WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 15]
Hatch End to Elstree & Borehamwood (9 miles)
Section 15 is one of the longest sections of the London Loop, and a relatively green stretch too. It wiggles out into Hertfordshire and back, then strikes out for good ending up well beyond the border. Along the way are plentiful fields and woodland, one great view and slightly too many golf courses, plus one of the most underused footpaths I've battled through for some time. Set course for the far edge of Harrow, and expect to get repeatedly lost. [map][7 photos]
The lasttwo times I've found myself in this field outside Hatch End it's been a mudbath. This time, thankfully, it's bone dry underfoot, with hay waving in the meadow and butterflies on the wing. It's a lovely way to begin. Less good is the lack of a London Loop sign pointing in the right direction, the first of dozens that will be absent or indistinct along the way. And I'm not alone on my journey. Two dozen older ramblers have wandered up from the station, poles in hand, and are already consulting their map to work out which way to go. I stride off first, and they follow a minute behind, pursuing me along the hedge. The next missing sign is at the far end, past the pylon, and it takes me a while to work out that I really am supposed to squeeze past a fallen trunk and switch to an adjacent field. The rambling party observes and follows to continue the chase.
At the next gate the Loop crosses into Hertfordshire, specifically Carpenders Park, shadowing and then crossing the West Coast mainline via a latticed footbridge. Again the Loop sign is missing, and the next bleached so much it's barely readable, and the next missing altogether. I'm starting to wonder who's to blame for this waymarking collapse - the council, local vandals or TfL and their increasingly insignificant budget. By now the walking group have fallen behind again, and I wonder if they'll be able to work out which way to go. The route used to follow Oxhey Lane back into Middlesex, but now it skips the clubhouse and rises through littered scrub to join the local golf course near the 6th hole's green. I am eyed suspiciously by those preparing to putt, the path here marked only by a row of white posts ascending the hillside, and affording no protection whatsoever from withering stares.
Beyond the 5th tee the path bears off then disappears into some woods, but only if you notice the word LOOP scratched into a wooden post above a faded yellow arrow. At least that's better than the non-existent sign at the next junction where I accidentally continue along the fence and then have to retrace my steps. I'm now following Grim'sDitch, a three mile prehistoric earthwork, imperceptibly undulating as a rooty ridge beneath the trees. I'm also within the grounds of the Grim'sDykeHotel, which you may remember celebrated by Betjeman in his Metro-land documentary as the abode of "beautifully behatted" ladies. It was also formerly the home of librettist W.S. Gilbert, who died here of a heart attack in the lake after attempting to rescue a young swimmer. I'm keen to take a look, but when I arrive a devil dog is standing haunch-deep in the algae-topped water, so I have to creep silently past.
The twisty path emerges onto Old Redding, a high point above Harrow Weald, which I visited recently as it's the start of the River Pinn. The view's great, from Harrow-on-the-Hill round to aeroplanes landing in the distance at Heathrow, and is being admired by various parked-up drivers across a storm-puddled car park. But the Loop only nips briefly out of the woods, returning on the other side of the hotel to enter Harrow Weald Common. This is dark and peaceful, and inadequately signposted. It takes five minutes to spot a marker convincing me I'm on the right route, seven minutes to realise I've not passed a soul along the way, and ten minutes to stop worrying unnecessarily about a pack of wolves stalking out of the ferny undergrowth.
There's nobody in Bentley Priory Nature Reserve either. This is a delightful open space on almost the highest point in Middlesex, a rough and tumble of grass and trees and thistly pools with occasional views across the City. I'm indebted to the Harrow Nature Conservation Forum who've compiled a truly excellent leaflet to accompany their 25-stop nature trail. These are freely available from dispensers by the entrance (which I initially mistook for dogpoo bags), and provide a wonderfully comprehensive guide to the flora, fauna and geology of this charming SSSI. At the top of the slope a thick fence seals off Bentley Priory, home to Fighter Command during WW2, now a luxury housing development. It'd take ages to walk round to the security-approved entrance, but I must venture inside for a look at their museum soon.
The Loop then takes an unnecessarily long meander around Stanmore Common, for reasons best known to those who created it. TfL's six-page printable guide for Section 15 includes a close-up map of this area so you don't get lost, which I did, twice, because the signage was familiarly appalling. And I'd walked this before - goodness knows how people who haven't cope. The walk round Brewery Pond would have been nicer had a large family group not set up a barbecue and picnic by the waterside, with a great deal of their fast-reddening flesh on view, and a volleyball net draped provocatively across the footpath. By this time I'm almost ready to give up and escape via Stanmore station down the hill, but no, four more sweaty miles remain.
Blimey. The footpath north from Stanmore Common looked ordinary on the map but in real life appears very lightly trod. It squeezes between a dog grooming hut and the back of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, which is as tumbledown a corner of the NHS as you could ever hope to meet. Through here the nettles are out of control, so I'm well pleased not to be wearing shorts, then brambles cross the path, so I have to bat them carefully out of the way, then the ferns reach neck high, which is no fun, and finally the path emerges from behind a dumped pile of clinker, as if the local farmer didn't really want anyone coming this way. Which is a shame because there follows an easy lane past grazing horses, then a delightful swish across a hayfield alongside the M1 motorway, the grass alive with hundreds of dancing butterflies. I must be back in Hertfordshire again.
To reach Aldenham Reservoir requires careful negotiation of a busy roundabout (once intended as the Bushey Heath terminus of the Northern line) (damn, why did I only realise that after I got home?) and a long pavement slog past a bland business park estate (formerly the Danziger Brothers New Elstree Studios). Annoyingly there's no immediate access to the waterside from the Watford Road, until an opening in the fence on a blind bend permits a way through. Even then the Loop's route never quite manages to reach the waterside, blocked by woodland and a sailing club, with official directions suggesting a diversion to see the 18th century dam (ah yes, much prettier) before the path all-too-quickly veers off. There's much more to explore here, and I need to come back.
Are we still not at the end yet? A cracked path leads across a field of rape, with a cluster of yurts visible in a neighbouring field, rising to what used to be Watling Street at the foot of Elstree village. And that's not it either. The Loop chooses to pursue an indirect route up a further hill, a delightfully pastoral ascent (littered with warning signs about watching out for horses), before stepping out onto the section's last golf course. Here I get lost yet again, broken by the combination of pisspoor signage and indistinct written instructions, before finally deducing the correct path. One final spinney leads back to Allum Lane, and the first shop I've passed since Hatch End, which gives you some idea of how pleasingly peripheral this walk has been. And before long I am the sweaty mess on the train at Elstree and Borehamwood station, speeding back to the heart of town.