canalised tributaries of the Thames and has marks the historic boundary between London and Essex since a time when the latter was a separate kingdom. During the industrial period City bosses liked to site their most polluting industries east of it where regulation was lax. By convention the natural river is spelt Lea, while in its human services, especially as a canal, it is spelt Lee.
A narrowboat owner uses a windlass to operate Enfield Lock.
Rivers like the Cray, Colne, Lea and Ingrebourne anchor many of these regions’ stories. Most have powered mills for industry or agriculture, while larger tributaries like the Lea are partially canalised. One waterway however is entirely artificial. Two sections of the LOOP in the northwest follow the Grand Union Canal, part of a nationwide network that served as the bloodstream of the industrial revolution and in so doing made a monumental impact on English history.

The Grand Union Canal near Uxbridge (Section 11), lined with narrowboats. Canal boating nowadays is mostly recreational, but when these waterways emerged in the late eighteenth century they were hard-working transport systems. They gave rise to a unique canal subculture and carried the goods and raw materials that were the lifeblood of the industrial revolution till the railways emerged to replace them. The post-WWII pleasure-boating movement saved many obsolete canals from ruin. Lately there is also a growing population of people living on boats having been priced off housing on land.

And occasionally one comes across surprising pieces of history – sometimes bitter, sometimes inspiring, but most often of that quirky and idiosyncratic character that is sometimes considered distinctly English.

Local commemoration of ‘Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers’ in Cheyne Wood, deep Bromley (Section 4). This was supposedly a humorous ‘charitable organisation’ in the 1920s, which if subscribed to permitted you to ‘blow froth off your own beer, other members’ beer, and occasionally off non-members’ beer, provided that they are not looking or are of a peaceful disposition’.
Bourne Hall in Epsom and Ewell, Surrey (Section 7) contains a little museum of local history, a great part of which gives attention to the area’s most well-known institution, the Epsom Derby horse race. Its image was permanently seared into the struggle for women’s right to vote in this country when the suffragette Emily Davidson walked in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby and was killed in one of English feminism’s most iconic episodes.
A gravestone at St. Dunstan’s church, Cranford (Section 10) which gives off a particular sense of social recrimination. Apparently it is inhabited by the ‘worst used’ (i.e. abused) high constable in England’ to whose experience the ‘pangs of woe and unrequited love’ were pertinent. Who can guess what stories rest in the earth beneath these bitter words?
A long stretch of the path through the Rainham marshes (Section 24) has been decked in these eccentric pirate effigies, typically with humorous puns for names and panels or grave markers bearing weird jokes or poems. This is clearly an organised arrangement but the persons behind it and their motivations appear a complete mystery.

The Loop finishes much as it starts, along the bleak marshlands of the Thames downstream of the capital – London’s backstage, you could call it, where residual industries and recycling centres clang away along both banks, beyond the gaze of most of their city’s residents.

The Rainham marshes near Purfleet (Section 24). Most of this area has been taken over by a massive recycling facility, but this part has been secured by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and is a haven for birdwatchers. Few people otherwise come here. In the background, roads, rails and power lines shoot past this back of beyond for the towns of Essex and the estuary.
Concrete barges supposedly used in the D-day landings of 1944. Across the river is more of the industrial lower Thames. Erith, where the LOOP starts, is at left.

Fuzzy and Feathery Reasons to Walk the LOOP
If you are not so into stories but just want an immersion in therapeutic encounters with nature, you can find plenty of that here too. Much of this green belt consists of protected rivers, woodlands, farmlands or wetlands, each with their own varieties of flora and fauna.

Some of it will be happy to meet you. This is especially true of the domesticated party – the English like their dogs, and on almost every section you are likely to encounter them out for walks. Some will inevitably come up to you to say hello.

Encounter in Darrick Wood, deeper Bromley (Section 3). Forest spirit?
An aquatic version in the outer wilds of Croydon (Section 5).
…while in Cranford (Section 10), the grim influence of Heathrow Airport has politicised the local creatures into a more pugnacious complexion.
Cats are less prominent at the forefront of English cultural narratives; more often you find them prowling along the margins.

