WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 21]
Havering-atte Bower to Harold Wood (4½ miles)
This hike across the top right corner of the capital is a two phase affair, first remote undulating farmland and then a trek through a Havering housing estate. The good news is that the first part almost makes up for the second. And if you don't want to see another human being for an hour, Section 21 is the way to go. [map][6 photos]
One of the joys of visiting Havering-atte-Bower, aside from the village itself, is arriving via one of London's least frequent buses. On my journey the 375 is reassuringly busy, riding up the hill with a cargo including ten passengers, a suitcase, three gym bags and a bouquet of sunflowers. The sunflowers turn out to be important. On arrival I wander over to the stocks in the corner of the village green, and look back to see the flower-carrier standing alone in front of the church with a red heart-shaped helium balloon bobbing in her hand. She holds it for a minute or two, spinning round to look at the sky, before eventually letting go. The wind picks up the balloon and carries it over the village sign, above the stocks, and over the edge of the ridge, rising higher and higher until it's barely visible below the clouds. Her tribute ascended, she picks up the sunflowers and takes her bouquet into the churchyard, where a significant anniversary is to be commemorated. It's been an emotional launch.
This section of the walk starts at the Royal Oak, where a tactile map of the route now hangs somewhat inaccessibly behind a border of pebbles in the pub's beer garden. A brief path between two cottages leads out back into horsecountry, at first somewhat sparsely populated, meandering amiably alongside a fenced-off ditch. Close by in the trees is the Round House, a three-storey oddity once owned by a famous rosegrower, whereas the tall circular building easily spotted across the hedge is actually a water tower built to resemble a Norman turret. Across the intermediate field I espy a nucleus of equine folk standing chatting outside a barn, nothing especially conspicuous, but they're to be my last human contact for the next couple of miles.
An overgrown slatted footbridge leads through a brief tunnel of nettles, which makes me glad I've not worn shorts, before depositing me in a delightful hayfield. The footpath tramples across the middle, up and over a gentle rise between butterflies, heading for an isolated tree. You're supposed to walk past it, not wrongly assume that the waymark sign is pointing along the edge of the field, which is how I end up on an accidental ten minute detour. TfL's official new-style map's not especially helpful amid this fieldscape, showing nothing but two different shades of green for a couple of miles, leaving walkers reliant on a sequence of written instructions to find the way. Thankfully I've brought my 2005 London Loop leaflet with me, whose pictorial cartography helps guide me back on track.
An iron gatepost confirms the right route, this all that remains of the royal palace of Pyrgo where Henry VIII's daughters spent a lot of time growing up, and which only Londoners who've ever walked the Loop have ever heard of. The path rises along the edge of a ripening wheatfield crossed by tractor tracks, before entering an enclosed paddock full of horses. Don't worry they won't bite, they barely even move, giving you the chance to enjoy the view from the ridgetop while they graze. This improves further once you're through the next gate, a rusty swinger which looks like it might be attached to the electric fence but thankfully isn't. Downslope the suburbs of Havering, the QE2 bridge and the Swanscombe pylons are easily seen, with the sweep of the North Downs beyond, at least 20 miles distant. That white water tower still sticks up above the woods to the west, while the surrounding arable fields hint confirm the unexpectedly rural nature of this corner of the capital.
Technically there's a direct public footpath to our next target but the Loop clings to the edge of the fields, because that's easier to sign, although the next fingerpost is now semi-enveloped by trees and very hard to spot. A dodgy-looking footbridge with missing planks leads across to the final field, a scrappy affair, now barely 100 metres away from the Greater London boundary. The road beyond the hedge is in Essex, although that's not quite true of the lane you're about to step into, a residential cul-de-sac lined by modern cottages, more a linear hideaway than a community. One resident is out on his ride-on mower, others have Beware of the Dog displayed prominently, and the farm gates at the far end resemble wooden barricades. Hop over a stile to follow a most unusual downhill path - I've never walked anything like it - crossing bubbles of tarmac and tarmac chunks for several hundred yards. And at the far end are the identikit chalets of the Lakeview Caravan Park, at last signalling a return to built-up area.
You could end the walk here, to be honest, indeed I can recommend combining Loop section 20 with the first half of 21 if you fancy nine miles of almost unbroken pastoral. Two buses conveniently terminate at this peripheral outpost, and The Bear's offer of flame-grilled food and Sky Sports attracts several locals, even if perhaps not you.
It's a jolt to be back on residential avenues, passing fake Tudor houses (the perfectly symmetrical timbers are the giveaway) and large St George flags. On Priory Road one angry resident has pinned a notice reading "The Council Are Going To Build Here If We Don't Stop Them" to a tree, along with a planning application number, in a brief gap between properties. I'm more surprised when what looks like a normal patch of suburban greenspace has a dozen deer clustered in the middle of it, jostling playfully, which must be the sort of thing that happens in the outer reaches of Harold Hill. And I very nearly miss the Loop sign directing me into the undergrowth, a thin sliver of woodland amid the housing estate which at its heart conceals Carter's' Brook. For a few hundred utterly atypical yards the path clings to the meandering banks of a very minor stream, ducking over or under fallen trunks as necessary, before disappearing out through a cloud of nettles. Ah, that was fun.
Enough of nature. From here onwards the Loop follows the culverted brook at a safe distance, cutting through Harold Hill along a narrow landscaped flood plain (which last overtopped in storms on Referendum Day). Central Park is quite pleasant, though nowhere near Manhattan standard, and features by its entrance an exceptionally long history of the area (which ends up apologising that absolutely nothing survives). By the playground are three wafer-thin statues of locally-relevant characters, specifically Henry VIII, the founder of the Romford Drum and Trumpet Corps and a Bank of England designer, a truly eclectic threesome. Then follows further estate-edge walking, overlooked by vestless householders, more flags and the occasional windowcleaner, on a less than inspiring hike down to the A12. The official risk-averse advice is to walk 500m up the Romford Road to a pedestrian crossing and 500m back again, whereas there is a unsignalled path straight across the central reservation, and I crossed both carriageways without even having to pause.
The final riverside strip again has no view of the riverside, but it does have the Havering Dog Training Centre, a hut whose presence explains the four leapy collies being exercised outside. It's not possible to follow Carter's Brook down to its confluence with the Ingrebourne because an industrial estate gets in the way, formerly a brickworks, and then the Liverpool Street mainline intrudes. And that's the signal for wholesale suburban retreat, heading to the crossing point by the station down some very ordinary residential streets, past the library and a final pub. This being Harold Wood the pub is the King Harold, overseen by a suit of armour in a white tunic on the first floor balcony. The ensuing parade of shops is pitch-perfect ex-East-End, with bakery, chippy and funeral directors in close sequence, and the great news IT'S A BOY stuck to the window of the hair salon. Crossrail arrives here soon, which may shake the area up somewhat, but even now Havering-Atte-Bower it most definitely ain't.