The Tropic of Ruislip

UXBRIDGE fishing lake

This was a walk that I think will be with me for a while. The flood of memory that washed over me on the Grand Union towpath the other side of Ickenham/Ruislip heading up towards Denham. I let go of something. Walks have their own logic free of external reality. Out there nothing else matters. It’s on hold, paused, the world stops. The canal water shimmering like scales on the underside of the railway bridge. The deer plunging into the water then swimming elegantly in search of the right spot, in no hurry, despite the people watching from the towpath. The barges brought to mind The Tropic of Ruislip. I stopped for a pint by the canal. The heat was getting to me. The long road onwards felt like the exit from London and indeed it was as I saw South Bucks District Council on the road signs at Denham. Is this the most westerly point in London (vying with Uxbridge for that honour)? It certainly feels like it.

Denham
There’s a warmth to the Denham housing estates perched right there on the edge of London, looking in more than out. Woods benignly crest the hilltop. The threat posed by HS2 rears its head in Tilehouse Lane as it did on the closed section of road near the River Pinn where work has already begun. A light aircraft swoops down over the treetops to land at the aerodrome, but otherwise all is quiet.

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The turning onto the South Bucks Way appears beside a wide open vista stretching north towards Chorleywood, undulating umber earth, ridges of the Chilterns in the distance. It’s only at the bottom of the field where the South Bucks Way branches away from Old Shire Lane that it becomes apparent that the rolling fields I’ve been swooning over will soon be consumed by HS2. Progress comes at a price it seems.

Through a well-engineered tunnel beneath the M25 and I’m moving towards settlements once again. Through the trees the sounds and movement of the Scout Camp at meal-time, cooks shouting out to each other, children being formed into orderly lines. I traverse that final field of tall furry thistles that brings me to the top of a private housing estate.

I’m truly drained by the heat when I flop on a bench with a box of chips and bottle of Fanta at the bottom of Chalfont St. Peter High Street at quarter past six. I study the map for the onward route. I’m too tired to tackle the next section of the South Bucks Way to Amersham. But to head for the nearest station just over a mile away at Gerrards Cross would feel like a defeat. I split the difference and make for Seer Green.

Over Goldhill Common where I passed around 5 years ago on a similar excursion at the same time of day. I buy a Fab ice lolly in the newsagent as a tribute to this memory.

GREAT LEGS WOOD
A long straight path runs behind the back gardens at the edge of the village and into woods where the light barely breaks through. Pylon strung power lines buzz and crackle loudly over tall fronds of fern in a clearing before Great Legs Woods. This is now that recognisable uplifting sense of the walk’s end, not quite knowing how far there is to go but understanding the destination. The pain in the knees and hips adds to a sense of euphoria as I stop in the middle of a broad field of golden swaying grasses. There is never anyone around, the world is elsewhere – unloading the shopping from Waitrose, scrubbed up for a night out, sitting down in front of the telly. Anywhere but in a field somewhere beyond the town and the city.


A bridge crosses the Chiltern Line and now I seek the path of least resistance opting for the avenue that tops that railway cutting. I have 20 minutes before the hourly train departs and find that extra burst of speed to transport me through the last corner of woodland and along the lane to Seer Green Station – essentially an unstaffed shed beside the tracks. The platform is as peaceful as the woodland I’ve just left, the clicking of the dot matrix display board echoing down the line. There’s a moment to reflect on the journey, to feel it in my legs and coating my skin, before the turbo train eases to a stop and carries me back into London.

Suburban Safari – Ruislip Gardens to Gerrards Cross

There is something about the far reaches of the Central Line, it appears in my mind as a far off land on the edge of the known world, which is nonsense because I grew up in the provinces beyond – just down the A40 in Bucks. Either way it lurks there pinged up on the dot matrix display on the platform teasing me, urging me to abscond.

So abscond I did, alighting after about an hour at Ruislip Gardens. It had been bucketing down when I’d left Leytonstone and the sky was still smeared in thick grey clouds when I’d changed at North Acton. But crossing the road to the Yeading Brook at Ruislip Gardens the sun broke out and beckoned me down the tree lined path.

Skirting Northolt Aerodrome on the far side of the Yeading Brook, I crossed a meadow where someone was camped out living in the trees and I momentarily saw it as a kind of idyllic life. I’ve noticed this a few times on walks on open ground around the city, make-shift homes erected beneath the trees, clothes hung on hangers from branches, peculiar domestic touches for such a rustic setting.

