Grand Union Canal and London Loop: Uxbridge to Harefield

Sunday 8th December 2013

5 miles approx

Toilets: Shopping centre and various pubs in Uxbridge; Colne Valley Park Visitor Centre (1/3 mile off route); Horse & Barge pub, Moorhall Road; Old Orchard pub, Harefield; Kings Arms pub, Harefield; public toilets, Harefield.

After getting a load of uni work out of the way, there was finally time to go for a walk and continue our Grand Union Canal journey from Uxbridge.  When the Metropolitan Line reached Harrow on the Hill, there was a funny smell which turned out to be coming from a steam train.  It was time for some trainspotter-spotting.  All the way to Uxbridge, at every station and every bridge, there were middle-aged men with cameras.  A few minutes after we arrived by more conventional means, the steam train arrived.  They do sometimes run these heritage days on the Met Line, but I’m glad it doesn’t happen too often as the building was momentarily filled with steam and we felt little bits of soot falling on us.

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After a quick stop-off at the shopping centre, we walked through the streets of Uxbridge to join the canal.  It was a beautiful day – very sunny with blue skies, and not quite as cold as we’d been expecting.  There weren’t many murals under bridges compared to the inner London sections of canal, but we did see this impressive one with lots of animals.

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We passed through a couple of industrial areas, though it’s all relative and was nothing like the grimier bits we’ve walked along in the past.  The canal finally started to take on an almost-rural feel.  I say almost-rural, because a lot of the London Loop seems to go around these sorts of areas at the very edge of London.  Semi-rural, but sort-of attached to suburbia in some places but not in others.  Edge-of-town industrial estates next to rivers and fields.  Areas provoking endless discussion about whether they’re rural or urban, concluding with something in between.  In this case, a canal that looks picturesque in the photo, but had the background roar of the A40 and M40.

2013-12-08-944We passed under the A40 and the noise gradually started to fade.  There were rivers nearby, as well as lakes formed from old quarries.  Some of the path was muddy and we were glad to be wearing walking boots.

We passed a turning for the Colne Valley Park Visitor Centre, and Fran’s Tea Room a bit further on at Denham Lock.  We passed under a railway, then by Harefield Marina, where a heron declined to be photographed.  Further up at Black Jack’s Lock was a B&B, Black Jack’s Mill, which looked lovely for an overnight stay for anyone wanting to do a multi-day walk.

Having researched lunch stops in advance, we turned off the canal here and walked up a hill to the Old Orchard pub, from where there was a lovely view over the lakes below.  As it was mid-December we had to wait a while for a table, but it was definitely worth it as the food was absolutely delicious with several great vegetarian options and no token ones, and there was a warm atmosphere.  The original plan had been to walk ten miles to Watford, or stop off early at Rickmansworth if we lost time.  In the end we enjoyed the Old Orchard so much that we decided to end the walk at Harefield, as sunset was before 4pm and there wouldn’t have been time to make it safely to Rickmansworth before dark.  We walked up the road to get the bus (note: the Old Orchard is near Black Jack’s Lock, which is not as far up as the official London Loop end point at Harefield West, where the Coy Carp pub is).  The U9 bus to Uxbridge now goes once an hour on Sundays.  We walked a little bit further up to the village green, where the 331 took us to Northwood (it goes on to Ruislip afterwards, or to Uxbridge if you go in the other direction).

When we were approaching Harrow on the Hill on the way back, the driver warned us beforehand that the station would be very crowded due to “all the trainspotters on the platform”.

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Cross Bones Graveyard, London

Wednesday 23rd October 2013

A short walk away from London Bridge, on Redcross Way, lies the Cross Bones Graveyard.  An unconsecrated burial ground, it contains the remains of thousands of people shunned by society.  Many of them were prostitutes (often referred to as “single women” or “Winchester Geese”) who were granted the Liberty of the Clink whereby they could take part in activities that were banned within the City of London.  There are also an astonishingly high number of perinatal children, either stillborn or having passed away within seven days of their birth.

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The exact age of the site is unknown, but it was first mentioned in writing in 1598.  As the years passed by, it eventually became a paupers’ burial ground, which was then closed in 1853 on public health grounds.

In the 1990s, during the construction of the Jubilee Line Extension, the Museum of London’s archaeology team excavated the site and found an extremely overcrowded burial ground.  They estimated there were 15,000 burials.

In 1996, the writer and local historian John Constable brought the site into the public eye with his book The Southwark Mysteries.  Written under the name of John Crow, it’s a collection of poetry and mystery plays inspired by the spirit of a Winchester Goose.  There is a petition to establish a public memorial garden on the site, especially as the area is threatened by redevelopment.