A sudden confrontation in the middle of Oxhey Woods (Section 14). At first sight an unusual setting for such a creature, but they are known for going where they like.
Patrolling near Enfield Lock (Section 18).
Sporting a red dongle with a bell outside Hornchurch (Section 23).

Walkers with a preference for the winged and feathered varieties of wildlife will find plenty to excite them too.

Spotted in the Erith marshlands (Section 1). I don’t know what this is. It is chubby and has a mildly opinionated face.
A more colourful representative in Bushy Park (Section 9).
Green parakeet over the river Crane (Section 9). This is an invasive species, whose story here likely started with a small number of ancestors escaping from cages. They have gone on to outcompete local birds and overwhelm large swathes of cities across the world.
Ducks probably have their subcultures too. This one’s, near Kingston Bridge (Section 8), is expressed through hairstyle.
Ducklings of considerable fuzz in Bushy Park (Section 9).
Coot with chicks, Grand Union Canal, Yiewsley (Section 11). Baby water birds abound on the rivers and canals in spring.
Goslings on the Grand Union Canal near Harefield (Section 12).
Grouse in the Havering farmlands (Section 20). These birds are noisy, skittish, and totally harmless; shooting them is therefore a favourite pastime for members of the Conservative Party.

As a large proportion of the Green Belt is farmland, encounters with the types of creatures that live on it are also to be expected.

Equine interaction near Coney Hall, deeper Croydon (Section 4).
Grazing in the vast open fields between Borehamwood and Barnet (Section 16). Be careful about getting close to cattle – they look docile but in fact are the most dangerous large animal in England after humans.
Hainaut Forest (Section 20) has the Foxburrows Farm, which is open to the public, popular with small children, and looks after a wide range of rare animal breeds.
Two goats found randomly sunbathing in someone’s back yard outside Upminster (Section 22).

There might also be unusual surprises…

Possibly the most adorable phenomenon on the route, found living in Erith (Section 1).
Muntjac deer have a loud bark, breed throughout the year, and since their escape from private collections around a century ago have spread across the English hinterlands. Keep a look out for them in the wilder parts like this near Rickmansworth (Section 13).
Watch where you tread. A frog in the grass near Forty Hall, Enfield (Section 17).
Watch out along the waterways as well and always look before sticking your hand in.

This happened to be a good year for butterflies, in particular the Painted Lady (orange with black and white markings) which was experiencing a once-a-decade mass emergence.

Peacock butterfly on Hounslow Heath (Section 9).
Orange Tip, Cranford Country Park (Section 10).
Speckled Wood, also in Cranford. The richness of the wildlife in the shadow of Heathrow Airport is startling.
And for those who prefer their life forms floral, woody or not inclined to bite, there is a wealth of impressive encounters available in both wild and planted arrangements.

The old oaks and hornbeams of the Addington Hills (Section 4), one of the LOOP’s most invigorating woodlands.
A California redwood, imported remnant of what were once ornamental gardens near Grim’s Dyke on the Harrow Weald (Section 15). The Dyke itself is a late Iron Age or early Roman earthwork (over 2,000 years old) thought to have been a boundary marker or livestock barrier; later Anglo-Saxon immigrants did not understand what it was for and called it Grim, a name for the Devil.

What if capitalism and violent austerity have oppressed you out of the time, energy and money to walk the full route?
If you are only able to do one or two sections, I would suggest the following as the LOOP’s outstanding highlights.

Section 4: West Wickham Common to Hamsey Green – Some wonderful woods and a splendid view from atop the Addington Hills.
Section 5: Hamsey Green to Coulsdon South – Some of the finest open landscapes you are likely to find inside the M25, culminating with the panoramic Happy Valley and chalk ridge of the Farthing Downs over Coulsdon.
Section 13: Harefield West to Moor Park – A quintessential woods-and-farmlands ramble that is tangibly more of Hertfordshire than of London.
Section 23: Upminster Bridge to Rainham – The wetlands of the Ingrebourne valley are glorious at their best.

Though it be hard to escape the crush of the English capital’s high-pressure worlds and stories, so many more, unfamiliar and often bizarre, swirl just outside its event horizon and offer unusual perspectives on the troubles of both the city within and the country without.

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