WALK HAVERING Somewhere random: London Loop section 24 Rainham to Purfleet (5 miles)
If you ever decide to walk the London Loop, the capital's outer strategic walk, this is where you'll end up. A bleak stretch of estuarine footpath, far beyond where settlement stops. Ahh, Havering, borough of contrasts, and this is about as un-Romford as it gets. And what better at the end of a long trek around London's third largest borough than a five mile walk, eh?
It used to be a simple walk down Ferry Lane from the station, until they built the High Speed Chunnel Rail Link as a barrier. Now it's up and over an ill-signposted twisty bridge, to be deposited in the contour-free nomansland on the opposite side. The landscape of southwest Rainham - riverside industrial - only rarely attracts architectural acclaim. Thankfully the footpath veers southeast along the edge of Rainham Marshes, a rare surviving expanse of marshland, blighted only by a row of pylons and the thundering A13. The flowers are gorgeous at this time of year, all pinks and yellows and whites with intermingled grasses [photo], so long as you never once turn round and stare at the grubby warehouses behind. This is an excellently waymarked route, with cumulative distance markers every 200m and stencilled metal signposts to all destinations. Unfortunately it's also part-closed at the moment, requiring an unscheduled detour away from the first stretch of Thames bank. Fortunately that meant exchanging huge factories for a meandering path through the heart of the marshes, and this I loved. Silty lagoons, clustered bullrushes, purple and green sproutings, and not a living soul anywhere to be seen. You wouldn't walk it after dark, and you'd think twice in biting winter wind, but at the right times it's surely a birdwatcher's paradise.
That's the Tilda rice factory ahead, bring the elysian phase to a close. It was Europe's largest rice mill when it opened thirty years ago, and still welcomes basmati cargo from distant Asian ports. Ignore that, there's proper history beached on the foreshore. These are Rainham's concretebarges, constructed during the war when building materials were scarce, and used on D-Day as part of the Mulberry harbours. A decade later they were dumped here in the Thames as protection from the great flood of 1953. And here they remain, sunk into a beach at a variety of angles, slowly not-rusting away [photo]. There are sixteen concrete barges in total, if I can count correctly on Google Maps, although there seemed more when viewed from the side. If the tide's low and your footwear's appropriate then you might trudge out across the squelchy grass to stand alongside, maybe even board a couple, although best not if you'd like the barges to survive longer.
And that's not all that's peculiar around here [photo]. A short distance away, anchored eight metres down into the riverbed, is a twisted mass of galvanised steel in humanoid form [photo]. This is The Diver, a uniquely submersible artwork, and allegedly the only sculpture to be located actually in the River Thames. It was installed here overnight in the year 2000 by artist John Kaufman, and dedicated to his grandfather who used to be a diver in the old London Docks. Come at low tide, as I did, and the entire sculpture stands proud above water level. But as the Thames slowly rises so the diver starts to vanish, until at certain spring tides each year the top of the helmet is fully submerged. It's a lovely idea, well delivered, and at such a remote location that only those in the know ever come visiting.
Any sane traveller would have turned back at this point, but the Loop continues along the river's edge to Coldharbour Point. There used to be a ferry across the Thames here to Erith, many centuries ago, but now this remote headland is little more than London's dumping ground. You'll have seen those barges stacked with waste chugging down the Thames past Westminster and the City... well here is where they end up. Unloaded at a warehouse on a pontoon, driven across a bridge, tipped into Veolia's Rainham landfill site, and destined to become underlay for a new nature reserve by the end of the decade. Also here are a decrepit industrial estate, umpteen piles of pallets and a red navigational lighthouse [photo]. This used to be the Loop's end until a cycleway was driven through a few years back. Another mile along the Thames, opposite Crayford Ness, Havering finally gives way to Thurrock. The boundary lies part way along Aveley Bay [photo], which is probably the closest London comes to a potential seaside resort, but only for mudlarks. [And I can't tell you about the rest of the walk, because it falls outside my borough of choice, but I can link to the treat which lies at the Purfleet end] by train: Rainham, Purfleet by bus: 372