WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 6]
Coulsdon South to Banstead (4½ miles)
Section 5 is one of the finest sections of the London Loop, while section 7 is so far the dullest. I therefore wondered which category section 6, through the outskirts of Sutton, might fall into. And the answer was neither, though nearer to 7 than 5, and with an especially purple highlight halfway through. [map]
My heart was telling me to leave Coulsdon South station and head for the hills, for a dead-cert lovely stroll up Farthing Downs and into Happy Valley. But my head told me I'd done that walk, and instead I should abandon those sylvan heights for the next unblogged section of the London Loop. That meant dipping beneath the Coulsdon inner relief road, a stilted bypass still less than ten years old and carrying Gatwick-bound traffic safely out of harm's way. Thence past a locked gate to CaneHill, Coulsdon's very own former mental asylum, mouldering since the 1980s and awaiting rebirth as 675 Barratt homes. And on towards the high street (tagline "Shop Coulsdon"), with the London Loop signage already so inadequate I was glad I'd brought a map with me. It got better.
To escape the town the Loop crosses the railway via a back alley. Here I stumbled upon a gyrating lady, busy dancing to an unseen audience viewing through a phone she'd propped up on a bollard mid-footpath. She seemed a bit embarrassed when one, then two people wandered through, then restarted her performance when she thought we'd passed and were no longer watching. A steady climb followed, starting at the Croydon Girl Guides centenary flowerbed and ending at the Jack and Jill pub. These semi-detached streets are part of Woodmansterne and then Clockhouse, a Sutton suburb named after the farm it replaced, and accessible to the remainder of the borough only by footpath. At long last, after a mile of road, the Loop takes one of those.
It's actually a bridleway, as the occasional mountain of poo attests, and part of the Sutton Countryside Walk. Before long it becomes a proper getaway, with a high hedge to one side and horsey fields to the other. Across the paddocks are the isolated wooden homes of Little Woodcote, a peculiar smallholding community established for troops returning from World War One. And beyond that, one of the joys of elevated outer London, a panoramic view of the centre. You have to look past trees and the occasional lamppost, but there's the BT Tower, and to the right a highly concentrated City cluster with the Shard rising to the fore. Best bit of the walk, this, not for the immediate locality but for peripheral vision.
If you spot the turnoff, the next field is a summer's delight, with flowers abloom while butterflies flap low above the long grass. It beats the next bit of lane, where serious car avoidance is required, but only as far as the edge of London where a stile permits escape. And as for the upcoming field, that's nothing special according to my Loop leaflet, but in reality it's very special indeed. This is the home of Mayfield Lavender, and for three months each summer it's ablaze with purple plants cultivated in dozens of photogenic rows. I may well have told you all about this yesterday. Time your walk right and you can wander off at will, but come out of season and you're restricted to a single path across the centre, and you can put your camera away.
The next highlight is immediately across the road, and that's Oaks Park. It's now a municipal park, and a fine one, but the estate was originally home to the Earl of Derby. He gave his name to the most famous race at Epsom, and his estate gave its name to the second. You'll not find his mansion here now, the Second World War did for that, but its outline is marked by a white line in the grass beyond the bakehouse. Today's visitors can enjoy food or ice creams from the cafe, one of the better ones I'd say, or a stroll through the walled garden. Just be warned that if you follow the Loop's signs you'll miss most of it in favour of a woodland walk along the edge of a golf course, so do make the effort to deviate properly.
Having made a good show of staying just within the London boundary at all times, the Loop now makes a break for Surrey. A narrow path rises from a private road, with the tang of horses never far from your nostrils. However far from built-up area this might feel, keep half an eye over the security fence to spot HM Prison High Down, an adult male category B penitentiary. Rather prettier are Banstead Downs at the end of the lane, another attractive butterfly-infested space, but divided by a railway and the main Brighton Road. Rather a lot of the Downs are golf course, and it's amidst the fairways and greens that Loop section 6 finally peters out. "Are you lost?" asked one particularly Surrey-looking player, seemingly trying to make me feel small for using the public right of way. But no, merely finished, and glad to be retiring to the station rather than continuing to section 7.