There’s no way I could have known this at the time, but relieving work pressures by taking off occasional Fridays to walk the London Loop was to prove very useful reconnaissance for my Cicerone guide to London.

It’s in the nature of the Loop that it strings together many of outer London’s best open spaces, and many of them lodged in my brain, eating away until I realised I would have to do more with the knowledge I had obtained. Fortune indeed!

But whether you are a writer without knowing it or not, or Londoner or not, the London Loop is a great way to get to know the varied countryside that surrounds the capital.

Strictly speaking, it’s wrong to call it the London Loop. Loop is an acronym, standing for London Outer Orbital Path, so the London Loop is the London London Outer Orbital Path. But if it’s OK to say ‘New York, New York’, then I guess London London is OK too. And it’s in the logo.

The view across London from Addington Hill, Croydon

Friday 20 July 2001: Erith to Petts Wood, 15 miles

A fine sunny day, though clouding over late. Erith station is a few hundred yards from the river, with a big supermarket near the pier if you want to stock up with sandwiches. You can walk along the pier, and should, although do not expect amusement arcades; this is a working and fishing pier. From the pierhead, look over to Coldharbour Point and Purfleet, the original and current finish points to the loop, perhaps in ten days, perhaps (like me) in nigh on two years. The Point is being reclaimed from industry now, and one day will look attractive.

The Loop strikes off eastward along the Thames, with views of the Queen Elizabeth bridge ahead. Beyond Crayford Ness turn south along a tributary, the Darent, and just over a mile further on a tributary of this, the Cray. You will be beside it or close to it for more than half a day, sometimes scruffy, sometimes manicured, sometimes natural. Old Bexley makes a good half way stop, and the King’s Head proved to be one of the best pubs on the Loop.

The Thames / Darent confluence, with the QEII bridge

The five-arched bridge over the River Cray

Leaving the Cray at Foots Cray, ascend through the grounds of Sidcup Place, and then cross the A20 to Scadbury Park nature reserve, leading into Petts Wood. This part of the Loop inspired Walk 24 in my Walking in London. Try to find the memorial to William Willett, campaigner for daylight saving; it is just off route. South of the wood proper, many railway lines converge. Cross them on footbridges, from the third of which a path leads off left to Petts Wood station.

Park Wood

Park Wood, Chislehurst

Friday 5 October 2001: Petts Wood to Coombe Lane, Croydon. 13 miles.

Sunny periods with a light breeze. This is one of the most countrified sections on the Loop, brushing the Kent boundary. It does not start like that though, with the first few miles split 50-50 between suburban housing and wood- or park-land. Things change at Farnborough village, which still looks like a village, just about: there are fields and farms hereabouts, and the Wilberforce Oak (a wizened old thing, now), where the reformer hatched Britain’s abolition of slavery in conversation with then prime minister Pitt the Younger. Part of this became Walk 25 in my London book.

After this highlight the suburban mix intrudes once more, but there is a short traverse of Selsdon Wood, a good broad valley to enjoy around Wickham Court, and wide views from Addington Hill. Memories of this led in to feature in Walk 21 of the book. Just below this is the Coombe Lane tram stop, with easy access to the main station of East Croydon; or do what I did and shop for outdoors gear in Croydon town centre, the rain pants I bought there lasting to 2014!

The memorial bench at the Wilberforce Oak

The Loop as it exits Selsdon wood

Friday 30 November 2001: Coombe Lane to Banstead. 15 miles.

Grey and overcast. South of Croydon, there is farming country once more, but even this is eclipsed by the chalk downland of Happy Valley and Farthing Downs in the vicinity of Coulsdon. There is fine open walking here, with good views all around, including some of the best distant views of central London. Years later, a circuit of the downland featured as Walk 20.

Above Happy Valley (on a sunnier day)

It ends by the busy A23 and railway lines, alas, followed by a long pull up a dull street with a golf course to the right and although there is more open country after here it cannot match up to the downs. On the final stretch to the station, in gathering gloom, I rather nervously passed the walls of Highdown Prison.

Trains from Banstead are relatively infrequent, so check times in advance; in 2001 it was out of the Travelcard zones too, as you’re just outside the Greater London boundary, though it’s since been brought into zone 6.

Friday 18 January 2002: Banstead to Kingston upon Thames, 11 miles

Bright and sunny. A golf course has to be traversed first (not helped by my wrong turning), and another forces a lengthy deviation through the prosaic streets of eastern Ewell, so not a good start, but the grounds of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace compensate (well, just about). From Ewell proper, you pick up the Hogsmill River at its source, a pond in Bourne Hall Park. Just as you followed the Cray upstream, you follow the Hogsmill downstream, in this case for its whole length to the Thames. Like me you may find the shops of Kingston worth a detour on your way to the station.

