WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 4] West Wickham Common to Hamsey Green (9 miles)
Having already walked sections 3 and 5 of the London Loop, I thought it was about time I walked section 4. That's a curving stroll along the southern fringe of the capital, through the outer hillier reaches of Croydon. And it was rolling woodland almost all the way, which came as a very pleasant surprise.
Not far out from from Hayes station, along a narrow undulating alleyway, I found myself stuck behind a particularly slow couple. I thought they might be walking home from the shops, or be off for a short stroll. But no. "You doing the Loop too?" they asked. "Er yes," I replied, surprised to be outed, especially given that I wasn't even clutching my telltale out-of-print route leaflet. I wished the pair good luck and they kindly stood aside allowing me to stride past. By the time I'd crossed the road and reached the next corner they were nowhere in sight. I worried how far behind me they'd be finishing the full nine mile hike.
First stop Coney Hall, where the Loop's crossing of the Greenwich Meridian was marked by a barely-legible mini-obelisk plonked between two football pitches. Further up the hill a medieval church, occupied by a progressive congregation, then a brisk lumber down a short hill watched by a field of munching horses. All this early open space was atypical of what was to come. A long straight wooded ridge disappeared off into the distance, and up I climbed for a shady stroll along the top. Perhaps this leafy screening was for the best - the view would have been of non-picturesque New Addington, and I was happy to miss that. Another mini-obelisk marked the boundary between Bromley and Croydon (formerly Kent and Surrey), as did a half-chewed tennis ball (a reminder that I must still be less than one-dogswalk from the nearest car park).
Spring Park, Threehalfpenny Wood and Kennel Wood formed a thin string of Green Belt keeping built-up London at bay. I had the latter all to myself, bar some unseen creatures rustling beneath the fern cover. And then a sudden burst of outer suburbia, walking down Shirley Church Road because the direct green route was blocked by a golf course. They like their golf around here, those who can afford it. Brass bands too. A knot of uniformed hornblowers were playing Lord of the Dance by the adventure playground, accompanied by tinkly glockenspiels and a particularly persistent drummer. Yellow Submarine followed me as I walked round the back of the nearby school, where I counted 11 magpies on the playing field (whatever 11 magpies means, I bet it's not good).
To Upper Shirley, where the London Loop deliberately ignores the windmill hidden in a nearby cul-de-sac, although you can detour to take a look should so you wish. A different target is in mind, up steep heathered slopes to the escarpment of Addington Hills. There's a great view across the capital from up here, from the towersof Croydon round to the Dome - one of those views which makes you realise how spread out London is. Can it really be that far from the BT Tower to the City, and the same again from there to Canary Wharf? Evidently so. And there was a new addition since the last time I was here, namely Elephant & Castle's three Strata turbines poking meekly above Sydenham Hill. I stared out over the foreground ocean of treetops for a good ten minutes before any passing Croydonite interrupted my elevated solitude.
I got rather lost navigating the next section, as the normally excellent Loop signage wasn't quite obvious enough. But I got back on track beyond the tramlines, entering the ornamental gardens of the HeathfieldHouse training centre. I suspect it looks prettier during the rhododendron season, but all praise to whoever's been tending the flowerbeds on the back lawn because they're a riot. The Loop then managed to follow a chain of linked woodland through some of south London's less invigorating housing estates, where even a tedious descent down a rear-fenced alleyway was enlivened by close-up squirrels nut-nibbling in the branches overhead. Only 62 miles to Newhaven, announced one particularly optimistic fingerpost, although that was along the VanguardWay which is a different beast of a long-distance footpath altogether.
Nearly there (by which I mean still at least two miles to go). It was back out of civilisation for the last stretch, climbing beneath the beech trees of Selsdon Wood. You could get very lost in here, so the Loop sensibly sticks to the perimeter and tracks the precise boundary where London meets Surrey. It came as a shock to finally exit the protective canopy of leaves and to see the sky and nearly the horizon again. Indeed so much of this walk had been tree-protected that I could recommend it even on days blighted by burning sun or steady drizzle. A final yomp down into Mossyhill Shaw - a secluded valley lightly sprinkled with cattle - before skirting the edge of one last woodland into Hamsey Green. I arrived at the bus stop in time to watch an overweight policewoman attempting to arrest some local lowlife, at least until he realised he could sprint off at high speed into a nearby sideroad and she'd never catch up. Outer London's not everything it's cracked up to be, but some of it's proper lovely.
Download the official London Loop 4 directions and map here(printed leaflets no longer available) Other people who've walked this section:Stephen, Richard, Mark, John If I'm honest, Loop section 5 is better