Walking the London Loop – Elstree to Moor Park

I’ll be honest, in the past when I crossed paths with the London Loop signs on a walk I was slightly disdainful. ‘What’s the point’, I thought, of following this orbital trail around the edge of London when the capital is so rich with places to walk and explore. You didn’t need a pre-ordained, officially endorsed path to point the way. You could wander randomly anywhere in London and it would throw up a route as rich as any promoted by Transport for London, and I still believe that to be true. But now having walked 5 sections (well 4.5 really) of the London Loop I’ve been forced to revise my opinion of this 150-mile path.

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I did my first section – from Enfield to Cockfosters (Section 17) back in January when I needed to hit the road but lacked the energy or imagination to work out my own walk. The London Loop guided me through a territory largely unkown to me. A couple of weeks later I found myself heading back to Cockfosters to pick up the trail through to Elstree & Borehamwood (Section 16), although on this occasion I branched off on my own path for a large portion of the way to take in areas I wanted to explore that were off the London Loop.

At that point I thought I was done with the London Loop and it wasn’t until the beginning of July that I returned to Elstree to continue the path through to Hatch End (Section 15) carrying on to Moor Park (Section 14). It was a glorious walk across meadows and woodland, the inevitable golf courses, past lakes, and over hilltops offering incredible expansive views. It opens your eyes to the extent and beauty of London’s open spaces and farmland encircling the city – spaces that were often fought over to be saved for the people of the London and the surrounding suburbs, precious resources not to be taken for granted.

London Loop Section 14

Will, I return to continue my counter-clockwise walk on the London Loop? I’m still not sure. I did leave home to walk Section 13 to Uxbridge two weeks ago but instead meandered from Ruislip to Denham and beyond into Bucks. But this time when I passed the London Loop signs on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, instead of a dismissive glance I gave them a nod and a smile and a thanks for the magnificient walks.

Unto the Fields (of Chigwell and Loughton)

Chigwell

Sometimes unplanned excursions are the most rewarding. After running an errand to Woodford Bridge I decided to take a short stroll along the road to Chigwell, when I spotted these signs on the metal fencing around a patch of woodland. Permissive access to a former landfill site was too good an invitation to turn down, so through the half-open gate I went …. into another world.

Chigwell walk

The woodland soon opened out into a network of footpaths weaving through tall wild grasses and meadows resplendent with flowers that I sadly can’t confidently name, but will speculate that these are wild foxglove.

Chigwell walk

A high point in the meadow opened out into a glorious view across the Roding Valley to the upper ground of Buckhurst Hill.

Chigwell walk

Footpaths branched off in all directions heading through thickets or up onto hillocks with not a soul around.

Chigwell walk

Through a bramble tunnel I came face to face with a young fox, who froze for a moment before darting off into the undergrowth with a high jump in the air.

I could hear the traffic whumping down the M11 as the path ran parallel for a while before bringing me to a garden gate in a wooden fence and out onto Luxborough Lane.

River Roding tube viaduct

The clear waters of the River Roding were incredibly enticing on such a hot day – I fantasized about floating away in the small abandoned boat beneath the Central Line viaduct.

Roding Valley Recreation Ground

My Australian wife says this looks like a Eucalyptus tree – stood on the parched earth of Roding Valley Recreation Ground it looked quite at home.

Roding Valley Recreation Ground

By this point I was feeling the heat and had nearly drank all of my water, so I sat down by the lake to absorb the coolness coming off the wide expanse of water.

Unto the Fields Gillingham

Making my way to Loughton Station along Roding Road, I spied a blue plaque on the far side on a semi-detached house. I dashed across the road to see who had been honoured in these Loughton backstreets and saw it was for D.W. Gillingham author of Unto the Fields. I immediately looked the book up on my phone, my eyes falling on the sentence, “a meticulous and exquisite record of the woodlands, streams and rivers of the Roding Valley”. I quickly found a 1953 edition on ebay and bought it stood in front of the house where Gillingham lived.