LDWA members in Nonsuch Park, 2017

Friday 15 March 2002: Kingston to Hayes, 12 miles

Rain till mid-afternoon. You set off through Bushy Park, where you might see deer. It’s one of London’s great Royal Parks, a wonderful open space much of which is left semi-wild, though the latter part of the Loop in the park passes through the more formal Woodland Gardens. With Home Park, it features in Walk 16 of my London book.

There is a road stretch before reaching the river Crane, beside which you stay for almost all the stage, with one major diversion across Hounslow Heath. The section through Crane Park, once home to gunpowder mills but now beautifully rewilded (or as much as you can in London), is included in my Walk 15.

Just to prove that following a river isn’t always easy, I missed a bridge after my mid-day pub in Feltham and bashed through undergrowth beside a canal. I had to work out where I had got to from the bus stops. That’s what happens without GPS and with perhaps an extra pint in the pub that I shouldn’t have. Indeed technically it was only in 2017 that I finished this stage, through Donkey Wood, when I came back to recce the section for the LDWA. Aircraft noise is a companion around here, sometimes deafeningly so, as you are close to Heathrow airport. The stage ends beside the Grand Union Canal, of which more (much more) next time.

The Woodland Gardens of Bushy Park

Causeway through Donkey Wood

Friday 3 May 2002: Hayes to Moor Park, 18 miles

A bright day, though clouding over late with thunder. For the larger part of this stretch, the Grand Union Canal is never far away, most usually adjacent to the towpath. That could make for something of a trudge, but the loop picks up the occasional diversion to add variety. The first of these, through the reclaimed ground of Stockley Country Park, is just a mile from Hayes station; not much more than a mile from its end, takes you through the pretty Little Britain Lakes and along the natural River Colne into Uxbridge. From here there is a long canal-side stretch north, through increasingly open country, split by the diversion through Denham Country Park.

You leave the canal at Harefield and rise into pleasant rolling countryside, essentially outliers of the Chiltern Hills which begin properly a few miles to the north. Bishop’s Wood Country Park takes you to the affluent suburb of Moor Park, whose tube station is half a mile off route through a neck of woodland.

Grand Union Canal

Grand Union Canal, Harefield

Bishop's Wood

Below Bishop’s Wood

Friday 5 July 2002: Moor Park to Elstree station, 13 miles

Rainy morning, dry after lunch. Three golf courses, so it can’t be a perfect day, but much else that is interesting. Oxhey Woods provide one of the longest continuously-wooded sections, soon after which comes a good view south and the literary associations of Pinnerwood House. After golf course 2 you follow the Roman era earthwork of Grim’s Dyke for a while before passing through the grounds of Bentley Priory, HQ of Fighter Command in World War II and (in 2002, not now) still operational.

I had lunch at the then Good Beer Guide-listed Vine pub, but although it’s great a pub pays attention to its beer, its food was rudimentary – no puddings! Now it’s an Indo-Chinese fusion restaurant, sigh. There’s a broad pathless meadow on the way up to the M1 before you skirt round Aldenham Reservoir and cross fields with good trees north of Elstree village. The station lies across golf course 3, not in the village but the more workaday suburb of Borehamwood; you are only passing through.

Friday 20 September 2002: Elstree station to Gordon Hill, 17 miles

Cloudy, a few sunny intervals in the afternoon. To start, it was an uphill stretch beside busy roads, but there’s a semi-official alternative now across Woodcock Green – see below. Both take you into Scratchwood, much nicer than it sounds, but alas it takes you to a road stretch that can’t be avoided, by the A1. This quasi-motorway should have a footbridge, but hasn’t, so you are forced south for nearly half a mile, under a subway, and north to nearly the opposite point to where you met the road.

Thankfully, from here you enter the Moat Mount Open Space, and things get even better along the water meadows of the Dollis Brook, some stretches of which – Totteridge Fields most notably – are as genuinely rural as the Kent stretches long ago. The Dollis Brook has its own trail, the Dollis Valley Greenwalk, described as Walk 12 in my book.

Totteridge Fields

Totteridge Fields

Clever route planning takes you through Chipping Barnet with minimum fuss, alongside the former Underhill home of Barnet FC, and onto the site of the 1471 Battle of Barnet. Beyond Cockfosters station lies more open country, the one-time hunting grounds of Enfield Chase, the subject of Walk 7 in the book. Gordon Hill station lies ten downhill minutes from the loop through Hilly Fields Park.

The Woodcock Hill alternative. Woodcock Hill is an officially recognised village green, registered as such in 2008 to protect it from development and thus to all intents and purposes access land. From Elstree & Borehamwood station, turn right onto Station Road, continuing on the path to the right of the gasholders. Then go down Coleridge Way, Auden Drive and Wordsworth Gardens; turn right into Melrose Avenue, which soon becomes Vale Avenue, and a few yards along beside a signboard to the village green (not a thing of maypoles and cricket pitches, it has to be said), go half right, slowly climbing the hill to a beacon with good views north. Veer left here, so as not to join the road too early, but don’t drop down to the houses; later, go a little right on a path that brings you out to the road barely 100m before the path heading towards Scratchwood. 