So glad to be out in the city fringe I strode across a wide open meadow only to find myself angle deep in water, unaware I was in the middle of Ickenham Marsh where a canal feeder for the Grand Union trundles beside the Yeading Brook. There were common rights of pasture on the marshes and cattle were still grazed here in the early 1960s. There wasn’t so much as a dog when I sloshed through.

I go round in circles a lot when I walk – not helped by following a meandering brook that has a canal feeder then passes under the A40 and when I follow a footpath into a mire of suburban streets that only has one road in and out. However I was entertained by a brick Tardis disguised as an electricity substation and a row of modernist semi-detached houses that looked as if they’d been air-dropped from Los Angeles.

Somehow I found my way to this majestic spot where the River Pinn passes along a brick culvert beneath the Uxbridge bound tube line. The Pinn, although a modest watercourse running from Pinner to Yiewsley must surely be one of the most beautiful London rivers. I don’t understand aesthetics well enough to be able to back that up – but I crossed it 3 times on this walk and it made me stop dead in my tracks on each occasion. Sights like this deserve a double page spread in National Geographic.

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The 100 foot elevation of Uxbridge Common offers a panoramic view of the London skyline from the Shard on the right to the Post Office Tower to the left and I’m guessing Euston Tower behind it. The Common once stretched for hundreds of acres, 4 miles in circumference till 19th Century enclosures reduced it to its current 15 acre plot.

There was a point when I thought I’d get no further west than Uxbridge. It was 5.30 when the suburbs throb to a different rhythm – out here that’s home time. It took me half-an-hour to find a way out of the traffic vortex whipped up by the Uxbridge Roundabout, back I forth I roamed with my life in my hands before I found a way off Harefield Road to the banks of Fray’s River.

Then followed a series of beautiful clear watercourses – Fray’s River, Shire Ditch, The Grand Union Canal and the Colne. I seemed to be forever crossing bridges, zigg-zagging along riverbanks to find crossings – I counted at least 6 bridges before I reached Denham.

I hadn’t seen anywhere to buy food along the way – not even a kiosk at Ruislip Gardens. I scoffed a fistful of sweet ripe blackberries marinated in exhaust fumes in an overgrown footpath long ago abandoned beside the A40. That would have to do for a while.

I’d roughly set my course for Denham where I followed the River Misbourne to this abandoned football pitch with knee high grasses and an old brazier for beacon fires although there were so many heretics out in the Chilterns you’re never too sure whether they had a dual purpose.

I never thought I’d get so excited by the words Wild Bean Cafe but I nearly leapt for joy when as I approached it across the forecourt of the BP garage on the A40. They had no samosas and you had to buy a 4-pack of Stella and not just a single can so I settled for a chicken and bacon sandwich, cappuccino and a doughnut.

The overdose of calories consumed in a neat brick bus shelter pushed me over one last field in the setting sun just after 8. I emerged back on the road in the gloom for the slow trudge into Gerrards Cross. I scoured Tesco for a souvenir but ended up with a copy of Private Eye which I took to a sofa in The Elthorpe Hotel with a pint of ale before the 10 o’clock train into Marylebone.

Walk from West Ruislip to Beaconsfield

I was woken early by the postman and had the urge to walk – but where. After weighing up the options I decided to head west by the simplest route – to the end of the Central Line and then walk westwards from there.
The only maps I had were an A-Z, which was good for about 2 miles before I dropped off the edge of its pages, and a ’30 miles around London’ road map which kept me going in roughly the right direction. Otherwise I found my way by following my desires (and the footpaths).


View W Ruislip to Beaconsfield in a larger map

Across the road from West Ruislip Station I entered a world of Bluebell banks down hollow ways and gentle streams crossed by wooden bridges. Old Clack Farm has its own post box. Crossing Breakspear Lane and Jordans Lane, jumping over ditches and clambering over rickety stiles to safety were as treacherous as anything Indiana Jones had to deal with.
I lost a shoe in the deep mud of a horsefield in Harefield, my socked foot plunging ankle-deep in mud. I didn’t see a single shop between West Ruislip and Chalfont St. Peter. I resisted the rustic temptations of the Breakspear Arms and The Dumb Bell saving myself for a end of walk pint in Beaconsfield Old Town only to find that the pubs have mutated in an old Aunt’s chintzi lounge dominated by nattering diners. I started off further west down the London Road to Wooburn and Wycombe but after a mile or two realized I’d end up stranded with no train home.
Beaconsfield New Town was ghostly quiet at 9.30pm. A handful of people kicking their heals on the station platform waiting for the train to Marylebone. 7 hours on the move and 18 miles covered in a haphazard line, a left sock and shoe still caked in mud, only one pint downed and a feeling of euphoria. I’d found the entrance to Arcadia at the end of the Central Line

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