WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 23] Upminster Bridge to Rainham (4 miles)
Almost a fifth of the London Loop falls within the London borough of Havering, to the northeast of the capital. Much of this follows the River Ingrebourne, a relatively unknown 27 mile tributary of the Thames that runs in a dogleg down from Brentwood. Section 23 shadows the river from Upminster down to Rainham, along dead easy paths that even a family with a pushchair could manage. A pleasant stroll.
Upminster Bridge is one of the quietest stations on the Underground network, which helps the swastika on the floor of the ticket hall to go relatively unnoticed [photo]. A splendid station, locally listed, with a hint of Holden and a proper K6 phone box by the entrance [photo]. The "Bridge" in question is a brief span across the Ingrebourne, here nothing but a concrete channel, situated a few hundred yards downhill from the Upminster Windmill. The mill and the single row of cottages by the bridge are almost the only nod to a history before the onslaught of suburbia. Turn right and you'll find the home of Hornchurch FC, otherwise known as the Urchins, who are playing a local-ish derby against Billericay Town this afternoon [photo]. I'm not sure who writes their signs, but "Look Out For Pedestrains Crossing Infront Of Gates" suggests a little more Learning and Development is required.
Past the turnstiles and the car park, the Loop meets up with the Ingrebourne proper - still semi-artificially compared with what's yet to come. It's quiet along here, or would be if the occasional pair of local youth weren't standing around watching tinny R&B videos on their smartphones. At Hacton Bridge the valley opens out a little, or rather the houses draw back. This is the last road to cross the Ingrebourne for the next 2½ miles, such is the power of a river in impeding development and traffic flow. Here be teasels, and lads fishing, and a variety of free-to-use exercise equipment, and a snaking channel winding south between overgrown banks. [photo]
The path beside the Ingrebourne is tarmacked throughout, even when the river's otherwise well out in the open, giving the feeling that the council's never very far away. Only once was there any mud to tiptoe around, this despite a torrential downpour or two the day before. St George's Hospital makes a brief intrusion above the trees, or at least its chimney does, while acres of rolling fields are almost visible to the east. A bit of a birding hotspot, so I'm told. All is safely green and pleasant, although only rarely does the river flow up close to the footpath, and only twice is there a footbridge allowing a proper look down.
Almost imperceptibly, the Loop enters Hornchurch Country Park. This is an area of former gravel pits, relandscaped and recultivated to create a lovely afternoon out. Before that it was RAF Hornchurch, an important wartime airfield, as the Spitfire-shaped climbing frame in the adventure playground gives hint. Both Max Bygraves and Ronnie Corbett were stationed here, as well as (thankfully) hundreds more talented pilots who helped save the skies during the Battle of Britain. The only other reminder is the occasional concrete pillbox nestled off the path, otherwise you might imagine these grassy meadows have been here forever. Ideal for cycling, I thought, as did a family attempting to teach their daughter to ride a bike by encouraging her to freewheel down a brief slope.
At a flooded gravel pit (bring bread for the ducks) the path veers away from the river and stays away. The big Essex hideaway is Albyns, its asymmetric farmhouse formerly a medieval manor. The building's been lovingly maintained, although I'm sure the giant WW2-style searchlight in the front garden isn't a period feature. Then just past the farmhouse turn left through a gap beside the gate. It's not signed - indeed this entire section of the Loop has several waymarking gaps, which I'd humbly suggest someone needs to sort out soon.
It wasn't possible to walk across this meadow until a couple of years ago, with the Loop forced to make a tedious detour through South Hornchurch estates. Since then another former landfill site has been transformed, this one on behalf of the Forestry Commission, to create a brand new not-yet-forested open space. It's glorious at the moment, a riot of late summer wild flowers across extensive untrodden slopes. If you own a mountain bike, bring it here. A one-way circuit of rocky paths has been laid to suit a variety of abilities, with a choice of straighter or wigglier on the steady descent. Most impressive, and free, and thus far only lightly used.
This artificial mound is Ingrebourne Hill. It's barely a hillock - the summit's only 22 metres high, but round here 22 metres is still significantly higher than almost anywhere else so there's a fantastic view. Stand on the stone pyramid where three paths meet and enjoy the 300° panorama from far beyond the QE2 Bridge round through Bexley and Dagenham to Romford and Brentwood. In particular, at least ten miles off to the west, the skyline of central London is clearer than you'd ever expect [photo]. Docklands, the Shard, the Gherkin, behind a foreground of pylons, wind turbines and Bexley the incinerator. I could have stood up here soaking in the view for ages - probably did to be honest - attempting to identify City sights and suburban spires [photo]. But be warned that the Loop doesn't go up the hill, which is a lost opportunity, you'll need to divert appropriately.
Exiting past a lake and anartwork that looks like landing lights [photo], brings the Loop sharply back to reality. The edge of an estate... a tropical fish showroom... a builders merchant... an orange-fronted pub hosting a Psychic Night... a stilted arterial road... a mega Tesco. It's all very Essex, even though geographically it isn't quite. But walk a little further and Rainham dramatically improves. The heart of the town is proper old, from the 12th century church to the NT-owned merchant's house, so long as you don't walk too far away from the clocktower war memorial and destroy the illusion [photo]. And the station's just round the corner, beyond which the marshes spread all the way down to the Thames. But that's Section 24, the utterly atypical end of the Loop, and a completely different experience.