WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 22]
Harold Wood to Upminster Bridge (4½ miles)
This is an easy stroll, with some interesting bits (and some less interesting road-walking). Section 22 runs through one of London's least known corners, the "beyond Romford" bit of Havering. It follows the Ingrebourne Valley, or tries to, because sightings of the river are alas infrequent. And it ends up at the least busy station on the District line, which is why I'm walking it this month. [map]
In a few years Harold Wood is going to be the last Crossrail station inside London heading east. For now it's rather quieter - just three of us alighted on Sunday afternoon, emerging onto the delightfully-named Gubbins Lane. The Loop heads into a quiet estate, past a self-service supermarket oddly titled "Bargain Booze", and a bevy of auto services outlets. Archibald Road is a one-sided gravel drive facing out across some allotments - the last road in London before the countryside takes over. At the end is the also-delightfully-named Cockabourne Bridge, with the narrow river Ingrebourne flowing beneath. It's quite pretty, in a minimalist reedy way, although you'll only get the chance to peer over if you deviate from the Loop's nearby path.
Harold Wood Park is a pleasant greenspace, bounded by trees, and well used. It's the only park I've ever seen with Oral History Waymarker Boards, where locals recount their memories of playtimes gone by, and also the only park I've ever seen with a specific "Teenage Area". Appropriately-aged sportspeople were all over the place, including a very-official all-girls cricket match, and what looked like a herd of One Direction clones kicking a football about. I passed a Scooby-Doo themed ice cream van dispensing blue-filled cornets to grateful infants, then walked on to cross a footbridge above the Ingrebourne. There's supposed to be a welcome arch here, a St-Louis-shaped curve made from wood and painted in rainbow colours, but that's mysteriously disappeared.
The 'Welcome' is for entry into Pages Wood, the Forestry Commission's largest plantation in these parts. They've been building up patches of woodland over the last decade or so to create Thames Chase, one of the UK's twelve community forests, down the eastern side of the borough of Havering. Pages Wood started out as recently as 2001, and its hundred thousand trees have now sprouted high enough to make the end result sort-of imaginable. For now they grow behind a protective fence, but a network of all-weather paths slink through across the site, ideal (and very safe) for junior cyclists. The air was filled with thistledown, and the low grass brimming with teasels. At one point there's a bench shaped (sort of) like a duck, at another a track leads across the river to an expansive but overlooked meadow. The more Iuncover of Thames Chase the more I like it, although it's rarely seemed busy, and I suspect only those fortunate enough to live out this way know of its delights.
Hall Lane should be a total misery to walk along, not least because the Southend Arterial Road cuts through partway down, but somebody official has ensured not. A broad shared footpath and cycleway runs along one side, avoiding all unpleasant sliproad crossings bar one, thanks to what seems to be a Sustrans project to create a safe attractive bike-friendly route all along the Ingrebourne Valley. I was especially intrigued by the view to the west, with farmland down to the river below, then meadows specked with horses, with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the City clearly visible as silhouettes on the horizon. I'd arrived on harvest day, so in one field the combine harvester was at full pelt with clouds of chaff billowing behind, while baling was taking place in another. Although most never seek it out, London truly has its rural fringe.
A red double decker at the next road junction signalled a return to urbanity, this the northern residential edge of Upminster. Close by is the legendary Upminster Tithe Barn Museum of Nostalgia, which I swear I'll visit one day, except it only opens on alternate weekends and I've never yet managed to hit the right one. Close by also is Upminster Court, an Edwardian mansion built for a wealthy industrialist, very recently restored at great expense for use as a corporate HQ, but alas described as "Upmister Court" on the heritage plaque on the gatepost. But the Loop doesn't pass either this or the Tithe Barn, instead plunging down River Drive (which has some quirkily old lampposts with swan neck brackets and sodium lanterns). Squeeze between the posts at the foot of the drive to enter thick descending woodland, the best minute of the entire walk, where the path must double up as a drainage channel in particularly wet weather.
At the foot of the slope, beyond a brief clearing, a footbridge crosses the river. If you've been following the official Loop route this is only the second time you'll have seen the Ingrebourne, and it's also the last, because it's about to disappear inside a golf course. Instead enjoy the walk along the edge of five fields, the first all grass, the second a school playing field, the third a carpet of waving wheat. You'll have to visit quick to see that, because the fourth and fifth have already been harvested so are now rather stalkier. I should have been enjoying the fresh air, except two local old boys had bonfires going, including the bloke with the horse and two goats in his back garden. And apparently I should have turned round at the top of the final slope to spot Upminster Windmill over the rooftops, but I only read that bit of the instructions later, and I'd been distracted at this precise point by 2013's first sighting of blackberry pickers.
That's it for pretty - a narrow litter-strewn alleyway leads the Loop back to suburbia. I stopped at the parade of shops, causing the member of staff standing outside the convenience store to chuck away her cigarette and dash inside, only for me to buy a can of drink that probably cost less than her discarded fag. Wingletye Lane is the sole road hereabouts to cross the single-track railway line between Emerson Park and Upminster, so the Loop has to go this way, and then it's a short trudge to the District line station. This is Upminster Bridge, named after a river crossing on Loop section 23, and one of the few stations on the network where TfL no longer deem it necessary to run a ticket office. The 'ticket hall' is splendidly 1930s, with purple glassbrick skylights, K6 red telephone box and the notorious swastika tiling on the floor. Rest awhile on the unique curved benches on the platform, if you're heading home, or else it's only four miles to continue along the Loop to Rainham, and you'll actually see the river this time.