Enfield Chase

Looking across Enfield Chase

From Salmon Brook

From Salmon’s Brook on Enfield Chase

Friday 29 November 2002: Gordon Hill to Chingford, 10 miles

Grey and overcast. Barbara joined me for this stage. Down to one of the Thames’s major tributaries, the River Lea, then up into Epping Forest. Most of the way down is alongside or near a sidestream of the Lea, Turkey Brook, but the Lea is one of London’s most industrial rivers, so it’s a case of count the houses most of the way until the river proper is reached at Enfield Lock. The Lee Enfield rifle, a British Army staple in two world wars, was manufactured in what is now converted housing just beyond the lock.

There’s only a few hundred yards beside the Lea itself, just above one of the immense valley reservoirs that store so much of London’s water, until you cut up the hill after Sewardstone village onto the gravel ridge on which the larger part of Epping Forest rests. The Loop takes quite a short cut through the forest proper, but shows its variety of landscapes well nevertheless: we dipped into Chingford off-route, to visit Pole Hill, a detour that later triggered Walk 3 in the London book. More of the forest next stage.

Friday 31 January 2003: Chingford to Harold Wood, 15 miles

Very cold, bright and sunny, with snow lying. Sometimes you are just lucky, and the weather does nice things. On this stage I tramped long stretches through virgin snow fields or woods with whitened branches still bearing the blanket of the day before. It would be a good stage at any time – there is plenty of good quiet countryside on the London-Essex fringe – but this made it especially memorable. Did I have a camera with me? No. You’ll have to take it on trust, and the pictures from ‘today’ were taken at other times.

The remaining Epping Forest stretch passes soon – far too soon; I wish the Loop had made a, well, loop here, even if only over Chingford Plain and around Connaught Water.

Epping Forest across Chingford Plain

There’s a bit of suburb (Woodford) before the Lea’s partner the Roding is crossed, and then alas road up into the posh suburb of Chigwell. Things get more rural, including a pretty churchyard scene at Chigwell Row, after which you enter Hainault Forest, far less of which now remains than Epping: one had parliamentary protection in Victorian times, the other did not. There’s a walk in Hainault Forest, not in my London book, but in my Essex book (Walk 9).

Next comes the valley of another south-flowing river, the Rom, which may surprise you by its quietness, and the beautiful woods of Havering Country Park before the village of Havering-atte-Bower – whose pub landlord was the only one of all the landlords on the Loop to recognise me as a Loop walker. This area is also covered in my Essex book, as Walk 8. After another two miles of ruralness, you meet the vast Council estate of Harold Hill, but the cunning route planners take you between houses beside a little brook.

Hainault Forest Country Park

Hainault Forest Country Park

Havering Country Park

Redwood trees, Havering Country Park

Saturday 19 April 2003: Harold Wood to Coldharbour Point, 12 miles (to Purfleet on Thursday 9 October 2014, additional two miles)

Overcast, occasional light rain, a little brighter at the end. The ‘little brook’ joined at Harold Hill is in fact the last of the loop planner’s sleights of hand. It becomes the Ingrebourne, another Thames tributary, followed like the Hogsmill from source to Thames with little diversion, such as bits of Hornchurch. The country park on the site of Hornchurch RAF station – which now has a splendid new visitor centre which honours that heritage – will one day take you all the way to Rainham, but reclamation work on a landfill site is still (2021) ongoing, so there is an untidy road mile to Rainham’s still village-like centre.

Beyond the station – and, in 2003, the trackbed that would become the Channel Tunnel rail line – it’s walking for the devoted only, through bleak industrial land, until the Thames is rejoined, a river to transcend any surroundings. (Note however that a cycle path skirts the worst of the industrial, if you don’t mind a little transgression.) When you meet the river, spend some moments gazing out to Erith pier, which seems close enough to hop across to.

Cement barges, Rainham

WWII cement barges on the Thames at Rainham

Frustratingly, in 2003 I had to walk back to Rainham for onward transport; doing so, I met a couple of Loop walkers, wondering if the two-mile continuation to Purfleet was yet open. Then the answer was no, but it is no longer. Just keep going by the river, past the impressive RSPB centre at what they call Rainham Marshes – in fact Rainham Marshes are the marshes that the cycle path goes through, while the reserve covers Purfleet Marshes – and you’ll soon be at Purfleet station if you hurry, though as it’s a nationally-important bird reserve, and there’s a bit of Thames foreshore you can walk on (unofficially), it’s better if you don’t. And if you want to return, my London book opens with a walk around the reserve and back up to the Point.