WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 3] West Wickham Common to Petts Wood (10 miles)
Last Sunday I walked another segment of the London Loop - the capital's 24-bit perimeter footpath. This time I headed southeast to walk one of the longest sections, through swathes of rolling autumnal countryside. And it was proper lovely.
A short distance from Hayes station, on the boundary between suburbia and countryside, I kicked off my walk by entering a thin wooded outpost of the City of London. West WickhamCommon came under the philanthropic jurisdiction of the City in 1878, and Victorian by-laws still prohibit the driving of bicycles through shrubberies, the grazing of mules, the use of disgusting language, the selling of indecent books and the erection of photographic apparatus. Thankfully walking was still permitted. Ancient earthworks lurked amid heathery ferny glades atop the chalk ridge. There ought to have been a great view to the south, and occasionally there was [photo], but a long row of ever-so exclusive homes had stolen most of it for themselves. Onward along the edge of Hayes Common, eventually re-emerging onto Kestonvillage green. Two pubs and a Post Office proved to be the limit of retail civilisation for the next several miles.
The path returned to muddy woodland and twisted round past KestonPonds. Only one of these pools is natural - the most secluded of the three - while the other two are larger and much beloved by fisherfolk. These anglers had set up stools on the banks and were casting their lines in an entirely unsuccessful attempt (at least while I was watching) to lure wily fish onto their floating hooks. I was much taken by the brightly lit autumn backdrop and by the occasional shower of yellow leaves tumbling gently into the water [photo]. Above the highest pond lies a brick-circled spring called Caesar's Pond, so named because allegedly Julius and his invading army once stopped here for a drink. This is also the source of the River Ravensbourne, rather lovelier here than at its mouth 11 miles away in Deptford Creek. Most visitors appeared to have walked no more than 200 yards from the car park - and I could see the attraction in not straying too much further.
Despite being in the middle of rural nowhere, a fairly decent bus service runs along the Westerham Road (round of applause to TfL). I crossed cautiously and started the steady climb to an unusual and historic tree stump [photo]. The Wilberforce Oak is reputedly the spot where William Wilberforce paused for a chat with PM William Pitt, and here made up his mind to bring forward the abolition of the slave trade in the House of Commons. Alas there's not much of the old tree left, having been snapped and toppled by a ferocious 1991 storm, and there's a now replacement oak bursting forth on the wooded slopes. Close by is a commemorative stone bench, but protected behind a tall wire fence so that no passing citizen could ever sit on it. I got the distinct feeling, continuing down into a spacious but inaccessible valley, that the current estate owners at Holwood House (just visible on the hilltop [photo]) prefer their ramblers at arm's length.
This chunk of London didn't feel like London at all. Rolling hills bedecked in autumn shades, light aircraft buzzing overhead on their way into Biggin Hill, and a winding country lane leading uphill to working stables. I ascended behind a chestnut mare and her squat rider, accompanied on foot by a wheezing over-stocky companion for whom the climb proved almost too much. A delightful narrow path between fields went by the less than delightful name of BogeyLane, and here again I found myself stuck behind an equine traffic jam.
After the obligatory golf course, an unusual clock tower heralded the edge of High ElmsCountry Park[photo]. This is a favoured recreational bolthole for the outdoorfolk of southern Bromley, and home to a number of elegant formal gardens as well as a variety of attractive wilder habitats. I'd accidentally timed my visit to coincide with the park's annual Apple Day, hosted at the recently opened Environmental Education Centre. It wasn't quite the exciting event I'd been led to believe, more a couple of classrooms emblazoned with apple-related laser printout. In one room members of staff were attempting to flog apple juice, and handing out sliced samples of some less common varieties of apple, and inviting visitors to guess the number of crabapples in a jar. Visitors however seemed far happier to sit in the adjacent café and eat anything other than fruit.
Back into built-up London via the suburb of Farnborough, arriving in town up the hill through St Giles' churchyard[photo]. Close by the path is buried the (supposedly) legendary Gipsy Lee, the area's last ever Gipsy Queen, but whose real name was Urania Boswell. It was strange to be walking past bus stops and shops and front gardens again, but the London Loop never strays away from greenery for too long. An open grassy slope provided some fine views towards the North Downs - a visual experience savoured only by myself and a tiny handful of local dogwalkers. I then got terribly lost in Darrick Wood. The walk had been extremely well signposted until this point, but I must have missed a turn-off and so wandered around the maze of wooded paths until I'd completely lost my bearings. Eventually escaping, I negotiated my way through the streets of Crofton - a lesser-known residential neighbour of mighty Orpington.
Yet more urban forest to explore, taking a very lonely path through the middle of Crofton Wood. "If five lads jump out with a knife I'm in big trouble," I thought, although I encountered nothing scarier than an abandoned supermarket trolley and a posh girl with an alsatian. One final lengthy estate-yomp eventually led to Jubilee Country Park, a more-than pleasant nature reserve with open common surrounded by leafy thickets. Much as I love my manor in East London, we have absolutely nothing extensive and natural like this back home, so the London Loop's a great way to rediscover brief segments of what I'm missing. And each stage always ends up back at a station, in this case Petts Wood, where there's a rather fetching Loop 3 route map etched in metal bolted to the wall. My walk definitely hadn't been a shortcut, more a devious downward meander, but all the more enjoyable for it.