WALK LONDON The London Loop[section 24]
Rainham to Purfleet (5 miles)
If you ever decide to walk the London Loop, the capital's outer strategic walk, section 24's where you'll end up. A bleak stretch of estuarine footpath, far beyond where settlement stops, through what might be the most un-London-like landscape in London. Even if you decide not to walk the whole circuit, these last five miles make for a memorable couple of hours, plus it's quite flat, and there's a station at both ends so the whole thing's easily accessible. I combined my walk with a trip to Rainham Hall at the beginning, and the Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve at the end, to make the day even more special. [map][10 photos]
Rainham's still ostensibly a village, not quite swallowed into the Hornchurch sprawl. It also has the last shops, pubs and houses you'll be passing for the next five miles, so best stock up now on anything you might need. The area around the station's had a bit of a facelift of late, coinciding with the construction of a new flat-topped library which looks as yet out of place. Some elegant signage directs walkers and cyclists north along the Ingrebourne Way (Loop 23) or southeast to Purfleet (Loop 24), without ever hinting at the desolation that lies ahead. 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 a twisty bridge, beside a row of vividly coloured sheds, to be deposited in the contour-free nomansland on the opposite side.
Rainham Marshes spread for miles along the Thames, broad and floodable, blighted by a row of pylons and a series of viaducts. In some parts grazing cattle roam, while others thrive with reedy vegetation, across the last remaining ancient wilderness in London. But here too is another East London landscape stalwart - riverside industrial - with an extensive chain of factories and warehouses bordering the last mile of the River Ingrebourne. It's not lovely. Thankfully the footpath veers along the edge of the marsh and then through it, pausing only to duck beneath the thundering A13. Havering Council have decorated the off-slip roundabouts with what look like giant upright hairbrushes, and which might just possibly illuminate after dark. And don't worry about getting lost, stencilled metal fingerposts will guide your way at every possible point of indecision, with confirmation posts every hundred metres - we're in elite waymarking territory here.
At the next turnoff, sorry, we're not heading the nice way. One path heads off into deep marsh lined by intermingled grasses, while the official Loop path aims for, and then between, the line of grubby warehouses. There is a reason for this, other than nobody bothering to update the route since the nicer path was laid, which becomes clear when you finally emerge onto a road beside the Thames. You may not notice the river at first, hidden behind a high concrete bank to protect against inundation, but clambering up top reveals a mighty wide river in grey low-slung glory. The flat panorama of manufacture and recycling, plus a lofty incinerator on the Bexley bank, is something you're going to have to get used to. Passing through on a Sunday the hum of commercial machinery was dormant, the only racket a lad on a small motorbike doing endless wheelies back and forth to inconvenience nobody.
Just when an inland diversion looks inevitable, the Loop nips out along the river wall between a line of tall silos and a working pier. As five large letters confirm, this is the Tilda rice factory, manufacturers of the UK's best selling basmati rice, perched here on the most distant edge of the conurbation. But it's swiftly forgotten, because there's proper history beached on the foreshore ahead. 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. If the tide's low and your footwear's appropriate then you might consider trudging out across the squelchy grass to stand alongside, but I'd recommend not, best leave the crew of pigeons to roost in peace.
And that's not all that's peculiar around here. A short distance away, anchored eight metres down into the riverbed, is a twisted mass of galvanised steel in humanoid form. This is The Diver, a 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 atlow tide 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.
And if you thought that was bleak, keep going. A triangular expanse that used to be two riverside farms has been swallowed up over the last century by London's landfill, and a vast pile of rubbish has grown up to hillock heights. 2000 tonnes of fresh rubbish arrive by river each weekday, unloaded at a huge warehouse on a pontoon before being unceremoniously added to the working half of the site. Much of the rest of the Rainham Integrated Waste Management Facility has been sown with grass seed and will one day be a country park, although the plastic pipes sprouting from the hillside for ventilation purposes suggest that safe public access may still be some time off. Meanwhile the Loop continues around the headland towards Coldharbour Point, possibly the remotest spot within the Greater London boundary, and still the location of a squat red lighthouse (placed here for bend-turning navigational reasons). Several centuries ago a ferry crossed the Thames here to the town of Erith, its flats and houses now clearly visible on the opposite shore, but now reachable only via the lofty bridge that's just come into view on the horizon.
Passing portakabins and piles of pallets, the next section of riverside path is less than a decade old, permitting passage through to Purfleet. It smells a bit too. A fenced-off road allows Veolia staff in and out of the landfill dump, broken at one point by a deliberate gap in the fence. It would be easy to mistake this for a public footpath, the illusion strengthened by a humped zebra-style crossing and road signs warning drivers to slow for pedestrians. And that track winding its way up the hill beyond looks official, properly fenced on both sides to prevent access to the wider site, so you might indeed be tempted to follow. And once ascended to the summit, 25 metres being an unnaturally rare height in this corner of East London, you might gasp at the glorious panorama below, as the Thames sweeps round Crayford Ness past hundreds of acres of lush marshland, and the occasional Eurostar train flashes across the Aveley Viaduct. Indeed you might concur that when this rubbish dump is finally given back to the public as a public park, this viewpoint will become a must-see. But don't be tempted, there's as yet no evidence that the spiralling ascent is kosher, and who'd want to encroach illicitly?
The final remote stretch of this walk begins at a wholly unexpected car park and continues alongside Aveley Bay, finally crossing from Greater London into Thurrock. Officially the path follows the tarmac track beneath the river wall, but feel free to walk up top for an unshielded view because the metal gates at each end are probably unlocked. The low wetland to the north belongs to the RSPB, it's their Rainham Marshes reserve, and the peculiar brown-striped building in the distance is their visitor centre. You'll need to get that far before you can gain access, but I can heartily recommend you do, and if you want to fit in make sure you bring binoculars with you. The network of boardwalks, hides and reedy scrapes on this former MoD rifle range provide an ideal location for monitoring waders and waterfowl, and if you're feeling particularly fit you should add on the full 2½ mile circuit around the perimeter. If nothing else it'll delay your arrival in the letdown that is Purfleet.
Once across the Mar Dyke the houses begin, not the finest in the property portfolio, their cheery inhabitants perhaps spilling out onto the grassy promenade. Come on the right day and the bricked-up gunpowder store housing the Purfleet Heritage and Military Centre might be open, mistime and you might have to step out of the way to avoid being mown down by a teenage girl on a quad bike. And whilst you'd hope the end of the 150 mile Loop would be marked by something special, there's not even a sign, and the official exhortation to pop into The Royal Inn for a celebratory pint couldn't tempt me across its tattooed portal. Instead I strode on to the station, determined to catch the hourly train, after what had been a fabulously stark and wide-skied walk.
And if walking takes your fancy, be aware that this weekend Walk London are organising forty free guided walks across the capital, about a third of which are decent hikes like this one. Under the umbrella of Autumn Ambles, they come highly recommended.