On the 23rd of each month, a vigil is held at 7pm outside the gates.  We attended last week, and it was a very moving ceremony.  Open to all faiths and none, it was led by a pagan viewpoint although nobody was required to take part in anything they didn’t want to – everyone was welcome to stand and listen.  People brought along ribbons, mementos and other items to tie around the gates.

Crossbones2 Crossbones3 Songs and poems were performed.  A few people gave little speeches.  It was highly respectful, calm and peaceful.  We were given ribbons with the names of some of the people buried there, taken from public records, and these were also tied onto the gates.

It isn’t right that some people are remembered more than others just because their family could afford a better gravestone, or afford one at all.  There must be millions of people who are buried completely unknown to passers by.  Even when you walk past ancient churches, some of the stones still have legible text and others have completely worn away.  But all people are important.  Everyone makes a difference to the world and makes a difference to someone’s life, even if it’s in a small way.  I think this monthly ceremony makes the situation just a tiny bit fairer.

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Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex

Sunday 6th October 2013

Toilets: outside the Naze Tower

We went on a field trip to Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, to look at cliff erosion and management issues.  It was the first weekend in October yet the weather was absolutely beautiful.  I wore a t-shirt and ate ice-cream, and really should’ve brought sun cream.  There were still quite a lot of ripe blackberries growing along the cliff tops, surprisingly late in season.

We took a coach through the town itself, which looked like a charmingly old-fashioned seaside town, but we weren’t on holiday so there was no time to stop.  We carried on up to the car park by the Naze Tower, a listed building containing a museum and tea house, along with 111 steps up to the top for some far-reaching views.  Unfortunately there was no time to climb up it.  I’d like to go back one day.

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Sea defences have been built along some parts of the coast but not others.  The Crag Walk was completed in 2011 and is quite attractive to walk along.

Walton5aIt’s necessary to allow erosion somewhere, in order to provide a sediment supply for beaches and marshes.  Here’s an example of the kind of slumping that can be seen along the Naze.

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The cliffs have layers of London Clay and Red Crag, with Brickearth above.  All along the beach there were lumps of soft, sticky clay lying around.

Walton6Here’s the view across the water to Harwich, or possibly Felixstowe.

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Seaside!

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Alban Way: St Albans to Hatfield

Tuesday 27th August 2013

7 miles approx

Toilets: Upstairs at platforms 1-4 at Watford Junction (change here for St Albans Abbey); large supermarket on Hatfield Road/Sutton Road (direct access from Alban Way); Three Horseshoes, Smallford; Hatfield Galleria shopping centre; two pubs near Hatfield Station (note: no toilets at Hatfield Station itself).

The Alban Way was the last of my walks along the five disused railway routes in Hertfordshire, having already done the Ebury Way, Nickey Line, Ayot Greenway and Cole Green Way.  As with the others, this really was the type of walk that should be done in summer, as the route was largely shaded by trees.  The whole path was paved, so I wore trainers instead of walking boots.  Train services ended in 1968, the track was lifted in 1969, and different sections of the new Alban Way footpath were opened between 1985 – 1988.

At Watford Junction I made my way over to the isolated platform 11 to reach the single-track Abbey Line branch, which had a rural feel to it.  Trains only go every 45 minutes, so check the timetable first.

After a few minutes of road walking, the Alban Way started in a corner of Cottonmill Lane.  I soon had views out over some allotments and towards St Albans Abbey.

2013-08-27-642At the crossing of London Road I passed the old London Road Station, a Listed Building which has now been converted into a nursery.

2013-08-27-645The route then went under London Road itself.

2013-08-27-650I don’t need to say anything about navigation as the route was obvious, but I saw a few old platforms and other evidence of the path’s past life as a railway.

2013-08-27-652 2013-08-27-656 2013-08-27-660This was one of the best types of path to walk along on a hot day.

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I passed this arch shortly before reaching the A1(M) motorway.

2013-08-27-666The path reached the Galleria shopping centre where I stopped for a quick break, before going down some steps outside to continue the walk.  As it was late August, there were lots of people out picking blackberries, so I helped myself to a few.

As with most other disused railway walks, this wasn’t necessarily the most exciting walk in the world – they do get a bit samey after a while.  However, it was a great way of getting some outdoor exercise while staying mainly in the shade.

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Mam Tor and Lose Hill

Friday 23rd August 2013

8 miles approx.

