I'm walking the Hainault Loop, a safari through outer northeast London. Yesterday I trudged three miles along the southern edge, along the arterial A12. Today I'm following the Central line north as it swings north out of deep tunnel and into the countryside. There will be horses. There will be muddy puddles. There will be further relentless housing estates. And at the end there will be Essex. [map][30 photos]
Enough of Eastern Avenue. The dual carriageway slogs on towards Romford after Newbury Park, but I needed to follow the Central line suddenly north. Oaks Lane sounded promising, a reminder of when everything round here was fields, although in reality rows of semis leading to an unexciting stack of flats. And then the houses on one side stopped, and the vista opened out to reveal fields. Not exciting fields, more flat green expanses of partly grass, but a welcome change of scenery all the same. To the left a footpath crossed the railway heading for an unseen Sainsburys, but I pressed on towards proper rural, up a pitted track (notionally a bridleway) to a clump of buildings surrounded by agricultural detritus. This is Aldborough Hatch Farm, an outpost of the village of Aldborough Hatch across the fields, part-swallowed by suburbia. I would have taken a photo but the owners were standing around outside, and nothing screams "Neighbourhood Watch" louder than a stranger unexpectedly snapping your outbuildings. They drove off in their 4×4 along the lane, dirt splashing as they rolled, past a couple of very damp looking horses.
It's not far, not far at all, to the edge of Fairlop Waters Country Park. This is the dull corner of the park, unless you like golf. A wooden signpost pointed past the lake to Fairlop station, but I followed the shorter finger along the lane towards Barkingside - the briefer non-muddy option. Redbridge council hides a youth offending centre at the tip of Station Road where most won't see it, and here too is Oakside Stadium, home to Barkingside FC. They play in the Essex Senior League and are only eight promotions away from the Premiership, although judging by current form that's looking unlikely. For a decent view of any action try the footbridge at Barkingside station, which is alongside. The station building is Grade II listed, this time not for modern reasons but because it's 1903 classical. Cream stone quoins. Granite plinth. Small domed cupola. That sort of lovely.
Just down the road is Doctor Barnardo'sVillage, this for girls to make up for the fact that before 1876 everything had been for boys. It has 14 cottages set around a rural green, and a children's church, and a Tesco on a patch of land since sold off. But to follow the railway I didn't walk that way, I followed Craven Gardens - suburbanly nondescript to the end and then wow. At Fullwell Cross is my favourite London library, from the outside at least. "A low, circular concrete drum with simple yet varied fenestration, rising above the centre of which is a lantern with arched roof lights and conical - almost tent-like - shell roof with a green copper finish." It could be a crown, or some symmetrical type of hat, but truly it's just circular genius. The architect was Frederick Gibberd, famed for Harlow New Town and for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and ah yes, there's the similarity. The council have even used a sympathetic sixties font for the big yellow letters facing the high street... they're clearly well read.
Fairlop station is one of the least used on the Underground, because the Central line passes just too far east to be convenient. Back in the 1940s the station was surrounded on all sides by Green Belt, bar a thin strip of housing running down to Fulwell Cross, a not insignificant walk away. The boating lake will never bring major passenger traffic, nor the golf course and garden centre, but the local High School packs them in daily. Look, it has an Amstrad Technology Wing, courtesy of Barkingside's cheery local millionaire Sir Alan Sugar.
Journey to the centre of the Hainault Loop: I thought I'd take a brief diversion at this point to explore the bit in the middle. Where, I wondered, is the unfortunate settlement in the middle of the Hainault Loop, with a dozen stations all around but none close by. And that'd be Clayhall, an expanse of interwar housing estate merging into several more expanses of interwar housing estate, but this one invisible on the tube map. I took the 169 bus up Fullwell Avenue to its terminus at The Glade, which I think is about as far from the Central line as you can get. All ever so residential and not much more, I thought. But a footpath led off between two blocks of flats to an appealing-looking green space, rising beyond on wooded slopes, and topped off by a distant water tower. It looked intriguingly explorable, were it not for the muddy grass and the flooded path, so I thought better of it. Somewhere to revisit in the summer, I think, but for now, the next bus back.
I alighted back at the roundabout by the New Fairlop Oak - which is both a pub and a famous tree. The East End used to decamp to Fairlop on the first Friday in July for a drunken revel beneath the oak's broad branches. 250 years later many of the East End have moved here permanently, as the jolly mannequin outside the halal butchers suggests. St Francis Church up Fencepiece Road has a green pyramidal spire and a very 30s design, as if it were somehow a church hall that grew too far. Alas it's the last vaguely interesting building for a while, because Hainault is more somewhere to live than a location to revel in. Here the residential avenues swamped both sides of the Central line before the Green Belt set solid, so the entire area is now houses and schools and intermittent shopping parades.
Only on the platforms is Hainault station impressive. Down at ground level there's little but a pair of unprepossessing entrances, watched over by a low bridge and a billboard advertising Sky Movies. Meanwhile on the other side of the road is the entrance to Hainault Train Maintenance Depot - a key Central line stopover. It's reached up an avenue of silver birches, plastered with enough 10mph speed limit signs to remind even the most amnesiac driver. And the sidings block the way somewhat for walkers, not that there are many of us attempting to travel up the line on foot, to be honest. Time for a cut-through up a cul-de-sac, past bungalows and well-tended front gardens, in an entirely this-is-nothing-special kind of way. Only a set of allotments hints at the undeveloped green space beyond, its gate with a passive aggressive message to careless plot owners. But keep going, because at the top of the slope there's a hedge and then a field, and that's the edge of London, that's Essex. Next stop, GrangeHill.