WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 11]
Hayes to Uxbridge (7½ miles)
Section 11 of the London Loop is mostly waterside. Two thirds of the walk follows the Grand Union Canal, the River Colne or one of their associated waterways. Rest assured it's not all flat - there is a hill along the way, of sorts. And whereas I was expecting the seven and a half miles to be all a bit samey, the greenery of mid-spring lifted the route above the average. [map]
London boasts two Hayes, of which this is Hayes as in "Hayes and Harlington", not Hayes as in "Hayes (Kent)" (which is not in Kent). Middlesex's Hayes is not a picturesque place, certainly not the area between the railway and the canal which has long been sacrificed to light industrial sheds. It was good therefore to escape down to canal level at The Old Crown, although I had to wait at least a minute while a party of twenty Skyride cyclists lugged their bikes up the staircase and disappeared into the beer garden. The towpath was lush and green, on one side at least, with the other not quite as warehouse-ugly as it could have been. It was good to walk beneath the leafy canopy and to breathe in the blossom, and not to sneeze too much as a result.
Approaching from the west came a young man in Muslim garb, baseball cap and flappy laceless trainers, strolling by with a cheery "as-salamu alaykum". A little further along came the only female anglers I'd see all day, part of a family group who'd clearly decided that if they couldn't beat Dad's hobby they'd join him. A few swans enjoyed the peace and quiet, all paired-off for spring shenanigans apart from one rather solitary-looking male. As for the informative-looking map panel round the first bend, this had been so substantially graffitied as to be almost entirely illegible, so the finer heritage points of this stretch went sadly unrecognised.
OK, enough canal. A London Loop finger-sign pointed intriguingly 'inland' through a patch of woodland, which slowly opened out into a seriously hi-tech business estate. This was Stockley Park, a vast reclaimed gravel pit, landscaped to within an inch of its life and now home to such blue chip companies as Apple, BP, Canon, IBM and Marks and Spencer. A substantial portion of the site is now a golf course, allowing the Loop the opportunity to deviate up and through and round. A dense avenue of lime trees curved up to the clubhouse, a modern building dripping with wisteria, where the well-paid clientèle mustered for light exercise and networking. Their activities were well shielded on the ramblers' ascent, which led to a striking A-framed bridge across the main road leading north from Heathrow Airport.
Heathrow was easily seen from the roof of the park, atop an artificial mound called the Viewpoint. Here my presence interrupted the private conversations of a teenage couple, he busy lifting up his purple t-shirt, she sat on the bench facing his chest. "Have you got a fag?" I was asked, as an initial distraction, and then the two of them began silently wishing I'd go away. Alas I was intent on enjoying the impressive 200° Middlesex vista, and in particular the view down onto the runway from barely two miles away. A steady stream of aeroplanes taxied and then rose into the sky below, most notably a whopping Emirates A380. "Cor that's big!" exclaimed purple t-shirt guy to his girl, before cheekily adding "...like my ding dong!" which I took as the cue to leave.
Descent was via a dandelion meadow, speckled yellow and white, and then into a surprisingly mature stretch of woodland. This was the only place on the route where the Loop's signage let me down, initially missing the correct path, although thankfully I had a map which led me down to an inconsequential gate onto Horton Road. There were no FT stalwarts here, merely identikit warehouses containing plumbers merchants, international distributors and a glaziers wittily named Sharda Glass. Two tiny cafes and a pub catered to the weekday trade, each essentially lifeless at weekends. And yes, after half a mile of reality it was a relief to get back to the verdant canal towpath, and to pretty much stay there.
On the opposite side of the Grand Union lay West Drayton station, its name written in "Who The Hell Agreed To That?" font above the entrance. Here the canal veered north to track the western edge of the capital almost as far as Rickmansworth. In Yiewsley that meant passing the back of Morrisons and then the edge of a large Tesco car park, alongside which an entire village of stacked flats has arisen (on both sides of the canal) since I last passed through. On this visit I was particularly amused by a moored motorboat named Cirrhosis of the River, painted with a cartoon of floating drunkards, perhaps coincidentally tied up beside an empty four pack of San Miguel.
At an arched iron footbridge one of England's last canals veered off to the left. This was the Slough Arm of the Grand Union, a speculative four mile connection opened in 1882, abandoned in 1960 but since reopened and fully navigable. The Loop took the opportunity to walk a kilometre of its very-straight towpath, before rising to cross into a pleasant patch of wild woodland. This led to a geographical novelty, Little Britain Lake, so called because its shape resembles the outline of Great Britain. This is no natural fluke, simply a filled-in gravel pit of approximate shape, but its 14 acres are still a very pleasant spot to visit, to stroll round, to fish in or to power your model speedboat across.
The River Colne ran parallel to the lake, with the Loop taking the footpath along its western bank, which meant edging fractionally into Buckinghamshire. This mile was the prettiest section of the entire walk, but also the muddiest, so think twice before heading this way in your finest trainers. At one point a large tree in the stream had toppled, its roots lifting up an earthen skirt to create what looked like a tent in the water. At last there were natural meanders to follow, and overhanging branches on both sides, and I had the feeling I might at last be in the proper countryside.
But it was all change on the other side of Iver Lane. Here the path switched back to the Hillingdon side and squeezed tightly between the Colne and the edge of yet another business park. Initially the only sights were a security fence and a giant pylon, with even the riverbanks less than alluring, but eventually the strip opened out a little to create what felt like a secret linear nature reserve just for me. I neither saw nor heard any humans for a good fifteen minutes of striding along the London border, a solitude I rather enjoyed, but I did get up close to my first dragonfly of the year. If you don't have a First Dragonfly Of The Year, perhaps you should get out more.
Eventually the Loop hooked back into reality, emerging from round the back of some warehouses beside a boarded-up pub, the recently-deceased Griddles. Then came Culvert Lane, section 11's sole residential street, which led back to the familiar sight of the Grand Union towpath. Now the ramblers and joggers were back, along with a considerable number of canalfolk at Brown's Meadow. This half-mile stretch skirting urban Uxbridge provides long-term moorings for the dedicated narrowboater, including several old men with infeasibly long beards and a few younger men heading that way. And still the canal rolled on, but section 12 takes over at the Swan & Bottle and I'd had enough of waterworld for one day.