WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 1]
Erith to Old Bexley (9½ miles)
I'm now halfway through my decade-long circumnavigation round the London Loop. I've been attacking its sections intermittently, in a semi-random order, so I thought now was a good time to head to the beginning and tackle section number one. It's one of the longer stretches, nearly ten miles in total. It follows the far eastern edge of South London. And it's very rivery, tracing first the Thames, then the Darent, then the Cray. A cracking start.
Wandering down to the estuary from Erith station, you might be fooled into thinking the whole area is like RiversideGardens. Not so. This is a one-off patch of cultivated green, where the inaugural London Loop signpost points the way. Most of the rest of Erith's waterfront is dully residential or maritime, much like Dartford but without the splash of history. Whenever I'm here I like to stroll out down Erith Causeway, a wooden jetty poking out into the middle of the Thames across an expanse of tidal mud. That's the London Loop's final section passing by on the opposite bank, so close, yet technically 150 miles distant. This first mile heads out of town past some especially grim industrial units. Important though scrap dealers and haulage centres are to our national economy, they're really not the ideal environment for a weekend stroll. And steel yourself for inconsistent apostrophe abuse, notably at Transit Breakers where they want FRIDGE'S & BIKES CASH PAID.
And then a path turns off towards the yacht club, no really. Take this route and you're committing yourself to at least a two and a half mile walk, with rivers blocking every other escape route. The marshes open out ahead, with horses grazing to one side, and plenty of space to exercise your dog or motorbike. Watch for the sailing boats on the Thames, or the ships transporting containers of landfill to Coldharbour. The radar tower ahead marks Crayford Ness, a sharp bend in the estuary, and beyond that is the mouth of the Darent. This tributary of the Thames is kept in check by a tidal barrier a few hundred yards upstream, not that walkers or cyclists can get across, it's a lengthy detour for them. Tucked into this marshy dead end is an industrial estate nobody has to live next to, blessed with breakers yards, van depots and crushers. But try to ignore that and the view east is much better... assuming you like power stations and suspended motorway bridges.
I loved the feeling of space. You don't normally get so much sky in London, and this is still London, right up as far as a line bisecting the river channel. This early in the year the vegetation is still light, with only a few budding trees to break the flat green of the marshes. Things look very different too according to whether the tide's in or out - I got out, making the Darent a deep brown hollow edged by mud. And all so very quiet, apart from the distant roar of motocross bikes jumping off unseen mounds across the river. Eventually another tributary feeds in, this the Cray, and from its mouth we follow the waymarked Cray Riverway footpath for the rest of Loop 1. A final patch of reeds blesses the waterside, dampened somewhat by the accompanying swarm of midges. And then a perhaps not unexpected shock approaching Crayford... striding straight back into an enclave of can crushers and scrap merchants round the back of the railway viaduct.
The nicest part of the entire walk follows beyond the main road and the Jolly Farmers pub. The River Cray has suddenly transformed from a tidal channel to a wooded stream (although in reality it's the other way round - we're walking backwards). On Sunday a team of volunteers from Thames 21 had turned up to try to keep the river in pristine condition. They waded into the water to retrieve cans of lager, they wandered up the towpath wearing fully protective rubber gloves, and they rowed out aboard the Lady Cray to remove fly tipping from the rushes. A round of applause please for their dedication. Further up in Barnes Cray the path switches to the northern bank and isn't quite so lovely, sandwiched between back gardens and a trading estate. But the Cray isn't always this accessible, so best make the most of proximity while you can.
Waterside Gardens is a relatively new public space off Crayford High Street, making the most of the river's progress with landscaped lawns and spiky artworks. Swing gates keep local hounds at bay, making this an ideal place to rest (or even nap) before continuing with the shopping. A roadside yomp follows, dodging the traffic pouring out of the mega-Sainsburys, before turning off back to the river at Bourne Hall Recreation Ground. These fields ring to the sounds of junior league football at weekends, which appears to mean bullet-headed dads bawling encouragement from the touchlines, and the local ambulance service turning up to rescue a fractured leg. Head to the water's edge and you might find the second team's substitutes passing the time by digging out chunks of mud with sticks, and dogs splashing through the shallows while their owners look on with unabashed pride.
The Loop turns right across the footbridge, but don't do that immediately, head straight on towards Hall Place. This Tudor house and gardens is Bexley's pride and joy, and if you've never been, perhaps you should. The greenhouse by the entrance is full of flowering plants and occasionally owls, while the cafe in the new visitor centre serves up popular-looking tea and lunch. There are ducks to feed and blossoms to picnic beneath, plus a marvellous line of topiary sculpted to form ten of The Queen's Beasts. I still can't tell the griffin from the unicorn, nor the dragon from a yale. But the high spot is the house itself, with fine minstrels gallery and a local museum upstairs. I was hoping to nose around except the entrance fee appears to have leapt from zero to seven pounds since I was last here two years ago, and the current temporary exhibition wasn't quite enough to lure me in.
Back to that footbridge, and the Loop follows an unexpected zigzag round the back of Hall Place Gardens. A lonely path tracks alongside the railway, up and over the hard shoulder of the A2, back down along the railway again, and then in cutting beside the dual carriageway. There is a purpose, which is to direct the walker through the long thin wedge of Churchfield Wood. I had the entire woodland to myself for a full half mile, and grinned to find the first bluebells of 2013's late spring flowering on the banks throughout. A proper treat. The path emerges near St Mary's church, Old Bexley, with its historic octagonal shingled spire, and where a brief diversion through the cemetery nature reserve is recommended.
In the village centre I spotted a sign stuck to the door of the local barbers announcing that they were closing down for good at two o'clock. I read the handwritten message in which Penny and Anita offered their heartfelt thanks for years of customer support, while one of them sat alone on a chair in the nigh-empty shop, staring out of the window as the final five minutes ticked by. There wasn't much else doing on a Sunday afternoon in Old Bexley, except for nipping round Costcutter or waiting for the B12 to Joydens Wood. Loop section 2 beckoned invitingly up the side of the Railway Tavern, promising yet more Cray-side walking, but best save that for later.