Central Line Countryside Walk from Theydon Bois to Chigwell Row via Lambourne End

Theydon Bois is under-rated as a gateway to the London Countryside – it’s the equivalent of a Himalayan Base Camp for the London / West Essex edgeland walker. I fueled up on a great hot salt beef bagel before taking the footbridge over the Central Line tracks and down across fields to where I was confronted by the magnificent Theydon Bois Earthwork. This land sculpture by Richard Harris was commissioned by the Woodland Trust and completed in 2013. One kilometre of chalk and flint paths spiral their way into the side of the hill in a shape inspired by tree seeds. I stood atop one of the inner banks as the traffic throbbed past on the M11 and gave praise to the landscape.

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Moving across fields on the far side of the motorway near Hydes Farm, I examine my OS map and discover that the section of footpath I’m looking for aligns with the Roman Road further north at Hobbs Cross, that I walked along in 2016. This modest path that runs up the field edge makes a perfectly straight line to the acknowledged Roman Road that linked London to Great Dunmow, passing through Leyton and Leytonstone along the way. I turn to follow the route imagining the passage of Legions drawn from across the Roman Empire, hot desert lands, and what they must of made of this cold muddy terrain.

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To the north of Aridge I encounter my old friend the River Roding, ambling through the fields flanked by tall grasses and rushes. I pay my respects then cross the road and head for Lambourne End.

River Roding at Abridge

I lament not having time to have a look at the medieval Lambourne Church, but glad of the beguiling path leading down to Conduit Wood. A gnarly old tree beside a murky green pond looks to be home to a colony of wood sprites. An information board tells us that the path “runs alonsgide and ancient green lane”. The woods have a feel of magick and timelessness, where the path could as easily lead to another plane of existence as Gallman’s End Farm where I actually find myself.

Lambourne Church

A bridleway so deep in mud that it has made me hate horses, takes me down to the edge of Hainault Forest. Several comments on the YouTube video inform me that this quagmire goes by the name of Featherbed Lane.

Hainault Forest

A pond in Hainault Forest captures the sunset and holds it fast just beneath the surface of the water. It’s glorious to be in the forest celebrating what feels like one of the first real spring days (it was 15th April) after a long hard winter. I decide to toast the arrival of the new season and head off into Chigwell to purchase a can of San Miguel which I swig heartily as I make my way down off the high ground to Grange Hill Station.

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.

Epping Forest

The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey

New Year’s Day Walk 2018

Whipps Cross Leytonstone

Whipps Cross Leytonstone

Up through the backstreets of Upper Leytonstone emerging on Whipps Cross Road. Early pangs of mid-afternoon hunger are sated at the Lakeside Diner with a sausage baguette. I was only coming out for a local wander, now I need to walk this thing off.

Forest Rise Walthamstow

Around Whipps Cross – recorded from the 14th – 16th Centuries as Phips Cross/ Fypps Cross and literally referring to a cross erected by the Phips family. I cross Woodford New Road to patch of boggy rough ground and pass along St. Peter’s Avenue to Forest Rise. The dead tree stump I photographed in 2010 is still there – thriving in the afterlife.

Hale End Road

Hale End Road

Why did I have the urge to pass through Hale End? I have no idea but as I approached the North Circular crossing I realise how my relationship with the environment was formed by growing up within the acoustic footprint of the M40 – constantly humming out a white noise refrain throughout my childhood from the flyover that curved around the edge of the village. You passed beneath it to go on walks with my Dad in the woods heading up into the Chiltern fringe, and again it loomed ominously overhead walking to the doctors in the next village with my Mum dripping dark liquid down its vast concrete pillars. We viewed glorious sunsets on the other side of the 6 lanes of traffic from a pub garden we often used in my early years. It was an ever present. These motorway/aerterial roads link me to deepest childhood – particularly at sunset as now.

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Down a street of picture perfect suburban semis in the beautifully named Sky Peals Road. WG (I think the WG means Woodford Green but I have no clue as to why).

