WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 10]
Hatton Cross to Hayes and Harlington (4 miles)
It's been some time since I led you along the London Loop, the capital's outer strategic walk, but not for want of trying. This runs up the River Crane, from Heathrow to the M4, isn't the most scenic journey you'll ever make. It's also one of the briefest sections of the Loop, though I somehow walked almost twice as far while attempting to complete it. Section 10 has its moments but, unless you're a completist, feel free to skip. [map][10 photos]
Step out of Hatton Crossstation and Heathrow slaps you right in the face. It's one of the first buildings beyond the end of the southern runway, not quite on the direct line but so close that planes roar past with unexpected ferocity. Traffic swirls around this airport outpost, much of it employees driving to work or buses scuttling between hotels and terminals. The walk begins unpromisingly alongside the busy dual carriageway, then veers off fractionally alongside a row of blossoming horse chestnuts to follow the (private) Eastern Perimeter Road. Cargo terminals and car parks eventually make way for fly-tipped hedges and some elegantly-textured concrete work courtesy of the Piccadilly line. This emerges here from shallow tunnel to pass very low over the River Crane, before dipping back underground on the other side.
I first tried tackling this section of the Loop back in February, when I got all this way only to find the very first bit of path flooded and impassable. Frustrated I decided to return later in the year, assuming any winter drainage issues would be sorted, so you can imagine my despair on turning up in May to find the flooding just as bad. A small lake rippled some distance along the path, and the first bench rose like a forlorn stepping stone across the mire. I'd have got through in wellies, but in heavy duty walking boots I was stuffed, which was annoying, because the detour was at least a mile and a half. But I was determined to get to the other side of the breach, else my eventual circuit of the capital would be incomplete, which meant a long trudge around the British Airways Flight Training Centre and through the mundane backstreets of Cranford.
After a protracted detour, much of which I'd have to immediately retrace, I finally reached a large puddle which wasn't quite the puddle I'd been stopped by in the first place. The Crane has form in this respect, as there are as many as four oxbow lakes lurking within a relatively short stretch of undergrowth, though rather hard to distinguish at this time of year. I enjoyed the fresh verdant solitude, interrupted only by a jet engine wheezing a short distance away on the other side of the main cargo terminal. A murder of crows covered the playing field where the footpath terminated, forcing Loopers through an estate of diamond-tiled semis with thick double glazing, now immediately in line with the airport's northernmost runway.
Peripheral Heathrow is perhaps the ugliest part of London, as boxy hotels rub up against lacklustre housing, and building sites conspire to create more of the same. Best then not to linger on the A4 Bath Road, and to nip across Cranford Bridge (erected 1776, rebuilt and widened 1915) to return to the river valley. This is accessed via Berkeley Meadows, a damp patch named after the area's former landowners, currently teeming with dandelions in flower and in fluff. A deep artificial curve in the grass added for overspill purposes was filled with standing water - unquestionably scenic, but ominous given what lay ahead.
The Loop is poorly signed at the entrance to Cranford Park - it's the left-hand plank-bridge you want, then the right-hand track by the river. And here again the mud began, and the large puddles, and benches you'd not reach in everyday footwear. The park is vast and historic, its meadows speckled with buttercups, but unexpectedly squelchy underfoot if you linger too close to the river, as the Loop chooses to do. Reluctantly I took a minor detour towards the heart of the Green Flag expanse, where a local man was flying his model aircraft with some aplomb, while above the treeline the real thing appeared at approximately one minute intervals.
St Dunstan's church is a highlight of the walk, once under the ownership of the Knights Templar, and its flint tower at least partly medieval. On my visit the churchyard was blessed by gently falling cherry blossom, although I completely missed the plaque to comedian Tony Hancock (whose ashes were scattered here), learning of its existence only much later on an information board while walking out of the park. Perhaps even more impressive are the clock-topped remains of the 18th century stableblock alongside, formerly operated by the Berkeley Hunt, who now chase scents around the fields of Gloucestershire. By contrast the park's Visitor Centre looks a tumbledown wreck, courtesy of an arson attack two years ago, but a much improved replacement is proposed.
Careful screening ensures that the M4 lies entirely out of sight, despite the sliproads to junction 3 running
immediately behind the church. Instead a drab box-subway runs underneath, allowing parishioners from the north to attend services, and the rush of traffic can be discerned somewhere overhead. On the far side the path branches off along a thin strip between woodland and the backs of houses, where tabby cats prowl, before opening out into a meadowy clearing. I should have ignored the Loop's signs and tracked the Hillingdon Trail down to the river, for a last bit of Crane, instead following a hawthorn-lined corridor straight out of the park.
The Crane public house on the corner is now the Yellow Chilli Lounge, Hygiene Rating Zero. The brick Electricity Substation across the road is capacious enough to support the local industrial estate. Nobody walks to the Tesco Superstore by the busy roundabout - the car is king. The arterial road rises up dramatically to cross the canal, affording scenic views of the ex-Nestlé factory. And a chunky stacked ramp leads relentlessly down, and down, to eventually meet the towpath. The Loop's paperwork recommends a brief detour to the left to view Bull's Bridge, a white-arched hump where the Paddington Arm meets the Grand Union. They're right to do so too, even if my attempts to take adecent photo were made much harder by the positioning of a decrepit information board in front and a man swigging cheap cider underneath.
The canal will be the backdrop to the Loop almost all the way from here until the end of section 12. For now there's just a short stretch to the next pub, running alongside the aforementioned Nestlé factory (which no longer smells of coffee) and underneath the Great Western Mainline. Whilst most of the tracks are supported by modern metal, the first span is considerably older and made of wood, its joists cracked on the surface like a distressed antique. Ahead lie a series of ellipsoid flats, the first vanguard of a rash coming to Hayes now that Crossrail is opening the place up. Other than the Old Crown there's not much to enjoy, but the station is thankfully not far away.