Toilets: Public toilets, cafes and pubs in Castleton and Hope; Outside Speedwell Cavern; Treak Cliff Cavern; Blue John Cavern.

We spent a week in Castleton in the Peak District.  No holiday in Castleton would be complete without a walk up Mam Tor, so off we went on a circular route across Mam Tor, Hollins Cross, Back Tor, Lose Hill and down to Hope.  Mam Tor and Lose Hill were the main landmarks we could see from Castleton.  As a Londoner, this route felt just right – enough of a challenge, just the right amount of ascent, but not a mountain, and achievable in half a day.  I’m capable of walking long distances over relatively flat landscapes, but we don’t exactly have many hills where I come from.  The summit of Mam Tor is 517 metres up, but Castleton is already about 200m above sea level.

We started by taking the footpath off Goosehill, leading to Speedwell Cavern.

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Next to Speedwell Cavern was Winnats Pass, a picturesque road which is very steep for vehicles.  (This photo was taken a few days beforehand, which is obvious from the colour of the sky).

2013-08-22-586Rather than walking up Winnats Pass, we continued north and then west along a footpath which took us past Treak Cliff Cavern.  Below us, we could see the abandoned part of the A625 road that was closed in 1979.  Continued landslip from Mam Tor over thousands of years meant that the road had little chance, and it was eventually decided to abandon it and let nature take over.  Parts of the road were completely warped, and parts had disappeared altogether.

2013-08-23-595Our route continued past Blue John Cavern, Winnats Head Farm and Windy Knoll.  This route was chosen to make the walk as easy as possible.  We finally had a good view of Mam Tor itself, with clear evidence of thousands of years of landslip.

2013-08-23-597Mam Tor and the entire ridge were paved.  This made it less “natural”, but it’s such a popular route that something had to be done to stop the hills eroding.  Stuck between a rock and a hard place, something had to be done to protect the hills without limiting access.

Plus, I must admit, these stairs made it much easier to get to the top.

2013-08-23-602Here’s the trig point at the top!  It was really windy up there, but luckily the ridge was wide enough for lots of people to walk along it safely.  Once we reached the summit, there was relatively little ascent for the rest of the walk.

2013-08-23-613Here’s the view along the rest of the ridge up to Lose Hill.  The hardest part was Back Tor, which was quite steep and was verging on a scramble in a couple of places, but that only lasted a few minutes.

2013-08-23-619From the summit of Lose Hill, it was a pleasant walk back down via various footpaths to Hope, where we stopped for drink at the excellent pub attached to the Old Hall Hotel.  From there, we took the main road back to Castleton.  A few times during the week while going between Castleton and Hope, we took the pleasant footpath next to Peakshole water, which felt nice and cold to splash around in during hot days.  We also once took the minor road via Pindale Farm, which takes you along a ridge with lovely views down into the valley below.

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London Loop: Bexley to Petts Wood

Saturday 10th August 2013

8 miles approx, including a detour to the sundial (really not convinced it was this long)

Toilets: Bexley Station (toilets only open when the station is staffed); pubs and cafes in Foots Cray; Sidcup Place (pub); pubs near Petts Wood Station.

We enjoyed last week’s walk so much that we decided to continue with the London Loop.  Section 2 is often listed as “Old Bexley to Jubilee Country Park”, but I prefer to think of it as ending at a station, hence Petts Wood seems like a much more practical way of thinking about the route.

We started off by walking across some fields/meadows/not sure what you call them, but our guide book (published in 2008) said it was a landfill area which was still being contributed to.  As with last week, there was a great feeling of open space.  Apart from a few joggers, we almost had the place to ourselves.

After passing a pumping station we joined the River Cray and our walk become very idyllic.  There were a lot more people about, all enjoying the weather, and lots of dogs were splashing about in the water.

2013-08-10-519After a short while we reached Five Arch Bridge, behind which the river widened and turned into more of a lake for a while.

2013-08-10-520It was a shame to leave this beautiful river, but on we continued.  After passing some allotments, we passed a small field with two horses.  The horses were facing forward and staring.  No matter how much we tried to wave at them, they didn’t move.  They just kept on staring and staring… and staring.

2013-08-10-528We continued on to “climb a grassy slope with a last, broad view over the Cray Valley”, although the slope was so gentle that we barely noticed we were going up hill, and wondered if we’d taken a wrong turning.  Luckily we hadn’t – we should’ve learned by now that this book uses some quite overly-dramatic language!  We finally reached Sidcup Place.

