WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 2]
Old Bexley to Petts Wood (7 miles)
I'm not walking the London Loop in the correct order which is why, over five years since starting, I'm only at Section 2. I took BestMate with me, because along the way we'd pass his former place of work and the park where he used to eat his lunchtime sandwiches. And even he was impressed by how the route avoided built-up areas, managing to follow a thread of green through Bexley and Bromley. If the Loop was an eye-opener to someone who once considered himself local, you too might well enjoy a stroll through the southeastern suburbs. [map][5 photos]
Old Bexley lives up to its name, its centre still narrow and twisty, and with a wonky-timbered pub set back from the brief high street. The Loop heads off up an backlane you'd probably ignore (unless you're the roofing contractor with a personalised numberplate whose base is halfway along). Tanyard Lane ducks beneath one end of Bexley station, then passes excitable hockey players and the cricket club BestMate used to attend when he was young. They didn't used to have a flashy electronic display on the scorer's hut, apparently, and they weren't always sponsored by a beer company. What comes next is a surprise, even to him, a huge tract of pylon-strewn open space that used to be landfill, running parallel to the River Cray. A lot of the first half of this walk will shadow the river, and rest assured that this opening stretch really isn't (quite) as grim as it sounds.
Eventually the path reaches the riverbank proper, at Foots Cray Meadows. The waters are clear and shallow, rippling over the bed of pebbles, awaiting kids with nets and the splashing paws of dogs. Visitor density increases as you head south, the main attraction being the photogenicFive Arch Bridge, a low span built as part of the Footscray estate across the top of a weir. Swans and ducks muster here to swim or nest, or simply to await chucked bread. A nearby bench (not the one dedicated to Albert Pring) is a great place to eat your sandwiches, so I'm advised. The hand of Capability Brown is at work up the chestnut avenue, while a group of Friends help keep the scenery ticking over today, and very nicely too. If you've time, divert to see All Saints church across the hedge, it's inherently 14th century, before heading past Georgian townhouses to a familiar crossroads at Foots Cray proper.
Remember the Dasani scandal of 2004, when Coca-Cola tried to sell Sidcup tapwater as a desirable hydration brand? It was bottled here, in a looming red-striped building on the banks of the Cray (whose water would, presumably, have tasted worse). Were the Loop more direct we'd be heading straight on to the Sidcup Bypass, but instead it's more important to follow greenspace so we turn right up the only residential backstreet of the walk. Beyond lies the homeground of Cray Wanderers FC, founded in 1860 and the fourth oldest football club in the world (still kicking about of a weekend, you'll be pleased to hear), and also the Sidcup and District Conservative & Sports Club (where I'm fairly certain local MP Edward Heath never played). It gets better.
Climbing out of the valley we reach Sidcup Place, the remains of a 1740s star fort, with a back-history I couldn't read because the London Loop information board outside is long past legible. It evidently evolved into a turrety manor, and is now a Brewers Fayre, reusing the rooms inside for a bar, a carvery counter and several nooks with tables. BestMate and I paused for a swift drink by the walled garden, watching a wedding party totter inside, because that's Sidcup chic. And at last past Queen Mary's Hospital to the bypass, to cross through the roundabout via a sinuous subway. Some planner appeared to have had enormous fun devising a twisty switchback through the centre, though what idiot added quite so many mini safety barriers to the pedestrian lane... as I was venting to BestMate just as a bike whizzed through and almost knocked me down.
And now the green bit. Scadbury Park is 300 acres of farm- and ancient wood-land, in that splendidly pastoral way that London's suburbs sometimes manage while you're not looking. A footpath tumbles down through Spring Shaw to Little Wood, where redwoods tower over the beaten track. Apparently there are more Great Crested Newts in the ponds here than anywhere else in the capital. And then a gem I nearly missed, and wouldn't have spotted had BestMate not stopped to tie his shoelace. Just off the main path is Scadbury Manor, or what's left of it, inaccessible across its own filled moat. Various chimneys and foundations remain in situ, some of them Tudor, laid out across an extensive island site. Public access is rare, and sorry, the Orpington and District Archaeological Society opened up the place last weekend and you missed it. But blimey, an Elizabethan spymaster's lair in the woods, and a silent treat.
Park Wood is the barrier between Chislehurst and St Paul's Cray, with the Loop treading closer to the latter. The path climbs gently for a good half mile, past ferns (and several trees for some reason spray-painted purple), this a favoured route for locals leading dogs or children. Sticking to the woods avoids a parallel private drive, returning just in time to spy the manor's Victorian lodge concealed behind hoardings. This listed cottage was vandalised in 2012, and so is awaiting transformation into a 5-bedroom contemporary sustainable hideaway with super-insulated basement, with a price tag suggesting that the vandals might just have been estate agents. Mind how you cross the next main road, the stream of cars aren't expecting to see anyone on foot, and then it's straight back into yet more woodland again.
And this is Petts Wood, or what's left of it after the great majority was swallowed up for housing in the the 1920s. The National Trust now maintain this green lung for the benefit of all, including the adjacent farm and several small streams, their benevolent donors remembered on a smart stone memorial. But the true hero commemorated mid-clearing is William Willett, a Chislehurst builder who died 100 years ago, but whose brainwave has affected every single thing you've done for the last six months. William was the driving force behind British Summer Time, conceived early one morning while horseriding through these woods, and I've celebrated his life before so I'll not go on about him again. Just make sure you deviate from the official Loop path at the right point to see the BST sundial that is his memorial, and even better come in fine weather when it actually works.
The woods end only one street from Petts Wood station, but we're not quite going that way, instead tracking west along the railway. There are a heck of a lot of railway lines round here, as the Maidstone to Victoria line crosses the Sevenoaks to Charing Cross, with all sorts of interconnecting spurs inbetween. The path follows the latter, running alongside the fledgling Kyd Brook, then crosses it by footbridge, and then a single track branch to intrude on what looks like Petts Wood's most exclusive cul-de-sac. The next span is longer and crosses rather more rails, depositing walkers on the far side in Jubilee Country Park. The first junction is where Loop 2 officially morphs into Loop 3, but that's quite long so best jump here and head into town. We didn't stop for a beer this time but escaped, feet rested, on the first train out.