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.