2013-08-10-530Built in 1743, Sidcup Place is now a Listed Building.  Having spent some time being used as council offices, it was eventually converted into a pub and restaurant, and I use the term “pub” very losely.  Really, the only reason we stopped here for lunch was because it was about half way through our walk, it was lunchtime, there weren’t any other places to eat nearby, and it was in a historic building with beautiful grounds.  Anyone who takes on a building like this knows they will automatically have customers, so they don’t need to try too hard.  Indoors, it was entirely bland.  The food was nothing to write home about.  There was one cask handpump, but it wasn’t in use.  It was a useful toilet stop, though, and the building did look lovely from the outside.

After navigating across a complicated pathway through a big road junction, we joined the woodland of Scadbury Park.  It seemed slightly more open and bright than the average wood, and contained redwood trees.

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We took a brief detour to see the ruins of a moated manor house, pulled down during the 1730s but partially rebuilt in the 1930s to mark out the foundations.

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A short while after crossing the A208, we took another detour to find the sundial built in memory of William Willett.  He campaigned for the introduction of daylight saving, and in his honour, this sundial is set to British Summer Time.  Note that it’s designed with one o’clock in the middle, rather than twelve o’clock.  The phrase “Horas non numero nisi aestivas” means something along the lines of “I count nothing but the summer hours.”  We were glad to have found it because the turning wasn’t obvious, the description in the guide book was confusing, and we’d already spoken to someone else who’d done the walk but missed the sundial.

2013-08-10-544 2013-08-10-548After more pleasant woodland, we crossed a complicated layout of railways via three different footbridges.  Finally emerging into zone 5 suburbia, we stopped for a quick drink at the Sovereign of the Seas, before heading off to the station for our journey home.  There’s another pub nearby called the Daylight Inn, also named with William Willett in mind.

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London Loop: Erith to Bexley

Sunday 4th August 2013

9 miles approx, including detour to Hall Place

Toilets: Pubs and cafes in Erith; large supermarket on Wharfside Close, Erith; public toilets at Waterside Gardens near Barns Cray Road, Crayford; pubs and cafes and Crayford; cafe and facilities at Hall Place.

We’ve finally started the London Loop, and it was a much nicer experience than I’d been expecting.  I’ve been reading lots of blog posts with tales of gloomy, windswept landscapes with paths going through smelly industrial estates.  Maybe it would feel more like this on a gloomy day, but the perfect weather during our walk meant that everything was bright, and we had an amazing feeling of open space.  I didn’t feel like we were in the countryside, but more like the forgotten fringes at the edge of town.

Unlike the Capital Ring, the London Loop didn’t appear to have a grand starting point.  We just got going.  From Erith Station it was a short walk down to the riverside, where we could see across to Rainham Marshes.  As a Londoner, I found it fascinating to see enormous areas of land on the banks of the Thames that hadn’t been built on.

2013-08-04-4662013-08-04-476The route continued across huge (by London standards) areas of marshland, surrounded by a scattering of industrial estates and recycling plants.  I’m not going to pretend the industrial estates were beautiful, but they were interesting, containing a mixture of working industry and random, forgotten items left to rust for years on end.  I wouldn’t say there was a post-apocalyptic feel or anything like that, but the contrast seemed perfect.  The path was on an artificial raised embankment, helpful for flood protection.  The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge could be seen in the distance.

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We passed by the Darent Flood Barrier and continued along the River Darent.  We saw several lone horses along the way, as well as a field of cows.  Although it can’t be seen in my photos, there was a motocross track nearby where the bikes were producing quite a lot of noise.

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Further upstream we joined the altogether more genteel River Cray.  It had a much more refined feel as it flowed through the urban area of Crayford, although the guide book did tend to gush on about it in a slightly over-the-top manner.

2013-08-04-486Upon reaching Crayford we passed through a tiny waterside garden, before stopping for lunch at the Bear and Ragged Staff.

The rest of the walk was very different to how we’d started out – a lot less wild, and going through a sports ground.  We took a short detour off-route to reach Hall Place, with its historic house, gardens and topiary, carved into the shapes of the Queen’s Beasts.

2013-08-04-496After that we had a short walk through some woods, before emerging at St Mary’s Church, with its oddly-shaped tower.

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For some reason, it really hadn’t felt like we’d walked nine miles.  It felt a lot less strenuous than other walks we’ve done.  There have been a few rail replacement services around Bexley at weekends recently, but depending on where you’re going, you might find it easier to get a bus to North Greenwich in order to get back into town.

I highly recommend this walk – it was absolutely brilliant.  Choose a bright and sunny day, keep an open mind, and appreciate it for what it is.  Enjoy the open space and the variety.

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