WALK LONDON The Green Chain[sections 2 and 3] Erith to Oxleas Meadows (6 miles)
Mmm, Erith. Down on the underwhelmingly flat bit of the Thames estuary, on the last bend before the eastern edge of London. We're not talking gorgeous here. Erith had a brief spell as a tourist resort in the 19th century when paddle steamers ruled the river, but most of the place was rebuilt in the 1960s and 70s, and any charm the town might have had was sucked clean away. The London Loop walk begins here, down by the muddy-brown riverside. From the end of the rickety wooden landing stage you can look straight across the Thames to the walk's finishing point on Rainham Marshes - less than a mile as the seagull flies, but 150 miles away on foot (via Uxbridge). Erith's river wall is also one of the starting points for the Green Chain Walk - a 40-mile network of interlinked footpaths sprawled across four southeast London boroughs. The first signpost is located in a particularly grim spot, well away from the town centre on the river wall beside some graffitied apartment blocks. Quick, let's walk away from the grey-brown water and try to find a view with a bit of green in it.
There isn't an awful lot of open space and woodland in this corner of Bexley, but the Green Chain is very good at linking together what little exists. This section of the walk heads first for Frank's Park, a tree-packed oasis atop the hilly ridge above Belvedere. Watch out for the dog mess - they don't seem to be very good at pooper-scooping round here. Next there's half a mile along suburban sidestreets, with a view to the north across terraced rooftops to an industrial Thamesside skyline. Then, just beyond a pub which the guidebook tries to make sound interesting but isn't, the walk enters the unexpectedly glorious surroundings of Lesnes Abbey Park. Follow the wooden posts up to the heathland summit tumulus, where a carpet of purple heather blooms, and then descend to view the razed ruins of Lesnes Abbey. Only the outline of the 12th century abbey remains, etched out in low stone wallsacross a grassy lawn. I was duly charmed. From here you can look out across the marshes once owned by the local monks - now covered by the estates of Abbey Wood and Thamesmead. An unloved information centre tells the abbey's story on peeling display cards, and directs visitors to the elevated fossil beds on the woodland plateau where shark's teeth can still be found.
At Bostall Common the Green Chain splits in two. It does this a lot, so you really have to know where you're going or else you might end up in Woolwich by mistake. My choice was southwest through the woods, emerging shortly afterwards at the entrance to Plumstead Cemetery. Here sat Sally, beneath a limp green parasol, attempting to sell bouquets and floral tributes to a passing trade of non-existent mourners. Up next onto East Wickham Open Space, a very ordinary scrap of common but with a newly-planted avenue of oak trees down the centre, just to give us Green Chain walkers somewhere interesting to go. The world's most pointless cycle gate has been erected at the western exit, spanning just halfway across the path so that even a motorbike and sidecar could easily squeeze by. This may be a good time to stop for a reviving shandy in the Glenmore Arms, especially if it's suddenly started chucking it down. Try not to let the pub's complete absence of punters disturb you.
Of all the walks I'm following this week, the next few hundred yards were the narrowest and most overgrown. Not somewhere you'd want to walk through in shorts, not unless you're a masochistic nettle addict. Far safer to heed the sign at the entrance announcing that "This land belongs to clients of KSLAW LLP Solictors" and warning that members of the public use it at their own risk. And then, wholly unexpectedly, the path breaks out into open farmland. Freshly harvested fields, piled-up hay bales and hilly hedgerows ripe with blackberries, all highly unlikely sights in the suburban backwaters of Zone 4. The backside of a petrol station soon ruins the rural illusion as the path crosses Watling Street in its modern guise - the A207 atop ShootersHill. And finally into ancient forest at Oxleas Wood, its leafy bridleways reprieved from severance by an unwanted ring road as recently as 1993.
The end of the walk is marked by that most welcome of sights - a tea hut. It's tarted up as a proper cafe these days, but it still sells everything a weary long distance traveller might reasonably expect. Egg sandwiches, fried breakfasts and steaming jacket potatoes for starters. A chalked-up menu above the bar displays an impressive list of culinary options, eagerly served up by a crack team of smiling food and beverage operatives. Just don't ask for an ice cream if the tub's only just come out of the freezer, otherwise you may be standing waiting for some time. Five of the Green Chain's ten walks start or finish at this most civilised of locations - a veritable footway service station. And they'll sell you a pack of Green Chain route maps from behind the counter for just £3.50. Even better value than a cheese roll and a cuppa, I thought.