WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 5] Hamsey Green to Coulsdon South (6 miles)
The London Outer Orbital Path (or LOOP) footpath skirts the rim of London like a muddy one-lane M25. It's a marathon route, 150 miles long in total, divided up into 24 manageable chunks. The first section to be officially opened was the southernmost, scudding along the bottom of London along the border between Croydon and Surrey. This is an especially scenic section, linking four expanses of City-owned chalky downland. It's also the only section not to have a map and full downloadable directions on the Walk London website. Grrrr. I knew it would be a bit risky trying to follow the route without an official leaflet or guidebook, relying only on signposts and waymarkers. But I like a challenge.
Riddlesdown: Catch the 403 bus south from Croydon, along cosy Tudorbethan avenues, and you'll eventually reach the suburban outpost of Hamsey Green. It boasts a Woolworths (which is pretty impressive for somewhere I'd not heard of before) as well as a Co-op and the Thread Bear needlework boutique. The Loop walk begins at a signpost on the tiny village green, outside the Good Companions pub, and heads west towards the grassland summit of Riddlesdown. There's a bit of meadow first (the only stretch of the walk within Surrey) and then a glorious view out across the hills above Whyteleafe. Listen carefully and you might hear an Oxted-bound train emerging from a tunnel beneath the chalk and whistling along the valley below. The official footpath skirts three sides of Skylark Meadow, avoiding a disused quarry with sheer white cliffs. Descent is via an old Roman track, Riddlesdown Road, once the main route south to the coast but now just a leafy bridleway with well-spaced dog bins.
Kenley Common: Cross the valley via Barn Lane, at the top of which a staircase of 82 wooden steps leads even further up the hillside to the next downland plateau. The Loop passes through the woodland and grazing pasture to the north of the common, missing out completely on the excitement to be found on the other side of a tall hedge. Whoosh! That orange and white blur was a glider swooshing a few metres above your head, coming in to land on the runway at the old WWII KenleyAirfield. So long as you stay outside the perimeter track, the MoD don't mind you getting right up close to watch operations on the airfield itself. Look - a pack of yellow jeeps swarms around each returning craft, reattaching a rope to the nosecone ready to yank the glider back up into the sky. If the wind's right it won't be long before you see (and hear) a take-off launching steeply into the clouds, with the cable parachuting back to earth a few seconds later. Don't get too jealous, but these unpowered pilots have a far better view across the landscape than you'll ever get from the ground.
Coulsdon Common: I got rather lost (and rather muddy) on the next short section of the walk, which deviates unnecessarily around a field close to the Wattenden Arms pub. I was back on track soon afterwards, only to find two disturbingly frisky horses guarding the next field and eyeing me with hoof-kicking intent. When even their owner failed to control them ("whoa!!!") I retreated rapidly back over the stile and hunted for an alternative route. A short detour by road sufficed, past a far more docile fox, although this meant missing out on a close-up view of the Croydon Astronomical Society's white-domed observatory. There followed a brief residential interlude up Rydons Lane past the homes of the almost-rich, including one particularly offensive bungalow with nine cars parked on the crazy paving out front. A short stroll across Coulsdon Common followed - all very green and pleasant, but still relatively ordinary compared to the rest of the walk.
Happy Valley: And now the best bit - the unspoilt contours of Happy Valley and Farthing Downs. Both are easily accessible, but abundant hordes of local dog walkers seem to prefer not to venture too far from the car parks at either end. Happy Valley was an unexpected treat, with a criss-crossing network of footpaths to explore across acres of sloping wildflower meadows. A good place for a picnic, if only I'd thought to buy some appropriate comestibles in Waitrose in Sanderstead several hours previously. I thought I was alone on the track through Devilsden Woods until I came across an Indian lady gyrating by the bridleway. She stopped and yelled "not yet!!" down the wooded slope... to two men with a film camera... and then continued her silent dancing after I'd passed.
Farthing Downs: Before long the woodland track emerged onto a long finger-like ridge on the very roof of London. I don't know what I'd been expecting from the map, but this was better. One mile of chalky upland, scattered with Iron Age tumuli and grazing cattle, with an unfenced road passing unobtrusively along the centre. Halfway along stood a windswept beech glade (one of whose trees dates back to 1783), beside a much younger Millennium Cairn (recently fenced-off due to post millennial vandalism). The views to either side were a majestic mix of rolling green hills and farmland, threaded with suburban veins of white-fronted semis. Directly ahead lay the urban sprawl of Coulsdon, my ultimate destination, and beyond that something far more recognisable. A row of distant City skyscrapers, one of them definitely Gherkin-shaped, marked out the centre of London 15 miles to the north. Canary Wharf was unexpectedly far to the right, behind the TV masts at Croydon and Crystal Palace. It was then a gentle descent down the tip of Farthing Downs, past a City-of-London-owned cattlegrid (honest), before retuning to civilisation with a bump. This section of the walk ended, conveniently, at the footbridge over the tracks at Coulsdon South station. I could have carried on along the Loop for another 100 miles or so, clockwise round to Rainham, but I wimped out and returned home on the quarter past three.