WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 19]
Chingford to Chigwell (4½ miles)
Section 19 of the London Loop involves walking along the edges of only-just Essex, from Tebbitsville to Birds of a Feather, via all and none of the stereotypes you'd expect. There's forest, there's mud, there's the Roding Valley to cross, and there's some of the worst signage I've found anywhere on the Loop. So long as you can follow a map, it's got its moments. Best hurry, before TfL take it down. [map]
As you exit the platform at Chingford station there's a plaque on the wall exhorting you to follow section 19 of the London Loop. I'm not sure anyone ever pauses to study it carefully, it's rather too close to the ticket barrier for that, but if you take heed and cross the bus station on your way out you can be on the walking trail in a couple of minutes. Beware Cattle! I suspect the message is more for drivers than ramblers, but with several square miles of Epping Forest ahead it pays to be careful. This section of the Loop's only crossing a small part - section 18 does more - but this corner is possibly the busiest with daytrippers, dogwalkers, picknickers and general amblers. Almost immediately the signs disappear, but stick towards the main road round the back of the Brewer's Fayre and you'll not go far wrong.
And here you should break your walk, even though you've barely walked any distance at all, to enjoy two old visitor attractions and a very new one. Most obvious from the path is Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, a three storey viewing deck from which Tudor monarchs surveyed the royal hunt. It's a great whitewashed survivor, and free to enter for an insight into what King Henry VIII used to do when he came here, and maybe some juggling lessons too if you turn up at the right time. Nextdoor is a fresh, lively 'visitor interpretation centre', barely two years old, called The View. Alas the upstairs balcony is currently closed due to a broken glass panel, and looks like it's normally locked anyway, so the building doesn't really live up to its name. Nevertheless there's a rather good exhibition over two floors covering the history and natural wealth of the adjacent Forest, plus a tasteful gift shop in which small kids can run amok. Meanwhile newly restored on the other side of the Lodge is Butler's Retreat, one of Epping Forest's traditional refreshment blocks, converted from an old barn in the 1870s. Originally part of the Temperance movement, the new owners serve a bit of alcohol as well as bacon ciabattas and cake, and on Sunday afternoon the place was buzzing. Even if you don't fancy the whole walk, don't be afraid to consider Chingford Plain for an outdoor excursion of your own.
The Loop continues across the road, again unsigned, so you'd probably never think to take the path left through the edge of the car park. The small brook at the end of the wooded trail is The Ching, because what did you expect Chingford's river to be called. It also marks the dividing line from London into Essex, and what lies beyond is pure Home Counties. A broad grassy clearing rises steadily upwards, long and wide enough for an entire horse race, and not currently as muddy as it gets sometimes in midwinter. At the top of the ascent is the Warren Wood pub, and a main road, and a further climb to the edge of a cricket pitch. And this is Buckhurst Hill, a commuter suburb with a split personality.
Initially the Loop threads through the slightly posh bit, on the top of the ridge. A two bedroom flat in gated Roebuck Heights will set you back £600,000, the neighbouring cottages around North End a little more. And now, sorry, it's time to get lost again. Green signs point you down an umpromising cul-de-sac, then fail to point you left into what looks like a house's private drive. That narrow track curving off round the fence is a proper public right of way, indeed in days of yore was a cattle drive for leading livestock through the Forest. The City of London still owns North Farm, to one side, retained as a buffer zone to stop housing spreading across the valley. In spring the bluebells in adjacent Linders Field are worth a diversion, but in autumn best continue beneath the tinted canopy and follow the carpet of leaves downhill.
We may be outside London but here's the Central line, specifically the section between Buckhurst Hill and Loughton. A metal footbridge links open fields to the housing estate beyond, a favoured teenage hangout I'd judge by the chocolate milk and Haribo packets littering the walkway. And here we're entering a very different part of the suburb, more Buckhurst Valley, and with the unmistakeable air of London overspill. The streets are pleasant enough, but that wife waving her cabbie hubbie off to work could be Sharon or Tracey, and the welcoming committee outside the parade of shops is most likely wearing a hoodie and smoking a fag.
Ahead are Roding Valley Meadows, the largest remaining water meadows in Essex. That's landscape code for "liable to flood", hence nobody lives right by the river. Instead the western banks of the Roding follow a sequence of sports grounds, here cricket, further up football and rugby, and a favoured spot for exercising dogs and children when no matches are scheduled. The Loop skirts round a big lake, ideal for bread-chucking, then crosses the river before doubling back (unsigned) on the opposite banks. Here I met a thin woman in a pink cardigan with two feisty hounds called Dapper and Boudicca, both thankfully distracted by the opportunity to play in the shallows by the weir. But five minutes later the pair bounded out of the woodland ahead of me and launched themselves at the ankle of a lady out walking a Highland Terrier. An actual Essex catfight ensued, with the injured party pleading for the offending hounds to be put on a lead and the owner screeching that her dogs weren't dangerous, when they quite clearly were.
If you're not obsessed by walking the Loop you should break from the proper route here and continue through the Roding Valley Nature Reserve to Debden station. The lush riverside route looks far more interesting than what I got to walk next, venturing to Chigwell instead. The access road to a David Lloyd tennis centre round the back of an unbuilt motorway service station is nobody's idea of a scenic stroll. From the bridge across the M11 there are distant views of City towers, plus the attractive residential ridge over which you've just walked. And the walk ends with a good half mile of Chigwell pavement, past the front of many an Englishman's castle, any of which could easily be Dalentrace. The personalised numberplate density is high, and the number of unpaved front gardens correspondingly low. And outside Chigwell station there's a plaque on the wall exhorting you to follow section 20 of the London Loop. That's a much better walk, but 19 had its moments.