WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 20] Chigwell to Havering-atte-Bower (6½ miles)
Now this is obscure. From one of the tube's most infrequently served stations to a village with one of London's most infrequent bus services. Pick your moment carefully before you walk London Loop section 20. But you may not believe how rural the northeastern edge of London can be. Bring mudproof boots.
Chigwell's very Essex. Not proper Essex, but stereotypically TOWIE Essex. You'll spot this at the shopping parade near the station, where the dry cleaners is the Chigwell Valet Service and the local caff is The Village Deli. Check out the estate agent's window and you'll see million pound houses aren't uncommon. Expect to see several on the walk up the High Road, and many fenced-off sets of personalised numberplates too. The village has a proper historic heart around the nucleus of the old church, including the multi-gabled Ye Olde Kings Head. It's one of innumerable inns around the country with a claimed connection to Dick Turpin, and home to probably the only bar/restaurant in Britain called Sheesh. Only in Chigwell. [photo]
Enough of civilisation. The Loop heads off via a minor field and then an impressively majorfield, with views across undulating countryside rising to a line of cottages on the ridge. First-time walkers stick to the hedgerows along a zigzag of farm tracks, whereas locals stride confidently and diagonally through what will soon be crops, but it's too early in the season as yet [photo]. That buzzing noise might be a lone bumble bee floating across a bank of dandelions, but it's more likely to be a skyful of light aircraft from the local airfield. At the top of the hill is a well-concealed waterworks, courtesy of Essex and Suffolk Water, where a sign on the edge of a large circular tank demands "no swimming", not that the ducks seem to care.
An orchard, a Shetland pony and a line of leylandii welcome you to Chigwell Row. The footpath past the hedge is narrow, but that'll only cause problems if you arrive during the hedge's annual trim, forcing the lady up a giant stepladder to stop, descend and shift the thing out of the way. There are further expensive homesandcottages here, strung out along a sort-of village green, plus probably a red double decker bus parked jarringly outside the church. A flash of charming woodland leads down to a busy dual carriageway where London begins, as is immediately obvious by the relentless housing estates that hug the capital's northeastern edge. Don't worry, we're not going there.
The Loop now crosses into Hainault Country Park, which is a 300 acre remnant of the ancient Forest of Essex. Parts of the park are very quiet, where you'll meet nothing but a rat scampering through a pile of logs, or the occasional group of mates larking about on an aerial walkway. But approach the lake, and the huge open space beyond the trees, and suddenly you're in Busysville, London Borough of Redbridge. The lake is a magnet for family groups, because one circuit is just far enough for toddlers and grandparents to walk. There's also a cafe (with queues at weekends) and a much-loved rare breeds farm (with donkey rides and meerkats). The car park lures suburban Londoners in their droves, most especially because the park's ideal for the exercising of squat growly dogs. Lazy visitors walk two minutes from their cars and let their hounds run amok on the grassy slopes. Fitter souls walk up the hill, past the Millenniumbeacon, and unleash their demons in the extensive woodland beyond.
At the top of Cabin Hill the Loop leaves these daytrippers behind by doglegging back across a golf course. The golfers are a friendly bunch, pleased to pause while you nip across the fairway, slightly embarrassed for holding up their game. There follows an unlikely descent through the treeline down the centre of the course, all the while attempting to follow the trunks painted with yellow-painted hoops - a tussle I can guarantee you'll never manage in a wheelchair. And then out into open farmland once more, for a stride across another field that'll be waist high within months. This liminal London landscape is the head of the Rom valley - surprisingly glorious stuff, whose rural remoteness is marred only by a single Havering tower block on the hill in the distance.
Lower Park Farm is more than a bit horsey, which explains why the bridleway leading east is often a muddy quagmire. If you've worn anything less than walking boots or wellies, this is the point where your footwear pays the price. Oddly the slope beyond is named Mud Hill, but is considerable more stable. Take a last look down across green fields, before stepping beneath the canopy of Havering Country Park, Yes, yet another country park starting with H, but this one's more thickly wooded, as befits the former estate of royal-friendly Havering Palace. Most impressive, genuinely, is the Wellingtonia Avenue lined by more than 100 Giant Redwoods. It's one of the two largest such plantations in the country, looming 140-years tall on either side of the path, and bestseen before the surrounding deciduous trees gain their leaves. [photo]
And that's it. The avenue emerges at the summit village of Havering-atte-Bower, which is as chocolate-boxy as East London gets [photo]. You might send your daughter horse-riding here, or hole yourself up in a quaintpub, or simply hang around on the green by the stocks waiting for the (very) occasional bus out. Loop section 21 might be your best way out, although I'm assured it's not as fine a hike as the six miles past.