WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 9] Kingston to Hatton Cross (8½ miles)
If you're ever going to Heathrow Airport, you could do worse than take this nine mile scenic stroll. I wouldn't recommend it with suitcases, nor if turning up at your destination in muddy shoes would be unwise. But if you have four hours to spare, and a desire to see the greener backwaters of suburban southwest London, section 9 of the London Loop is the way to go.
Kingston town centre most certainly isn't the highlight of this walk. A weaving march between chain stores and shopping malls, entirely atypical of what's coming up next. But then you reach Kingston Bridge, which is the only place where the London Loop crosses the Thames, and head almost immediately into Bushy Park. This is probably the Royal park with which Londoners are least familiar, which is a shame because it's lovely. And huge - larger in size than the City of London - so it took me well over an hour to walk from one side to the other. The entire park is fenced, to keep the deer in, so watch out for roaming wild animals as you pass. Watch out too for umpteen dogs, and lakefuls of ducks, and skylarks in the acid grassland by the Leg of Mutton pond [photo]. A fine spot to stop and chuck bread, or to divert down the road to see the giant Diana fountain (moved here from Somerset House 300 years ago).
Across Chestnut Avenue, the park's finest feature must be the Woodland Gardens. Sixty acres of landscaped greenery, complete with ornamental rivers and twisty paths ideal for ambling. February's not the finest month to see the rhododendrons and azaleas, but several camellias had been tempted into bloom by our rogue spring, and a single daffodil had emerged in one particularly sun-blessed glade. A leftover sign on the lakeside warned "Keep Off The Ice by Order of The Secretary of State Department Culture, Media and Sport", although he obviously knows nothing, as several passing geese and a wading heron testified. Further north are the Water Gardens, a more formal feature on the Longford River with stepped cascade and baroque basins. Close by I passed a wheelchair fully stuck in the mud, and a family trying desperately to dislodge it. Here too I finally discovered Bushy's herd of deer [photo], most lying pensive in the grass but two unintentionally captivating bystanders with a bout of antler-wrestling.
Anything beyond Bushy Park is going to be a letdown, and Hampton Hill is especially so. It's a perfectly decent suburb, don't get me wrong, but a forced diversion around three sides of a newly-private golf course makes for a disappointing pavement stroll. Along the way there's a luxury "Racquets and Fitness" spa, where the website won't even reveal how much annual membership costs, plus a bare patch of grass with goalposts where less financially fortunate local youth are permitted to exercise. The occasional white-curved Modernist home makes the half hour backstreet walk worthwhile, but only just. [photo]
And then, at Hospital Bridge, the Loop hits Crane Park. This linear enclave is home to the River Crane, its island nature reserve and the Shot Tower... all of which, you'll remember, I told you about last week. It's not quite up to Bushy Park standards, but a welcome breath of waterside green before the next roadside slog. This half mile up the Hanworth Road has a point, though, which is to reach the eastern edge of HounslowHeath ready for a yomp back across. The heath is a rare survivor of the landscape that once covered this part of London, before houses and airports took over. It's acid heathland, which means low gorse and bracken and the occasional fir copse, plus the very real risk of adders sliding through the undergrowth. An illiterate sign on the noticeboard near the entrance warns that "The adder is Britain's' only venomous snake..." and that, if bitten, to ensure that "medical attention is sort." I didn't spot any adders, but I was followed across the heath by a distinctly slimy-looking man in a black coat, which was somehow similar but worse.
One golf course and one footbridge later and I was back by the Crane, following the river north. I barely met a soul through this woodland strip, bar the few occasions where the path emerged to cross a road, or to walk past an impromptu car wash alongside a BP garage. The full mile and a bit stretches from Brazil Mill Wood via Baber Bridge to Donkey Wood - all names I'd never heard before before I set out. The path gets proper remote before long, passing behind silver warehouses along a raisedboardwalk. You'd sink into the mud along the riverbank otherwise - indeed the Causeway Nature Reserve alongside is the only place in London I've ever seen a sign saying "Danger Swamp Keep Out".
The riverside path edges ever closer to Heathrow, as the steady stream of planes ahead makes clear, eventually reaching the point where they're flying directly overhead. Down they come with undercarriages lowered, screaming in for landing and wobbling a little as they do so. It's strange to be somewhere semi-rural so close to a major airport, although the Loop shatters the illusion by turning left along the busy A30 as the end of the section approaches. Suddenly we're in a world of hangars, parking lots and dual carriageways, and... bloody hell, isn't that Concorde over there?! [photo] It is, it's G-BOAB, perched outside one of British Airways' maintenance hangars where only employees can get a decent look at her. There were plans to exhibit Alpha-Bravo at, or in, Terminal 5, but she weighs too much, so she's been left here at the back of the staff car park, mostly unseen. Hatton Cross isn't Heathrow's finest corner, and unless you enjoy very close-up plane-spotting, you'll be more than happy to slip away.