Forest Drive Chingford

Then along Forest Drive Chingford, Christmas lights twinkling at the bare forest trees over the road.

River Ching

I cross the River Ching – a candidate for my favourite tributary in the whole of London (I don’t think the Fillebrook counts as I believe it runs into the Dagenham Brook) – and when you consider that the River Lea alone has 30 tributaries (ok some are in Hertfordshire) that is quite an accolade.

Highams Park

Highams Park was the perfect place to end this New Year’s Day walk with its cosy parade by the station and the level crossing. I went into the Tesco megastore and bought some new half-price headphones and a packet of pens.

Trail Magic – dreaming of the Appalachian Trail and the PCT

Wild Cheryl Strayed

In these dark winter days thoughts return to long summer walks. At night I watch videos made by hikers on America’s Appalachian Trail  – with the hiking season kicking off in April it’s at this time of year that people reflect on their thru-hikes and others start to plan their epic trek along the 2000 mile trail.

I’ve just started watching videos from the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2659-mile long path that stretches along the western spine of the US from California to Oregon and Washington – skirting the Mojave Desert, crossing the Sierra Nevada, and scaling the Cascade Mountains, through desert, snow and forest. The nearest I get to Sierra Nevada is through a bottle of the delicious Pale Ale bearing its name that I buy from the corner shop.

The longest trail we have in Britain is the South West Coast Path at 630 miles. We’ll have to wait for the completion of the England Coast Path in 2020 before we have a challenge on the scale of the AT. Locked into the domestic routine of a stay-at-home Dad the idea of life on the trail is amplified by how distant the possibility of spending 6 months walking actually is – a distance I can measure in years rather than miles. In the meantime I satisfy my wanderlust with my excursions around London, in themselves a hangover from my twenties backpacking years, and nightly binges on YouTube hiking videos.

I have also just opened Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an account of her PCT trek (my discovery of the AT came after reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods bought at the end of a walk to Ilford in the howling wind). A guide to the Ridgeway sits on my desk as well that sings to me at night. There are a few more winter months to while away, day-walking, watching, reading, plotting, and then … who knows what the summer will bring.


 

Here are 5 of my favourite YouTube Hiking Channels – in no particular order

Hiker Trash VideoSeven out chasing Hikers and ‘safety material’ on the AT

John Zahorian – beautifully produced videos with stunning vistas and practical advice on ultra-light long-distance hiking

Homemade Wanderlust – Jessica (Dixie) is a great guide to life on and off the trail and a good source of practical information. Also love that she hiked the AT with her dog

Will Wood – hiking everywhere across the US, always on the trail. Zpacks team member

Neemor’s World – there’s a gentleness to Neemor’s videos out on the PCT and the AT and also some good gear reviews and tips.

 

 

Will Self on “under-imagined” landscapes and “embracing the liminal”

Earlier in the year I dug out this unused footage from the interview I shot with Will Self for The London Perambulator in December 2008. He talks about his airport walks – one of which features in the film when I rendezvoused with him and Nick Papadimitriou on the canal near Wormword Scrubs and followed them along the towpath to Perivale, an episode that crops up in Will’s book Walking to Hollywood.

He also mentions some of the walks he’d taken in the past with Nick Papadimitriou –  “bisecting the Ridgeway at the concrete works near Princess Risborough and walking up into hills there, your stamping ground in fact John” – referencing the area around where I grew up and carried out a psychogeography project with my sister between 2004-05.

The walks out to the Isle of Grain, were part of “extending that idea of the liminal out into landscapes, topographies that are under-imagined in that way – the Grain for me was the great under-imagined place even though of course it features in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it features in Celine’s Mort a Credit, even though it features in Dickens it’s the opening of Great Expectations, not actually on Grain but on the marshes between Gravesend and the Isle of Grain”.

He describes these as Interzonal Walks.

The lure of such interzones is “our willingness to abandon romantic conceptions of both the urban and the rural and to embrace the liminal …. is a sign of that we are prepared to engage with the totality of our environment”.